Reimagining Leadership in Complex Times

Learning leadership from the inside out

This article was originally published in Financial Times.

Leadership needs a serious overhaul. The collapse of SVB and Credit Suisse, the implosion of Boris Johnson’s government, Facebook’s struggles and Elon Musk’s stumbles at Twitter all point to how embattled seemingly confident and experienced executives and leaders can become in stewarding their organisations in complex times.

As leaders are thrust into rapidly shifting conditions, it can feel that they must be everything, everywhere, all at once. Experts promote one new “muscle” after another to help them rise to the challenge — such as empathy, empowerment, psychological safety, purpose, the growth mindset or inclusion. But there is no silver bullet.

Over the past 15 years, my team has built a database of more than 1,000 moments of exemplary leadership — when iconic leaders and unsung executives achieved unexpected positive outcomes. These micro-interactions, typically lasting a few seconds or minutes, put their behaviour to the test and show the need to reframe the discipline of leadership, reconstruct its anatomy and redesign its teaching.

First, how to reframe leadership? In 2008, Roger was working at a large bank when the crisis hit. As the expert on a niche banking function, he was invited to an emergency meeting with top executives, to determine how cash balances should be managed to save the bank. New to the sector, he could not understand much of what was being discussed, and was confused about why he had been invited.

His boss’s boss asked him a simple question, to get him in the game. Feeling more confident, Roger was comfortable to speak up and correct a misstep. They were scrutinising a spreadsheet that modelled aggregate balances rather than the cash flow that would determine its ability to survive. Within a few years, he rose to the C-suite.

Roger’s story shows the importance in fast-moving conditions of drawing on diverse voices to stay vigilant, drive breakthroughs and make corrections. You do so by creating a culture in which leadership is embraced as an inner choice, not bestowed by an organisation. Leadership means bringing out the best in yourself and others for a common purpose.

Second, how do we reconstruct the anatomy of leadership? Leadership has long been seen as a set of competencies to be mastered. But many exemplary leaders had little training in anything. Abraham Lincoln had a year of schooling, Mother Teresa and Eleanor Roosevelt never went to college, while Steve Jobs was a college dropout. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were, by their own admission, poor students.

How did these ordinary people become extraordinary leaders? They took simple actions in pursuit of their goals, such as showing appreciation of an opponent to help open up their hearts, fusing opposing ideas to build a bridge, or shifting their thoughts and feelings to establish a positive intention for a crucial conversation. These actions were all focused on activating a high-performance state within themselves and others.

Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown our thoughts and emotions are states, not traits. Cognitive psychologists find that when we recentre ourselves from within, we reason, relate, react and rebound better. Mindfulness and meditation show we can all activate a state of improved creativity and open-mindedness. Within each of us lies our “inner core”: a space from where our best self arises.

To activate the core in themselves and others, exemplary leaders tap into five core energies: purpose (commitment to a cause); wisdom (calm, receptive to truth); growth (curious, open to growing); love (connected with their team and those they serve); and self-realisation (centred in a joyful spirit).

When executives take stewardship of their inner state and help their team do the same, insecurities, habits and ego fall away and breakthrough performance can arise. They can do so with small actions to activate one of the five core energies — for example, taking people on an inspired hero’s journey; dialling down or redirecting a negative emotion; acknowledging a stumble; or apologising and adjusting.

The anatomy of great leadership is not about mastering predetermined behaviours, but building resonance in a team by taking people to their inner core. The right behaviour follows, as members respond to unfolding conditions. This is a big shift for executives schooled in the old ways. But mastery of the inner state allows ordinary people untutored in the formal craft of leadership to become extraordinary.

Third, how do we redesign leadership teaching? People are more likely to gain mastery when guided to solve a problem in ways they can quickly apply in practice. We teach executives to pause briefly before high-stakes events to shift into their inner core and consider how they will help others to do so. They create a positive intention, recentre themselves and visualise small actions to use in a meeting to activate the right energy and pursue their goal. Executives who do this report a threefold gain in their ability to meet their goal, and in how favourably others respond.

To develop a new generation of leaders, we should not keep adding new arrows to executives’ quivers while far from the battlefield. We should instead guide them on how to hold the bow steady and concentrate on the target in front of them, right in the midst of battle.

This article was originally published in Financial Times.