Many of us can explain what makes a bad leader. But if asked to explain what makes great leaders, it seems much harder to defne. The qualities of a good leader seem somewhat more intangible, perhaps because they are less about individual qualities and more about a relationship with the world around them.
My late in life doctorate was in how successful leaders manage power which informed much of my book ’How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World’.
My new podcast series, The Power of Balance, discusses exactly this topic. It is a series about power, and why it, and more importantly, what we have learned to believe about our relationship with it, affects every aspect of our daily lives. I’ve spent most of my working life with power and leadership. I’m a coach-mentor of leaders, and I used to be a corporate leader at one stage.
Here you’ll find extracts from Episode One: Let’s Talk About Power.
What is power in regard to becoming an efficient leader?
We deal with and talk about power every day. Most of the time, it’s about power over, whether somebody or something has less or more power than we have. Whether the government has the power to arbitrarily lock us down, whether the boss has the power to force us to do something we don’t want to do.
But also those everyday incidents, like how you feel when an overly boisterous bunch of kids gets on your carriage on the train, or when a driver changes lane in front of you, without indicating. They’re all about power too.
And until we understand that, and until we understand our own assumptions about our own power, we’ll be half-blind in our relationships.
How does power affect how we view the world as leaders
Our ability to act, to do in the world, is regulated by what we have learned to assume is the nature of our relationship with our world. It’s a bit like ballroom dancers on a dance floor. Your ability to move is going to be affected by the number of other dancers on that floor.
If everyone is doing their bit and gliding around, then everything should go smoothly, and nobody bumps into anybody else. However, if you see one couple start to knock into other dancers, you might start getting a little alert and avoid them. But gradually, you notice that a lot of couples, the majority, in fact, are jostling and forcing the rest of you into a corner of the room.
You could assume that what’s happened is that a majority of dancers have decided to push the others into a corner of the room, deliberately, so that they have a bigger space or force the minority to dance badly for the judge’s sake. Or you could assume that the disruption happened when that original duo deliberately or accidentally bumped into another couple setting off a chain reaction that resulted in everybody being off-kilter.
In the first assumption, you’re fighting against a superior power, the majority. And the latter, you and your fellow dancers are in it together, you’re all out of balance. In the former, your choices are: you either have to get out of the room, or you push back, or you surrender.
Are leaders born or made?
I conducted an academic research study over four years, and then expanded it in my practice, as well as in my book How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World.
Very briefly, through their explorations and interactions with their parents, their families, peers, and communities children progressively build up a blanket assumption about how much space they can make for themselves. What they can and can’t do, in and with their world. In other words, they build up an assumption about the balance of power between themselves and their world.
Put very simplistically, they come to the conclusion along the spectrum that ranges from “whatever I do, my world always has the upper hand”, “I have less power than it has”, “I have no power all”, or right at the other end, “I can do what I want, I have more power than my world, I am all-powerful.”
Or “I can work with this world of mine, I can do business with it. And if I partner with it, we’re reasonably balanced.” There’s your spectrum.
And of course, they learn to behave differently according to that underlying assumption.
What are the qualities of a good leade
If your assumption tells you that you will always lose against the world, then you’re either going to try and beat it or surrender, or even avoid it altogether. If you believe that you can do anything you like, you will eventually discover that to be untrue. The world will inevitably in the form of someone or something get in your way.
But of course, your assumption will still insist that you really do have more power and that the blockage is an anomaly.
So, where your assumption is that you and the world have a reasonable power balance, you’ll know that the best way to behave is to partner with it, work with it, these are true leadership skills. Anything else would be a waste of time and energy. Why would I oppose it or manipulate it when I can just work with it? And, in fact, the combination may be even more powerful.
Can our perception of the world make us better leaders?
Einstein is reputed to have said later in his life, I think the most important question facing humanity is, “is the universe a friendly place?” This, he said, is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.
Why did he think that?
I believe because if the universe is your opponent, you will build up defenses and weapons to control it or keep it at bay, and eventually, you will destroy it and it you. And if you think it’s friendly, your partner, you will work to preserve it, so that you can flourish together.
So in this series, I’ll be talking about how our assumptions of the balance of power between us and our world affects all our relationships. My purpose is not to uncover old bones but to hopefully help us all to find ways to better manage ourselves in our world. At work, in the family at the polling booth, in hospital, at the supermarket, or when we ourselves have power because here’s the good news, those assumptions are learned and what is learned can be unlearned.
I’ll be drawing on much of my own research, as well as the book that I’ve written on the subject but I will also be talking to others. Leaders, writers, victims, and victimizers and I will ask all of them the same opening question
“For you, is your universe friendly?”