Reflections on the Path of Authentic Leadership Leverage

Regardless of the focus of your work or your current level of mastery, you’re likely seeking greater impact and some greater contribution toward positive change. As individuals and as whole organizations, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of tasks demanding your attention. In those instances, certainty about the right action is easily lost. Consider three points upon which you may want to reflect further. They are:

  1. Inquire about high point experiences to uncover source
  2. Gain clarity and insight by letting go; opening your mind, heart, and will
  3. Let come – reimagining a socially constructed, generative path of possibility and breakthrough

Let’s look a bit deeper at each.

Inquire about High Point Experience to Uncover Source

If, as Kevin Cashman1 states, leadership is authentic influence that creates value, then all leadership is first a journey of self-discovery and appreciation. In pursuit of leadership positions and greater responsibility we often get distracted by a felt need to accumulate skills and experiences that provide credentials for leading. Yet simply adding more “tools” may not be the answer. It may be that what we need most to leverage is already within us, albeit buried and poorly illuminated.

Appreciative inquiry (AI) practitioners recognize that a focus on leadership leverage can guide development of a set of illuminating peer interview questions that can peel back layers of personal insight. In this AI context, the interview process is one of self-(re)discovery, helping you uncover the source of not only your own authenticity—your own goodness, value, and uniqueness—but the source of your own wisdom and well-being. Learning to appreciate and trust that source is fundamentally important. Not only because it is a barometer of your own balance and well-being, it is a predictor of how genuinely you will be able to interact with others. Think about it. The personal connections that are the deepest and the work that is the most fulfilling are rooted in your values and self-trust. So it is with others, too.

Gain Clarity and Insight by Letting Go; Opening Your Mind, Heart, and Will

In the novel Light in August, William Faulkner reminds us that “memory believes before knowing remembers.” That phrase alone could take considerable time to unpack and fully appreciate. On the surface, it suggests that memories are deep and, even unconsciously, held firmly—so much so that new knowledge and understanding can’t readily permeate and take hold. In other words, letting go is easier said than done.

If that’s true, then what is your work? Where should your attention be directed? During reflective retreats we can quickly see the answer: our work is inner work; more on how to “be” rather than what more to “do.” Yet the day-to-day demands on most leaders is a never-ending treadmill of meetings, calls, and various interventions, all designed in some way to get done the important things. Slowly, eventually, when we’re not looking, it somehow becomes a steady stream of stuff, stuff, and more stuff. The holy grail is productivity. Our time on task shrinks because there are so many things to which we must attend, we seemingly can’t afford the luxury of a truly thoughtful, generative pause. Worse, we are often seduced by the beautiful illusion of control, believing that it is really we who are directing this larger symphony of activity. What results from this (unconsciously) tightly held myth of control is our own fear, self-doubt, and anxiety2 …. which then triggers even more of our ingrained responses, what Scharmer3 calls downloading our current default ideas and opinions (reacting), only to achieve more typical results by our attempts to “fix” current problems.

So, the path to clarity and insight begins with letting go, an opening at every level: mind, heart, and will. Letting go of the myth of control; letting go of the strong inner ego voice that puts us at the center of all that must be done; letting go of the myopia of our own agenda. Navigating the left side of Scharmer’s U—the letting go—requires real vulnerability. Again, easier said than done. Scharmer counsels,

“Opening up these deeper levels requires overcoming three barriers: The Voice of Judgment (VOJ); the Voice of Cynicism (VOC); and the Voice of Fear (VOF). The reason the journey of the U is the road less traveled has a name: resistance. Resistance is the force that keeps our current state distant and separate from our highest future potential. Resistance comes from within (emphasis added). Resistance has many faces and tends to show up where the weakness is greatest. Resistance can operate with stealth and strike largely unrecognized by its victims….

  • VOJ: Old and limiting patterns of judgment and thought. Without the capacity to shut down or suspend the VOJ, we will make no progress toward accessing creativity and never reach the deeper levels of the U.
  • VOC: Emotions of disconnection such as cynicism, arrogance, and callousness that prevent us from diving into the fields around us.
  • VOF: Fear of letting go of the familiar self and world; fear of going forth; fear of surrendering….

The capacity to operate from the deeper levels of the U can only be developed to the degree that a system [and a leader] deals with the forces and challenges of resistance.”4

Letting Come – Reimagining a Socially Constructed, Generative Path of Possibility and Breakthrough

Suffice it to say that the journey through the U is neither simple nor accomplished in a few quick steps. Yet, that journey remains the work of leaders—reaching a new consciousness awareness where reimagination and new possibilities are accessible…to you and through you. It is not about the size, scope, or visibility of your leadership, it’s about your moments of leading from conscious awareness.

At this deepest point of the U—a point representing you at your most open, most vulnerable, and most authentic—you begin to ask new questions about the future that is trying to emerge. It is at this point where you must harness and value the notion that the future is socially constructed. This theory of the social construction of reality has its roots in the sociology of knowledge5 and posits that social reality (in families, in organizations, in a society) is at any given point a product of broad social agreement lifting up shared meanings. A key point in this line of thinking is that,

Valid knowledge…is…a communal creation. Social knowledge is not ‘out there’ in nature to be discovered through detached, value-free, observational methods; nor can it be relegated to the subjective minds of isolated individuals. Social knowledge resides in the interactive collectivity; it is created, maintained, and put to use by the human group. Dialogue, free from constraint or distortion, is necessary to determine the ‘nature of things.’6      

This school of thought became an important cornerstone of appreciative inquiry, whose roots trace to the early 1980s in the seminal work of David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in their study of the life-giving forces of the Cleveland Clinic. Their work—and the resulting widespread embrace of appreciative inquiry—has led to a deeper understanding of social constructionism.

Not only do they point out that our individual and organizational reality is socially constructed, they make a strong argument for the power and generativity of a positive image. When seen in the context of Scharmer’s right leg of the U—the letting come—their thinking is all the more powerful in our exploration of leadership leverage and impact.

Through a conscious choice to focus on the source—on the positive, most generative and most life-giving forces—we begin to see that the “letting come” path can be one of imagination, innovation, and new possibilities. While Scharmer encourages us to, “[c]onnect and surrender to the future that wants to emerge through you,” Cooperrider and Srivastva are even bolder, inviting leaders to attend most closely to that which has the power to unlock new possibilities. This is the leadership path to greater impact.

Organizations (and individuals) grow in the direction of what they value and question (study) most and they will rarely rise above the dominant images of its members and stakeholders (emphasis added). Regardless of the size of the human system, the more an organization experiments with the conscious evolution of positive imagery the better it will become. The key to the kind of organizational culture I’m lifting up is to foster a self-organizing system with the capacity to rise above the present and assess their own imaginative processes as they are operating. Adaptive cultures constantly monitor and reinforce their ability to distinguish between the affirmative and negative ways of construing the world. In so doing, those with greater “affirmative competence” tend to grow in the direction of their nourishing source of light and life. This is why organization-wide affirmation of the positive future is the single most important act that a system can engage in if its real aim is to bring to fruition a new and better future (emphasis added).7

Therefore, I submit for your consideration that the fulcrum for your greater leadership leverage and impact is twofold: 1) your personal authenticity and intentional alignment; and 2) an unconditionally positive attention to what gives life to a living system when it is most effective, alive, and constructively capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.

________________

1 See Cashman, K. (2008). Leadership from the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

2 Leicester, G. and O’Hara, M. (2009). Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency, Triarchy Press: Fife, Scotland, p. 10.

3 Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco.

4 Scharmer, pp. 245-246.

5 See Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books: New York.

6 Cooperrider, D.L. and Srivastva, S. (1999). Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life, reprinted in Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, (2008), pp. 359-360.

7 Adapted from David Cooperrider. From: Srivastva, S. and Cooperrider, D. (1999), Appreciative Management and Leadership., Rev. Euclid, OH, Lakeshore Communications: 91-125.

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