Authentic Leadership Part 1

MIT, Cambridge, MA 1999

MIT, Cambridge, MA 1999

In writing last month on empowered followership, I noticed that the expectations we hold of followers are generally way below optimal. We expect them to under-perform, or to be minimal contributors to a partnership, if they contribute at all. Leaders, on the other hand, are frequently expected to over-perform. The immense responsibility we put on their shoulders, and the unrealistic expectations we have of them, are typically far beyond optimal. In using the terms below and beyond, I’m thinking of the concept of the flow state, the pace we hit when we’re sufficiently challenged by not overwhelmed. Time disappears as we become keenly present and absorbed in our activity. We generally produce our best work when we are in flow, and many of the coaching techniques I study are designed to nudge us toward this state.

In my articles on followership, I suggest that greater and freer engagement supports strong partnerships and creative output. We need to expand our ideas of what following can be in order to reach flow. In reflecting on leadership, though, I think what’s needed might be the opposite: deeper centering and grounding. In the chart below, I've placed conventional expectations of leading and following, as I perceive them, in relationship with the flow state:

No partnership is sustainable when continuously held out of balance, and whereas stereotypical followership patterns lie somewhere short of flow, comparable leadership patterns consistently push beyond it, a different but equally problematic situation. I know that when social dancers let go of false expectations and embrace the the realistic potential offered by each role, creative dialogue deepens and movement becomes more graceful and complex. I’m interested in how those shifts might be cultivated in the work place as well.

I suggest that holding steep expectations of those in leadership positions can create stress and destabilize otherwise functional and creative relationships. By instead seeking to embody authentic leadership qualities, perhaps leaders can more easily approach flow.

Unrealistic Expectation #1: Control
Authentic Quality #1: Direction

On the dance floor, one of the biggest misconceptions of the leader’s role is that she must control the dance or the partner’s movement. You may already be thinking, “Well yes, of course, that’s the leader’s job!” As beginners, especially, we may assume that our task is to control what happens, but of course, control of an improvised situation such as social dance is impossible. Control of a business, an industry or a project is never entirely possible either. Both social dance and life are, to a large extent, unpredictable.

When we step into leadership of any kind, we agree to navigate a sea of unknown events. Placed in this sea will be floating buoys of fixed entities – things we can count on like deadlines and data and contracts (on a dance floor: counter-clockwise rotation, musical structure, shared vocabulary). These familiar elements help us literally and figuratively dance our way through the many surprising connections, failed attempts, and unforeseen events of any creative enterprise. Rather than attempt to control, what leaders must do is remain as aware as possible of both known and unknowable variables, so that they may give continuous direction and create safe spaces for followers to move freely within.

The first thing that happens to me when I try to control a dance, to predict exactly when, where, and how something will happen, is that my body becomes tense. And when my body is tense, so is my mind. I feel anxious and become hesitant, both of which have a negative impact on my ability to communicate, or direct. I may use excessive force on my dance partner, or move in ways that pull us apart or push us together. In an office environment, this situation might be recognized as micro-managing. The term micro, here, is a useful framework, to understand the difference between controlling and directing.

Essential to the giving of clear, precise directions is a wide and inclusive perspective, a macro-perspective, not a micro-one. Like a leader on the dance floor, the leader of a product team must keep in mind the larger goals of the work over time, while followers devote themselves to the equally important realm of shorter-range tasks and details. Taking in the entire dance floor or the entire fiscal year allows a leader to direct her followers in a way that will facilitate their success and creative output. Directing is more general, influenced by the long perspective of months or years or, in social dance terms, the length of a phrase or a song. It’s the macro-dance. Following is more specific, filling out the nuts and bolts of the work in hours, days and weeks, or in social dance, individual steps. That’s the micro-dance.

On the dance floor, leaders who attempt to control the micro-level details of their partner’s footwork are acting in the wrong sphere of influence. They tend to be poor navigators because they don’t see the couple crowding in too close, or the empty space available out in front. Struggling to manipulate individual steps, or parts of steps, they get stuck in a corner or in the middle of the floor. The loss of perspective makes it impossible to communicate clearly, to direct.

Clear directions in social dance are mapped to the room – forward, backwards, left, right. They form geometric pathways so that followers know where to go and when. Interpretation of dance steps, though, is the following realm, like the text of the copy or the design of the user interface. Directions provide a map, and although leaders must know the terrain in order to draw the lines, they are not the ones who literally take the journey. Take this step, design this typeface, or debug this program are tasks that the follower must ultimately do alone, by applying his or her own skills and abilities. No leader can control how that happens, nor is it efficient for her to try.

The more we try to control, the less feedback we take in from the broader context, and from our followers themselves. We become disconnected with the reality that our employees or our clients are living in, and as a result, our directions are less useful. Hiring more sales staff might not be the priority if there’s a conflict with the supply chain. If your programmers are focused on a delivery deadline, it might not be a good week for internal training.

Controlling tendencies make us stop listening; they shrink the freedom and therefore the potential contribution of following partners. Direction, on the other hand, implies a continuous feedback loop: the leader directs, and the follower responds with reports, designs, data, questions, or research, all of which inform the next direction, which catalyzes the production of more content, and so on and so forth. Only by occupying her own side of this cycle, not attempting to control the entire thing, can a leader receive the valuable information and discoveries that emerge from followers' work.

We cannot predict what will happen on a live dance floor, or in the trajectory of an organization or campaign. However, our willingness to navigate the unknown by directing rather than controlling could make us better listeners and connect us strongly to the reality of the day-to-day experiences of our employees, constituents, or clients. That connection, I believe, is an essential aspect of effective leadership.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned next week for Part 2!