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.