Reflections For The New Year

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I wish you all a prosperous New Year. I imagine that you, like me, are wondering what this new year will bring. What will be its theme; tempo; color; vibration? In what way will it be memorable, and in what manner will you and I play a conscious, proactive part?

I believe strongly that the quality of our lives depends on our personal leadership endeavors. This reflection brings me, a leadership researcher, professor and coach, to a rather frustrating state of mind. I am of the firm opinion that leadership as a construct, is currently being misconstrued, sullied, demeaned, and, in the wrong places, and in the wrong way, hashed to death. It would seem that anyone and everyone who can spell the word leadership, or who has realized the marketing or publicity potential of throwing the word into any sentence, advertisement, article or resume, has jumped on the leadership bandwagon and has destroyed the true ethos of leadership with negligent abandon. Sadly, this smearing of every surface with leadership jam, has adverse consequences.

While I recognize that leadership is a social construct, and as such its meaning and relevance alters with the times, at the risk of being anachronistic or purist, I would like us to use the early stages of our year to revisit the more classical understanding of leadership. I think it will bring us to a more constructive deployment of this term.

If we take our reference point as Plato or Aristotle, and work forwards, we will remind ourselves that leadership is a hallowed idea and a hallowed position if embodied. Leadership is linked directly to character; to virtue; to ethics; to courage, and to justice. Leadership is a disposition of the heart – the coeur. That does not mean that people who assume leadership roles do not have a shadow side. It also does not guarantee that there will be no abuse of power; that unethical actions will not take place, and that there will be no narcissism. Yet the role of leadership is one that calls for a striving toward goodness and virtue, along with competence and appropriate pragmatism.

Nowadays everything, short of learning to brush your teeth effectively, is tarred with the leadership brush. A corner of my desk is piled up with articles, brochures, and workshop advertisements inviting people to learn about leadership. The courses and articles center on how to be nice to people; how to influence them; how to build trust; how to be compassionate; how to get teams to work together; how to be creative…and on it goes. These ideas are well and good. They are, however, secondary to the real tasks of leadership. They also do not address the critical disposition required of those who take on the role of leadership. (Please notice I do not say leadership position as I believe everyone has the potential to take on the leadership role.)

The current emphasis of leadership discussion or training appears to be on pleasing or appeasing everyone else. Of course, everyone will be happy for awhile if they get attention; if they have good terms at work; if there is good dental insurance; if they feel trusted; if they have flexible hours; if they are heard; if consequences and accountability are handled gently. But, is creating these conditions the essence of leadership or a byproduct of the real tasks tackled effectively?

We have here the typical dynamic of the finger pointing at the moon. Everyone is so taken up with their finger that the ultimate purpose or meaning of the moon is almost entirely forgotten. What is leadership in fact? And what is its goal? Surely these aspects are the most important starting points that cannot receive sufficient attention. Why? Because the role is a challenging one, and achieving the goal, even more challenging!

Leadership is about leading. Where are we leading people too and why? What is the ultimate goal or purpose? Will leading people or the organization anywhere do? Is it about more profits; happier teams; better benefits; new exciting technical gizmos?

Surely the goal of leadership is to advance survival in the longer term. At best, it is not just about surviving, but thriving. And to thrive in the longer term, given the radicality of daily change; technical revolution; global flattening; and a poverty of political and social leadership, requires being highly adaptive and resilient. Everything we are experiencing, in every domain of our lives, is undergoing destruction and reconstruction. To survive – nay thrive! – we have to keep up mentally, physically, psychically and spiritually. We need good leadership to help us with that. We need leadership that demonstrates character, virtue, courage, nerve, and tenacity. We need leadership that can hold our feet to the fire. That can help us transform; grow; deal with the negatives, as well as the positive. We need leadership that pushes us; that brings out our potential; that takes us the next step; that helps us like in the movie, Chariots of Fire, find that extra yard. We need leadership that compassionately takes us to our own razor’s edge; to the limits of our breaking point; to the place where we take that next step and either fly or find the earth beneath our feet.

Just like the bird that emerges out of the egg; the butterfly out of its cocoon; or you and me out of our mother’s womb, there is no transformation without a struggle. Transformation is a healthy fight for life. Transformation only occurs as a result of adaptability and true, deep learning. Transformation ensures future life. And a healthy life demands determination, a will power, a deep desire to breakthrough – to grow – to fly – to be all that we can be. That is what we need leaders for, and that is the goal of leadership. Those leaders who can help us do that … they are really special… To develop these capacities, no class, seminar or workshop will suffice.

Our own personal leadership is doing some of this transformational work for ourselves. Where do we begin? With self-awareness; self-awareness; self- awareness! The hardest task of all.

So what is my personal leadership goal this year? What is yours? And what is ours?

May we have a transformative journey.

Yours sincerely,
Annabel Beerel, Ph.D.
January 17, 2016