Did the leadership experts get it all wrong? Have we been following the wrong advice?
It’s Monday morning; you are about to go to a meeting you would rather not attend. You know there is little you can contribute, and you are feeling despondent because the meeting will be a bore.
One hour has passed and the meeting is now over. You leave the room with a deep sense of curiosity and somewhat baffled by what just happened. The content was alien to you, and yet, you felt attracted to the conversation, engaged and energised. And you wondered why...
A similar experience started me on a journey that eventually led to the creation of Essence Leadership, a simplified way of looking at leadership to help people become better leaders.
It is confusing
In search for answers for about two years, I ploughed through research on followership, leadership, management and communication. The more I read, the more my head was spinning. The more my head was spinning, the more I started to believe the experts had got it all wrong.
“How presumptuous of me,” I thought, “The experts could not have it all wrong”. I stayed curious and continued exploring.
I talked to experts, friends and colleagues. I watched hours of interviews and presentations. I read books and articles by the most reputable authors and publishers. But I could not find the answers I was looking for.
I came across a book, “Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership”. I thought, if I were ever going to find answers, it would be here. I was familiar with some of the articles, but decided to re-read them together with the new ones. My thirst was not quenched – I was still confused.
It also dawned on me that there was a pattern in the questions leaders had been asking me during our work: “Am I a leader?”, “How can I be a better leader?”, “Am I a leader or a manager?” and “How do I become a better leader?”
They were as confused as I had become.
There were so many versions of the “truth” and none was getting me any closer to understanding what happened on that Monday morning.
Let me give you a taste.
Many books and articles purport to provide the definitive leadership “recipe”:
- “You do these four things, you’ll be a great leader.”
- “You embody these three values and people will follow you naturally.”
- “You practice these five skills and you will inspire your followers.”
Some of these famous “ingredients” include: self-awareness, empathy, setting a strategy, aligning people, “getting on the balcony”, regulating distress, becoming a “sensor”, daring to be different, solving problems, supporting others, trust, compassion, authenticity... Where do you start?
Imagine, you are an individual running your own business and you want to take things to the next level – you want to be a better leader. You read the papers, you read the books, you even attend renowned leadership development programmes… but you are still none the wiser. What should you focus on? Is it your self-awareness? Is it your communication skills? Influencing perhaps? Maybe you should dare to be different.
Imagine you are now an HR professional and perhaps, you are responsible for leadership in your organisation. How do you define leadership? Has the company created its own version? Has it adopted the themes from one of the famous models? Maybe the Leadership Pipeline, by Ram Charan or Authentic Leadership by Bill George. Maybe you went for Servant Leadership, by Robert Greenleaf. Whatever the case, how will you make this unique to your company to help it deliver on its specific aspirations?
Furthermore, how do you approach leadership development? Do you focus on purpose, strategy or interpersonal skills? Presence? Values? Whatever the approach, how are these helping your employees find their unique and most powerful expression of leadership?
The research helped me conclude that the confusion was widespread. The experts failed to work from an agreed definition of leadership. And leadership was transformed into something reserved for the great leaders who make it into the history, sport and business books.
Essence Leadership is the synthesis of my research and experiences of working with leaders for over 15 years. It simplifies leadership and helps people become better leaders.
I use the word ‘Essence’ with two meanings. The first is as in “the essence of leadership”; the second as from its Latin root, essentia, which means “being”. Within these two meanings also lie the contributions of this new leadership model: first, a foundation definition of leadership; second, some pointers on where to begin your leadership journey.
The Essence of Leadership can be described by three variables: You, audience and interaction.
“You” refers to any individual or collective that has something personal and specific to bring to life. “Audience” refers to the context you occupy and the people within it who have the potential to become followers. “Interaction” refers to the tools, skills and actions you use to bring yourself and your audience on the same journey.
After much reading, exploring and thinking, I arrived at a synthesis of leadership with which I could explain every example of leadership I came across. In every case, leadership emerged from the meaningful interaction between an individual who had something to bring to life, and an audience that had the potential to become followers.
Many of the words in this last sentence deserve special attention, in particular the word “meaningful”.
Meaning is the connecting force between the leader and their audience and it is created when the message the leader sends matches the meaning the audience is looking for. A bit like two adjacent pieces of a puzzle; they are made for each other, but none will be complete until they find each other and join in union.
A couple of examples will help explain.
Think of Lee Kuan Yew within the Essence Leadership model. He meaningfully interacted with his “audience” (Singapore and Singaporeans) to bring to life his very deep and personal desire for an independent and successful Singapore. And here we are today having celebrated SG50 and the great Singapore story.
Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” He had the specific and very personal desire to create quality products that people didn’t even know could exist. He was able to meaningfully connect with masses around the world and revolutionised several industries in the process.
These are just two of many examples – others include: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, David Beckham, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Richard Branson, Madonna, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill, Michael Jordan, The Beatles, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, and Marie Curie. In sport, politics, technology, arts, entertainment, music and science; in every field, they are individuals with a personal, specific desire to bring something to life that meaningfully connected with their audiences and inspired them to join the journey. In their unique ways, each is a genuine example of leadership.
Satisfied that I found a model to consistently describe leadership, I wondered what made these individuals great leaders. I asked myself: “Which of the three variables is mainly responsible for leadership?”
It clearly cannot be “audience” or “interaction”, they were different for each individual. It had to be the “you”. But what about the ‘you’ made these individuals so special?
I eventually realised that their leadership came from what I call their “essence”. Their leadership journeys begun from their “being”. Essence is the all-encompassing place where their truth resided, where the fire of their being raged; where their values, beliefs, experiences, fears, emotions and aspirations came together. Essence is the place where the body, the mind, the spirit, the emotions and all other dimensions of the human condition come together in a unique combination. It is from “essence” that the specific, personal passion, purpose, mission, desires and aspirations emerge. Being connected to their “essence” compelled them to act the way they did.
Like these great leaders, when you connect with and ‘be’ from your essence, you are magnetic, sexy, engaging, and compelling; those around you are likely to see you under a special light and among them, those who connect with your essence will feel compelled to listen and perhaps join your journey.
You recognise these kinds of leaders when you are in their presence. The congruence with which they show up in the world is so strong that their whole being acts as a gravitational force that pulls you in.
My final quest was on application. I was now able to describe each leadership case through my model. But what does it mean in practice? How do I help individuals and organisations to be and to grow as better leaders?
After more thinking and research, I realised that Essence Leadership could be applied to work with individuals, organisations and educators.
Let’s review a case study as an example of how Essence Leadership can be used in coaching. Mark (name changed to preserve confidentiality), an entrepreneur running his large media business, expressed the desire to feel the fun he once used to have. His business was performing well and his employees were loyal, motivated and engaged. Mark, in his own words, “had nothing to complain about, but it just didn’t feel the same anymore”.
Over a few one-to-one sessions, we conducted a series of exercises to establish which of the three variables in the Essence Leadership model called for the most attention. We explored “audience” and confirmed that his business had a good team and together, they had created a healthy context. Mark’s employees were running the business effectively, and had potential to grow. “Audience” was not Mark’s concern.
We explored “interaction” and realised that Mark was applying his skills and the tools at his disposal very effectively. Over the years, he was able to meaningfully connect with his employees, clearly communicate his vision, and grow his business despite the recent, global financial crisis. “Interaction” was not Mark’s concern either.
According to the Essence Leadership model, there was only one more area to explore. We conducted a series of exercises to reconnect to the present moment and to Mark’s essence. We explored how the sense of fun was not being fulfilled. We came to realise that Mark’s entrepreneurial spirit was not being titillated enough; he had become bored. We spent our final session working on options and Mark realised there were ideas he was keen to test to expand the offering of his business.
I heard back from Mark after some time and learnt that he had started three small projects with his team. Mark felt his creative juices were once again flowing and, for the time being, was satisfied with his sense of excitement and fun.
Similar processes of enquiry can be used with organisations that are looking to define their leadership philosophies to identify, select and develop leaders.
Essence Leadership can function as the foundation framework from which to enquire about, design and develop one-to-one interventions, as well as the leadership proposition for an organisation and much more.
My journey had ended – at least for now – and I felt relieved at the realisation that the experts did not get it wrong after all. Their research is useful, valid and relevant. Not as a foundation definition from which to inform the leadership debate, but as a guide to build upon the Essence Leadership enquiries.
Eventually, it dawned on me. The reason I felt so drawn into that Monday morning conversation was because the chair of the meeting was speaking from his own essence. I was drawn by his energy and his energy gave me life: it motivated me; it engaged me; and it made me curious. Have you come across people like that? Are you one of those leaders?