We spent a day with a group of experienced, senior executives. It was a day of introduction to a week we would soon spend together. We spoke of leadership from the perspective of mastery. The participants were engaged because what we were saying was not what they usually hear. We were helping them explore the notion of the mastery of leadership.
At the end a woman approached us. She was excited. She explained that she is a world-class musician. She said that when she listened to what we were saying from the perspective of music, it all made sense. She knew that to produce great music she had to integrate opposites. She gave examples such as combining discipline and structure with freedom and creative expression. A great musician does both. Structure makes creative expression possible.
She said that she believes that she is a good leader but she knows that she does not lead at the same level that she plays music. Our discussion led her to hope that by keeping her music in mind, in our week together, she might be able to learn language and concepts that would allow her to understand and enact her own leadership the way she understands and plays her instrument.
Her words excited us. We told her she was exactly right. Her ability to produce great music and to simultaneously think about the process by which she produces great music allows her to learn and grow from her own experience.
When people master a domain they usually have this capacity. They push themselves to the edge where they do new things, as the experiences unfold in the short or the long term, they reflect deeply on the experience and this leads to adjustments and new initiatives. They become self-aware and gain the capacity to become their own coach.
This unusual suggestion is consistent with research. People of authentic influence have four characteristics (Avolio, Griffith, Wernsing, Walumbawa, 2010). They are not defensive but are open to information. They are guided by internal moral standards as opposed to situational pressures. They are transparent and openly share appropriate thoughts and feelings. They are self-aware in that they understand their strengths, weaknesses and how their patterns impact others.
This research suggests that the process of learning from one’s own experience is important. People who become authentic leaders tend to believe that personal growth and change is possible so they are more likely to invest in learning about their own strengths and biases. A person who operates at a higher level of self-awareness can more effectively adapt to changing situations. A person who is confident in their ability to learn and adapt is more willing to leave prevailing expectations and try new approaches. This creates new experiences upon which the person can further reflect. People with a purpose and a desire to pursue the purpose are less defensive and more likely to embrace surprises, disruptions and even traumas as learning experiences. Instead of defending their values, beliefs and behaviors they are willing to challenge them and grow.
This process of deep learning through self-coaching is at the heart of mastery. Learning to become a self-coach is important. Here is an illustration of the process.
Brian Townsend played football for the University of Michigan and then went on to the NFL. Later he became a high school basketball coach. When he first secured the basketball job many criticized the hiring because Townsend had never coached basketball. In a short time he won the Michigan state championship and was recognized as a gifted basketball coach. How is this possible?
Once we got into a discussion with Brian about the notion of being a self-coach with the capacity to learn from experience. He told two interesting stories.
He said that when he first arrived at Michigan the football experience was incredibly competitive. He worked intensely to please the coach and get playing time. This went on for four years. In his fifth year he had an insight: He had to play for something other than the coach. He stopped worrying about what the coach thought. He said this was a defining moment in his life. From then on he began to learn in a new way. If he was with the team watching game films and the coach complemented him, but he felt he did not execute perfectly, he noted what he had to do better. If he was criticized, but he felt he did well, then he gave himself a pat on the back. He became his own coach. He was now being internally and not externally driven. He described it as one of the biggest breakthroughs in his life. It was a point of high joy. Through such learning he was regularly finding ways to create his best self. He opened the path to mastery.
Brian’s second story links this kind of learning with purpose. After a couple of years in the pros, Brian was grinding it out in practice one day. He suddenly noted that his pro experience had been joyless. He asked himself why he was there. The answer was clear–money! Without realizing it, he had made an invisible shift. By becoming money-driven he had moved from being internally driven to being externally driven.
He said, “I grew up in an African-American family of six boys, and to survive it was always family first. When I went to Michigan, the thing that made Michigan special was that it was team first. In the pros, everyone was playing for himself. I realized that a critical value was missing. In the pros my motivation had changed. I try to take that lesson to what I do now. In basketball, that is what I am about–building a real team, a real family, moving them from self-interest to a higher level of motivation. That gives me joy because it allows the boys to experience joy.”
As a coach, Brian was a masterful leader. He created belief and gave people capacity to grow and perform. One explanation of his ability to lead is that he had a big personal breakthrough, and he learned how to become increasingly authentic by learning how to reflect on his own experiences. It is a hallmark of mastery in music, in leadership and in many other areas of endeavor.
When have I seen or experienced mastery?
How is learning music like learning leadership?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?