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Disinterested leaders: Consider what you’re missing

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.”
—Bertrand Russell

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
—Mark Twain

I’m writing this column for the disinterested majority.

This is not a slam; it’s just respecting what is.

A seasoned leader in longtime recovery from alcoholism recently told me that the majority of people who attend AA meetings just want to stop drinking and are not interested in a thorough reckoning with their character flaws through the Twelve Steps. He says studies of the AA program indicate only 7 percent of those attending such meetings thoroughly complete the Twelve Steps.

That rang a bell for me. I believe the majority of leaders—those who head professional, family-owned or not-for-profit companies, public institutions and government offices—are too busy thinking about money, regulations, professional accomplishments and status preservation to work seriously at strengthening their relationships on the job and at home.

The plain reality is that most leaders are not interested in the hard work of leadership improvement. I get that, and I accept that we live in a society where most people are “caught up and rushing,” as opposed to “grounded and balanced.”

For most of my career, I’ve shunned the disinterested majority, thinking, “Why should I favor the unmotivated when the motivated are ready and willing?” I’m still in that camp, but I’ve softened a bit.

What gives me pause is the possibility that the disinterested majority might not know what they are missing. They might not know about the idea expansion and stress regulation, as well as the family and business advantages, that emanate from a leader’s focus on self. Maybe ignorance keeps them disinterested; in that case, perhaps a brief summary of the main benefits of leadership development, as I understand it, would prove enlightening.

A leader who engages in a serious leadership development effort should expect certain outcomes from that investment of time and money. Eight benefits can be reasonably anticipated from a high-caliber improvement program.

1. Examination of and increased knowledge about self: Self-awareness can be deepened by soliciting feedback about how one is perceived and by reflecting in a structured way about that feedback. Feedback is solicited from the boss, direct reports, peers, siblings, spouse and children. The feedback is typically a mix of flattering and unflattering perceptions of the leader, from those who know the leader well. Leaders receive instruction on how to hear unflattering feedback in a non-defensive manner. The feedback is sifted, and patterns are identified. The leader selects a coach or colleague with whom the feedback can be reviewed, and an improvement plan is designed.

2. Stronger connection with important others, at work and at home: Establishing a stronger connection with one’s immediate and extended family and with one’s key work associates sets the stage for better collaboration and less drama. Leaders learn one-on-one connection strategies, customized to the specifics of each relationship. Learners are invited to develop flexibility and skill at self-disclosure, listening, empathy, genuine curiosity and challenge.

3. Reduced over-functioning: Many people in positions of responsibility end up doing too much for too many. In the process, they unwittingly teach their partners, children and employees to be helpless, dependent and self-doubting. To reduce this tendency, leaders learn and adapt approaches that permit others the freedom to experiment, think, make mistakes, learn from mistakes and grow in confidence.

4. Lower anxiety: When anxiety is high in a family or business, relationship problems are never far behind. High-quality leadership development programs help leaders focus not on their problems but on their responses to their problems, not on the people who bother them but on their responses to the people who bother them. For most leaders, this simple but difficult shift, away from blame and toward response-ability, calms down their own anxiety and helps the group function with greater focus.

5. A wider and more accurate view of persistent problems: Leadership myopia, a narrow view of what is really going on, poses a continual threat to the well-being of groups and their leaders. Developing the ability to see the wider reality of problems and to investigate context before reaching conclusions, helps transform compulsive doers into systems thinkers. This important skill discourages blame and helps leaders consider the part they play in the family and work challenges they face.

6. More confidence: One can discuss the importance of confidence all day long and can nervously praise others in an effort to instill self-esteem. But the most reliable predictor of confidence is a level of success at any given task or goal. High-quality leadership improvement programs include building practical skills in relationship management, coaching and decision-making. These skills cannot be learned from books alone. Experienced supervision of skill building provides on-the-spot feedback to accelerate the learning curve. Confidence becomes the natural outgrowth of “knowing I can do it.”

7. More poise, less reactivity in relationships: Poise enables a leader to thoughtfully observe what is really going on in a relationship, including his or her own part, without overreacting. Calm leaders are able to see that many individuals—not just one—typically contribute to a problem. Poise enables a leader to think through how to respond to any crisis or problem. The beauty is that a leader’s poise is a lifelong competence that can be applied at work, at home and with extended family and friends.

8. Greater humility, less arrogance: Most leaders I know spend their days deciding, directing and controlling. With few exceptions, we believe we are indispensable, even when we say we are not. The best leadership programs introduce perspective and rigorous self-honesty into the learning process. These dimensions enable in-charge individuals to reduce self-importance and increase awe, gratitude and healthy smallness. That’s often a life-changing shift.

So to the disinterested majority I offer this invitation: When you apply the above items to yourself, what jumps out? And most importantly, what are you going to do about it?

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]

3/21/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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