The last twenty months has possibly redefined what we will mean by the “roaring twenties”. This rollercoaster ride, while showing signs of slowing, has nevertheless left an indelible mark on an entire generation. As with any serious trauma, when we’re pushed to our limits, beyond the pain and suffering, we are often rewarded with some measure of insight and growth. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, said Nietzsche, a man whose mustache exuded a confidence his body could not back up. He died following a complete mental collapse, ushering in, perhaps ironically, an interesting debate between anabolic and catabolic processes and the insight gleamed therein.
Nietzsche aside, I do believe this dynamism is precisely what defines us. Each of us experiences hardships, and we suffer to some extent from that conflict. The Buddha went so far as to establish that life is in fact inextricably tied to suffering—suffering is foundational, from which we eke out moments of happiness that are all too fleeting. Besides being great at children’s parties, he ultimately established a positive way to relate to this fundamental truth by recasting how we experience struggle itself. His answer was that our attachment to the way things are—in essence, our reluctance to accept change—impedes our happiness, creating suffering from struggle, as life inevitably rolls onward despite our best efforts to the contrary. Roll with it, and life becomes a rich and fascinating tapestry. Resist it and you end up in a Bruce Springsteen song, reliving high school glory days over more than a few pitchers of beer.
I like to believe little imagination is necessary to consider how bland life would be if nothing changed. For example, if our team always won, if games were absent the drama that uncertainty breeds, we would quickly tire of them—despite what Kentucky basketball fans believe. Struggle. Challenge. Winning and losing. The dance of the Tao! This is the very ground of existence. So what does it have to do with leadership development?
Turns out, it has lots to do with development (in fact, it has lots to do with everything; it’s the ground of existence, remember?). But having dragged this out like a Rolling Stones farewell tour, let me get to the point. There are three very clear connections I can make that deserve your consideration.
Good leaders know when to let go and roll with it. Despite the best strategic plan, there are times when winning just isn’t in the cards—like Jett’s football or the Libertarian ticket. Not only do good leaders know that sometimes our plans don’t work out, they also appreciate that fresh opportunity can emerge from a strategy gone wrong. They plan and execute, but don’t cling to the result. If the game board shifts, they shift with it, often discovering improved results from an outcome that didn’t go exactly according to plan.
Consider the last twenty months. No one fully understood the long-term implications of the COVID epidemic at the start of 2020. Remember: we were simply going to reboot after two weeks and life would go back to normal, the equivalent of checking America into a rehab facility. As leaders grappled with the ever-shifting landscape, they came face-to-face with the very reality of the Buddha’s message: we suffer because things change and we don’t change with them.
The organizations that reported the most success handling the pandemic were those who rapidly adapted both business and people strategy, shifting goals even as they shifted people to remote work. American history is pockmarked by the demographic shifts that the industrial revolution unleashed. Like the Great Depression, COVID may have added to this, dispersing employment after decades of consolidation, and establishing, in its wake, both new challenges and new ways to define workspace, work collaboration, work relationships and even work-life balance. The more rapidly leaders understood this development, the more rapidly they responded to—and ameliorated—the impact of the COVID shutdown.
How will leaders continue to adjust to this burgeoning reality? Good leaders will continue to innovate, questioning the emerging status quo and looking for further ways to exploit new opportunities. New technologies will certainly emerge, but, perhaps more importantly, will the be the race to embrace these new categories of work, workspace and work effort. Leaders that acknowledge this shift is already happening are more likely to attract and retain talent in a rapidly accelerating talent marketplace.
Ultimately, the history of the times will be written long after successful leaders have transformed the landscape. Do you want to be a pioneer or a settler?
Good leaders understand that evolution is on-going. Like sharks, or contestants on Dancing with the Stars, we need to keep moving, to keep developing. The status quo is reserved for the DMV and Simon Cowell’s hair color. Intellectual curiosity married to a strong commitment to self-improvement creates leaders that both recognize the need and actively pursue growth and development. Implicit in this is a belief that we always have more to learn and blind spots to address. With the exception of spiders, and rich men in space, is there anything more off-putting than that brand of arrogance attached to the “know-it-all”?
Advances in neuroscience conclude that neuroplasticity is a real thing! The brain can, and to varying degrees does, change over time. This can be accelerated in the wake of serious illness, trauma, or if we elect to take on a drinking regimen like Don Draper from Mad Men. But a meditative practice, psychotherapy and countless other developmental efforts can also create shifts in our brain chemistry and resultant behavior long-term. Beyond this, each of us learns to adapt as we mature—some more gracefully than others. And here’s the point: a good leader continues to develop themselves: both from the perspective of pursuing self-development and stretching those little neurons through positive stress; and they learn to adapt and better accommodate a range of responses that may not come naturally to them.
The seed of self-awareness watered regularly through self-development and an honest accounting of who we are, sprouts to become the mighty oak in time. Aim to be a tree; not a weed.
Lastly, good leaders are OK with admitting they don’t have all of the answers. In fact, really good leaders might even admit—in moments of honest self-reflection—that they don’t know exactly what they’re doing! They may even have moments they feel a bit like a fraud, play-acting in a role they don’t fully understand or yet have confidence to really embody.
Those moments tell us a lot about an individual: what response does that feeling illicit? A strained bravado that thinly covers a crippling insecurity? A desire to simply flee, or bury our head deep in the sand and hope everything turns out all right? Or an honest admission that we need some help? Whatever the response, it’s likely to become a habit. So the quicker we are able to cultivate that self-awareness and nurture a more thoughtful response, the better chance we stand to improve our performance and not alienate ourselves from our peers and direct reports in the process.
The Buddha not withstanding, I would like to think it goes without saying that no one has all of the answers; that we each need time to develop and grow in our self-understanding and our capacity to lead effectively. Being honest with ourselves about this and taking steps to grow that self-understanding is part of a true leader’s journey, and may, in the most basic sense, actually define just what exactly makes someone a good leader.
Taken together there is a path that runs here: from our willingness to admit we don’t have all of the answers; to pursuing our development and challenging ourselves to grow so that we capture more of those answers; to rolling with the tough breaks and realizing that our loses are just one more part of the journey toward a greater understanding. This is the leader’s journey; the path a serious leader takes. And the stress and struggle that comprises that path are the very ingredients they use to walk it, as well as the measure of their accomplishment.
In closing, I would leave you with a final piece of wisdom from the Buddhist canon. In nearly every Buddhist temple the world over, two guardians stand watch before the inner sanctum. These guardians represent the three impediments that prevent us from true insight and freedom—what we must overcome in order to reach awakening. Those guardians are fear and desire, and, collectively, the ignorance that prevents us from seeing these impediments for what they truly are. Fear and desire can cause a lot of problems for us, particularly when we lack an understanding of how to work with these all-to-human impediments.
Coming to terms with our fears and our habitual attachments is part of the long road to true self-awareness. You can’t ignore or avoid them; nor can you simply dismiss them. You have to wade into those waters, accept and work with your fear and attachments, before you can hope to move beyond them to reach that other shore. It takes courage and a lot of self-awareness. But the result is a better version of you; and a you that can be of much greater service to others. It’s the journey a leader has to make if they want to be worthy of that title and carve a truly unique path for themselves, instead of following the well-worn path others have walked.
Namaste my friends. Namaste.