Magazine article Ivey Business Journal Online

Leadership Perfected: Leading from the Whole You

Magazine article Ivey Business Journal Online

Leadership Perfected: Leading from the Whole You

Article excerpt

Stepping up and into the crucible of leadership is not the occasion for a leader to start learning about himself. In fact, when the moment comes for us to step up, we must be leadership ready. Above all, this means that we must know ourselves, especially how we will respond to unanticipated, "black swan" events. Readers will learn how to prepare themselves for that crucial moment in this article.

My wife's choir was recently rehearsing a few Leonard Cohen songs. Between rehearsals, Elizabeth would wander around the house singing these songs, which included Anthem, one of my favourites. The chorus is like a meditation:

"Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack-a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

I make my living advising CEOs and senior leaders on how to be more effective in their leadership style and conduct. If there is one message I would like to instil in these leaders, it is that phrase from Leonard Cohen's song.

Why would I want to tell leaders to, "Forget your perfect offering"? Cohen's particular idea of perfection refers to situations in which we present a well-prepared, rational point of view based on what we have learned from others as the appropriate response to a specific situation. But when we're constantly putting forward our "perfect offering," we can easily become someone we are not. We become separated from our true nature and come across as too formal, distant, and inauthentic.

I recently found myself in two conversations over some senior executives' assessment and development plans. These were three-way conversations between the CEO, the senior VP, and me, the coach. The CEO was gently critiquing his direct reports, suggesting they were too "robotic" or "clinical" in presentations and interactions with their teams. Both leaders were encouraging direct reports to be more authentic: "Just be yourself, Jim." "Your presentation was all there....there were no holes in it at all, but we don't know who YOU are." The comments implied that the presentation was too much there; too much of the need to make the presentation perfect was showing but there was not enough of "Jim" in it. The point is that it's not the search for perfection that influences conduct and enables a leader to connect. Rather, the connection is made when the head, the heart and the gut are all at work and poured - as one - into the delivery. And moreover, all three need to be both prepared and not prepared.

In the corporate world, competitive pressures encourage younger, aspiring managers to mimic the leadership behaviour of others, usually their direct superior, while adhering to the company line. Thus, they become good performers. But they often lack the self-awareness and courage to project their own values, personality traits, and specific points of view in their leadership interactions. They aspire to, and become accomplished at, meeting and displaying various external standards of perfection or excellence. These young and ambitious managers have largely been promoted because they have been among the best at "getting results" - results others wanted and expected of them. There has been little or no value placed on how they achieved results. But it is the "how" that involves bringing their complete selves into the interactions. At some point, young leaders must abandon trying to meet external standards and express their own, deeply-felt leadership viewpoints. They must access their unique mix of gifts and talents, and give voice to them in creative responses to business situations.

Maturing as a leader involves responding to an internal calling - the urge to give away our innate gifts, "our offering" to life situations. Too often and for too long we deny that we have these gifts, or else, we don't trust or value them. Moreover, we not only deny our personal gifts, we also block the inner calling to give them away, to pass them on to others.


"Leadership perfected" needn't be a concept or standard that is preconceived, well-rehearsed, or even risk free. …

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