I have been a corporate leader for many years. Later in life, I decided to undertake a doctorate on the subject of power and leadership. This led to me putting my years of research into writing my book: How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World.
So, what exactly does this phrase mean, how successful leaders do business with their world? In the third episode of my podcast series the Balance of Power you can listen to an extract from the introduction of my book. It explains how I came to write my book and study this subject. Here, I’ll share some of the topics the book covers, and how you can use this book. Not only to become a more effective leader but do a better job developing future leaders.
Challenging the key assumptions of what makes a good leader
The key question I was chewing on was around assumptions. Was it assumptions about the world that made certain leaders behave in a certain way or make certain choices? Or was it really what so many coaches and recruiters seem to be focusing on. Leadership style, leadership behaviours, and outcomes. What we see those leaders doing, rather than what drives them to do, or even what they intend to do.
How I chose which leaders to interview for How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World
If you want to try and find out somebody’s assumptions, you need that person to be able to reveal something of themselves. Their view of the world, honestly and safely. If you want to find out about somebody’s leadership, style and behaviour… It simply needs you to observe and assess their conduct and their impact. It tells you nothing about the experience, the motivations, the priorities of the leader herself.
As I went on to develop my coaching practice, I suspected that this was a huge gap. Why? Because as I say in the book, by understanding what our current and future leaders at their core feel about their world, and about their ability to do or not do in the world, we begin to understand how they feel about us, and what they will do to us with their power once they have taken office. And it’s not just a one-way street.
Finding out what makes a successful leader by not talking about success
To give one’s life some form of coherence, I wanted to make sure that those I interviewed didn’t feel that they had to defend, justify, or even make sense of anything publicly. And less by design than by sheer good fortune, I helped that process by not asking them to tell me about what had made them successful. I simply wanted to know about their experiences, and what they went through while they were leaders. That was my intention.
In their telling, however, they steered me one by one, and much to my surprise, to their childhoods. And that, in turn, opened up the doors to what I called their navigational stance. Their entry point into dealing with their world, based on what they’d learned to assume was their level of power, vis-à-vis that of their world.
And from there, I could build a model, a theory, about what objectively successful leaders had in common as far as their navigational stance was concerned, and what other assumptions, or worldviews, they had formed as a result. The book expands on that initial research. Both with further investigation, but also with how I use that model in my own practice.
The face of future successful leaders, and how we can develop, or hinder, them
There are three elements that as parents and educators we can influence. The first is space, we can provide a space which is relatively safe from abuse from those with greater power. The second: dealing with problems. We can stop protecting our children from problems and make sure that they see them as normal world-things rather than crises. And the third is learning by experience. We can give our children space both to understand and experience that problems, like life itself, can only be managed by being faced and tackled.
We need to enable our children to learn to experience managing their world. A world where obstacles and problems are normal and not specifically designed to frustrate their uniquely unencumbered path to success. All we can do as parents is ensure, like lionesses, our offspring have the space to explore without invasion by hyenas… And if at all possible, without falling off a cliff.
Those of us born in the 1950s, particularly in the middle classes, are responsible for a space distorting shift. Baby Boomers had to fit in around the rest of the family but when it came to raising their own children, they put them right in the centre. The family revolved and still revolves around the children.
They have little room to develop their own relationship with the world in which they can manage problems without the smothering benevolence of their parents. We may not rule quite as openly as our parents did, but that’s only because we have robbed our children of the ability to be responsible for themselves. We may say to our children, my darling, you’re special, you can be whatever you want, as long as you’re happy. But make no mistake, they feel our disappointment when their chosen career or even ballet class is not special enough.
And if they persist and choose their own path… They will always worry that they did not measure up to our standards of specialness. When problems do arise, they are seen as abnormal, or even crises, which by their nature trigger alarm and anxiety. Alarm, in turn, suppresses rational thought in favour of the faster fight or flight response. They may become very good at fighting or avoiding their world. But, not so good at living in, and with, it.
How fight or flight can lead to success
Ironically, a byproduct of this fight or flight may be very good news for our society. The generation of children born after 2000 has quickly become alert and alarmed at real crises. And, they have become sceptical enough of their own elder’s filters to push back.
A glowing example of this is the global climate change movement “Friday’s for Future”. It began with solitary protests in 2018 by the then 14-year-old Greta Thunberg in Sweden. This movement now includes millions of children throughout the world. At the time of writing, they strike every Friday from their schools to force their elder’s attention onto climate change. They do this consistently and peacefully every week. In the face of open bullying and abuse from political, and corporate leaders, and many media commentators.
If this book does its job, it should say something to all of us, whether at work or in our families. But because I believe that our leaders have such a significant impact on us, particularly in times of crisis, much of the book is focused on helping us change what I believe is a flawed, if not a broken, model, about how we choose our leaders, how we develop them, and how we manage them while they are in power.