How do we develop our leadership lens?
Let’s start with the oft-quoted ancient Greek maxim, “Know thyself.”
According to the Greek writer Pausanias, it was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo. It has been credited to a number of Greek sages, including Socrates. We know it is often referenced by Plato.
Its true origin isn’t necessarily as important as the fact it is quoted over and over again through history with good reason. Let’s use it as our starting point.
Self-knowledge is important to our foundation as we try to build a better understanding of leadership.
What are our strengths? What are our preferences in the way we relate to the world?
Once we know ourselves, we can begin to see how our preferences frame the way we look at things. They color our lens through which we view the world.
We all view the same image; we simply see and make sense of it in different ways. Others have different preferences that frame the way they view the same world.
Being mindful of our personal preferences and those of others allows us to build a deeper understanding of what is happening. For example, a direct, no-nonsense approach may work well with some people, but it might not work very well with someone who prefers a more inclusive and collaborative approach.
By determining the preferences of others, we have some idea of how they will respond to the world around them.
I would add that circumstances can also dictate the best approach.
For example, it’s best to be direct in a crisis, “There’s a tornado coming our way. Get to the basement.” will better serve people in that situation than a discussion to let everyone offer their suggestions for the group to deal with the approaching tornado.
David Kolb’s learning cycle model is also a good method to learn about leadership and frame your leadership lens.
It has been widely used since he first posited this theory in 1984. The model is self explanatory. We have experience (or watch) something, think about it, draw conclusions, and then apply and test what we have learned.
The stage of reflective observation is especially critical to good leadership; yet, it is often the very component that gets skipped in the busy world of leaders.
Leaders are torn between the many demands of work, their employees’ needs, changes in the marketplace, limited family time, and time for community service.
There are never enough hours in the day to do everything, and it becomes easy to skip reflection. In doing so, we fail to learn from our experience.
Reflection is how we process what we have experienced or observed. It’s how we make sense of what happened and how we might apply that learning.
Without reflection, we are just mindlessly experiencing things without necessarily learning from them.
Let’s take a look at Ernest Shackleton’s leadership lens as an example.
In my previous blog, I mentioned movies as a leadership learning resource. I like Kenneth Branagh’s 2012 release of Shackleton for its candid look at Ernest Shackleton’s character and leadership.
His 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition failed to reach its goal of being the the first to traverse the Antarctic continent. The ship became trapped in ice floes and was eventually crushed. His men spent months stranded on the ice.
While he failed to reach his goal of traversing the Antarctic, after a harrowing journey on a homemade boat, he succeeded in bringing back every man on his crew alive. Despite enduring unbelievable hardship on this expedition, almost every single crew member volunteered to serve with Shackleton on his next voyage. This speaks volumes about him as a leader.
The movie unflinchingly portrays the whole of the man, examining his character flaws as an unfaithful husband and man of financial disasters while also demonstrating his great leadership qualities.
There is a wonderful lesson in the scene where he empties his pockets of items he once valued. He knows he must leave these items behind to survive his trek across the ice. He leads by example – first emptying his own pockets to demonstrate what his men must do.
He often gives the best of his supplies – blankets, mittens, and food, to his men. His resilience is remarkable. He keeps his crew’s spirits high as they endure setback after setback. He doesn’t always tell the truth and he sometimes doesn’t plan well. And in addition, things (many things) happen – like fissures in the ice that could send his men plummeting into the frigid sea at any moment.
I find movies like this best are watched in segments, so that I have the opportunity to reflect and process the events that occur. I ask myself the following questions:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What worked and what didn’t?
- Would this solution have worked under different circumstances?
- Would this solution have worked with different people involved?
- What could the leader have done differently?
Ernest Shackleton’s leadership lens didn’t apply in all parts of his life, however.
I think it’s important to note that Shackleton’s character traits and relationships with his men served him well in an extreme situation, but didn’t serve him so well back home in England with his wife and mistress.
With his men, he “walked the walk” in that he never asked them to do something he didn’t do. He took first watch and let them rest. If he asked them to sacrifice, he backed up his request by sacrificing more.
At a personal level with his wife, he claimed to love her, yet didn’t back those words up with his actions. Maybe what works with some people in some circumstances doesn’t work with other people in other circumstances.
To conclude the movie example, I would say that almost any movie can offer leadership lessons if you view it through your leadership lens and take the time to reflect upon it.
Whether watching a movie, reading a novel, or observing a committee meeting, it’s important to pay attention to the individuals and group.
- Who are the characters and what roles do they play?
- How are the personal preferences/styles of each character influencing their behavior?
- What are their relationships to each other?
- What is the environment (its challenges and opportunities)?
- What is really the problem?
So, how can you use your leadership lens to assess a problem, like how Shackleton did?
Borrowing from Ron Heifetz, Martin Linsky, and Alexander Glashow, we must ask whether our problem is technical or adaptive.
A technical problem can be solved with a technical solution of an upgrade, or new computers, or a new process for quality control. An adaptive problem means changing hearts and minds, and that’s more difficult.
An adaptive problem requires people to give up something.
It may be something they have long held dear. It may be they are only giving up what is familiar.
They are still being asked to give up something, and that’s difficult. Technical solutions usually represent a quick and simple fix, and we often see a technical solution thrown at what is really an adaptive problem.
There is an excellent book, Immunity to Change, by Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, that explores why we resist change. They discovered the individual and collective beliefs of an organization often strongly resist change because they cling to the mechanisms that have worked successfully for them in the past. They show us why we don’t do something even when we know is for the better.
Is it a people or process issue? Do we have the right people in the right places to accomplish our task? People and process can be very different solutions.
Is our focus on process or outcome? Here’s another example that breaks down process versus outcome.
In the movie Hoosiers, Coach Norman Dale focuses on the process of building a team and learning the fundamentals of basketball. It isn’t only about shooting baskets and he doesn’t focus on winning games. If the fundamentals are in place and if they play as a team, they have a chance at the achieving the desired outcome. Basketball great, Coach John Wooden, shared the same focus on process rather than outcome. To him, it was all about the journey rather than the destination.
It’s also important to determine whether we are treating the symptoms or the actual problem.
In our haste to provide solutions, we sometimes don’t complete a good analysis of the problem. We may be trying to solve the wrong problem. Can you think of any time when this has happened to you?
It is especially likely to happen in a group of people who hate meetings and rush to implement a solution to “fix” something. You may find your organization attempting to solve the same problem over and over. When this happens and nothing seems to work, it is time to do things differently.
What’s the main takeaway in developing your leadership lens?
To develop your leadership lens, take time to reflect and ask yourself questions.
Use everything you experience as an opportunity to learn more about leadership – to learn about yourself and others.