What Is The Access To And The Source Of Mastery In The Exercise Of Leadership

2014 is behind us in a manner of speaking and we are in the first month of 2015. Listen to the news and you are likely to find plenty of challenges: stuff that we, individually and collectively, have to deal with.  If you/i are to show up as human-centred leaders then what is the way to go about being-dealing with these challenges.  This question is the subject of this conversation.

What Is The Access To And The Source Of Mastery In The Exercise Of Human Centred Leadership?

What is the material that a carpenter works with? Wood. What is the material a painter works with? Paint. What is the material that a farmer works with? The land that is farmed. What is the material that a leader works with? Human beings.

What makes a carpenter a great carpenter? Mastery? Yes, I say it takes a mastery of wood (in its many forms) and the tools+techniques that are used to work with-on the wood. Love? I ask you, can a carpenter became a great carpenter without a love of working with-on wood? It occurs to me that the answer is NO!

You may be asking yourself, what has this got to do with human-centred leadership? Everything. I say that a human-centred leader has to love working with-on human beings. I say that a human-centred leader has to attain a mastery over his own being (that which shapes how s/he shows up and travels in life) and the human-condition. What am I getting at? I invite you to listen, really listen, to the following words of profound wisdom into the human-condition (bolding is my work):

Optimism gives a hopeful attitude to life, while with pessimism one sees darkness on one’s path. No doubt sometimes pessimism shows conscientiousness and cleverness, and it may also show experience. But conscientiousness alone will never be enough to overcome the difficulties one meets in one’s life, it is trust that solves life problems.

The psychological effect of optimism is such that it helps to bring success, for it is by the spirit of optimism that God has created the world. Optimism comes from God, and pessimism is born from the heart of man. By what little experience of life he has, man learns, “This will not succeed, that will not do, this will not come right.” For the one who is optimistic it does not matter if it does not come right in the end, he will take his chance. For what is life? Life is an opportunity, and to the optimistic person this opportunity is a promise, while for the pessimistic person this opportunity is lost….

Man’s life depends on the object of his concentration, so if he concentrates upon misery, he must be miserable. A person who has a certain habit of which he does not approve often thinks he is helpless before is as it is his nature. But nothing is man’s nature except what he makes of himself. As the whole of nature is is made by God, so the nature of each individual is made by himself; and as the Almighty has the power to change His nature, so the individual is capable of changing his nature. Among all the creatures of this world, man has the most right to be optimistic, for man represents God on earth, God as Judge, God as Creator ….

A man with optimism will help another who is drowning in the sea of fear and disappointment; while on the contrary, if someone who is ill or downhearted comes to a pessimistic person, the pessimist will pull him down and make him sink to the depths along with himself. On the side of the one is life; on the side of the other is death……. It is no exaggeration to say that the very spirit of God comes to man’s rescue in the form of the optimistic spirit.…..

It does not matter how hard a situation in life may be: however great the difficulties, they can all be surmounted…… the greatest greatest reward there can be in life is the spirit of optimism, while the greatest punishment that can be given to man for his worst sin is pessimism. Verily, the one who is hopeful in life will succeed.

There are two attitudes that divide people into two sections. The one is an ever-complaining attitude and the other an ever-smiling attitude. Life is the same: call it good, call it bad, call it right, call it wrong, it is what it is; it cannot be otherwise…. The person with the right attitude of mind tries to make even wrong right, but the one with the wrong attitude of mind will turn even right into wrong. Besides, magnetism is the the need of every soul; the lack of it makes life burdensome. The tendency of seeing wrong in everything robs one to a great extent of that magnetism which is needed very much in life….. the world is place you cannot enter with a pass of admission, and that pass of admission is magnetism; the one who does not possess it will be refused everywhere.

The attitude of looking at everything with a smile is the sign of the saintly soul. A smile given to a friend or even to an enemy will win him over in the end; for this is the key to the heart of man. As the sunshine from without lights the whole world, so the sunshine from within, it it were raised up, would illuminate the whole life, in spite of all the seeming wrongs and in spite of all limitations…. looking at life with a hopeful attitude of mind, with an optimistic view, it is this that will give one power of turning wrong into right and bringing light into the place where all is darkness. Cheerfulness is life; sulkiness is death. Life attracts, death repulses. The sunshine that comes from the soul, rises through the heart, and manifests itself in man’s smile is indeed the light from the heavens. In that light many flowers grow and many fruits become ripe.”

– Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Art Of Being And Becoming

Summing Up

I say the very being of a human-centred leader is is that of possibility (hope), enthusiasm borne of a deep connection with this possibility (of a better world), and optimism no matter what the circumstance. What kind of optimism matters most in a leader? The optimism in mankind and in particular the optimism in the human-beings s/he is involved with, counting on, responsible, and leading.

I leave you with the following thoughts:

– The price of admission to effective human-centred leadership is magnetism – enrolling people in the possibility of a better world awaiting to be ‘birthed-caused-created’;
– The source of this magnetism is deep seated love of and faith in one’s fellow human beings; and
– This optimism cannot be faked – the seeds of it must lie in your very being, and if they are there then this optimism can be cultivated until it blossoms to a fully grown tree.

Want to get a better handle on what it is that I am getting at? I invite you to watch this 5 minute clip of Viktor Frankl:

I invite you to consider that if any human being has attained a profound lived grasp-understanding of human nature it is Viktor Frankl. Why? He is a Jew. He lost everyone during WWII. He found himself in the worst concentration camps. He experienced that which few of us will ever experience. He did not merely survive the concentration camp existence. He came out with a profound optimism in mankind. His book Man’s Search For Meaning, written shortly after his liberation from the concentration camp, is one that I invite you read if you wish to show up and travel as a human-centred leader. Thank you for listening, I wish you an optimistic existence!

Please note that a slightly modified version of this conversation was first published here in December 2014.

Leadership: What Is The Access To Generating Breakthroughs In Effectiveness-Performance?

Some work environments are characterised by that which is called psychological safety:  a shared belief, by the people who work in the environment, that it is safe to experiment, to give voice to one’s voice, to take risks.

A Thought Experiment On Psychological Safety and Performance

A researcher is researching the link between psychological safety and the number of medication errors made in hospitals.  She studies eight hospital units and finds that the hospital units characterised by psychological safety have the highest medication error rates.  She reports these ‘findings’ to you.

Imagine that you are the manager responsible for reducing the number of medication errors in these hospital units.  How will you determine what course of action you will take given what the researcher has ‘found’?  Will your action not be determined by how you make sense of the phenomena at hand: the higher the reported psychological safety the higher the reported medication errors?

Given your management training, you say something like this to yourself: “No surprise here. Where you create an environment for people to make mistakes without fear of punishment, people make more mistakes!”

Given this ‘explanation’ what will be your course of action?  Isn’t the course of action shaped, even dictated, by your explanation?  Will you not reduce the psychological safety?  Of course you will.  You will put fear into the hospital units characterised by psychological safety. Imagine you take that course. You track medication errors by person and hospital unit. You name-shame by putting together and making visible a ‘leaderboard’ of those making the most errors. And apply sanctions to those who exceed a certain error rate.

What turns out to be the impact?  You find that after a little while there is significant drop in the number of medication errors that end up on your weekly management report.  You congratulate yourself: you figured out what was going on, you acted, and you generated your desired outcome.

Let’s Reconsider The Phenomena AND The Explanation

Whilst you, the manager, have been ripping out psychological safety and replacing it by fear, the researcher has been doing some more digging.  She had a brain wave and decided to look at independent data.

By looking at this data, she ‘found’:

  • The psychologically safe hospital units did not make more medication errors. In fact, the data showed that the higher the psychological safety within a hospital unit, the fewer the medication errors made by the people in that unit.
  • The folks working within units lacking psychological safety  hid their medication errors, out of fear of punishment.  And as  a result no learning took place regarding the causes of medication errors and thus no reduction in medication errors.

With this phenomena-explanation (the explanation and the phenomena have been merged into one here) what course of action do you the manager take?  Isn’t the sound course of action dictated by the phenomena-explanation?  Isn’t the sound course of action to increase psychological safety in those hospital units (under your management) where fear of retribution-punishment pervades?

Your Actions Are Shaped By The ‘Story You Construct’ To Explain The Phenomena

I draw your attention to the fact that action is the access to influencing the world and generating change-outcomes: only actions cause-shape outcomes.  If you think otherwise then don’t breathe and see what shows up!

Notice that your actions are NEVER given by the phenomena itself. That which is, simply is. And is discarded by most of us if we cannot make sense of it.  Why? If we cannot make sense of it then we cannot orient ourselves in relation to that which is: the phenomena.

Further, notice that your actions are ALWAYS given by the ‘story you make’, the explanation you construct, about the phenomena.

What does this mean?  It means that all the power-possibility lies in the ‘story you make’, the explanation you construct.  Why? Your actions are influenced-shaped, even dictated, by the explanation you construct.

What Is The Access To Generating Breakthroughs In Effectiveness-Performance? 

The access to generating breakthroughs in effectiveness-performance lies in the domain of explanation: the ‘story that we construct’ around the phenomena at hand.

If we are to construct more insightful stories/explanations (on the phenomena that concern us) then we have to escape the pull of the existing ‘net of understanding’ – the paradigm that gives us being and from which we operate. Listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to … their state of thought. Observe how every truth and every error, each a thought of some man’s mind, clothes itself with societies, houses, cities, language, ceremonies, newspapers. Observe the ideas of the present day ….. see how timber, brick, lime and stone have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons ….. It follows, of course, that the least enlargement of ideas …. would cause the most striking changes of external things.

I say that the job of leaders is to generate that ‘least enlargement of ideas’ that Ralph Waldo Emerson is talking about. That is to say make a shift in the dominant paradigm that shapes organisational sense making of phenomena. And thus shapes-dictates their courses of action.

If you are lamenting the state of the Customer Experience like Colin Shaw is then it is worth listening to the following words by Donella H. Meadows:

There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analysing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of not knowing….

The reason that organisations have not made a success of Customer Experience. And are in the process of killing it, is that the Tops in these organisations have not made the requisite ‘least enlargement of ideas The have not put aside their existing ‘net of understanding’ and so are go about the new in the same old way. Thus, I say that many, if not almost all, Customer Experience initiatives start stillborn.

To conclude: the challenge of leadership is to cast off the already existing ‘net of understanding’ and thus creating a space from which to construct more insightful stories-explanations of phenomena. And thus opening up new courses of action. Course of action that carry risk and also the promise of breakthroughs in effectiveness-performance.  

If you found this ‘conversation’ one that resonates with you then I invite you to watch the following video: