The Source of Leadership

What governs human actions and behavior, what motivates us to lead well, and what creates meaningful change in the world?
So I began my search for the generative source of leadership. To begin with, I started from a position in which I refused to define leadership. I didn’t want to do that for two reasons: one, the very act of defining it would impose a model or a theory onto it, thereby forcing it into one or the other categories that were already around. Two, I wanted to test whether we have a sense of what good leadership is, and my assumption was that not defining it would let that sense surface. I am convinced we have an invisible, inbuilt radar in our minds that picks up cues that we use to translate into what we feel is good leadership. Most of those cues are about trust, but more of that later. Three, I felt it might just be fun to explore what people sensed they talked of leadership.
Years ago, when I was a boy, I had traveled with my parents to the source of one of the great Indian rivers, the Ganga. We picked up the river in a place called Hardwar, far away from its origins in the Himalayan mountains, and traveled upstream and northwards towards its source. The river would reveal itself every now and then, sometimes as a torrential, raging monster, and sometimes as a gentle, meandering stream. Finally high up in the mountains, in a place called Gangotri, we found ourselves at the source. I remember the joy of having followed that river upstream, witnessed it raging and storming in places, and quiet and withdrawn in others, and now to be kneeling beside its source as it emerged quietly in a valley between some of the most majestic mountains in the world. Finding the source is to find an amazing place of mystery. Yes the mystery reveals all that follows from there.
Decades later, I was thinking of Gangotri while following the leadership river upstream, looking for its source. Over the next many years, I would interview, observe, work with and coach, hundreds of leaders. I kept notes, asked questions, watched them work, observed them at meetings, spoke to their colleagues, managers, spouses, and teams, trying to collect every shred of evidence that would in some way lead me to the source. Most of the time the people I was working with wouldn’t be able to tell me what made them tick. Most of them were pragmatic, hands on people and they couldn’t articulate what made them effective. I would routinely hear such homilies about how it was all about people, behavior and relationships. Or about character and personality. Those were some of the red herrings along the way and for a while I went along that trail thinking it would lead me to the source. But it soon ran cold. It didn’t answer the question, “Why did some build better relationships than others? Why did some people have a far greater ability to influence others despite not appearing as “nice” or friendly as some others?”. Yes, behavior was critical but it wasn’t the source.
The source was to emerge in the white space that lay behind the observables of behavior, skills, capabilities, personality, and that profoundly un-poetic word, competencies. It brought me to a place that a few years later I would call “self-ware”© – the place from where we perceive, interpret , and respond to the world.

Why Leaders Must Learn to Think

Every now and then I get a quizzical look and am asked to explain how I wandered from Quantum Physics into Leadership. It was actually a half-open backdoor that got me in there. Looking back over thirty years, what Quantum Physics did was get me interested in the way we think, the way we perceive and make sense of what is around us, and the way we form representations of reality based on our assumptions. It also surfaced for me the very limitations of our thinking process in how we commit the grave error of assuming that what we observe is the objective truth. Quantum Physics gave me a grammar for understanding and describing what is essentially our relationship with the world. My work on leadership continues to resonate with exactly that: every time I work with executive teams and CEO’s, I begin by asking them to explore three questions: “What is your relationship with the organization and people that you lead”? ; “What futures do you want to create?”; and “What past patterns of your thinking and behavior get in your way?”.

We learn to make mental maps of the world that we assume to be the territory, in Gregory Bateson’s unforgettable turn of phrase. “The theory decides what we observe”, said Einstein, exposing our tendency to observe through the lenses of our assumptions and biases, and then assuming that what we perceive is the real. Leaders must be able to step back and observe in real time how their “theories” and “maps” manifest the world and shape their decisions and choices, and their conversations, actions, and behaviors. Only through a deeper awareness of how we think, can leaders learn to shift their mindsets from what I will describe in a later blog as reactive to mastery.

One of the fascinating things I am discovering about the brain is that biologically we are programmed to operate from the reactive mindset. After all, it is this mindset that has helped life survive over millions of years. So, for example it becomes more beneficial for us to focus on the negative than on the positive, as it is the negative that biologically holds more of a threat to survival. So, perception of potential danger trumps feelings of well-being in the survival stakes! The thinking we do from such a mindset is low-grade thinking largely dependent on stored memory and the “past”. Unless we become aware of the hold of the past on us, and how it influences the way we think and behave, take decisions, and make choices, we continue to operate from this reactive mindset as the brain “chooses” to engage with the world in a reactive mode. Recent failures at Kodak and Nokia, and the reaction to the financial crisis in 2008 bear testimony to our propensity for preferring the past over the present. To lead is to essentially disrupt and overcome the biological tendency to react from the past. It is all about knowing when and how to rise above the biological forces of survival and the reactive mindset.