How Culture Conspires to Prevent the Emergence of Leadership

When I share an idea with my adult children, they are tougher on me than any journal editor ever has been. They set their jaw and get ready to challenge.

At a dinner, I shared the notion that most managers do not become leaders because they do not know how to reflect on their experiences. My son, who is a sales manager in a big company, immediately took issue. He pointed out that he thinks all the time about his experiences and the claim is unrealistic.

I next shared a typology I received from an observant executive. There are three types of executives in most companies. There are very few leaders; we know them because when we meet them, we want to be like them. There are many managers who understand leadership but do not practice it. There are a few technicians who will never understand leadership.

Before I could elaborate, my son became animated. With emotion, he spoke of the fact that his company was permeated by managers looking out for their own best interests. He gave example after example. He spoke of his efforts to go against the grain and lead his people.

He has been so successful that his unit leads the company in sales. Yet this success has come at a price. He has built a positive organization. He has created such trust and purpose that his people know they can raise real issues with him and they genuinely want his help. So his phone never stops ringing. He is inundated with phone calls and emails. He said, “I have virtually no time to think about how to improve. All my time is invested in helping solve problems.”

The last sentence is of great importance. It first illustrates a paradox. The more you lead, the more the system unconsciously conspires to turn you back into a manager. Unless you can maintain focus and increase consciousness in the face of great social expectations, you get sucked into maintaining the current equilibrium. You are pulled towards the role of a problem-solving manager. It becomes improbable that you will evolve to a higher level of consciousness and leadership in which you continually seek to clarify the highest, evolving purpose and link behavior to it.

The sentence also illustrates something else. When I suggested that most managers do not become leaders because they do not know how to reflect on their experiences, my son took issue, pointing out that he always thinks about his experiences. Yet when he reviews his daily life, he concludes that he has little if any time to reflect on improving as a leader.

The truth is that he does continually think about his experiences, but his context does not allow him to deeply reflect on his experiences and derive the clarification of values and purpose that is necessary to move to the next level of effective influence. The context requires continuous action and allows for little reflection. The culture thus pulls him back to the existing equilibrium. Just as culture eats strategy for breakfast, so culture also eats personal leadership development for breakfast.

To develop as a leader, one must overcome the social context and the pull of the culture. One must separate and contemplate. Doing so leads to increased consciousness. The highest possible purpose becomes clear. Committing to that purpose leads to failures and successes. From these new experiences, learning expands and capacity emerges. We find that we know a new truth and it makes us free from the culture. It allows us to act upon the culture with effectiveness. We operate at a new level of leadership.

Reflection

  • How much time do you get to deeply reflect on your own behavior?
  • How is it possible for a few to become leaders who others want to emulate?
  • What code did they break and how did they break it?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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6 thoughts on “How Culture Conspires to Prevent the Emergence of Leadership

  1. This is a sublte but powerful distinction between “thinking about” and “deeply reflecting and learning”. Thanks for that distinction!

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  2. Hi, Bob,
    As part of my purpose to write a book on the necessity for traditional Christian churches to be transformed from the deeply inward focussed culture they are caught in, I am seeking to deeply reflect on the fundamental state of leadership that Christ Himself showed. Was this, in fact, totally “fearless leadership” that transcended the cultures of His day where He moved people beyond where they were to a higher level of understanding of God’s purposes for them?

    I fully understand if you feel this post should not be posted public,

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    • This is a great question: “Was this, in fact, totally ‘fearless leadership’ that transcended the cultures of His day where He moved people beyond where they were to a higher level of understanding of God’s purposes for them?

      I am not sure of the answer but I have some thoughts. In the FSL courage emerges. Yet courage and fear are always linked. We can only show courage if we see the challenge as fearful. When my granddaughter says she is scared, my daughter says, “Maybe you can be scared and brave at the same time.”

      In the garden when Jesus bled from every pore, perhaps there were many emotions associated with the agony. I assume that one was fear. Perhaps in the garden he was entering the FSL and finding the courage to move forward into his fearful task. He may have become fearless but perhaps he, like us, had to do deep change in order to become fearless. One thing I am sure about is we have the capacity to do so

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