The Leader As Model Of Change And Growth

By Gerhard van Rensburg

As children we played the game ‘follow my leader’. With the nominated leader in front, we formed a row and imitated every move the leader made. If he jumped to the left, everyone did the same, if he hunched, so did the rest, if he shouted, everyone shouted in turn. A key principle in leadership is illustrated by this game. What leaders model in their behavior, attitude and actions speaks louder than their words. As much as leadership is debated and contemplated in recent years, the importance of what leaders model in their person is seldom highlighted. In general one finds that leadership today is more associated with power, status, superior knowledge and prestige than with setting an example worthy of imitation. If people follow, it is often more with an attitude of ‘I have no choice’ than an attitude of ‘how can I best support you as my leader’; often more compliance than inspired commitment. What is the key to a positive leader – follower influence dynamic?

Leaders are often put on a pedestal and somewhat removed from reality the way everyone else experiences it. It happens either as a result of the leaders’ style and attitude, or as a result of followers wanting them to be more than human to create the magic that will ensure a perfect workplace or, as in most cases, both. Once the idea is adapted that the leader is entitled to live by different rules than the rest, the potentially positive leader – follower influence is replaced by a leader – follower estrangement. A gap between leaders and followers develops and grows bigger with time. It can result in either a command and control dynamic where fear and manipulation dominate or it can result in a loose and ill-disciplined work environment with little if any respect, and little if any pride – depending on the leader’s preferred style. The leader and his executive team then work and live for a large part disconnected from the rest of the organization. Unintentionally they become the lid to their organization’s growth.

A positive leader – follower influence dynamic results from the respect and trust that the leader earns by setting an example that others can admire and aspire to. At the very least, such leaders will be conscious of what they model. They will be open to the need for them to constantly reflect on what they model, how they behave, how they communicate, how they come to their decisions and how they respond to a changing environment. They will furthermore be open to learning from the feedback from others. For most leaders it requires a major mind shift and renewal of their commitment to personal growth and change. Such a commitment directs leaders to areas outside their direct rational observation and understanding. It is often the unconscious that can hold leaders as prisoners of their past and prevent them from significant growth and development. As a result, they are less influential than they could have been.

To say the truth, for most people it is an unattractive and daunting idea to explore the deeper drivers of their actions. It seems like a waist of time and unnecessary emotional disruption when there are so much to do, so many tasks and so many targets to meet. The objection people have could be something like the following: ‘It has been difficult enough to get some recognition and build some ego-strength not to put it in jeopardy by making some unpleasant discoveries about myself. It is better to stick to what I know and what I am comfortable with. I don’t need anything that will make me doubt myself!’ Good leaders however, will make the commitment to knowing themselves better and take their medicine if there is bad news. As we know by observing children, growth is the painful realization that I need to take responsibility for my actions and ownership of my thoughts and feelings. The reward for leaders who are prepared to take the inner journey is not only living more integrated and at peace with oneself, but also becoming a stronger, more authentic and better leader.

By becoming more emotionally aware leaders can go a long way in learning to know themselves better. Many of us grew up with the belief that emotion equals weakness. To be rational and in control, is to be strong and right. As a result a pattern developed particularly in men whereby emotions are negated or wished away. The fact that emotions contribute to our identity and behavior is ignored or denied. The truth is that cognition and emotion together eventually determine what we do and what we don’t do. The type of emotion we express (even if it appears to be unemotional) when we have to do certain things, make certain decisions, imagine certain events or deal with certain people explains in part who we are. When we are emotionally aware we can predict what kind of situations we naturally seek or avoid and what company we prefer. Our behavioral preferences and relationship patterns become clearer. Many can testify to a breakthrough in their ability to lead and relate to others when they discovered that the problems and frustrations they had with other people can be better explained by their own internal conflicts than by others’ behavior.

If we know ourselves better as leaders we can work on the development of more options in how to respond to different challenges. With the ability to see more ways of responding and the skill to select the right response in a specific situation, we become more effective and achieve better results. There is no handbook, 10 easy steps or MBL course that can replace the learning and growth that a person obtain in the process of learning to know oneself better more consciously. Leaders need to understand and accept the importance of their own example of willingness to change and grow. That way they put themselves on the same level as everyone else where, as human beings, we never can be perfect but by our choices can improve. The good news is that there are a growing number of people in leadership positions who are making use of a leadership or executive coach who can help them see what they can’t see themselves and support them in their journey of growth and development.

Gerhard van Rensburg is the Owner at New Era Leadership. New Era Leadership offers an unique online development program on 32 leadership principles.

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