LEADERSHIP IS A LIFELONG PRACTICE (PART III)
Updated: Jun 17
Again, the whole point of this is simply…
Leaders don’t lead to be loved. They lead for the pure joy of leading. Because if they were not leading, they wouldn’t know what else to do.
Of course, there is a great irony to all of this. As we wean ourselves off this constant need for validation, we leaders discover something: That this fasting from popularity liberates us to create remarkable works of greatness.
First, it frees us from all the emotional drama that needlessly drains us. We no longer tie ourselves up into a Gordian knot worrying what other people think of us. We can stop taking personally their insinuating comments, shows of coldness, or moments of irritation. Realise that people are generally dealing with their own emotions and issues. We cross their path at a particular moment and become the convenient target of their anger or frustration. In most cases, they’re not relating to us as an individual. Phew, I’m not the only one with power issues.
The more we grasp this, the easier it will be to not react with our emotions but rather with a curiosity to understand where they are coming from. Oh, it’s not me. His anger has nothing to do with me at all. We will feel much calmer in the process. And as this calmness pervades our consciousness, we will be less prone to moralize and judge people. Instead, we will accept them and their flaws as part of human nature.
People are not perfect. I’m not perfect. That’s what makes us unique — our star quality.
In this calm and quiet place, we can laugh at our flaws and let slights wash over us. We develop a stronger and more resilient sense of self. We recover more quickly from any wounds or insults. We do not need as much validation from others. We come to a place of complete self-acceptance, power bitch and all. Take this further, and it’ll become something we appreciate and love. Try to be perfect? No thanks, that’s too boring.
From this position of genuine inner strength and resilience, we can more easily direct your attention outward.
First, we direct our focus and relentless drive into our work, becoming great innovators and business mavericks. It is a therapeutic and liberating experience to be drawn out of our narrow self-obsessed world. When we put our faith in something greater than ourselves, our whole way of thinking shifts. It’s like we have Superman’s bionic eyes. We were blind before, but the eyes are wide open. We become aware of a sixth dimension that we never knew existed. We see the world with wonder and childlike fascination again. We let go of preconceived notions, we attack problems with fluidity — entertaining possibilities and alternative perspectives. We see possibilities where others see a dead end.
That is the essence of creativity.
Second, we are free to experiment and really stretch the boundaries without all that inner moralising judgement. This is true self-less-ness. You surrender to the role. When you stop trying to be everything, you start to become something. You stand for something. And people who share the same values will gravitate towards you. In their eyes, you snap out of the blurriness into sharp relief. Like when your camera comes into focus. Snap! They will flock to you like to a beacon. They will want to follow you. Because you’re reflecting that secret X-factor that exists within them, which makes them feel truly alive.
The better you play your role, the more power you will accrue, and with powers, you will feel more comfortable to express more of your peculiarities. If you take this far enough, the persona you present will match many of your unique characteristics, but always heightened for effect. It’s a persona that is unique to you. It’s who you are. If you look at great leaders, you won’t confuse Lee Hsien Loong with Lee Kuan Yew. They have two completely different leadership styles. The LKY brand of fiery knuckleduster politics versus Lee Hsien Loong’s consultative yet authoritative style of leadership. They were extremely true to who they are.
They followed their own path. And they are elevated from the status of a mere mortal to a leadership symbol — they stand for something. None the same. Never alike. That is the essence of being a role model.
Third, we direct our focus toward people, developing real empathic powers. Liberated from our self-obsessed neuroses, we can be genuinely interested in whatever they have to say and hold our attention without being distracted. We can truly sink in complete absorption with others and their unique perspectives of the world. And it blows our minds. There are multiple galaxies. As we get closer to people, we learn to trust them. We put our faith in them. We scan for their positive attributes instead of their flaws. We give them the benefit of the doubt.
When people vent their frustrations, rather than being critical or judgy, we stay in the moment and listen patiently. What matters is the quality of your listening; you mirror back what they said in a way that adds value to what was said. It’s like you are sifting for the gold in what they said, polishing it, and offering it back to them. This has a tremendous seductive effect. People will feel acknowledged and valued. Watch as they relax, breathe a sigh of relief, and the flush of confidence and composure come back to them.
That is the essence of leadership.
Unclench your heart, and your mind opens. From a place of inner strength and resilience, we are liberated to focus outwards. This is true power. Intrinsic power. Once you sense this power, you will feel its importance and awaken to new possibilities. You are ejected into greatness.
LEADERSHIP IS AN INSIDE JOB
Real leaders understand that true power comes from within. It does not come standard-issue with the position. I’ve set foot inside the corridors of power. I’ve sat in hallowed boardrooms — the pantheon of the most powerful individuals in the organisation. They are like the gods on Mount Olympus. You’d think that they will be generous, wise, magnanimous. Some are.
But here you’ll also find the finest folie de grandeur.
Reframe the definition of power. It’s dominion over our mind, and not over others. Without inner power, external power is impossible. Commanding power is not the same as demanding it. Demanding comes from a childlike place akin to throwing a tantrum: things are happening to you and you have no control over it. Commanding power is based upon the sure and steady knowledge that you are exactly where you are meant to be: this is happening for you.
This doesn’t happen overnight. This mental capacity is weak because we are so focused on external things: fame, fortune, powerful friends. Commanding power takes tremendous belief in yourself — your vision, your instinct. There is so much noise around us, people telling us how to do our job better. If we don’t have faith in yourself, we’ll start questioning ourself. We look to the people around us for direction. We look to experts for model answers. We spend hours on the internet doing “research”. In the process, we get confused and lose that clarity of thought.
Personal leadership is to say “Throw the theory out the window. I want to know for myself.” It comes from a deep sense of knowing. We act with purpose. On my own terms. You listen to the information swirling around you, but finally, the decision comes from you — your inner wisdom. Feel the life force rush back into your body: You got this.
When we connect regularly with the hidden force, we have the immense satisfaction of mastering ourself in a deep way. We have more mental space to be creative. We are like scientists experimenting with the unknown. We feel more in control. This is real power, not the carrot-and-stick illusion of control.
Here is the paradox: As we care less about what people think of us, more people will be touched by our leadership. They will recognise. They will respect it. They will bring their extreme effort and relentless creativity. To achieve greatness. Some day. Until then, you and I are not excused from leading.
LEADERSHIP IS A LIFELONG PRACTICE
Typically, when CEOs think about scaling people to the next level, they think bombastic skills training and whizbang tech. Over lunch, someone said to me, “I’ve got that covered, we recently implemented (HR tech).”
I think differently. I think the biggest challenge to scaling people is just one: Leading yourself. To be a better CEO, to lead people to the next level, you need to be a better personal leader. Learning to lead yourself doesn’t stop once you become the boss. In fact, the higher you climb, the more important personal leadership becomes. Like honing any other skill, it gets better with skilful practice.
Many of the leadership development programmes today are based on one-size-fits-all leadership models, promising instant noodles solutions: just add hot water, and ready to lead. They spew grand leadership altruisms: “People are our greatest assets”. Which are true but (mostly) useless in driving meaningful change. Easier said than done. The only way to figure it out is to go through the process yourself. In other words, you learn to become a great CEO by doing the job. This is learning in the flow of work. Learning at the speed of business.
If there is one thing I learned observing these leaders: When it comes to greatness, there are no model answers.
I learnt that CEOs (and everyone else, actually) really don’t like being pigeon-holed, or stuffed in a square hole. They say it’s not an assessment centre. But really, it is. As if the same skills or style of leadership is effective regardless of the work context. I don’t do fluffy. I don’t have time for this.
TAKE A DIFFICULT SITUATION AND LEARN FROM IT
Context is a critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian style of leadership brought independence for Singapore, and quick succession from Third World to First. Singapore in the 21st century is much more complex than in the ’50s and ’60s. Under Lee Hsien Loong’s adroit leadership, still authoritarian in style, but gentler and more collaborative, Singapore ranks the top, not just in Asia, but among the best globally.
You could almost say that the challenges they faced brought the leader out in them. They rose to the situation. Each challenge they faced was the opportunity for growth. To brush out the self-obsessed control freak and connect to the true power within. Leadership can bring up old childish patterns such as demanding attention like a little tyrant, and you may unconsciously be giving permission to successive leaders to behave the same way.
Leadership presents a golden opportunity to outgrow our narcissistic streak and become a more conscious adult. We begin this process by fully accepting ourself — diva tantrums and all. But this work is actually about transforming generations of bad behaviours by previous leaders. Nurturing fully-formed leaders means, ideally, that they will nurture their people, the future leaders of your organisation. Over time, it becomes a “thing” in your organisation.
People will come to say that you have an amazing culture, and it is your best competitive advantage. Culture is not some fancy document conceived in the plushness of your corner office, then wrapped up with a cute bowtie, and proudly displayed at the front desk. It’s the reality of how people treat one another in the company — both the way management treats employees and the way people treat one another.
Opportunities will arise again and again to become fully-formed adults. I call them crucible moments. These are times when our character is tested. These are times of adversity where great strength is shown. Starting a business. Scaling up the business. Scaling down the business. Letting people go. Being let go. Dealing with difficult bosses. Dealing with difficult subordinates. The higher you climb, the more you will be tested, and the more opportunities you have to grow.
Build learning around a difficult situation. Each chapter, we will deal with a specific crucible moment. Learning in the flow of work. Learning at the speed of business.
In my experience, power is one of the toughest addictions to kick. When you’ve tasted power, it’s very hard to give up. The fragile ego is very, very tricky. Its mission is to survive, no matter what it takes. It plays labyrinthine mind games with you. It is an extremely creative excuses-generating machine. But there is a more seductive power within. Call upon it. Give yourself space to connect with it. Connect with it often, and outsmart the wily old fox. Initially, it might feel clumsy, you might feel nothing. But don’t give up, it gets better with practice. It becomes like a muscle that gets stronger the more you exercise it. You discover deep data about yourself — that you are much tougher than you thought you were. It’s oddly satisfying.
You start to have a Cheshire cat grin that welcomes wholeheartedly whatever comes at you.
Be a lifelong student of leadership. Fall back in love with leading.
IT’S TIME TO BEGIN
It’s time. To dance at the edge of greatness. To dream boldly and imagine possibilities. To travel between two worlds: the world that is possible and the world that is.
Every day the business is changing, and so many things can change — products, customers, market conditions, business size, capital structure. Too often, CEOs go in with a “business as usual” mindset, investing millions of dollars to improve their highly complex existing processes, and get mad with everyone when things don’t go back to normal fast enough. The world is moving on and they are still hanging on to the past. It’s like taking a giant leap into the past, burning truckloads of cash and people’s souls, including their own.
In a world that’s changing, people are searching for meaning, to understand what is happening. On the brink of something completely new. This situation is unprecedented. There are no model answers, because it has never happened before. No one has “this” figured out. Yet. Sure, there is uncertainty, but in the cracks lie growth opportunities.
There has never been a greater need for leadership. This is a moment that you have to take, if you can.
To provide clarity.
To provide vitality.
To provide agility.
Open your eyes to the universe. Become comfortable with not knowing. Because as the area of your knowledge expands, so does awareness of your ignorance. The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know — and that’s a wicked place to be.
Be curious. Look out your window. Turn off your email and stop checking your traffic light scorecards. Stop worrying. And start leading.
It’s time to begin. This is not up to you, this whole process of creating the next big thing or becoming a great CEO. Of being revered for your bold vision and charisma. It’s not your call.
Your job is to show up. We only have today. That is all we are ever promised. And today, we must lead. The real leader within you is waiting.
This article is part of a book I’m writing titled Dancing At The Edge Of Greatness: In Pursuit of the Joy of Leadership. I would love to hear your comments on what resonated with you and where I can make things better.
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