At the end of a 4-day immersive leadership program for senior managers, energy in the room was high. Everybody was excited about heading back to work with new approaches, tools and commitments to being the best leaders possible. Only a few hours later at the airport, I spotted John, one of the participants, at the check-in counter. He was in the midst of a heated argument with a member of the airline staff. His flight had been canceled while he needed to urgently get home to his family. John’s language and tone were disrespectful, his demeanor emotional and confrontational. During the program John had been a proponent of inclusive leadership who believed in inspiring and developing others, rather than in authoritative leadership styles. Right now, he was being the opposite of who he claimed to be.
Great leadership is more than applying all the right tools and techniques at work. Great leadership is a way of being. It is the way we show up in the world, the values, beliefs and mindsets that guide all our actions.
A great leader doesn’t act one way at home and another way at work; she doesn’t have one way she treats her bosses and another way she treats her staff. A great leader is authentic, by definition allowing his true self direct any interaction he has. John likely has all the right intentions, ideas, and ideals for his leadership, yet, deep down, they are not part of who he really is. Our true colors show when we are challenged and under pressure. When in those instances our behavior does not match who we claim to be, our colleagues see us as inauthentic and our credibility and trustworthiness crumbles.
Traditional classroom trainings, fieldwork and on the job coaching all have their place in equipping employees with tools, techniques, and practice to become better leaders. However, they fall short in addressing what John and many others require: Transformational Change.
This kind of change is profound as it changes the underlying mindsets, which drive our behaviors. It can only grow out of personal introspection. It requires first understanding and then challenging our deepest needs and fears, which shape our perception of the world and who we want to be in it. Transformational change is holistic in that it changes the entire person, not a selective behavior. It is powerful in that it connects an individual to his or her sense of purpose detached from external (societal) expectations.
So how do we transform?
Few substantial things in life come easy; transforming requires work! When I coach clients for transformation over 6 months, their change does not happen during the 12 sessions we have, but through their dedication to pushing themselves outside of these sessions. They make time for daily individual reflection, they consciously strive to reframe long-held but limiting beliefs, and they stretch themselves to try new behaviors and actions while carefully monitoring the impact on the outside world and themselves. My job as a coach is to guide their introspection, draw their attention to potential blind spots, and encourage action and accountability. A client’s transformation may reach a peak, i.e., a major shift in one’s perception and approach to life, but it does not necessarily come to an end. As humans we are fortunate to be able to develop ourselves over the course of our entire life, continuously transforming to maximize our potential.
A transformed, more balanced John might react quite differently. He is able to differentiate the matter from the person and treat each with the attention and respect they deserve. He recognizes that, while the cancellation of his flight makes him angry, his best choice is to remain calm and concentrate on finding an alternative solution. He engages ground staff as his allies in furthering his agenda of a quick return to home. To the transformed John, this behavior comes naturally and without effort. He is just being himself.