I know, we’re tired of the word leadership. “If I hear that word one more time,” said my friend who is the CEO of a tech company, “I’m going to throw up.” (Glenn, this blog is for you).
I was bothered. How else are we supposed to say it? But I also get his sarcasm. When a concept becomes a cartoon character of itself, and ends up on those cliché soaring eagle posters pinned over the water cooler at the office, then we have to roll our eyes and cast our sights towards the next cutting edge.
I remember in the days I identified myself as someone ‘spiritual’ (complete with long sojourns to India), anything with the word leadership embedded in it, went straight to the trashcan (or recycle bin as it were). Leadership was for those courting ego, I piously thought.
Regardless of one’s source of cynicism, the concept of leading, of being a leader, is vulnerable to misunderstanding, and with that we miss an opportunity. So before we reject the land of leading (and it’s Hallmark card imagery of zen gardens and a solitary figures in front of a still lake), I’d like to argue that we have not yet gone deep enough into the soul of it.
How I know this is by the various comments I receive from men and women—mostly women—when I describe the work I do. “That sounds so terrific,” they say, “but I’m not really a leader.” Or “I used to run a company, but now I’m just taking care of my parents.” And “I am more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.”
These comments point to a fundamental flaw in our concept of leadership that is based on an outdated paradigm which infers that there is a leader at the top, or in the front, or at the fore….and then all the rest of us behind, or under. Right? Wrong. It’s wrong for lots of reasons but I’m going to address two: it’s wrong structurally, and it’s wrong conceptually. Hang with me.
Leadership is not about a position, it is about a mindset.
Our current culture assumes certain structural hierarchal attributes to leadership. We believe that leaders are at the top, or in the front. Think about it. When someone says leader, check out your imagination. If you are like most of us, you might see a figure, alone, at the top of some hill, or at the front and center of a crowd. If you are romantically inclined, you might imagine your leader like Mel Gibson donning blue face-paint astride a mighty black horse.
We imagine this because we’ve seen few, if any, other models.
There is one model out there that demonstrates another kind of leadership. The horse herd is a 55 million-year-old system that is so effective, it places horses as one of the most successful mammals. Contrary to the myth of the aggressive solitary stallion, the herd is governed by a sophisticated lateral ‘moveable’ shared leadership governance that serves the whole. Leadership is assumed—moment to moment—depending upon the presence and responsiveness of any given horse. In other words it is those necessary qualities that arise in the present moment that dictate leadership, and not the horse itself. While a horse may embody a basic propensity towards presence and responsiveness—giving her a certain rank as leader over time—this can change quickly depending on the circumstances, and who is the most responsive—again, in the moment.
What this means is that, using the herd as a non-predatory leadership model, leadership is available to you, all the time, in the form of your presence and responsiveness in the moment, not depending upon your position in your work and life.
Conceptually, if you imagine that leadership is about position, then it undermines and undervalues your presence and awareness in every situation. It’s easy to make leadership conditional upon external events, and roles, rather than internal resources.
In his seminal book, Conscious Business, Fred Kofman distinguishes two essential internal mindsets: Victim and Player. Each of us has both. It’s best to think of this Victim / Player archetype like a flashlight. Where you put your focus (shine your flashlight) determines which mindset you are in. The Victim mindset puts focus on what you cannot control. The Player mindset puts focus on what you can control.
A victim statement sounds like this: My computer crashed, all my files were lost.
A player statement, same scenario, sounds like this: I didn’t back up my files, and so I lost them when the computer crashed.
Here are two more sets: ‘It’s hopeless,’ (victim), and ‘I haven’t found a solution yet’, (player).
‘Traffic was terrible,’ (victim) and ‘I made writing that last email a priority over getting here on time,’ (player).
A player mindset takes circumstances as a challenge that allows you to show who you really are, and what you stand for.
You will take accountability within any situation, regardless of their position of authority. For example, if you are a direct report to the CEO, and the CEO attacks you in an unskillful fashion regarding below-par results in a project, you can as a player reshape the conversation to be much more collaborative, informative and constructive conversation. This is being a leader to the leader in that moment, by modeling skillful communication.
Being the leader means that we work to step into our best, most authentic and skillful selves each and every moment — by being accountable first and foremost to ourselves, and then to the others around us.
Every moment becomes a moment to be a leader, from the grocery store line, to the kids’ soccer game, to the boardroom. We are called upon to be the change: to model a more constructive conversation, to engage in a greater sense of presence, to participate in the collective with more awareness.
Real success in our lives is not about meeting goals, it’s about how we live. When we crown ourselves as leaders, we claim a joy that comes with that dignity and integrity. So, be joyful, and ride on.