John Knights, Co-founder and Chairman of LeaderShape Global

It is not surprising that most CEOs and other senior leaders put a brake on their personal development as a leader once they are in that position. First, they got to where they are by being who they are! Who can argue with that? And second, the job as a CEO can often be overwhelming, time-limiting and lonely. And there is so much more operational stuff to learn, in areas where they are not experts.  Hardly surprising that they tend to feel “There is just no time for continuing to develop as a leader”.

For the last 15 years I have worked with CEOs and senior leaders (having previously been a senior international corporate leader and serial entrepreneur myself).  Based on this experience, there is no doubt in my mind that leaders at any level, especially at the top, stop working on their development as a leader to their own detriment as a leader. They have so much more to give to their organisations and communities if they continue to work on their development.

We believe that leaders should be on a journey – its life-long - that has a direction but no ultimate destination. We call these people “Transpersonal Leaders”. They are radical, robust, emotionally aware, caring, authentic, ethical, and yet, still focus on performance-enhancement. They think “sustainability” and they operate beyond their ego for the benefit of others, considering and balancing the needs of all the stakeholders of their organisation.

The journey is on three levels – refer to Fig. 1 and 2 while reading on. The journey is by no means linear and may be iterative, and everyone will find certain parts of the journey easier or more difficult than others.

The first level is the Foundation (or Threshold) Level, based on one’s rational intelligence. This is founded on business skills, strategic thinking and understanding about vision and direction.  Every leader needs to be competent in these areas but alone these will not be sufficient to be an excellent leader. In essence, this level is about management as well as leadership. Our observation is the majority of senior leaders never get beyond this stage in their development and frequently only engage with the more advanced levels purely by chance while performing their leadership role. Some, learn more than others! Using the REAL mnemonic we use for all three levels, we refer to this first level as Rational Ego-based As-usual Leadership.

The second (Intermediate) level of REAL (Radical, Ethical, Authentic Leadership), is where leadership development begins to offer significant benefits.  This stage focuses primarily on the development and use of emotional intelligence. At this stage, leaders increase both self-awareness and awareness of others, they learn to understand their behavioural strengths and identify improvement areas to help maximise both their own performance and that of others around them.

Most leaders tend to default to one or two leadership styles they are comfortable with. However, to be a competent leader in all circumstances, they need to be able to use six styles (Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Pace-Setting and Commanding) and they need to know when and how to use them. Each style requires adopting and integrating a range of different behaviours. Fortunately, the neural networks that manage our behaviours and emotions are plastic – ie. they can be rewired - but this rewiring (neuroplasticity) does not happen automatically or immediately; it takes focus and practice, like learning to drive a car. According to our research, most leaders are more competent and comfortable in the Pace-setting and Commanding styles and so these styles tend to get overused. The Coaching style of leadership is shown to offer the second most positive impact (after the Visionary style) yet is the least used. The good news is that the coaching style of leadership is relatively easy to learn.  With practice, any motivated leader can learn to be competent in this positive leadership style.

Once all these leadership styles become familiar and integrated, it is then possible for the leader to start creating a performance-enhancing culture. In our research, we use four parameters; Power, Structure, Achievement and Support.   We find when using our Culture Shaper survey that the actual culture of most organisations focuses on power and structure. However, the desired ideal culture in most people’s eyes (including the CEO) is to rebalance an excess of power and structure by fostering an increase in achievement and support.

The third (Advanced) level of development is one that is most relevant for today’s changing world, yet is rarely taken by senior leaders in any proactive sense. This part of the journey works in the realm of spiritual or ethical intelligence and focuses on increasing consciousness (defined as: awareness + experiencing in the moment).  By that we mean bringing values, decision-making and judgement into full consciousness and operating beyond the ego.

Our education and (especially Western) systems, encourage us all to make decisions based on rational thinking.  Rationality is the only naturally conscious decision-making process we have. However, non-consciously we have four other decision-making processes going on in parallel: instinct, intuition, insights and our own ethical philosophy. Given the way our brain works, it is more likely that we come to our decision through these non-conscious processes and then use our rational-logical process to explain and justify the decision we have already made. We can make better judgements and decisions if we learn to bring these non-conscious processes to full-consciousness before making a decision, using our cognitive capabilities to interrogate our bias and prejudices, which we all have.

At the same time our ego is urging us to make decisions for our own benefit, which often conflicts with a leader’s role to make the best decisions for the organisation. While there is nothing immoral in thinking of our career or our family, these thoughts should always be in sync with the benefit to the organisation and its stakeholders. Without this awareness, potential conflict can easily result in unethical or even illegal behaviour. However, if we can bring these processes to full-consciousness we are in a better position to allow our core values to inform our decisions.

A good tool to help with this is to develop a Transpersonal Touchstone that expresses our personal core values and the transpersonal qualities we believe in and to use this as a check-in step whenever we have to make a difficult decision. REAL leaders who attain the Advanced Level are now Radically Ethically Authentic Leaders.

About the Author

John Knights is co-author, with Danielle Grant and Greg Young, of LEADING BEYOND THE EGO:  How To Become A Transpersonal Leader. He is Co-founder and Chairman of LeaderShape Global.  Knights is an author, lecturer, and thought leader in leadership development. 

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