So what do top executives from dozens of global companies focus on over five intense days as part of Harvard Business School’s executive course? Not improving management skills. Not assessing leadership styles. No – they focus on leading themselves. Because you can’t truly lead a team or organization if you don’t start with your own personal leadership. The positive ripple effect a stone cast onto organizational waters will have depends on the size of the stone. If that stone – you – is in the featherweight league, your long-term impact or reach is not going far.
Our Inner Game
Global thought leadership and research in the last two decades focuses on the ‘inner game’ of leadership, to use Tim Gallwey’s term from The Inner Game of Work. Peter Senge, one of the great early leadership guru’s, identifies personal mastery as one of the core five pillars in his book The Fifth Discipline. Then there’s John Maxwell’s Developing the Leader Within You, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, Anthony Robbins’ well, all of his work, Sarano Kelley’s The Game, to mention several other gems in this body of work.
Terry Bacon identified a person’s mastery of communication as the top source of personal power leaders draw on. Intra- and interpersonal intelligence, emotional intelligence, social and conversational intelligence have all taken the world of work by storm. And not just leaders, but their teams and organization’s bottom line are seeing significant results.
Not having self-awareness – a strong inner game – can kill your leadership. Think of the leader living constantly in their blind spot: “But I have to keep riding him – otherwise he’ll never get the work done on time”. “I don’t know why they call me a bully – I’m doing the organization a favour. How else to get things done around here”? “I can’t be holding everyone’s hand around here – it’s up to them to come to me if there’s a problem”. “What don’t they get about the words ‘on time’? And so on. People leave leaders, not workplaces.
The Samurai Challenge
I once saw a samurai film that makes reference to a traditional Japanese story about a simple tea-ceremony master. Never having fought with a sword, he is faced with challenging a samurai warrior to a duel, using only the inner strength and discipline he applies daily to the sacred tea ceremony. His duel is so artful and strong, the samurai backs off in respect, and so the tea-ceremony master shows how in being the full master of himself, he can be the master of anything. A story to take a powerful leadership lesson from – the samurai in Japan were all over the idea of our ‘inner game’ centuries before we even started looking at organizational leadership.
Without having to don your samurai costume, you can apply a fairly simple process to your own personal mastery. First, it takes awareness – at Tribe, we call this CLARITY – clarity on what’s going on inside you, clarity on how you connect with others.
How do figure out what’s going on in your head? Pay attention. Regularly take five, or preferably ten, and just listen to what chatter is going on up there. Are you talking to yourself the way you would to a good friend, or to your worst enemy? How does your thinking set you up for success or failure? Your journal can be your best friend for this: note stuff down, look for patterns. Rinse and repeat. Practice doing this, and your awareness of the power of your self-talk will skyrocket, helping you make the important changes you need to start thinking like a true leader.
Look in The Mirror
For the bit about connecting with others – that’s a little trickier.
Best thing to do is elicit some 360-style feedback from your close, trusted inner circle (or wider) on things you could work on. Don’t forget to explain why you’re doing this: to build your personal leadership – people tend to be more honest and helpful when they know your goal. If you get a chance, video yourself interacting, conducting a meeting or giving a presentation, for you to analyze yourself after (not easy, but very eye-opening!).
So what did you find out? Is it how you come across, your body language, the way you express your emotions, not picking up on cues from those around you? Are you always interrupting or not fully listening to what others say? Is your language a little too dismissive or negative?
Focus, Plan, Action
Next, get some FOCUS: of all the things you found out about yourself, pick one or two areas for improvement that will have the biggest possible positive impact on you and those around you: zoom in on them to boost your inner game. Remember those ripples!
And then, like any good leader knows to do: make a PLAN and take ACTION to improve your inner game. Having a coach, mentor or accountability buddy is really important here, to guarantee your move into the heavyweight category of leadership. And then you will have used the process that any professional athlete does to improve their game: clarity on gaps to being the best, focus on the important pieces, and practice the fix, and practice again and again until you crush it.
Barbara is an organizational consultant, executive coach, and director at TRIBE Leadership Consulting