Amongst the terms we tend to use frequently in organisations, the term ‘leadership’ is one that is common place. It often refers to ‘senior managers’, ‘senior management teams’, or those on ‘executive boards’. To some extent, this is correct in that it meets the nominal explanations of the term. However, it is important to point out that leadership is not just a function of those operating in senior positions. It also refers to any situation where we as individuals act or take decisions with regard to ourselves or others.
In terms of ‘what’ leadership really is, or what it is that is being led, we do need to develop a fuller understanding and appreciation of the term.
My intention is not to commence an academic escapade into the definitions of leadership, or to discuss the distinctions between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ theories and practices. Not at all. There is plentiful research by human resource and business management academics that explain the differences in numerous literature. My intention rather is to simply reflect on what leadership actually ‘feels’ like from the perspective of the individual doing the leading – with the view to assisting those leading understand the challenges of leading – from within. From this particular perspective, we shall explore the meaning of leadership experientially. This will assist us check-into ourselves, allowing us to conduct an introspective benchmark for measuring our current leadership or leading capability.
Let’s begin with the topic of self-awareness. To unpack, here’s a story:
Remember the movie “Nemo”? Yes, I loved it too! Nemo was a percula clown fish that was caught off the shores of the Sydney harbour by a deep-sea diver and placed in a fish tank in a dental practice with other fish that had apparently also suffered the same plight. The entire plot of the film shows the effort Nemo subsequently takes, with the support of his eager compatriots (the other fish in the tank), to return back to where he came from – the ocean.
Self-awareness is a bit like the ocean. It is vast, bottomless, and unlike the water in a fish tank, is completely limitless. This is why Nemo did everything he could to free himself from the constrictions of the fish bowl and return back to where he came from.
To lead, in any situation, be it in the workplace, home, or socially, we need to be fully aware of who we are. This is particularly crucial in our relationships with other.
Do you know who you are? Or put it this way: Is the sum total of who you think you are, your name (as in “Jude”, “Paul”, or “Mary”)? Or your job title (as in “Director”, “Senior Manager”, or “IT Consultant”)? Or perhaps your possessions (as in your house, the area where you live, the car you drive, or even your social interactions)?
Take your time to think about these questions. Respond within yourself.
Drawing on lessons from Nemo, at times, we can be like fish swimming in a fish bowl, content, as it were, with the distorted view of reality that comes as a consequence of our ‘natural’ constrictions. The water in the fish bowl is like the human mind, cut off from the ocean, the original source. In so far as we stay within the confines of the water in the bowl, we are not truly aware of our inner self – our pre-thoughts, mental patterns, mental movies, dispositions, habituations, energies, etc. These internal states or ‘meta-programs‘ are intricate to our neurological system and shape and directly affect our behaviour and decision-making, even if we are not aware of it. Called the mind-body connection, what we do (action), is in effect, a consequence of what we are thinking or have thought and stored away, like a computer, in our ‘mental library’ to be used at a later date. Of course, all of this activity is done unconsciously.
So how do we build self-awareness into our unconscious internal states?
There isn’t a prescribed method for becoming more self-aware apart from taking practical steps to be-ing conscious. However, I am sure many have heard of “Johari’s Window”? Created by Psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (1955), the model divides human awareness into 4 introspective quadrants (or window panes):
- Window Pane 1 – the part of ourselves that we know, as do others.
- Window Pane 2 – the part of ourselves that is not known to others, but we know.
- Window Pane 3 – the part of ourselves that we do not know, but is known to others.
- Window Pane 4 – the part of ourselves that is not known to self or others.
The journey of self-awareness (otherwise called the process of ‘introspection’) whilst cutting across all window panes, requires a deeper understanding and reflection into window pane 4 – the ‘unknown’. It is suggestibly of this window that Socrates, the famous ancient Greek philosopher speaks when he advocates: “Man, know thyself”. (see Plato’s Phaedrus)
Through this statement, Socrates suggests a mastery of oneself, or to put it simply, to bring self-awareness in one’s internal state. Whilst this may appear to concern oneself only, upon commencing the process, we quickly realise that building self-awareness is not just about me, it is fundamentally about the other. Indeed, building greater self-awareness enables us to realise that what we think of others, how we behave, attend to, and relate with others, is in fact only a reflection of ourselves.
To conclude, here’s another story: Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century French philosopher once described the intricate and indistinguishable connection between the self and other. He summarised his thoughts by way of a simple question: “Have you ever tried to pick up a grain of sand from the beach?” If you haven’t, go ahead and try it! When you do, you will inevitably pick up multiple grains, not just one. Sartre used this analogy to depict the inextricable connection between ‘l’ and ‘Other’.
From a leadership perspective therefore, knowing who I am is crucial to effectively leading others. Put simply, leading others, is first and foremost about leading oneself. Indeed, as we journey through the process of self-discovery, it will result in a change in perception – of ourselves and other.
NB: This is the first of what will be 4 reflective topics on leadership. Our next topic will focus on self-development. Be sure to check-in!