I believe that leaders have a moral obligation to engage in self-examination and to develop self-awareness. In doing so, they optimize the possibilities of responsible action. Responsible action addresses the real needs of others and operates out of a clear understanding of issues and what is required to affect them. If the ultimate goal of leadership is the creation of a better world for everyone, then all leadership education and development, training and consulting - from the classroom to the boardroom - must make working on the self of leaders an essential component of their vocation. This is the work that cultivates emotional maturity and that grounds ethical, effective action; it is the work that creates the quality of life we espouse.
Leaders who lack self-awareness are not equipped to lead or manage the complexities of change and transition precipitated by the adaptive challenges we currently face. When leaders are out of touch with themselves they lack an ability to own responsibility. This leads to projection and scapegoating. Their unfinished work is projected onto others and feeds a defensiveness that makes them impervious to the harm done to the systems in which they work and to the individuals who reside in them.
What is required of leaders is knowledge of individual and societal history (context); understanding who they are (identity) or clarity of their beliefs (core values); and an understanding of why they exist (purpose/call). Without this leaders are subject to detachment, rigidly wed to technical options, and hostage to shallow and superficial solutions. These elements compose the deeper work - work that enables leaders to have a wider and more accurate view of reality. When the deeper work is avoided, the capacity to understand context is diminished, if not distorted; and the ability to manage and modulate ambiguity becomes captive to high anxiety and reactivity in individuals and systems.
Why is this deeper work not a valued and dominant part of the “leadership canon?” I have a few thoughts that will likely require studying the professionals who provide the education and training in the field. Perhaps it is not using an integration of psychological, sociological, and economic theory such as the work of James MacGregor Burns, Ron Heifetz and Ed Friedman purport. It could be the field’s search for academic legitimacy or a distrust of emotional factors that make things messy. Whatever the causes, we lack the ability and the skills to do this deeper work and although we cognitively understand what adaptive work is we still tend toward technical and quick-fixes. One thing for sure is that the pandemic is forcing us to look within for more answers.
My next Blog will share what we have learned is needed to prepare leaders for “doing the deeper work.”