Leadership and Choice


“Leaders live by choice, not by accident.” Mark Gorman, author.

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Choice. A simple, easygoing word which leads most of us to trivialize its importance. But nonetheless it holds enormous power in the exercise of Leadership as well as life in general.
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In a recent Leadership course, I gained a powerful perspective from the following classroom experiment relating to ‘Choice’. The experiment required of us the following.

1. Identify what there is for you to do in your life that you feel obligated to do, or that you are doing based on a set of reasons for doing them, and write it down.
2. As an experiment, choose to do the thing it would be legitimate to say you are obligated to do (or have no “choice” about doing), and now write them down as what you are choosing to do. (“I choose to …”.)
3. Now check and see whether your experience of the item occurs for you (shows up for you) differently.

One aspect in my life that occurs to me as an obligation is, ‘Hang onto my current job, work profile and industry’.

I then experimented with rewriting the above aspect as a free choice of mine, which then became, ‘I choose to be in my current job, work profile and industry in an empowering, relevant and effective manner.’

I was taken aback by the remarkable shift in the way the situation occurred for me by the mere change in the language as above.

I could see that when I exercise ‘Choice’, it is intrinsically me, my inner convictions and I start ‘owning’ that choice; it occurs less burdensome. I start feeling heightened energy, passion and confidence. I can sense more possibilities and way forward opportunities apart from an intrinsic commitment to do the best I can.

Contrast this with when I used the language of obligation and the burden that brings in, constraining possibilities and pathways. I then see myself in a space of forcible acceptance, fearful of consequences. I go through the motions, rely on instructions to proceed, avoid risks etc. I see a drag and loss of energy.

I started seeing the power residing within the ‘language of Choice’.
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I recall a couple of situations in which the way I perceived making a choice impacted both myself and others in a positive or negative way.

One time when I had to treat my family out to dinner, my wife and daughters left the choice of selecting the restaurant to me. Post dinner, my wife remarked that she had not enjoyed the Italian cuisine all that much and how she wished, I had chosen an Indian restaurant. I remember reacting back angrily as to what had stopped her from giving this preference earlier on. I then tried to justify my selection based on good word of mouth feedback of friends. Basically I ended up not taking responsibility of my own choice and putting the blame on my friends instead. To evade criticism of my choice, I had painted myself into a ‘victim’ corner.

Another time, my family left the choice of selecting which movie we should go to. After the movie, my wife and daughter were unanimous in rating the movie as terrible. On this occasion however, I stood firm as I declared, “Because of its philosophical insights, I wanted all of us to watch and learn from this movie.” Without really realizing it at that point in time, I showed up as having made a choice of my own free will and held the courage to take responsibility for it. As I articulated my choice in this manner, I felt empowered.

Do we realise that at its very essence, Leadership is a choice? Just as is living life. Everything about Leadership, as with life, begins with a choice. A choice which we make.
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In literature, Leadership and decision making appear to be near synonymous. We tend to overlook the fact that any decision really comprises of a chain of small but significant choices. Even when we bring in our biases, perceptions and assumptions and rationalize and justify based on these, that is our choice too. Our choice, and the corresponding decision flowing out of that, further gets coloured and shaped (or shall I use the word forced?) by our positional, inter-personal or cultural compulsions. We remain largely unaware of this aspect, falsely believing that how the situation occurs for us is how it really is and that our reaction is correct and logical. We fail to see that we in fact have got onto rails and are unable to exercise any freedom relating to other possibilities available to us to deal with what is at hand. A far cry from effective leadership which is all about opening up choices and possibilities, not limiting them.
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Richard J. Leider, the author of the international bestseller, ‘ The Power of Purpose’ writes that in twenty years of his interviewing elderly leaders aged over 65, he discovered something profound relating to ‘Choices’. To his question, “If you could live your life over again, what would you choose to do differently?”, he heard the articulation of three themes getting repeated over and over again.

“I would choose to be more reflective, take time to think because life passes so quickly and I was too busy doing to think adequately.”

• “I would choose to be more courageous, take more risks; I played it too close to the vest”.

• “I would choose to be clear, far earlier, on what my purpose was in life”.

In learning….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgements:

1) “Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership: An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.
2) “The Power of Purpose” by Richard J. Leider, May, 2010.

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My Already- Always listening


“Effective listeners remember that “words have no meaning – people have meaning.” The assignment of meaning to a term is an internal process; meaning comes from inside us. And although our experiences, knowledge and attitudes differ, we often misinterpret each other’s messages while under the illusion that a common understanding has been achieved.”
— Dr. Larry L. Barker, Author & Executive Coach

Already Always listening

I think of a few people engagements I have had in the recent past.

An office colleague comes in to discuss a problem that is likely to arise because of depressed business and enquiry levels from the Middle East markets. Our dependence on these markets has been high historically and remains crucial to meet our budgets. This upsets me. Time and again I had suggested that the division plans Sales trips to the region well in advance to renew our contacts with existing clients and meet new prospects. I sense this has not been done. A voice inside screams, “This guy is casual and lazy to plan in advance. He did not take my suggestions seriously and now when things have gone out of hand, he is running back to me with excuses. Why should I listen to him now?”

The other day, I hear that a market competitor has rolled out a series of innovative business initiatives in order to gain market stature and share. The CEO, known to me well, is a high school drop-out and has clawed up his way in the industry over the years. The inner voice returns, “There seems to be something wrong here. How on earth could this guy come up with such better initiatives than me when he has been so below me in scholastics? This is an affront and this guy, with such initiatives, is trying to undermine me.”

I am at this workshop and I meet an ex junior colleague who left our company some years back. I get to know that in the interim, he did his Masters and is now an Assistant Professor at a Business school. During his presentation, he waxes eloquent on Leadership and the need to envision a future that excites. While I cannot find fault with what he says, my earlier perception about him as a mere desk worker seems to stop me from embracing the concepts he speaks of. That voice inside whispers, “How could this guy, so much younger and less experienced than me, know more and teach me leadership concepts? Accepting and acknowledging what he says would put me down. I can’t do that! I need to think of how I could disagree with him.”

Do you see how that voice inside me is my Already- Always listening?

Do you see how my Already- Always listening has led me to have preconceived interpretations of what is being said even before it is said?

Do you see how such interpretations create judgments and opinions in me even before the other guy has opened his mouth?

Do you see how these judgments and opinions constrain and limit my listening, my thoughts, my actions and even the possibilities I am willing to consider?

It is as if I get onto rails which then allow me to think and act in only set ways. So when my colleague approached me to discuss what could be various options available to improve business from middle East markets, my reaction was to blame him for not having considered my earlier suggestions. In the second case, rather than critically reviewing the business initiatives of the competitor to learn and initiate effective response, my reaction was one of non-acceptance and making the competitor CEO ‘vanish’. And in the final case, rather than gaining insight from my ex-colleague’s presentation, I had closed my mind to much else except look for logic to make him wrong in my own perception.

Dear Reader, can you identify similar experiences in your life? If so, do you see how our Already-Always listening constrains and restricts us from achieving that big picture empowered way of being that we envision?

What is it that sustains such Already-Always listening and the related interpretations within us? This happens because almost all of us are not even aware of the distortion that exists between what is said to us and what we end up listening. Since we are not aware, we also cannot comprehend how our interpretations may be distorting our perceptions. So we end up assigning disparate causes to our relationship breakdowns and suboptimal performance but never the core issue of how our way of being and acting have being negatively impacted from the distortion that landed for us in our brains based on the Already-always listening and interpreting we did. We then try and ‘fix’ this false cause, which is really an effect, leading us to go through life trying to put out one fire after another.

Does this look or sound familiar?

So what could we do to distinguish and become aware of our Already-Always listening so that it loses its ability to run us and our lives?

In learning…………. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: “Being A Leader And The Effective Exercise Of Leadership:
An Ontological / Phenomenological Model” by Werner Erhard
, Independent & Michael Jensen, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

My Life Sentence


“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself’.

Leo Tolstoy, Russian mystic & novelist. 1828-1910

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At the age of ten, I had the first realization of what a gang was and what it could do to me. I do not recall how it started but one thing led to another and soon all my neighbourhood friends and playmates had ganged up against me. One evening, I had climbed up on the roof of our house with our servant as he was fixing the radio antenna. I saw my ex friends and playmates holding hands, dancing and skipping together and then with a shock, I heard their voices mocking, mimicking and making fun of me. In that moment I heard an inner voice saying, ‘There is something wrong here. There is something wrong with me.’

I remember telling myself, ‘I don’t belong’. I became a loner, did things on my own and showed up with a ‘I do not really care to belong’ persona to my erstwhile friends and the world. Even after a few weeks when all became well again and I was back with my friends, my self imposed life sentence ‘I don’t belong’ continued to reside inside me.

I time travel a few years ahead to when I am in my mid teens. I see myself having a great time with a bunch of friends at school. Sharing books and comics, watching movies and developing views of the world together. Being cool was all about hanging out together; classes and the need to master what was being taught took a back seat. I justified to myself, ‘I am smart and I can always make up my studies before the exams’. So it came as a shock when my final examination grades plummeted. That inner voice returned, ‘There is something wrong here. There is something wrong with me.’

I recall my father telling me, “You have become a mediocre. Mediocre people do not succeed in life”. In that moment of humiliation and self-doubt, I said to myself, ‘Life success depends on scholastic success.’ As this got ingrained in me as a life sentence, I got back to being a loner and focusing on scholastics. Over the years, as I went on to achieve one scholastic peak after another, to the outside world I was smart and successful. But somewhere inside, those vestiges of childhood humiliation and self doubt remained and my view of the world and behaviour towards other people continued to be guided by ‘Life success depends on scholastic success.’

Today as I think of myself, I sense how the life sentences I had imposed on myself during moments of shock and bewilderment those many years back, have so become part of who I am. It is as if there are several ‘me’s enacting different roles here. There is the judge ‘me’ along with the jury ‘me’ who have sentenced the accused ‘me’ to live out my life in a cell. A cell whose walls, ceilings and floor are composed of my own life sentences. Like inmates of an actual prison, I have devised my own winning and self-serving formulas to cope with the constraints of my prison life. Ironically though and unlike the actual prison inmates who try to get out into the free world, I don’t see the need to do so as my life sentence created prison bars have so become part of my persona and who I am.

And so I continue to go through Life carrying my life sentences. In many situations, I cope and come out the winner In others I feel like a ‘thrown dice’, caught up in unfolding events, clinging onto the ways from my past but yet failing to call the shots. I am left wondering who or what is leading my life.

Can I presume you, dear reader, also feel the same?

So how could we build our lives around our ‘real’ self, free of our life sentences and the persona we have created to cope? In their path breaking book, ‘The Three Laws of Performance’, authors Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan deep dive into this aspect. They point to a way of overturning our life sentences to free ourselves of these.

We need to start by showing compassion to that little guy within each of us who has been carrying the burden of the life sentences all these years. That guy who did his best to cope with life and produce results by trying to make up for what we have perceived as wrong with us. By hiding from others, even from our own selves. By conditioning ourselves to be different from who we think we are.

The authors then recommend that we create a crisis of authenticity within ourselves. A crisis of the real ‘we’ against the persona created by our life sentence. To create such a crisis ‘we need to locate where our foot has got nailed to the floor’. We do this by engaging ourselves with the following queries:

•Where in your life is something not working or not working as well as you want?
•In what areas of your life do you feel a loss of power, freedom, fulfillment or self expression?
•In those areas of life you just identified, how are you being inauthentic- what are you pretending, avoiding, not taking responsibility for?
•What can you see has been the impact, the limitations, of your having been inauthentic in those areas?

Dear Reader, are you ready to overturn your life sentence?

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Two Wolves – A Cherokee Parable

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An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.

“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness,
benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”

The old chief simply replied, “The one you feed…”

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In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the future of your organisation and your life by Steve Zaffron & Dave Logan, 2011. Chapter 6, Pages 143-168.

I = My Word


You may choose your words like a connoisseur, And polish it up with art, But the word that sways, and stirs, and stays, Is the word that comes from the heart.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, American author and poetess, 19th century

I recall the 1970s supernatural classic, ‘The Exorcist’ in which the possessed Regan, when asked “Who are you?” replies in a demonic voice, “Nowonmai”. Initially thought to be something in a foreign dialect, the reply is later deciphered to be, ‘I am no one’, when read backwards.

Regan in The Exorcist
Regan in The Exorcist

What is it that makes us ask the question, “Who are you?” It seems to support us to create a fix about the other person. About his characteristics, about his viewpoint, about his intentions. We try to determine the authentic self in the person which then allows us to engage with him powerfully.

At the other end, the enquiry ‘Who am I’ allows us to present a perspective of ourselves which we feel offers the best chance for engagement and success. Said another way, we show up, not as our authentic self, but in the best manner possible to get the job done. Clearly, over time, our ‘Who am I’ face does become a talent for deception.

It is in the attempted matching between the “Who are you” gained perspective and “Who am I” put on mask that the effectiveness of engagement and relationship between two individuals lies.
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Who am I? I remember those times as a child when having nothing better to do, I would stare into the mirror and wonder, “How is that me?” Am I me because of the name which my parents christened me with? Or because of how I look? Or because of how I think, speak, act? Or because of how I behave with others? After all these decades today, when I think back to those questions, I yet remain uncertain of the answers.

Who am I? Why do I experience this sense of self? Is it a natural function of my mind? Or is it some spiritual awareness that keeps tugging at me? The fact remains that with every passing day, I keep changing. Every day I change into the person I become in the moment. As I sift through photographs and memories, I am confronted with the realisation that I am a person who is significantly different from the person I had been at an earlier time. Both physically and mentally, I see myself changing, adding, subtracting, becoming …..Me.

But if I am always changing, adding, subtracting, becoming, where does the assurance of ‘Who am I’ lie? For is this assurance not critical to my engagement and effectiveness in the world? As I muse on this, my thoughts shift to a webinar series titled ‘Integrity: Without it nothing works’ which I participated in recently. In it, author Mike Jensen concludes that the foundation for being a high performance individual is to declare “Who I am is my word”. He goes on to say that within his own organisation, a perspective shift to ‘I am my word’ amongst employees led to a 300% improvement in performance with no additional inputs.

As per Mike, since I am my word, I become whole and complete only when my word is whole and complete. And how does my word become whole and complete? This happens when I honour my word. I can do this in two ways. First by doing what I said and in case I am unable to do so, I inform about this to all the people counting on me and be willing to clean up any mess that might get created.
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Why does honouring my word become important? Because it makes my word, and thereby me the person, whole and complete. This is what goes a long way to improve the potential of my performance. To understand this some more, let us look at the example of a car. For optimum performance, it needs to have been designed right, all its components need to be in place and functioning and you, the owner, drive it correctly. Should any of these aspects be missing or not right, the car would malfunction, become unreliable and essentially would lack integrity. So it is true with me (or you). When my word and therefore I, am whole and complete and therefore in Integrity, I radiate an empowered and trustworthy persona and my actions get perceived as reliable and consistent. This then becomes the core of ‘Who I am’ which does not change even when I change physically and mentally. The power of “I AM equal to MY WORD” lies in this. As my word gets perceived as that changeless anchor I am to which everyone around me can tie their knots of trust and faith to.
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As I muse of all the difficult-to-handle aspects ranging from self deception about not honouring my word ‘ Do I really need to if no one is looking’ to fear of acknowledging that I would not be able to keep my word ‘How on earth would I clean all the mess that would ensue’, I realise the best place to start is to give my word to myself that I would be my word.

In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement :‘Integrity: Without it nothing works’. Harvard Negotiation, Organisation and Market Research Paper No. 10-042 by Michael C. Jensen,Jessie Isidor Straus Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School, April 3, 2014.

Leadership’s Essence Part 2


“The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”
– Theodore Hesburgh, Priest & President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame.

On the Geo-political stage I have been witness to two distinct trends.

In the last month , we have had two important elections in which close to quarter of the world’s population voted. The European Parliament elections and the Indian National elections. Differing Geographies, socio-economic stages of development and compulsions. So how did these differences manifest?
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Europe’s voting percentage dipped to 43; India’s went up to 67.

Europe seems awash with disillusionment and despair despite the support of some of the world’s most developed economies. In contrast, India sees green shoots of hope and possibilities in the face of more than 20% population struggling below the poverty line, high fiscal deficit and halting economic growth.

In Europe, support for the traditional and establishment parties have dwindled in favour of anti- EU radical groups. In India on the other hand, the votes have gravitated away from the extremists towards one of the main political parties.

A growing perception of a pan Europe crisis has led to the loss of faith in the competence and motives of the political leadership. Interestingly though, an equally high perception of an Indian development crisis seems to have led to renewed faith in the ability of the political leadership to sort out the mess.

What is it that makes the more socio-economically advantaged and aware folks in Europe react so much more negatively than their Indian counterparts?

I muse about the disparity of the reactions. I muse not to determine and assign cause for what might be going wrong or right. But to try and uncover what is it that really creates such disparity.

I come to the conclusion that it is all about how the situation occurs for folks. And the way the situation occurs actually goes a long way to determine the sense of well being folks carry irrespective of what their actual situation might be. This ‘occurring’ really is what leads people to act and articulate the way they end up doing. Simply put, if a situation occurs as threatening or detrimental to me, I act, behave and speak negatively, hunker down and avoid risks. On the other hand, when a situation occurs to me as holding opportunities and promise, I am positive, full of initiative and willing to take risks.

So what is it that can alter how a situation occurs for us? I believe this is where true leadership comes in. A leadership which creates an overarching vision of a Future. A created future that addresses the concerns of not only the Leader but all involved parties. A future into which everyone comes to live into. A future which allows everyone to act, speak and behave in the present in a way that is consistent with the future being envisioned and lived into. And this is when the magic happens. We begin to shift out of our directionless present day challenges and drudgery. Our mind and thoughts dwell less on these immediate perceived ‘negatives’ and more on the big picture vision we begin to hold of the future being created. Situations begin to occur more as opportunities that support our forward movement and less as energy sapping bottlenecks.
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As I think of the above, I am left wondering whether this could be the way forward in the increasingly complex and fast changing world we inhabit. A near universal access to information, knowledge and the resulting transparency has become a great leveler. The traditional Leadership’s power base of knowledge and information control is fast eroding. Could Leadership let go of its obsession with power and control and embrace the work of co-creating with others a future which is not going to happen anyway?

In Learning………………… Shakti Ghosal