I had an interaction that reveals the basic nature of conventional, organizational life. It also demonstrates why we all tend to give our power away.
I met with a group of leaders from a large medical system and taught them the fundamental state of leadership. The concept suggests that leadership is a state. Normally we are comfort centered, externally directed, other focused and internally closed but we can choose to be results centered, internally directed, other focused, and externally open.
When we are results centered we become intentional, courageous and strong. When we are internally direct we have integrity and we are authentic. When we are other focused, we are empathetic and recognize the deepest needs and interests of our people. When we are externally open, we are humble and make co-creation possible. By asking four simple questions we can become simultaneously strong, authentic, caring and humble.
At the end the presentation, the coordinator indicated that we had time for a few questions. I said, “Please write down your most authentic questions. An authentic question is one that you truly want answered and it shows your vulnerability by asking it.”
I gave them some time and they wrote. What emerged were three truly important questions. As we moved ahead one woman, who appeared to be very strong, said, “I sense that my people think I do not really care about them. What can I do?”
I asked her who had left the most positive legacy in her life. She indicated it was her mother. I asked for more and she described her amazing, 88 year old mother, who is still working. I asked if her mother loved her. She said yes. I asked how she knew. As she gave indicators this strong woman began to cry. I asked, “Can you treat your people the way your mother treats you?” She seemed to make a connection and she nodded.
Another woman raised her hand and said, “If I behaved like this, my people would see it as weakness. How do I deal with that?”
We did an analysis of why her people believed it was a weakness, how she knew they believed it, and how she was being directed by their expectations. She was organizing her life according to what she believed they believed. I suggested her response was conventional and, like most managers, she was giving her power away. We reviewed what it meant to be internally directed and also creative. We reviewed the fact that the research shows that transformational leaders have high performance expectations while they are also high in their support of their people. I invited her to think about how she could expect more of her people, and do it in a more supportive way.
Finally a woman spoke of her boss, suggesting he was the opposite of a positive leader and asked how she could better deal with him. We reviewed the notions of disempowerment and empowerment, and considered what it means to turn our influence up the hierarchy. We explored what it might look like if we entered the fundamental state of leadership in dealing with a boss. I gave some hypothetical examples and that seemed to open new possibilities.
Writing this entry causes me to return to the experience and reflect more deeply on the three questions. As I do, I marvel at how authentic the questions really were and I feel a sense of gratitude for the people in the room.
As I write I also marvel at the truth the questions reveal about conventional, organizational life. People with the highest educational training and capacity, choose to live as the organizational culture dictates. We become so task focused and driven, that we lose our humanity and we are seen as uncaring. We live in fear of being seen as weak and, and, in pretending to be strong, we communicate our fear. We live in frustration, suffering at the hand of abusive authority figures thus allowing them to continue.
In asking their three authentic questions these highly accomplished women reveal the conventional state of organizational life. For each of us, the tendency is to conform, to sacrifice our integrity, to lose touch with the feelings of others, and to fearfully and arrogantly close ourselves off from honest feedback and the opportunity to co-create. When we learn how to choose, to become purpose centered, internally directed, other focused, and externally open, we learn to become positive deviants. Instead of responding to the culture we begin to shape culture so that everyone begins to win, including us. When we do, we experience what it means to be a leader.
Do my people feel that I care about them?
When do I fear being seen as weak?
Am I ever abused by those in authority?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?