Leadership is messy.
It’s full of uncertainty, pitfalls and vulnerability. But wait, that isn’t the story you heard? In prior posts I’ve shared guiding principles about leadership. Recent events however have prodded me to share the paradox of leadership, especially if you think leadership is about certainty and knowing what to do.
Recently a friend and colleague was sharing with me his experience working with a group of 15 leaders representing five strategic business units of a large organization. It was a full day workshop focused around what it is to be a leader (code for deep self-awareness).
In the great pie chart of knowledge, there’s what we know (tiny sliver), what we know we don’t know (another tiny sliver), and what we don’t know that we don’t know (huge remainder of the pie). It’s the latter where coaching focuses, and that’s also the territory of leadership.
A striking aspect of my friend’s experience was that despite the weeks of planning they were constantly surprised by what unfolded. That’s the paradox of leadership. Leaders have a vision. They are passionately committed to something greater than themselves. They are clear. But to realize that vision with power and sustainability they must also, like a wise parent, help their child find it’s own life, which rarely matches exactly what they had in mind.
Leadership involves discovery. You engage with people, usually with intentionality, then, if you create a safe space for people, you discover the truth of what is present. Then you get to dance with that truth. Engage, converse, and ideally align around something that transcends positions.
These leaders also discovered some truths about themselves. Like what their core values were and how those guided and affected their everyday lives. Many were surprised to discover just how often their behavior was not in alignment with their core values. They found that both disturbing and enlightening, since it explained and matched where they were exercising leadership and showing up powerfully, and where they were falling flat.
They also discovered they had more in common than they had realized. Suffice it to say that coming from different business units they were not all in lock step by any means. But when it came to what was really core, and important, they found lots of alignment.
They also discovered the value in just observing. Stopping to notice and reflect was typically not the trait that got them where they were today. These were people of action. But their experience as observers was eye opening. Which brings me to the last important piece I wanted to share, the breaking of that which once was transparent.
There’s a relationship between breakdowns and breakthroughs. You can’t have a breakthrough without a breakdown. The break refers to a break in transparency, a realization of something that up until that moment was invisible. And with that new awareness comes a possibility that didn’t exist before. The breakthrough. Like the leader who wasn’t aware of how, when under stress, he reverted to behavior in conflict with his core values, which set forth a chain of undesired consequences that he was unaware he was the source of.
Sometimes though our breakdowns are less kind. Or their lessons more elusive. My friend developed a form of vertigo that comes upon him suddenly, which could be cause for great alarm. Especially troubling when he needs to drive, or even know if he can walk off an airplane. Or when he suddenly drops all his groceries. It’s the unpredictability of these events that is the heart of his breakdown. Where’s the breakthrough, you might ask? How does one embrace such spontaneous dizziness?
In some ways I didn’t find that much different than life, at least when you’re really present to it and not just the narrow sliver you prefer to stay focused on. There’s a lot about the world I find dizzying, especially these days, but when I focus on my little sliver I can ignore that and stay grounded. That’s how it was for me until I got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at the unusual age of 40. Although in my case I am fortunate because it mostly affects my hands (I call them fuzzy hands, like the tingling when your foot falls asleep). But the unpredictable nature of when, where, and to what degree has led me to adapt for the unexpected. I have learned to roll with the punches and put life, and health, into perspective. One of the first spontaneous consequences of my MS was I began flossing my teeth daily, an act I couldn’t do before without gagging but one that was critical to my health. I also started exercising regularly, volunteering for causes, and my new-found humility has led me to
have the most satisfying relationships I couldn’t imagine before.
I call these breakthroughs. Some call them epiphanies. In their research for Tribal Leadership the authors found that 100% of what they call stage 4 leaders (what we might recognize as true leaders) had epiphanies that preceded their growth into that stage of leadership. These breaks in transparency were rites of passage into leadership.
I don’t know what my friend with the vertigo will discover, but I do know this about him. He is committed to the journey he is on, to self-discovery and to fulfilling on his vision for the world. Committed in the face of uncertainty with open eyes and humility. Breakthroughs ahead.