What does Leadership mean to me?

Hi. Below is something I wrote yesterday, and submitted as part of my course. It is only marked for completion: which proably left the door open for me to take it a bit further than if I had to guess what the markers were looking for!

I read all the required and suggested readings, and a few books, and wrote a well-structured, logical draft…all about a week before this was due. Then, I felt it was too much information, and that I needed to leave it for a while and get out…but didn’t do so. Instead I took it back to thinking about all my past experiences. Then, when it came to pull it together, this is what came out. After feeling a bit stupid about it yesterday, I re-read it today and thought ‘stupid or not, it is how I’m thinking/feeling at the moment, so what more can I do’.

Excuse the lack of references. I am going to have a break, then revisit this topic and distill this essay into something that is really useful and can help guide me everyday….

What does Leadership mean to me?

This essay has been written with a few caveats (Appendix 1). I have stated these because although I may be tempted to think my understandings of leadership are universally applicable (from sporting teams to global politics); the reality is my thoughts are probably very context-specific.

My understanding of leadership can be summarised as a belief that I should do my best. Do my best to develop and conduct myself for the greatest benefit of the whole. That is, I ‘(you) must be the change you want to see in the world’ (Gandhi), to act ‘as if’ I am the world. This approach necessitates I understand that ‘I’ am not separate from the whole, must widen my circle of compassion, and consciously feel the deep interconnection and interdependence of the whole of nature.

Dictionary definitions of leadership refer back to ‘lead’ (v). Key words and ideas associated with lead include to: show the way by going in advance, guide the behaviour of, induce, direct, inspire, take the principle role, be first and be ahead. These definitions highlight the concept’s importance in creating the shift from unsustainability to sustainability. This shift can be described as a ‘transformation’ – in this case, perhaps the most significant change in the way we think and act in the history of this civilisation. Such a huge shift needs people to act consciously, deliberately and truthfully to create the required momentum.

In approaching this topic, I decided to review my past experiences and how they have informed my understanding of leadership and where I may have acted in a way that lead to shifts or changes. Thinking back, I recalled specific situations in which I felt like I had been a leader, and try to deduce what exactly I had done[1]. Similarly, I could recall when I felt like I was not behaving like a leader[2]. Some of these previous situations were accompanied by strong emotions which induced deep learning (Level 3 in Appendix 1) either immediately or during periods of reflection later on.
As well as my previous experiences, particular people I have met through my life have impressed me with their leadership characteristics
[3]. And, when thinking about specific people in the public domain, who I recognised as leaders, another set of characteristics came to mind[4]. When you make enough of them, these long lists of characteristics feel superficial: feel like I am trying to distill an experience of a whole person, or a situation rich with emotion, detail and context down to a few words. At the same time, if I can’t name these characteristics and qualities…are they real?

Sometimes I think there is a sort of perception paradox that affects what I recognise as leadership qualities in myself and others: I can only see it when I know it; and I can only know it when I have seen it. As with other learning too, so the ability to name what leaderships is becomes useful way to extend my intellectual understanding of leadership. Exploring ideas about leadership attunes and sensitizes me to ideas and characteristics that I can ‘try’ or ‘practice’ in the future, or may help me to make more sense of my past experience. This sort of thinking can help understand how I can best work to empower others to be their best: by helping them interpret their experiences, and helping create the space for them to ‘try’ and ‘practice’.

For my learning about leadership to occur in this way, the ability to observe the reality ‘as it is, and not how I would like it to be’ is critical. Filtering new experiences through the lens of new, and a pre-occupation with ‘naming’ can prevent the real, deep learning. A sharpened, objective-as-possible mind and high level of awareness about myself, the group, the environment: the whole, at any/every point in time is key to developing those deeper understandings (Level 3 in Appendix 1). My journey towards a heightened awareness and the learning that flows from it, has had some critical stages accompanied by strong emotions.

An example is my shift from someone who was deeply concerned, hopelessly upset, and ultimately disempowered about the state of the world; to someone who began to understand the power I had and the contribution I made to the perpetuation of the very system that I didn’t like (and could make to the future that I wanted). This and other periods of increased awareness were often accompanied by a kind of ‘flow’ and ‘oneness’. It is this state which I always seek to practice and re-create; and the one in which I think I can be the best leader, in any given context.

Even if this sense of flow is there, it is still critical to have the tools and names to interpret my experiences and be aware of the range of ways in which I can act. From my own readings, I have ideas about leadership characteristics I intellectually understand (Level 2 in Appendix 1), and can therefore try to use when interpreting my experiences[5]. Some of the required and suggested readings explored ideas of leadership that resonated strongly with me: introducing new perspectives immediately helped me interpret experiences, as well as reconfirming past learnings that I need to continue practicing[6][7].

Conversations and shared experiences with my peers have been essential to turn a few of these intellectual understandings into deeper understandings based on direct personal experience (Level 3 in Appendix 1)[8]. It is at this deeper level of experience at which I want to understand these concepts of leadership.

I think I have started to develop and deeply understand many of the qualities described in the course readings, e.g. facilitating; deeply listening; suspending judgment; designing processes; effectively working with interconnectedness, complexity, systems and the whole; and ability to co-create functional groups with shared visions. I aim to improve my ability to: coach (improve my competence), be decisive (in those moments when a path forward is revealed, or someone has to take the leap to explore the unknown), deal with and remember details, be oriented towards action/tasks, be persistent, and importantly, to not take myself too seriously! Developing these abilities will take time, and experience. Continuing to consciously seeking challenges, create the opportunity to practice and leave the space to reflect, discuss and evaluate will accelerate this learning.

I believe that whatever the leadership qualities I try to develop, I must always maintain a solid grounding in kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity. Through my experiences in this course, I have increased my understanding of the role of all of these, especially empathic joy. Being deeply happy because of someone else achievement or leadership has reduced my sense of competition and attachment in a situation where everyone is explicitly trying to be a leader: whether as a servant, director, coach, delegator or supporter / facilitator.

My understanding the link between my personal development and my role of a leader in the development of any system or group is based on an appreciation of the fundamental delusion of self, and the interconnectedness of all things. There is a positive, supporting relationship between meeting my own needs and furthering my own development and move towards sustainability, and co-creating the awareness, opportunity, capacity and reality within others in the same system. If I believe that I can be part of creating the new reality, then that allows others to be empowered; when I understand that I cannot do it on my own, and am humble, then so others understand that they too need each other to co-create their desired future.

Appendix 1
Assumptions and context:
– I come from Western Australia, am 27 years old, have enjoyed a good education, and have actively participate in many aspects of my communities and Australian society. I’ve volunteered on sustainability issues (practical and political), and worked in retail, food, as an eco-tours guide and with an NGO as an environmental professional. I have never worked directly for a large corporation or bureaucracy; have limited business or financial experience; and have a very limited understanding of other cultures’ perspectives on leaders and leadership.
– In this essay, I have continued to describe myself in a way that assumes ‘I’ as separate from the whole, and that ’I’ as an autonomous individual can ‘do something to act upon the external world’. I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with expressing things in these terms, and need to explore how to express it in another way. I think this is an important part of understanding leadership..
– My understanding of my own knowledge is it can be considered at three levels: 1) wisdom gained by listening to others, 2) intellectual, analytical understanding, and 3) wisdom based on direct personal experience. This essay primarily reflects my type 3 knowledge, but refers to other things that I understand at levels 1 and 2.


Footnotes
[1] I was a leader when I: listened deeply; raised concerns or questions in a way that created space for joint exploration of the issues; acted in a way that did not reflect a belief that I was separate from the group, yet took responsibility for my own thoughts, emotions and actions; when my efforts or behaviour encouraged others to be their best; and, where was respectful.
[2] I was not being a leader when I was: acting and thinking only of myself and my own ego; indecisive; incompetent; mis-represented the reality of the situation; and, assumed too much.
[3] Some of the characteristics they displayed were: discipline; patience; respect; commitment; trust; being primarily concerned with empowering others (and wanting to ‘push power down and out to the edges’), competence, humility, and being comfortable with an extended sense of their personal responsibility.
[4] These people showed: a drive to lead by example, the ability to let hand over decision-making power to their constituents, a desire to stand up for what they believed in, a capacity for self-relfection, no interest in taking credit for achievements of a group, the ability to recognized and help others ‘unwrap’ their potential (Muirhead, 2002), and being comfortable with learning from their mistakes.
[5] Such as: a strong sense of ethical or moral foundation, heightened awareness about self and group, thinking long-term, being responsible, courage and spirit, imagination and the ability to create, appreciation for uniqueness and diversity (of cultures, roles, styles), decisiveness, and being comfortable with paradox and mystery.
[6] For example: Senge(), Senge (), Brown and Isaacs (), Kahane (), Kofman and Senge (), and Waldron (2005), Jaworski ()
[7] My earlier personal development plans are headed with the words: Wisdom; Humility; Determination; Balance and Flexibility; Impermanence; Love; Interdependence; the moment; Quality; Sufficient; Habits; Awareness; Responsibility; Purity; and being Strategic
[8] The conversations and interactions gave me a deeper sense of: how important context is, and the how much it is possible to learn from every little action or situation; trust as a requirement for ongoing dialogue, respect and engagement (whether on an individual or group basis); the power in consciously aligning actions with one clear purpose or statement; the power in consciously envisioning the future, and the past (to learn from mistakes), some of the key characteristics of great, public figures that may be relevant to spreading the message and building support for sustainability (e.g. humility, allowing people to empathise with them, sharing their humanity); and recognising that we really do re-create the world everyday, and therefore how powerful it is when you can allow people to be empowered and believe that they can create a new world.

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