What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Synthesis and self-evaluation of leadership learnings

April 21, 2005

A paper written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510)

Quite frankly, this has not been my finest time, academic or personal or professional. As a matter of fact, in many respects it reminds me of freshman year in college, some 25 years ago and a string of months I’d sometimes rather forget. All is not lost, however, in that as I reflect back on the last 15 weeks, I see that I did learn something, albeit not perhaps what I set out to learn. Certainly, I have a firmer understanding of leadership from an intellectual perspective, and I have a greater realization of my personal relationship with leadership. As the fog of the weeks lifts, even so slightly, I see four keys. First, leadership is built on systems thinking. Second, relationships are pivotal in any leadership discussion or experience. Third, communication is fundamental in terms of effective leadership. Fourth, character and competence form a solid foundation for effective leaders.

Systems Thinking
Leadership is multi-faceted and related to nearly almost every discipline of the study of human behavior. Yukl notes, “Systems thinking involves the use of mental models that acknowledge complex inter-relationships and cyclical causality.” (2002, p. 296) As Yukl suggests, systems thinking acknowledges that everything is connected to everything and that mucking about in one area has an impact on another area. Leadership – human behavior and organizational behavior – is so complex that without systems thinking and the mental models that systems thinking forces us to create, the study of leadership would be nothing more than a morass from which no explorer would ever escape.

This learning is important for me for several reasons. First, in my work as a performance consultant, I am reminded that while I might intervene in one particular area of the organization, the ramifications can be felt a great distance away. Second, my life – like everyone’s, I suppose – is a system with inter-related roles and responsibilities. Mucking about in one role – such as adjusting to newly married life or feeling like a social service organization for extended family – impacts other roles – such as work completion or timeliness and quality of academic study. Compartmentalizing, while it may work in the short-term, is not a long-term answer. Third is the realization that if, indeed, all is a system, than I can develop a mental model to help me analyze the system. I can, in a sense, conquer it still; I’ll add the development of the mental models to my ever-lengthening to-do list.

Following directly on systems thinking, the notion that relationship are key seems over-simplistic: of course relationships are key. Is not that the whole point of systems thinking? Yes. And more specifically here I am talking about relationships between people. Relationships between suppliers and customers; relationships between stakeholders. I’m talking about the human side of relationships. When interviewing my key customer, Rear Admiral Pearson (C. I. Pearson, personal interview, April 1, 2005), I was struck by his passion for relationships, a passion for the connections between people. I suspect his passion is more than just culture speaking (see Phillips, 2002, 45-72), and more than some model of leadership practice (see Kouzes & Posner, 2002), but rather some innate acknowledgement that it is the relationships between people that makes organizations work.

These last many weeks, I have not cultivated relationships to ensure effectiveness from a personal, professional, or academic perspective. Without cultivating relationships – as we might cultivate a garden – relationships will whither and die. Like a garden left to nature’s own devices, relationships between people, will become choked with weeds and bear no fruit. I am dangerously close to bearing no fruit, my entire life overgrown with weeds.

What is it that helps build relationships? Communication. Communication is fundamental. In the space of the last ten days, I have taken a 20-hour seminar about mediation, taught a two-day course about crisis intervention, and facilitated a four-day seminar based on Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Last week, I had a sudden realization: each of these courses put communication skills – and specifically listening skills – as fundamental to the success of the human interaction within the discipline. The material is, I realized, all the same. And why? It is the same because communication – understanding the other person’s words and meanings – is at the basis to each discipline, be it mediation or crisis intervention or human effectiveness. And the fruit of that basis is relationships. Through relationships, things happen and work gets done.Character and Competence
Of course, each of us must know our job in order for things to get done. That is competence, the technical knowledge and understanding and skills necessary to perform the required task. Without competence, a person cannot fully contribute. More than competence is needed, however, to be effective in leadership and life. Character is based on integrity. I have, these last many weeks, demonstrated competence. I can string words together, and I can write coherent essays. I can facilitate a group or a meeting. I can coach and mentor fellow consultants. My character, however, has been less fulfilled. Undone work assignments, chores at home not completed, assignments for school and work turned in late or at the very last moment before the deadline have all filled my months. I have said I am a certain type of person, but I my actions have not followed through.

When critiquing those who lead me, I often compare their words to their actions. Did the leader say what he was going to do? And, did the leader do what she said she would do? These past weeks have found my words not matching my actions.

Next Steps
What are the next steps for me? The next steps seem clear, at least in the light of day. I need to re-examine my mission and purpose and, then, align my actions to that mission and purpose. In support of this action, I will also develop – or find – a mental model to help me step out, to help define the place I find myself as well as show the route to where I want to go. And, I will focus on enhancing relationships, truly communicating, and exhibiting not just competence but character in what I do.References

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Phillips, D. T. (with Loy, J. M.). (2003). Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on leadership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.