leaders blinded by their own light

Did Icarus die because of his joy of flying or because of his triumphalism? Did the sun melt his wings because of his immersion in the exuberance of flight or because of his high fiving, fist bumping, “nothing can stop me now” exhilaration? If it had been purely the joy of flying, his senses would have been wide open and alert to everything around him, including any signs of danger. Whereas, if nothing ‘could stop him now’, then why be alert to anything?

Hubris, it appears, has one severe disadvantage: it makes you blind.

The word hubris  was first used, we think, by Aristotle who talked of it as being the abuse of power over others: where one who has been favoured by fortune then proceeds to abuse the less favoured. It went on to be seen as testing oneself against the gods – which they, in their jealousy, then stamped on very promptly indeed.

But what’s wrong with continuously testing the limits? We do it all the time. We’re just about to discover the ‘God particle’; the first trace of matter (first, that is, until we predict another elementary particle) and we now can capture images with shutter speeds equal to that of light. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. Nothing at all. Long may we continue to learn and re-discover our universe.

The danger comes when we think that we can do it all ourselves; that our achievements are solely our own; that nothing can stop us now. Because that’s when we stop looking around us. That’s when we’re blinded – by our own light.

Everything we do, everything we know, started before us and will continue after we have gone. The knowledge that Stephen Hawking,  Albert Einstein, Francis Crick and Plato had was built on the shoulders of those who came before them and served as the base for the knowledge that came afterwards. Yes, Archimedes put together all his learning and skill to come up with the measurement of mass – but he was helped by where he was: by the fact that he was getting into the bath. There’s nothing mystical or magical about it: he was getting into a bath, saw how his body displaced its equivalent in water, put two and two together and came up with 64,000. And what did he say? “Eureka”! Not “I found it”, as we tend to translate it nowadays but “I am in a state of having found it”.

So what produced the discovery? His being in a state to discover; his alertness to discovery. Yes, his unique skill played a great role but only in combination with the learning that had disciplined and enriched him; the experience that had shaped and given him confidence; and the context and circumstances within which he was now acting. An absence of any one of those factors (and a few hundred more) could have stopped him from jumping up stark naked and yelling his discovery to his neighbours.

Great ‘innovators’ all seem to have one thing in common: they all acknowledge their debt to those who came before them and their links with the world around them. Those who claim they are uniquely responsible for a discovery or even success are at best deceiving themselves and at worst lying.

Either way, they have made themselves blind and risk burning off their wings.

I used to think that the antidote to the hubris virus was balance: not too much joy at success; not too much misery at failure.  What my teachers would have called “good taste”. And then I noticed that I could still be  very smug  indeed while acting with extraordinary decorum.If hubris is a state of unsustainable triumphalism, then how do I keep myself open to the possibility of sustainable discovery and achievement?  I suspect, it does entail a sort of balance but it has less to do with control and more with awareness: awareness of the balance of all the contributors to ‘my’ success.

It is a balance between being totally aware of where I am and what I want to change. It is being in a state of awareness and discovery.

If Icarus had been in that state of awareness and discovery, he would have been able to find the ideal temperature  and altitude for the easiest, safest flight.

How does this apply to leadership?  Some years ago I started advocating a principle called “Leadership from the Centre”: the idea that leaders  are most effective when they are at the centre of a network  from which they are able to have clear access to a wide range of  stakeholders. Equally, they are accessible and visible to the challenges of  those stakeholders. It is, in essence a model for trying to maintain this balance of awareness and discovery. This is not a leader on a white charger who makes all the decisions himself or even with a small cabal of advisors. With this leadership model, decisions are made through intense awareness of the context: through scenario planning, testing or just listening. Each movement  is felt throughout the network as is each success or failure.

I first thought about it when  many of my clients fretted that they were missing some pretty important, if not vital, things going on in their organisations. These were mostly thought of as “strong” individuals who were seen to be leading from the front; a characteristic much treasured by television programmes and some corporations. My question was: if you are leading from the front, pulling the organisation along, how do you know what’s going on behind you?  Or  -as I said earlier in this reflection – you may be putting yourself in a state of discovery (of the future) but what about your state of awareness ( of the present)? How do you know- for example – whether your followers agree with what you’re doing – and that they are not sabotaging you? How do you know that what you’re doing for the organisation actually is good for it?  Are you flying too close to the sun because you’re dazzled by your own light?

It all boils down to one core question: “How, as a leader, do I make sure that I am continuously reminded to be in a state of awareness and discovery? What structures and processes do I need to set up? What relationships do I need to develop? What behaviour do I need to display so that my stakeholders  can not only  challenge me but see it as their duty to do so? And how do I make sure that I  and the organisation keep learning?  Finally, to return to the ancient Greeks, how do I, like the craftiest of all leaders Odysseus, make sure that when the sirens of hubris start singing their irresistible song, I am stopped from following them onto the rocks?

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