Leadership of People

Frederic Labarthe introduces the main ideas behind the Self Managing Leadership concept and how it relates to people’s leadership.

“Successful leaders do not compete, they create. Successful leaders do not control, they empower. Successful leaders do not force, they influence.” ~ Brian Bacon

The world in which we live today requires more from leaders than good management skills or cleverness at getting what they want.  With the increasing complexity of the work environment and with pressure building up at all levels of work and personal life, leaders have become critically dependent on their people. In a work environment where the majority of employees who shift to competitors do not leave the job but leave the manager, one of the fundamental abilities of a leader is his/her willingness to recognize and address the true needs of their people, to engage them in meaningful ways in order to allow them to secure their commitment and develop their potential.

What makes a good leader?

Leadership has nothing to do with position, name card: it is about getting people to ‘want’ to do what you ask them to do. It is about making them feel that the task is important. It is about good relationships and trust. People can be convinced by reason, motivated by personal interest; they can be forced, bribed or threatened to do things but the moment you remove the pressure, they forget about the quality of their job.

If you want your people to perform, you need to call upon a more emotional, a deeper personal dimensions and appeal to their values. The old method of the carrot and the stick doesn’t work in the long run. It does produce quick results but it promotes selfishness, irresponsibility and unhealthy competition. People just do what they are told to do, cannot take initiative and need constant supervision. They do the job because they have to do it, not because they want to. This is a fundamental difference.

People who want to do what they are asked to do usually excel and quality shoots up. But for this, people need to be moved, they need to be inspired. A leader needs to consider this emotional dimension of his job. Traditional management courses have over-emphasised numbers, analysis, brain work and learned, well rehearsed, ‘human’ skills. Most often, they only pay lip service to the human element – or human ‘resource’ as they respectfully call it. But you cannot treat people as you would treat a resource or a machine. People are something entirely different.

The people you are working with on a daily basis have a mind of their own, they have emotions, aspirations and apprehensions, they values which determine the direction of their life – those are the forces that ‘move’ them (the latin etymology of the word ‘emotion’ means ‘that which puts things in motion’ – what creates movement). So yes, leadership is the ability to set people in motion. It is the ability to engage, motivate, inspire and draw people around a common task and toward a common vision of the future. It is not just charisma but it has a lot to do with being capable to provide meaning as well as provide a sense of belonging, of affiliation, of trust.

What is leadership, really?

Leadership is like trust or love: it is not really something that can be taught. But yes, you can learn it, become better at it. Beyond the techniques, leadership is essentially an inner sense of what matters most, of what needs to be done, coupled to a strong commitment to make it happen. It has a lot to do with taking initiative. It is about envisioning the future, ‘seeing’ ‘what could be’, mapping the way to get there and involving people.

Good leadership happens when perceived needs are real, when there is a pragmatic strategy to meet them and when people come together around the task. People unify around a common sense of purpose, a compelling vision and shared values. People reveal their best when they feel they ‘belong’ in the team and their contributions are genuinely valued by the team and its leader. The most perfectly built team of ‘personalities’ will fail to deliver unless these factors are clearly communicated and demonstrated by the leader. On the other hand, I have often seen teams that everyone had dismissed as impossibly dysfunctional be completely transformed by an executive who can provide authentic and inspirational leadership.

How do you improve leadership capabilities?

Although some people are ‘born leaders’ whilst others reveal themselves at times of crisis, leadership can be learnt.

 But there is a simple secret that very few are aware of: the roots of leadership are not about how well you deal with others but rather how well you deal with yourself. This may sound like a paradox, but real leadership is not about others – it starts with yourself.

Authentic leadership starts with knowing who you are, what you are standing for, your values, and being confident and comfortable with that. Your thinking, your perception, your decision making abilities as well as your feelings, emotions and motives originate in your ‘self’. If you are well tuned into yourself, you will make the best use of your talents, manage disruptive influences and recognize the inner voice of reason, intuition and conscience which are behind sound decision making.

The confidence you need as an individual is a function of how well you know yourself. Self confidence is often nothing more than genuine, authentic, self awareness. When you know who you are, what you think and what are your priorities, you have little choice than ‘doing’ it.

Self awareness comprises two main areas: (i) knowing who you are, the constants in you, but also (ii) being aware of the way in which you get influenced by and react to external factors.

Self knowledge starts with knowing your strengths and specialities but also having a clear assessment of your weaknesses. Self awareness is a matter of remaining … we said it: aware.

The next essential element of great leadership is purpose. All great leaders have a stated sense of purpose, a mission if you like, a task they have set themselves to perform or achieve. Purpose is generally about making a positive difference to people’s life – it is most often related to a sense of service. Poor leadership motivates employees for money or incentives. Outstanding leadership works to express a passion and fulfill a heartfelt vision.

The last component of leadership is consistency. It is easy to have a passion, it is easy to dream the world but how much do we practically organize our life and work practices around those is what makes the difference. If an individual ask themselves the questions of identity, personal purpose and values and, if they are serious about it, they start radiating a different energy, they start to generate a sense of direction around which people tend to rally; they naturally start to become a leader. If they are already in position of leadership, they make an outstanding leader.

Can anyone do that?

Authentic leadership starts with self leadership. If you do not know what you want, you cannot inspire others. If you are not focused, you cannot focus others. If you cannot control your emotions and channel your energy in the right direction, you cannot expect others, those who you are meant to lead to do it. If there is no meaning into your life and work, you cannot expect people to find meaning in what you ask them to do.

We believe – and experience has taught us – that every human has, as part of their innate baggage, a specific purpose or mission in life: something they are meant to do. It is their talent, their speciality, their DNA if you want. It is unique for everyone.

What we have seen also is that, when encouraged to do so, people naturally care for values. It is when values are imposed form the outside by some authority that people resist values. When that authority themselves does not respect those values people become cynical about values. But when allowed to speak their heart, they reveal a heartfelt concern for values such as respect, trust, care and responsibility.

We have witnessed time and again how, when guided to identify their personal values at a deeper level than the surface likes and dislikes or cultural habits, people find, within themselves, the very values that society attempts – and often fails – to inculcate in them. When values are recognized within one’s own heart, there is no question of not implementing them simply because then people ‘want’ to behave ‘their’ values. So, yes, everyone can do it – if they want to.

What is Self Managing Leadership?

Self Managing Leadership is a step by step process of self exploration using the Strategic Focusing model of the Oxford Leadership Academy. The program was originally designed to help managers implement the changes they knew they had to do but could not do. They were highly qualified and successful professionals who had been through a change process and who knew what they were expected to do but they would not do it. The resistance was coming from habits of course but also from a lack of depth and personal meaning in recognizing why those new behaviours were needed. The understanding was there, but it was not owned. The great idea that made – and makes – SML was simple: applying to an individual the same process of change that you apply to an organization when you need to restructure it. When you look at it, an individual is as complex as an organization. You cannot shift its course by sending a few well formulated orders nor by merely working on the surface. To help an individual or an organization change, you need to help them understand the deeper forces at work, those undercurrents that gives them their direction – their habits, their identity, their culture. This is what Self Managing Leadership does. Self Managing leadership looks at the interpersonal dimension of leadership, the human component but it brings it to its core: consciousness. Everything we do in our life starts with consciousness. Everything starts with thoughts, imaginations, feelings, dreams. Everything starts with the way in which we perceive what is happening around us. In this context, effective leadership is essentially a process of consciousness: it is about right perception, right understanding, right decision followed by strong ethical commitment to finding the right way to implement those decisions. The program heavily emphasizes focus, values based decision making, proactivity and walking the talk – finding the resource and will to do what we know we have to do.

 Frederic Labarthe is SML facilitator and founder of the UNESCO Centre for International Education

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