How to Purify Your Power for Good Leadership

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In 1985 When Ron Heifetz taught me about “systems thinking,” I realized that leaders have a scary power to inadvertently use group power to ignore, blame or even punish victims, and marginalize the most outspoken for raising difficult issues — issues which the group could benefit greatly from addressing. I thought: As a leader I must exercise extreme caution to not shoot the messenger, but to always realize they may see and feel vital things that others (and I) don’t. They may point to real problems or ethical issues that no one else wants to look at. Indeed, many companies (candidates, churches, etc) have gone down in flames for failure to listen to such challenging people who saw real problems.

Then when friends helped me assess my white male privilege, I learned I had to work much harder to really be inclusive. (By the way, if this concept of privilege irritates you, here is a great read; it’s now 25 years old, yet remains deeply insightful.)  I had to — and still have to — work hard to really listen.

This ability to see the WHOLE scene, to hear all their people, and all their problematic realities, makes leaders so much more powerful than when they adhere too strongly to conventional wisdom. With the great ones, their non-defensiveness is wonderful to watch.

The greatest leaders of all do the work that — let me use this odd word — purifies their ability to really hear others. That work is to listen to the diversity within themselves. The two key truths that we almost never told were: (1) Your feelings, not your thoughts, are what creates your purity of intention.  Yet (2) Every one of us has mixed feelings about nearly everything.  Hearing ALL those feelings is as hard and as vital as hearing all those external actors.  And the irony is:  When we do not hear the inner voices, but instead quash them, we keep ourselves from hearing all the outer voices in a productive way. Our leadership gets tainted.

Let’s just take one example: a CEO whose strategy is quietly but firmly challenged at a meeting by one of his board members. That human, who happens to be a CEO, will likely feel irritation, some embarrassment, maybe anger (and thoughts of political revenge and repair), perhaps confusion, anxiety about whether other board members feel the same, gratitude that the board is so open, curiosity and concern about the issue itself, self-doubt about how he handled the “attack,” fear that board members are losing faith in him, etc. If the CEO does not acknowledge these feelings to himself, it does not mean the feelings go away; they just operate beneath the surface. So, he can enlarge his chest, talk about how he loves being challenged, brag about the open atmosphere (meanwhile perhaps isolating the troublesome board member). AND he will send mixed messages, whether he knows it or not, and whether others consciously see it or not. As neuropsychologists like Paul Eckman and Dacher Keltner have clearly demonstrated, his face will betray him!

The better course is:  to see your mixed feelings, to hear them as you would hopefully want to hear the different external voices, and then align your words and actions to your chosen values, so as to

Lead with your best self.

4 responses to “How to Purify Your Power for Good Leadership

  1. Dan –

    i always enjoy reading your writing. This one was one of your best. Thanks for the wisdom shared.

  2. Sue and Rich,
    Wow. Thanks for the kind words.
    Rich, gotta get to Joy, Inc. For some reason I’ve got so many books on my side table.
    Best!
    Dan

  3. it does not mean the
    feelings go away…his face will betray him!

    My first thoughts
    were there is the business at hand and then there is the “safe zone” if you
    have one. You can discuss with colleagues or managers “how the business at hand
    makes you feel or its impact on ways in which you’ve aligned very personal
    emotions”.

    For teams, if you
    work out how to navigate the business and then address the personal it can be
    extremely healthy. When you don’t, what I’ve come to learn is that it’s a domino
    effect. A great deal of complexity can get in the way of growth. My external
    response is to redirect-move away from the personal. My internal is to evaluate
    my growth in this incubated matter. If I sense stagnation I look for
    opportunities to see growth.

    I was challenged
    by this (and still can be in some respects)because you’re forced to look at leadership
    and growth (in terms of skill development and expanding your knowledge base)and
    the environment may not be conducive for such. When it’s personal you don’t have
    the opportunity to get much development. You have to create it. I learned that
    you may not have 50/50 or 60/40 job growth/satisfaction; you may have 70/30; 70%
    development coming from outside the workplace. Once you can get a handle on
    that perspective than you can channel emotions a whole lot better. You
    certainly don’t want to maintain expressions(disappointment and these are my
    cues to run gestures). Run forest run…. j/k but you do have to be able to laugh
    at yourself. Give yourself a chance to look at your next steps and your
    acknowledgements of” what and where does leading with my best-self look like”.

    In this place for
    me, I can’t speak for someone else it’s less about power but about impact on myself
    and then intended project or assignment. Dan have you ever
    noticed when doing an interview that you can talk for hours on end about the
    personal and business interchangeably with settled emotions and hearts. Why?
    There is no offense…

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