Radical Leadership in Radical Times
Joining the Business Goal with the Human Soul
By Don Arnoudse and Vincent DiBianca
With the recent collapse of great companies and the disappearance of entire industries, leaders have realized that tried and true leadership approaches are insufficient for what faces us now. Most leaders know that businesses need to change. And in these radical times, we see ‘radical’ leaders emerging. These aren’t extremists or fanatics. These are leaders who are producing far-reaching and novel change, as well as being ‘radical’ in the sense of getting back to the ‘root’ of things1. They are changing their own ways of thinking about leadership, organizations, humanity and, most importantly, themselves. These are necessary changes to lead in these radical times.
These emerging radical leaders are looking at where our institutions have lost touch with what is important to people. They realize that the paradigm of our modern consumer society—a paradigm focused on quick fixes, high stimulation, consume your way to happiness, and if all else fails we have a great drug for you—no longer does the trick. It is simply not sustainable. Leaders in every segment admit we are in uncharted territory and that they don’t have the answers. In a recent address to Congress regarding concerns about the economy, Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, said, “I have the same concern that you do Senator, I just don’t know what to do about it.” In radical times, much of what we know is up for question.
Today, we see more senior business leaders emerging (of various ages and in a variety of organizational roles) who are beginning to think differently about success. They are all committed to radical and unprecedented results and seem to be developing a common philosophy to achieve this. They are going inward first and returning to their roots and deep-seated values. They are looking beyond the personality tests so popular in business to gain much deeper self-awareness and wisdom. These leaders are accessing internal sources of joy, peace, freedom, satisfaction and power—inner resources needed to meet the challenges of the ‘outer’ world.
As Mr. Bernanke exemplifies, when we are really honest with each other, we can see that no one really knows exactly what to do based on what worked yesterday. Ironically, this is good news. The breakdown of past practices, theories and paradigms can be the perfect catalyst to propel us forward in new, exciting directions. The massive and seemingly intractable challenges we face create an opportunity to expand our self-awareness, to think afresh and to remake our organizations to serve all stakeholders, our communities and the whole planet in new and vital ways.
We are witnessing the emergence of soulful leaders. Leaders who are redefining the essence of leadership and creating the capacity to take care of what we care most about when no one has ‘the right answer’. In their book, Leading with Wisdom: Spiritual-based Leadership in Business, Peter Pruzan and Kirsten Pruzen-Mikkelsen introduce us to many leaders who lead their business with a reliance on inner wisdom. At the core of being human lies questions about what we most care about, what makes us joyful and satisfied, and what connects us together deeply across all divisions of identity and belief systems. “Soul” points to fundamental connections among people and communities.
Who are these emerging radical leaders and what are they doing that works? The following outline illustrates some successful approaches that are surfacing as they lead us forward into an uncertain future.
Find your center
Radical times like these have us confront who we are as leaders and human beings. Witness a leader who has produced remarkable results in three major health care institutions in Canada, Marilyn Emery, currently, President and CEO of Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Ms. Emery recognizes that it’s critical to be clear about who she is and what she most values. “I cannot be effective in the face of any major business or personal challenge unless I find my center; that is, come from what I most deeply care about as a person and leader.“
Practically speaking how is this capability useful as a leader? According to Ms. Emery, “From a ‘real world’ leadership perspective, the more deeply I know myself, the better able I am to appreciate the concerns, values and dreams of others. And the better able I am to perform in the world.“
Leaders like Ms. Emery employ their own individual practices to delve into greater self-awareness, and benefit from the insights gained through rigorous and disciplined practice. Some garner the wisdom of eastern spiritual traditions and employ approaches that have passed the test of time (like meditation, reiki, aikido and yoga) to quiet the mind, focus the body and enliven the spirit. Other leaders work with expert coaches, mentors and guides to point them towards deeper discovery of who they are at their core and how to best lead in today’s radically different world. Some, like Ms. Emery combine both approaches.
These leaders no longer consider such practices as discretionary, soft or “touchy feely”. Rather, they see how connecting with their own inner guidance system is central to leading others. They say that effective leadership goes beyond the brilliance of the mind and operates in one’s body, heart and soul. They value the power of leadership that is truly “embodied” and powerfully present in each moment. Ms. Emery asserts, “Being able to easily ‘locate your center’ means you can quickly recover your balance in times of stress—essentially, you’re better equipped to be effective.”
Be comfortable with not having the answer
The age of knowing the right answer has passed. Radical leaders, operating as “dignified beginners”, commit to learning newly in areas where they already know a lot. In this time of unprecedented complexity, power lies in surfacing the right questions (not in telling others what to do). But how can questions direct our actions and goals?
First, the notion of one right answer is an illusion. All the big questions have no single right answer. Questions like: Who are you? What does it mean to be human? What is leadership? What is soul? What kind of world is possible? And, as Aristotle once asked, “What is the good life”?2
Consider that it may be the right questions, not the right answers, that illuminate the most effective course of action. Witness Stephanie Rosol, Vice President of Human Resources for Wynn Resorts, who says, “Maybe it’s the inquiry into what we most care about that drives our behavior and actions. Acting from my vision and commitments rather than from my ‘answers’ allows me to stay open, agile and able to listen without defending what I know.”
Leaders like Stephanie work hard at staying in the question even when people around them drive for answers. Japanese business leaders taught us in the 1970s that taking time in the front-end of a process to be in conversation, to dig deeper to truly understand the interplay of key factors and to align around what really matters gets one to market faster and with higher quality products than the competition. Radical leaders like Stephanie are breaking their addiction to quick answers for complex challenges.
“When I stepped into this position a year ago, we were less than a year away from opening a $2.3 billion property, recruiting, hiring, and training 6,000 people and negotiating a new union contract—all while taking care of the 9,000 employees who were already working for the company. I spent the first couple of months contracting each time a new situation came up to which I didn’t have the answers. That was my limbic (fight-or-flight) response. Even though I logically knew that I couldn’t be expected to know everything, I would stress over the big steps (forgetting that little steps were an option). When I relaxed and expanded into my position, I realized that things would be OK, that we would figure it out regardless of what the issue was. It helped me to move out of the fear and be more present in the possibilities of my role.
Even though I sometimes forget it, I really do believe that the questions we ask are more powerful than the answers we might offer. As we navigate through the current economic downturn, dramatic changes in consumer behavior, and the impact on our employees, the other questions that I find myself asking in the workplace include:
- Are we working on what matters most?
- How do I invite other leaders into conversation to prompt thoughtful response rather than reaction?
- What is balance?
- How do we make time for reflection in the workplace?
- What are the rhythms and practices that make up your ‘good life’?
- How do you remain grounded and/or centered when others are anxious amidst what may feel like chaos?”
Observe your ego at work
Most people think they know themselves. The radical leader knows the difference between ego and the conscious self. They are going deeper to access inner wisdom and to examine their most cherished dreams and values. They are interested in what connects people at their core.
These leaders realize that it’s human to be quite unaware of the ego identity, particularly in the throes of its reactivation. In psychology, this is called cognitive blindness—“not knowing what you don’t know”. They are doing the never-ending work of training themselves to observe their own process and to scrutinize the patterns of their ego identity. Just as a championship athlete develops an acute awareness of their body in action, a kinesthetic sense that alerts them to the need for subtle readjustments as they are performing on the field of play, these leaders are essentially becoming master observers of themselves in real time.
Witness Bob Dunham, a well-regarded senior coach to business leaders around the world, who says, “It starts with the recognition that you don’t see the world—all you have are your interpretations of the world.” It is a humbling insight when we realize that we don’t know reality—we just know our interpretation of reality. When current events overwhelm our conventional knowledge and wisdom, it is a great time to free ourselves of self-limiting views. These days, more and more leaders are developing the competencies of observation. As Bob puts it, “They challenge their paradigms and consider their views as interpretations and not as the singular truth. These leaders recognize that interpretations can be changed—“truths” not so easily.” Increased awareness leads to more choices and more creative action.
Richard Ross, Managing Director of Transition Partners and former CIO of Hess Corporation says, “How unbelievably revealing it is to see that my experiences have ‘wired’ me to respond in certain ways, to learn how to better interrupt those responses, and to live in a thoughtful and deliberate manner.” It is the “dignified beginner” who realizes that ignorance is a level more advanced than cognitive blindness (that is, being aware of moving from “not knowing what one doesn’t know” to “becoming conscious of what one doesn’t know”). Richard adds, “I try to observe where I’m being unconscious or robotic particularly in relationships. I’m pretty results-focused and when I see I’m not getting the result that I want, I know there must be something about myself that I can’t see—hence the role of the coach as a guide.” It may well be that the limiting factor to learning and performance is one’s own self-awareness. Solving our complex global challenges demands advanced states of readiness to learn.
Reinvent your listening
Listening is one of the most critical skills for radical leaders today. Traditionally, most leaders are focused on speaking as their key communication skill. Radical leaders become masterful listeners. Their extraordinary listening skills allow them to be powerfully present with people “in the moment”. They know the profound difference between hearing (being able to repeat the words) and deep listening (accessing the interpretations and feelings about what is being said). These leaders begin with learning different ways of listening.
As Michael O’Brien, President of Beardsworth Consulting Group (a clinical research organization) says, “I’ve shifted from ‘listening to’ what people had to say to ‘listening for’ what they intend. Now I listen for their reality, vision and commitment. I’ve come to see that my ability to listen is fundamentally determined by how I listen to my own voice. I’m learning to observe my internal dialogue and listen to others with more of a sense of curiosity, compassion and gratitude. My job has shifted from telling people what to do to listening to what they care about”.
How is this useful in a business environment where practical results need to be implemented fast and creatively? Even though it’s widely recognized that commitment is necessary for effective action, radical leaders are highly skilled in listening for authentic commitment. Consider the example of a leader asking people to sign up for a stretch goal or a significant cut back. Most leaders aren’t really open to their people declining such a request. They feel their job as a leader is to articulate (that is, speak) the need in a compelling way so people will get on board for the betterment of all.
Surely, effective speaking is key; however, effective listening is more fundamental and more of a challenge. How did the people listen to the request and how did the leader listen to their response? If the leader doesn’t listen “beneath” the words—and then ask questions to check out the interpretation—there is no real communication. Listening is the channel to revealing whether people are authentically committed or whether they are complying or resisting. Compliance is deadly, it perpetuates a mood that retards or sabotages any initiative. Radical leaders listen with their whole bodies—they go beyond the words to listen for what resonates and connects, what is unsaid that needs to be heard, and what is communicated by the tone, emotion and body of the speaker.
Master the art of conversations
Commitments are the lifeblood of an organization. Conversations are its vascular pathways. If you think about it, nothing gets done without commitment. And no commitment can manifest without a conversation. The bigger the business challenges, the more critical the conversations. Conversations create future plans, align people around goals, measure results, acknowledge people, declare and resolve breakdowns and breakthroughs, enroll customers and generate actions and results. For example, British Petroleum’s ability to effectively manage the real time conversations with their various stakeholders will determine whether their tagline “beyond petroleum” becomes an effective strategic thrust or simply remains an advertising slogan.
Radical leaders today are using ontological insights3 and linguistic practices to redefine their organizations as an alignment of shared commitments shaped by a network of conversations. As Steven Lin, former head of GMAC Commercial Mortgage in Asia, says, “People often point to success and failure as being a matter of effective or ineffective communication. Yet we’re trained in finance, strategy and operations but not in the mastery of generating and managing conversations.” He adds, “One of the biggest insights I’ve had as a leader is how to conduct a conversation that generates authentic commitment and how to structure conversations that produce effective action. This isn’t as simple as it may sound and I chose to undertake deliberate training and practice so I could develop the skill to effectively lead my executive team conversations.”
Radical leaders have the skill of surfacing and addressing what their various stakeholders really care about and know how to rigorously manage conversations to produce the desired results. For example, a COO from a mid-sized health services firm was coached to have a very straight and thorough conversation with his mid-level managers concerning a likely staff reduction initiative. During the conversation, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the managers felt there were many unexplored opportunities for growth coupled with unnecessary internal barriers. The conversation revealed an underlying commitment to growth which set up a successful shift of focus from shrinking to growing (they have since stabilized their revenue loss and have avoided layoffs).
Bring back the emotion
With the advent of management science in the last century, the emotional realm was largely left out of business. “Common sense” was that critical thinking requires we put aside our emotions. Radical leaders recognize that there is no thought without emotion. No decisions are made without emotion. Victory is not possible without emotion. In the evolution of humanity, we were emotional beings long before we were rational, thinking beings.
Emotions affect our listening and shape our learning. Emotions predispose us to certain actions. Emotions move people—figuratively and literally. Emotions, like fear, restrict creative thinking. Revealing underlying emotions and moods gives us access to authentic communication and more creative solutions in an organization.
Automatic emotional responses that come from our history (individual and collective) often constrict ingenuity, relationship and action. For example, tough economic times generate moods of fear, mistrust or resignation. If people are resigned to their fate, they will notice different things, look for different evidence, and think differently than if they see ‘possibility’ in their future. Similarly, when a leader generates moods and emotions like gratitude, joy and passion, they can interrupt and shift predisposed moods that may be acting as barriers to desired goals, independent of an individual’s specific challenges.
According to Dr. Harry R. Gibbs, Chief Diversity Officer at The University of Texas’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, “I’ve learned to recognize moods in my organization and its leadership and how to institute conversations that reveal and shift constraining moods to more productive ones.” Dr. Gibbs finds that when his team reconnects to what they most care about, at an emotional level, they are better able to address any tough or threatening conversation such as downsizing or stretch goals. Leaders who are accomplished ‘mood shapers’ like Dr. Gibbs will transform what is possible in difficult times.
Radical leaders connect their goals to what people care most about and they do it with passion and resolve. Leaders often take on one of the two following heartfelt commitments. Radical leaders take on both simultaneously:
- A drive for unprecedented results and an appetite for boldness
- A willingness to take a leap in terms of their own self-awareness as a person and leader
When Marilyn Emery and her senior team discovered what they most cared about, they undertook the unlikely goal of transforming patient care from the lowest rated hospital in the province to the highest rated. They achieved breakthrough results within six months—a full 4½ years ahead of what provincial authorities had claimed was possible. Marilyn asserts that this result went hand in hand with her own growth and her team’s development as leaders.
At the Praemia Group, we are committed to identifying, coaching and supporting this emerging group of radical leaders. We believe doing so is critical at this defining moment in our history.
These new leaders are serving as guardians of what’s truly important. They are guiding us beyond effective action to effective living. They are helping others move beyond illusory perspectives (such as consuming our way to happiness, living beyond our means, seeing government as the steward of the environment and viewing issues of humanity as secondary to profits.) Radical leaders are redefining their business models to exemplify how “the business of doing good” is “good for business and good for the soul”. Their new thinking opens up the possibility for us to transform business, our institutions and our world to create a new “good life”.
1. Radical in Latin means “root”. For example, in radical mathematics, the interest lies in finding the root of a number (like the square root or the nth root). In chemistry, a radical is an atom, molecule or ion which is likely to take part in chemical reactions.
2. Paradoxically, statistics reveal that as we raise living standards around the world, depression, suicides, and other forms of mental illness rise almost in lock step. Clearly, we need to look beyond the conventional wisdom about what constitutes “the good life”.
3. Ontology is a branch of philosophy dealing with the study of “the nature of being or existence”. As used here, it relates to the nature of “being in language” (that is, who we are in language).