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Mastering your Inner Game of Leadership

Guest post from Ron Garonzik and Rick Lash:

In 1938 archeologists in Israel made a remarkable discovery – a cache of 2,500-year-old letters between officers and their commanders. They provide a unique window on the impact overly controlling, self-centered leadership styles can have on others: “Regarding the letter you sent, the heart of your servant is ill, when my lord said: Don’t you know how to read a letter?  As God lives, for every letter that comes to me, it is read.”  Even Moses had a reputation as a micromanager who couldn’t give up control or delegate; his father-in-law Jethro telling him “This thing you are doing is not good – you will surely wear away you and those who are with you”.  From ancient times to today’s boardrooms, overly controlling leaders who act to serve their own needs can create toxic work environments where decision making, creativity, and engagement grinds to a halt.

What are the enduring qualities of great leadership?

Starting in the 1960s, the late Harvard psychologist David McClelland and a group of researchers wanted to understand great leadership and why it matters. They discovered that the highest performing leaders weren’t more achievement-driven or more people-focused.  Rather, they possessed a unique motivational profile – a very pronounced need for power or influence. But in the very best leaders, McClelland discovered three critical characteristics that acted as controls on their use of power and control that made all the difference – greater emotional maturity, high self-management, and a participative, coaching leadership style (think of great professional sports coaches).  McClelland called these qualities ‘socialized’ power.  These outstanding leaders were not in the game for themselves but for the good of the institutions they served.  They funneled their strong need for influencing others not to meet their own self-serving needs like higher status, greater control, or being liked, but rather to make others more capable and to further the mission of their organization. 

In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership, the authors note that as a leader take on greater responsibility, they can become susceptible to ‘hubris syndrome’ – where power goes to their heads and the leader comes to see the world as serving their own needs.  In our early careers, a certain amount of ego is essential to drive success.  But an ego unmanaged can lead to self-centered behavior, coercive actions, a need for overcontrol, and an inability to listen or appreciate other points of view – career derailers if unmanaged.  The good news is that socialized power can be developed, but rarely is it mentioned in preparing high potential leaders for senior leadership roles.  Little time is spent exploring why self-management is the first step in learning how to lead others or learning the basics of good team leadership – like creating clarity and setting performance standards so people know what good looks like – and how to recognize and coach others to succeed. 

Letting go of your ego

Most leadership development relies on what Hermina Ibarra, author of numerous leadership development books, calls the “plan-and-implement” model.  We identify a gap or skill we want to strengthen, then set a goal and plan for closing the gap.  That linear approach works well for developing competence, but for making deeper changes like increasing socialized power requires a different, more iterative tactic, what Ibarra refers to as “test-and-learn”.  We start with a new experience, try out a new behavior, reflect on it, and then use the insights to change our assumptions and goals.  Test-and-learn leads to deeper growth in how we see ourselves and helps to make profound shifts in our mindset.  Here are a few test-and-learn ideas that can help build your socialized power and change your inner leadership game:

– Work on a project where you can’t count on your expertise to get you through.  Relying on others will help you develop an appreciation for what others have to offer and see the world from a different perspective.  Think of the valuable lessons learned from the show Undercover Boss where a CEO has to “flip hamburgers” and learns to appreciate the emotional, physical, and personal challenges of her employees.

  – Coach or mentor someone who has the potential to be a great leader.  Socialized power is all about gaining deep emotional satisfaction by serving others and enabling them to be successful.

·         – Make socialized power an important value in your life by reading about leaders who you deeply admire. Look for evidence of what they did, though, and felt that exemplifies socialized power. 

·         – What are the key experiences you have had in your career and life that exemplify your leadership values? Which are good examples where you demonstrated socialized power?  Which stories do you need to elevate and put more of a spotlight on? Which stories are no longer useful?  Practice telling those stories to others.

·        –  Consider expanding or changing your social network to include others who can see and reinforce the socialized power in you (rather than just the great achiever).

Great leadership is timeless.  Whether in ancient times or responding to a global crisis, the very best leaders act to make a positive difference and have learned to let go of their ego.  And they do it by developing their emotional maturity and self-control while actively engaging others.  Clearly these aren’t things one just learns in a leadership course of by reading leadership books (although these can help) but through stretching experiences, developing others, challenging deeply held beliefs and building new relationships, all of which help strengthen our desire to make a difference, serve others and in the process become better leaders. 

Ron Garonzik is an independent consultant with more than a quarter-century of global leadership development experience supporting organizations large and small, public and private.

Rick Lash is an independent consultant and senior associate with Verity International and is a recognized leadership development expert and executive coach. For over 35 years he has worked with Fortune 500 organizations in Canada, the United States, and internationally. His most recent work focuses on the power of leadership narrative for creating authentic leadership.

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