When leaders do their best work, they don’t copy anyone. Instead, they draw on their own fundamental values and capabilities—operating in a frame of mind that is true to them yet, paradoxically, not their normal state of being. This has been called in the work of Robert E. Quinn from the Michigan University among other researchers the fundamental state of leadership. It’s the way we lead when we encounter a crisis and finally choose to move forward. The point is that every one of us has the potential to exercise leadership at some point in our lives.
Think back to a time when you faced a significant life challenge: a promotion opportunity, the risk of professional failure, a serious illness, a divorce, the death of a loved one, or any other major jolt. Most likely, if you made decisions not to meet others’ expectations but to suit what you instinctively understood to be right—in other words, if you were at your very best—you rose to the task because you were being tested.
Is it possible to enter the fundamental state of leadership without crisis? Evidence shows that it is a temporary state. Fatigue and external resistance pull us out of it. But each time we reach it, we return to our everyday selves a bit more capable, and we usually elevate the performance of the people around us as well. Over time, we all can become more effective leaders by deliberately choosing to enter the fundamental state of leadership rather than waiting for crisis to force us there.
Of course, understanding the fundamental state of leadership and recognizing its power are not the same as being there. Entering that state is where the real work comes in. To get started, we can ask ourselves four guiding questions that correspond with the four qualities of the fundamental state.
Question # 1: Am I results centered?
Most of the time, we are comfort centered. We try to continue doing what we know how to do. We may think we are pursuing new outcomes, but if achieving them means leaving our comfort zones, we subtly—even unconsciously—find ways to avoid doing so. We typically advocate ambitious outcomes while designing our work for maximum administrative convenience, which allows us to avoid conflict but frequently ends up reproducing what already exists. Often, others collude with us to act out this deception. Being comfort centered is hypocritical, self-deceptive, and normal.
Clarifying the result we want to create requires us to reorganize our lives. Instead of moving away from a problem, we move toward a possibility that does not yet exist. We become more proactive, intentional, optimistic, invested, and persistent. We also tend to become more energized, and our impact on others becomes energizing.
Question # 2: Am I internally directed?
In the normal state, we comply with social pressures in order to avoid conflict and remain connected with our coworkers. However, we end up feeling less connected because conflict avoidance results in political compromise. We begin to lose our uniqueness and our sense of integrity. The agenda gradually shifts from creating an external result to preserving political peace. As this problem intensifies, we begin to lose hope and energy.
Question # 3: Am I other focused?
It’s hard to admit, but most of us, most of the time, put our own needs above those of the whole. Indeed, it is healthy to do so; it’s a survival mechanism. But when the pursuit of our own interests controls our relationships, we erode others’ trust in us. Although people may comply with our wishes, they no longer derive energy from their relationships with us. Over time we drive away the very social support we seek. To become more focused on others is to commit to the collective good in relationships, groups, or organizations, even if it means incurring personal costs.
Question #4: Am I externally open?
Being closed to external stimuli has the benefit of keeping us on task, but it also allows us to ignore signals that suggest a need for change. Such signals would force us to cede control and face risk, so denying them is self-protective, but it is also self-deceptive. Asking ourselves whether we’re externally open shifts our focus from controlling our environment to learning from it and helps us recognize the need for change. Two things happen as a result. First, we are forced to improvise in response to previously unrecognized cues—that is, to depart from established routines. And second, because trial-and-error survival requires an accurate picture of the results we’re creating, we actively and genuinely seek honest feedback.
When we enter the fundamental state of leadership, we immediately have new thoughts and engage in new behaviors. We can’t remain in this state forever. It can last for hours, days, or sometimes months, but eventually we come back to our normal frame of mind. While the fundamental state is temporary, each time we are in it we learn more about people and our environment and increase the probability that we will be able to return to it. Moreover, we inspire those around us to higher levels of performance.
Since people trust us more when we’re in this state, they tend to offer more accurate feedback, understanding that we are likely to learn from the message rather than kill the messenger. A cycle of learning and empowerment is created allowing us to see things that people normally cannot see and take into consideration to formulate transformational strategies. This is the state of the empowered self.
Copyright 2011 QBS, Inc.