Soul Searching #9: Leadership

Hello, and welcome to the 9th episode of my Soul Searching series. The previous episodes can be found here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Values
  3. Energy
  4. Intuition
  5. Flow
  6. Personality Tests
  7. The human brain
  8. Non-duality

Today’s topic is ‘leadership’. It is not complete clear to me why I want to write about this, but it is a recurring topic in my thoughts. So I’ll try to take you along with me. For a long while, I saw ‘leadership’ as ‘that thing that managers do’. People that provide a clear path forward, that give orders, that carry responsibility, that exercise control. In short, I imagined a leader as a general in an army.

In 2018 I attended a lecture series on Cultural Change at Nyenrode Business University. There, I saw a short video of Colin Powell, a former General in the US Army:

I extracted a few of his sentences:

Leadership comes down to creating conditions of trust within an organisation. […] Leaders take organisations past a level that the science of management says is possible. […] So the essence of leadership is doing all that the science of management says you can do with resources, and then taking it that extra step, giving it that spark. And that spark comes from getting people to trust you.

He emphasizes trust, and that is completely different from my own interpretation up to that point. Also, trust resonates with me, as you may remember from the Soul Searching episode on ‘values’. Reflecting back on the past, the following thoughts occur to me

  • ‘Leadership’ and ‘management of people’ are not the same thing.
  • I have no idea what leaders inspire me, and why. Does ‘trust’ play a role there too?
  • Sometimes, a form of leadership seems to be expected of me. But do I feel the need the develop a form of leadership? And what form would that be?
  • I do not want to become a ‘manager of people’ (at least, that’s what my gut is telling me).
  • I’m not so quick to accept somebody’s leadership anymore.
  • I seem to be looking for a group of trusted peers, rather than leaders.
  • ‘Trust’ and ‘inspiration’ seem to be what I look for in leaders.
  • There are multiple types of leadership.

I think it is wise to look into it a bit more. There is an abundance of research on leadership, just check out Wikipedia. Many sources claim to have ‘the X’ leadership styles, but I take that with a grain of salt. Here is a list of 15 types, for instance. Instead, let’s take two online tests, and reflect.

The first one is on Skillsyouneed.com. Filling out the form suggests that the best fit is the ‘coaching style’. “A coaching leader will develop people, allowing them to try different approaches in an open way. The phrase that sums up this style is ‘Try it’, and this leader shows high levels of empathy, self-awareness and skills in developing others. A coaching style is especially useful when an organisation values long-term staff development.”. Well, I can only agree with that. There are 4 styles that are fairly well developed, but need work: [1] Lead by example [2] Visionary leadership [3] ‘people come first’ leadership [4] Democratic leadership. The accompanying descriptions are recognizable for me. As expected, ‘coercive leadership’ is not my style.

The next one is at mindtools.com. After taking the quiz, it says the following: “Your default leadership style is probably delegating […]. You give your team members free rein in how they work toward their goals. This is an ideal approach when your people are highly skilled and motivated […]. But if a team member is inexperienced or untrustworthy, or if you lose sight of what’s going on, this approach can backfire catastrophically.” I recognize what they say, but I dislike the phrasing. I think it doesn’t emphasize enough that the essence of a ‘laissez faire’ approach is teaching team members to function by themselves. The ‘coaching’ way described above is a much better reflection I think.

So there is an emphasis on coaching in my leadership style, and that fits with what I have been doing/learning/trying in recent years. I just never considered it as a ‘leadership style’.

I edited the text above quite a lot in the second draft, because I noticed that I was unfairly negative about the role of ‘manager’ in the first draft. (Note that this is another example of me signalling an intense feeling for a topic, and taking the time to reflect on it). Over time, I think, I have come to associate the role of ‘manager’ with a person that is limiting my own autonomy. Somebody with power over me. And that strikes a nerve. Oddly, looking back at my past, I have never actually been managed in this way. I just sort of made it up along the way. I find this realization quite confronting, and I haven’t fully processed it yet.

On a positive note, I did decide to add the word ‘autonomy’ to my list values, so that is a valuable outcome from this exercise. During my sabbatical I interviewed several people about ‘leadership’. One person said that the three core responsibilities of a manager are to (1) inspire (2) motivate (3) support the people in a team. Another person phrased his enjoyment of being a manager as the ability to ‘amplify the voice of smart people’. That seems much closer to ‘leadership’ than the impressions I formed on my own.

Oh, and by the way, in past jobs I have never actually considered what kind of person would be my ideal manager, and what relationship I would like to have with that person. This is food for further thought for me, and perhaps it is something for you to consider as well.

A few final thoughts come to mind. For me, I think ‘leadership’ is a consequence of me being authentic. It is something that is organically growing. There are many ‘leadership’ courses available. Shall I take one? Also, some websites I read mention the idea of ‘switching leadership style’. For me, this feels wrong, because I have to behave in a way that is ‘not me’. But I have to admit that I have seen somebody with a different leadership style, and that worked really well in that particular situation. So different styles have value (of course), I think I just have to keep an eye on whether my own style is what is needed.

That’s it for this time. As always, if you have ideas or comments of feedback, feel free to add the below. Also, I’m open to connecting on LinkedIn, so feel free to do so. See you next time!