There was a story about a business school that had the question “Are you a leader?” on their application. Seems like a trick question, right? So everyone except one person answered “Yes” that year. The guy who answered “:No” agonized over submitting that answer because he figured that his application might be rejected as a result. He was surprised to learn that he was accepted. The letter read “We received over 5000 applications this year and you were the only person to answer ‘No’ to the question ‘Are you a leader?’ We are admitting over 1000 of those applicants, including you. We figured with all of those leaders we’ll need at least one follower.
You may be one of those lucky people called a born leader, or just some accidental leader who stubs their toe on their leadership capability and happens to have a bunch of people start following them. If so, good for you! Otherwise you may want to take a more intentional route to becoming the kind of leader you admire.
We’ve already established that a title or positional authority is not enough. Leadership begins with a journey within: with self-leadership. Before you lead others you’d better be able to lead yourself. What is it about you that will compel people to admire, respect and follow you? People who intend to become great leaders must ponder these and other questions like “Who am I?”, “What do I stand for?”, “What are my values and core beliefs?”, “What kind of leader am I, and what kind of leader am I committed to becoming?”, “What do I care about more than being comfortable?”, “What motivates me more than the approval of my peers and my manager?”, and most importantly “Why should anyone follow me?”
Sometimes the answers aren’t so thrilling. When I looked in the mirror I noticed quite a few reasons why people should NOT follow me. I was thinking of making a list of my personality flaws, but then I think there is a limit to the length of this blog, so I’ll just summarize by saying that I’m probably a good candidate for a number of cognitive therapy techniques. Nevertheless I’ve confronted my shadow side over and over again and am gradually making progress toward something resembling the kind of leader I admire. Age helps. A recent interview with Nelson Mandela asked him what had changed about him since he went into prison those many years ago. He said “When I went to prison I was young!” While I’ve encountered many amazing young leaders, I personally have found that age brings a measure of emotional stability, good judgment and restraint that I lacked as a mouthy youth (although you might not notice it from my writing). The journey has been long, sometimes discouraging, and worth every minute.
The destiny of this inner journey is enlightenment, but fortunately we don’t have to wait for that to start leading or there would be damn few leaders in the world. Achieving a reasonable EQ is good enough for starters. IQ is a measure of intelligence, but EQ, emotional intelligence, is just as important, perhaps more important, to great leadership. According to Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ”, EQ consists of two forms of awareness:
- self-awareness, and
- awareness of how other people are impacted by us.
“Awareness” in this context does not imply a minimal poke into perception. The awareness at the core of great leadership is a deeply mindful consciousness of our being and the ripples that swimming the field of human existence produce. It is about connectedness, to ourselves and the sensations, thoughts and feelings that drive us, and to other people. It implies being alert to our inner dialog, vigilant in scrutinizing the onion of motives, rationalization and stories that we tell ourselves to protect our egos, and awake to the interplay between ourselves and the other human beings we dance through our day with.
High awareness is sometimes described as “helicopter thinking”: being able to hover above a situation and see ourselves and the situation unfolding as though we were a spectator observing what’s happening from a balcony above. Most leaders are barely conscious of their own feelings and emotions, let alone those of the people they impact. Studies of EQ vs. traditional organizational hierarchy have shown that average EQ is actually the lowest at the highest positions.
Here are a couple of ways to increase your EQ:
- Complete a values survey and/or workshop. There are plenty of such exercises on the web. Just search for “values sort” and pick one. “Work In Progress” Coach Camille Smith offers a powerful facilitated values instrument and workshop if you want to dive deep.
- Take one of the many self-assessments that can reveal your characteristic approaches to leading, communication, teamwork.
- Ask your spouse or partner to give you truthful feedback about your blind spots, quirks and irritating behaviors.
- Meditate: mostly on the mean, nasty things your spouse or partner just said to you in idea #3, above.
- Think about what makes you angry. I find anger is a terrific motivator to take action and also gives me a boost of resolve to lead courageously. Many people become extremely effective public speaker when they get angry because they forget to care what other people think speak passionately about something that they care deeply about.
The ultimate goal is to grow a backbone where only a wishbone originally resides. If you are going to be the kind of leader who has the courage to set big, bold, outrageous goals, and the commitment to achieve them, you’re going to have to be made of stronger stuff than the rubbery legs and flexible backbones making up the skeletons of many pseudo-leaders. Great leadership does not require confidence. Great leadership requires a passionate and powerful commitment to something that matters more than comfort, safety or the approval of other people. Just knowing how to do something changes nothing. Great leaders have the discipline to do what is required, even in the face of uncertainty, risk and fear. This kind of courage and commitment takes thought, mindfulness and practice. Oh, and getting really angry about something also does the trick sometimes.
Just a warning in case you decide to embark on your self-leadership journey toward enlightenment: the closer you get the more of your own shortcomings you will become aware of. Of course you may also be able to accept yourself for who you are, too, so I guess it balances out.
– Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch in 2007. She is the founder of Wiefling Consulting, a scrappy global business leadership consultancy committed to enabling her clients to successfully tackle seemingly impossible goals. For the past 3 years she has worked primarily with Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global through transformational leadership and execution with excellence.