“Wisdom is considered a sign of weakness by the powerful because a wise man can lead without power but only a powerful man can lead without wisdom.”
Mark B. Cohen
How many times have we heard that a leader must know and control everything in order to deliver powerfully in their system? With the onset of digitally enabled ecosystems and DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations), this is becoming less and less the case. Yet the culture and ways of working in organisations still adhere to the concept of the all-knowing, non-vulnerable leader, which views compassion, collaboration and vulnerability as weaknesses. I spent years trying to fit into this paradigm when it’s not really at all who I am, feeling that not entering into competition made me weak, and constantly trying to figure out how to strengthen my armour. Only now do I realise that my wisdom comes from ‘going inside’ and trusting my intuition.
But you can’t get there unless you are present in the moment and have the confidence to stay with that sentiment: slowing down, feeling less productive at first and not constantly thinking, ‘right, what do we need to do next?’. Whilst heeding the notion of well-being and even mindfulness, I still wanted to do everything quickly and cross it all off my list. How many times do we sit in meetings with the objective of crossing things off the agenda and moving onto the next subject? Agile ways of working and iterative loops can compound this feeling if the requisite mindset is lacking. I found apps such as Headspace helpful, but still ultimately got bored and realised the real issue was that I couldn’t stay still, be patient and sit with my feelings. This requires taking time out, which I was completely unaccustomed to doing, yet I had no idea how much it was stopping me being creative, authentic and inclusive.
We must bust this myth of the all-knowing, non-vulnerable leader and acknowledge that less is more. This may well mean unlearning everything we have learnt about being a strong leader, but this in itself will unleash the power of self-compassion. Likewise the myth of ‘busyness’, and perceived productivity equating to success, requires closer inspection – busy does not necessarily mean productive yet it is still a very common assumption in organisations that one proves the other. For example, if you have the capacity to work 20 hours without a break, span three time zones in a week and have client dinners most nights and assume that this makes you a good leader, I politely suggest that this is not a direct correlation! Productivity and the best ideas come from a still mind, and insight comes from intuition and human connection, which are lost when we are too busy. Once we are in this space of constant activity, we shut down on many levels and are functioning only in the cognitive space; we step onto the hamster wheel and, once there, find it very difficult to step off it, often leading to stress and burnout, which serves no-one.
The power of slowing down and rejuvenation
It is enlightening and liberating to learn that not everything can be figured out. In fact, when you let go of control and let your intuition speak, that’s where the magic happens – in the rich vibrant space of now. Likewise to realise that it’s ‘not about me’, it’s about the present moment and how I show up in that moment. I think it’s fair to say that we all sometimes feel completely overwhelmed, or alone, and these are just two examples of extremes that can come from busyness.
We must learn to create spaciousness. Often in the busyness paradigm, we think that if we slow down, we’ll lose our drive, fail to get everything done and worry what others will think. But this is not true. We come back yet again to it being an ‘inside job’, something we buy into that we see perpetuated in organisational culture and society in general, where mindfulness and meditation get put on our ‘to-do’ list. To really understand where your creativity lies, you have to slow down, give your intuition time to speak, and then listen to understand or unlock. Carving out this time when ‘time is money’ feels like falling short or failing to deliver in accordance with today’s understanding of efficiency.
I learned a great deal from an illuminating conversation with Shannon Lucas and Tracey Lovejoy, authors of Move Fast, Break Shit, Burn Out: The Catalyst’s Guide to Working Well (listen to the podcast here) about creating space for change as well as spaciousness for ourselves and others, which is very difficult in fast-paced, delivery-driven times. Do you sit in meetings and wish stakeholders would just ‘get it’ and see what you’re saying? Your intention is to inspire everyone and get them on the same page to move forward but you leave the meeting frustrated. Moreover, your team is often none the wiser but can sense that you have a vision that excites you. The process of ‘breadcrumbing’ to show the way forward can be a good way not only to signpost your ideas better, but also to break them down into visible parts for people to follow more easily. This particularly applies to leaders who are looking to drive change successfully – they must recognise that the change they want to bring about requires them primarily to have a full tank and be self-regulated in order to do the hard work. Cognitive behaviour is explicit but emotional behaviour is not. Success means having this full tank, then making smart choices, like taking a break. It is easy to forget that we are designed to be human beings, not human doings.
The journey to more through less
Recognition today is given to those who are the most visible, whose voices are heard in the centre of the organisational system and who deliver the most. It is no wonder then that we constantly strive to fit into this paradigm to make sure we and our ideas are seen and heard, but is this really helpful? Often the feedback I get from working with teams is: ‘that was great, I felt heard, I felt seen’. This may be an individual opinion, but on a collective level, too, this is where the group wisdom lies, in hearing all the voices in the system. But this takes time, focus and presence, and we tend to be impatient (for results)! The first time I deliberately and intentionally stepped back to develop this way of working, it felt lazy, slow and unproductive. We sit in meetings, impatiently asking if anyone else has anything to add, telling ourselves we are being inclusive because we’re asking the question, and dying to move on with a solution or – shock horror! – another meeting. Is this really an environment where people are willing to speak up? Is it really creating a space for the most innovative ideas to spark? No, we need more time and a different type of presence.
Clearly this way of working changes the power dynamics within the group, and the model where knowledge and information are power is turned on its head – now it is the exact opposite, i.e. sharing and collaborating are power. The all-knowing, non-vulnerable leader uses their power in the system to stay that way. But collective intelligence requires space, both internally and at work, and leaders must be humble enough to demonstrate that vulnerability is not a weakness, but a strength that deserves to be equated far more with wisdom and collective achievements.
The power of compassion and standing in your leadership
Another part of the big myth is that leaders must be extrovert, challenging and always lead from the front. If we define leadership as ‘impact’ and not just as organisational rank, and as a ‘power/with’ not a ’power/over’ paradigm, we can see that limiting the definition of strong leadership to just one style is ultimately curbing potential across the board, and disengaging people in the process. Today’s and tomorrow’s organisational structures need more distributed and more empathetic types of leadership, borne of self-awareness and based on alliance, co-responsibility and partnership across the different organisational ecosystems.
It is very positive that the paradigms of leadership have broadened, but we must accept that diversity of thought and the power and uniqueness of leading from within are essential. If I hadn’t questioned the all-pervasive leadership myth, I would still be sitting in what is seen as ‘weakness’ and not journeyed through to what is a much wiser place. I do realise, however, that I needed that inner peace and inner mastery to ‘go through it’. This is one of the biggest challenges facing leaders currently – to go there! Even if it is daunting, it’s worth it and, as with anything, it is your own model of ‘less is more’ that is important. Just as understanding the formal and informal power dynamics of a system can help you define where your leaders are, it can also help you to navigate those networks differently.
From ownership to partnership means that leaders must be willing to relinquish their ‘perceived’ grip on power and take a step into a more collaborative space where sharing, not competition, is the lever to more effective human and business results. We must dare to do it, be bold, go against the grain and question things. Showing vulnerability as a leader is key to engaging your people; it creates human connection and shows that as a leader you are still only a flawed human and ‘one of us’. The move from weakness to wisdom, from ego to eco, is a lifelong learning journey, whereby we work towards an idea meritocracy that showcases human dignity, courage and respect but with no intentional harm, blame or humiliation. To quote Brené Brown: “vulnerability is not weakness, it’s our greatest measure of courage”.
Thank you for reading.
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