Leadership is a journey into self. It involves understanding the patterns of power that every human being is able to access — and learning how to deploy that power to best effect.
We might define a good leader as someone who has mastered their power and knows how to direct it so that it is additive to their team, their business and the wider world. By way of contrast, an underperforming leader is someone who misunderstands, misdirects or maliciously deploys their power. Poor leadership rarely delivers brilliant long-term results.
All of us fall short of our potential as leaders at times. But this is no excuse for being unwilling to stare our problems in the face. Here are three of the most common — and challenging — issues that leaders face on their journey to excellence.
1. ‘Trust me, that’s all you need to know’ — the candour problem
There is a big difference between the leader who is doing his best to engage openly and honestly with his colleagues or shareholders, and one who is manipulating, distorting or withholding key information in order to try and create a desired outcome.
It is important to note that the dishonest leader’s intention might not be malicious. But it is almost always self-serving. For example, many underperforming leaders withhold difficult information simply because they don’t like entering the zone of uncomfortable conversations. The wish to avoid personal embarrassment is another reason. Then there is plain old denial.
In reality, a fundamental lack of honesty is rarely sustainable. People can smell inauthenticity from afar, and the truth will out. But the underperforming leader thinks of himself first, and prioritises comfort over candour.
By way of contrast, the good leader embraces forthright diplomacy. She understands the power of honesty. She turns the zone of uncomfortable conversations into a training ground for herself and her colleagues.
2. ‘Don’t care how, I want it now’ — the complexity problem
Organisations are good at creating long-standing, seemingly intractable problems. Underperforming leaders are good at delegating the responsibility to remedy them — in unrealistic timeframes.
Sadly, wicked problems don’t generally lend themselves to quick fixes, particularly when the issues are systemic in nature. In fact, a lack of systems thinking is why many wicked problems exist in the first place. In an attempt manage the chaos that accompanies growth, many businesses implement new processes, priorities or structures without considering their impact on the whole. So, the solution only ends up creating more problems (we might call this ‘the law of unintended consequences’). These problems pile up, becoming ever more complex and creating organisational inertia.
But the underperforming leader is untroubled by this, preferring to agitate for ‘results now and at any cost’. This is a classic misuse of power. In championing fast fixes, he will likely store up a whole lot of problems for a later time — or another leader.
Faced with a wicked problem, the good leader slows down, and tests solutions at the systemic level.
3.‘Do as I say, not as I do’ — the congruence problem
The psychologist Carl Rogers believed that for a person to achieve self-actualisation they must be congruent. This means that someone’s ‘ideal self’ (who they would like to be) is consistent with how they actually behave.
This is a lofty goal that all but the most evolved leaders will often fall short of achieving. Many of us have distorted self-images, with childhood trauma often being the root cause. And because around 80% of our thought processes are non-conscious, we often struggle to understand why we feel and behave as we do.
But the underperforming leader does not attempt to traverse this psychological terrain. Instead, he plays armchair psychologist to his team, barracking them to improve their own performance while ignoring the factors that compromise his own. Overcome by ego, he believes that his title signifies that his personal development journey is complete.
The good leader makes mastering her own psychological weaknesses and blind spots a priority. She acknowledges that achieving congruence between self-image and behaviour is a force multiplier on every other goal she has. She invests money, time and energy to achieve this state of grace.
Candour, congruence and a willingness to embrace complexity are three signs of a leader that has mastered his or her power. They also represent a challenging — if often inspiring — journey of personal development.
If your coach or consultant asked you to rank yourself out of ten on each of these factors, how would you score?
Originally published on Forbes.com