On Having the Courage to Grant Yourself Greatness

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The foremost challenge for leaders today is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and no matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door. It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenges.

Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility

Living in these complex, uncertain and challenging times, resisting the gravitational pull of the downward spiral can be difficult. Seeking meaning in world events that pit you against me and us against them, can lead us down into the existential vacuum. Leadership asks that we manage the present, whilst simultaneously creating a compelling future – we need to imagine what’s possible. Leading from a place of imagination and possibility, rather than fear and difference, seems more urgent than ever.

The realm of responsibility for all leaders – business, political or military — given globalisation and instant interconnectivity, has expanded significantly. Modern technology has made us more international and interdependent than ever before; it has enabled actions and reactions to occur almost simultaneously.

In business, the challenges we face include an onslaught of huge amounts of information, emotional intensity, the sheer complexity of some of the situations we face, virtual teams who never meet face to face, different time zones, different cultures. You’ll have heard of the acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. VUCA is a way of life for many of us – change is the only certainty.

According to research by Harthill Consulting, just 8% of leaders have reached the level of thinking required to engage in strategic thinking, collaboration, systems thinking, leading change and having comfort with ambiguity (the report labels these leaders as “strategists”).  This may be in part why so many leaders are feeling stressed, confused and overwhelmed – they are literally “in over their heads”.

Leaders with the capability to navigate the complex world we’re living in now are fundamentally different with regards to how they see and make sense of the world. According to the research they have reflective capabilities (they learn from experience) and they lead from a deeply help humility such that they create opportunities for others to thrive. They place a high value on their social contribution and are not simply just concerned with financials; they are driven by leading long-term sustainable change.

Interestingly, when that 8% is broken down into leaders inside an organisation, and those supporting organisations externally (consultants and advisors), only 5% of internal leaders have the requisite skills, however 29% of external leaders do. Whilst this is concerning, since organisational change needs to happen from within, it is not surprising given that the vast majority of Strategists find organisational life deeply unsatisfying.

Lacking a clear purpose, a rigid hierarchical structure, a culture that celebrates busyness and ego and is intolerant of anyone that questions the status quo – the average corporate will make a strategist feel like a square peg in a round hole. Is it any wonder such talented individuals say screw this?

However, there is a paradigm shift occurring as we transition from leadership residing in a person or a role. As Nick Petrie, of The Centre for Creative Leadership describes in his white paper, the question needs to change from “who are the leaders?” to “what conditions do we need for leadership to flourish in the network?” In the world we live in now, it is nearly impossible for any one individual to lead any sizeable organisation single-handedly. We need to develop leadership capacity throughout organisations. We need to democratise leadership. We need to be comfortable leading from any chair.

In The Art of Possibility, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic orchestra, Benjamin Zander suggests deceptively simple practices that have the power to transform our professional and individual lives. “Leading from Any Chair” was inspired by his realisation that the conductor/leader’s power is directly linked to how much greatness he/she is willing to grant to others.

Like the business leader whose unchecked charisma has morphed into hubris, the conductor enjoys a leadership mystique of significant magnitude, indeed Zander describes the profession of conductor “one of the last bastions of totalitarianism in the civilised world”. Zander reveals that vanity and tyranny are prevalent in the music world and that orchestral players have a level of job satisfaction below that of prison guards. The metaphor of the orchestra is therefore useful in considering leadership in all realms.

Zander had been conducting for over 20 years when he realised that he did not make a sound; he relied on his musicians and his true power therefore derived from his ability to make others powerful. Shifting his attention from how the critics received his performance to how effective he was at enabling the musicians to play each phrase as beautifully as they were capable, he evolved a system of communication where each musician would contribute comments and feedback via writing on a sheet of white paper. The orchestra led collectively, no matter what chair they sat in.

“Listening for passion and commitment” is the job of leadership, whether the players are in the orchestra, on the management team or sitting at our feet. Zander asks us to question, no matter whether we are a conductor, a business leader or leading our families and communities “how can I know that I am fulfilling my intention?” Through looking at the eyes of the players Zander asks that we be prepared to ask ourselves “who am I being that their eyes are not shining?”

Living in these complex, uncertain and challenging times it’s easy to believe that others will lead us out of the downward spiral towards that compelling future – maybe one of the strategists can take us there? There’s a 1 in 12 chance we’ll find one.

Alternatively, step into the abundant universe of possibility and grab a chair. Grant yourself all the greatness you need to imagine your compelling future. Look in the mirror at your shining eyes…..and have courage. After all, we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams…For each age is a dream that is dying, Or one that is coming to birth.

[Ode, AW O’Shaunghnessy]
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