Audacity gets leaders to the top, humility keeps them there

Source: Focus Conferences – ‘Psychology for managers’ lecture series; Author: Amber Boomsma

Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ This inspiring refrain, taken from a Leonard Cohen song, perfectly reflects Vlerick professor Herman Van den Broeck’s views on leadership. He specialises in change management and emotional intelligence and is convinced that powerful leaders are people who realise that new light shines through every crack. He calls these above average leaders ‘beyonders’. They do not necessarily want to be the best IN the world but want to do what is best FOR the world.

The key to change

If you aim to make a difference as a leader, you will need an open mind that is capable of flexibility and creative thinking. Knowledge then becomes subsidiary to the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Good leaders take the unpredictable nature of the economy into account. At the same time, organisations tend to dig in their heels when it comes to the course they charted and the associated management models, job descriptions and control systems. This, in turn, begs the question of why, in the face of constantly changing circumstances, you would continue to organise your company as if it will always exist in this form.

Dare to stop

Stopping is exceedingly difficult for us, even when something doesn’t work or no longer works as it should. The intentions behind the movements we have initiated are often good. We just have a difficult time assessing the ramifications. Adapting is therefore essential. If you do fail – and this can happen – then you must dare to embrace your errors, learn from them and adapt. Determining who holds responsibility for the errors is less important. After all, the intention was right when the choice was made. Instead, you should define which problems the organisation faces here and now and create (or co-create) a new solution for the future. This requires positive bias, openness and trust, rather than finger-pointing.

Be the best chef

Being able to stop and adapt where necessary also requires audacity and humility. Stimulating difference, in people’s actions or in the way they think, makes sense in unpredictable situations. However, a deep-seated vision continues to be an important guideline for making choices. Rising above the median as a leader involves a combination of several factors. We all prefer predictability and controllability but this no longer reflects the reality we live in. Organisations are being undermined because they tenaciously stick to the same systems. These systems make us forget how to be flexible at a time when adaptability is more vital than ever for survival. Just look at the best chefs: they abandon certain recipes, they boldly dare to experiment and immediately tweak their dishes if the taste balance is not right. Their cuisine is successful, surprising and innovative precisely because they do this. Even when – or precisely because – certain ingredients are not available and the chef has to improvise.

Certainty as opposed to creativity

It is clear that systems, rules, and the compulsive urge to control everything may pose an obstacle to innovation and flexibility. At the same time, managers indicate that employees sometimes explicitly clamour for rules. Structure does matter as it allows employees to use their creativity and flexibility within a framework. Unfortunately, the rewards system of many organisations implicitly underscores employees’ need for clear rules. Employees want to be sure that they are performing well. This is what they learnt in school: creativity is fun until you colour outside the lines during your exams. And who usually gets the bonuses and the promotions in a company? The colleagues who follow the rules instead of those employees who try to improve and innovate, based on a process of trial and error.

Deploy your leadhorse on time

Leaders must create the space for creativity. This is more difficult to achieve if managers – especially at middle management level – are bogged down in systems because they are assessed on the basis of targets and figures. Obviously, predictability and stability are sometimes preferable, especially if you produce cars or other products that rely on certain quality standards. But as soon as the rules become too restrictive and tiresome, you must switch from the wheeler – the strongest horse that draws the carriage and is therefore tightly harnessed – to your leadhorse. In corporate terms, leadhorses are effective project teams that focus on innovation, regardless of the stringent standards and applicable rules. They ensure that organisations change tack on time and are prepared for what is ahead.

Determine the quadrant

Leaders should start by determining whether they are a wheeler or a leadhorse. Are you firmly grounded or do you value continuity, certainty and stability? Are you more adventurous, do you like to explore, discover and embrace change? You need both to draw the carriage for the long term. At the same time, you need to identify your natural leadership style. The same goes for the difference between an individualistic and a holistic approach. Are you a natural born winner, do you want to be the biggest, the greatest, the best? Or do you think of leadership in terms of solidarity, loyalty, durability and system-oriented contributions to the bigger whole? There are four quadrants in the playing field, and every manager can use them to determine their natural leadership role. The question remains, however, whether this ideal situation coincides with the mandate that managers have within their organisation.

The challenge of co-creation

Anyone who does not operate within the quadrant that they have in mind should assess which aspects of their job offer the scope to play this ideal role. Co-creation with other colleagues in other quadrants is also an option in this framework. After all, all four quadrants strive for effectiveness, success and profitability. The approach and the interpretation is the only thing that sets them apart. This insight can often force breakthroughs. Even though everyone embraces the same vision and objectives, how they go about achieving this can be quite different. Moreover, the environment is constantly susceptible to change and therefore unpredictable. Adaptability is crucial in order to keep up with this change. And this means we heavily rely on each other within the playing field of these four quadrants.

Anticipating on the light

In view of all this unpredictability, does it matter whether a zebra is black with white stripes or vice versa? Absolutely. As a leader, you will be easily confused if the foundation you rely on is unclear. A ‘beyonder’ is aware of his own values, is familiar with the modus operandi and has no problems saying ‘no’. That is precisely why such leaders are so powerful: they rely on a solid foundation but at the same time, they have no problem switching off the auto-pilot in their brain and thinking creatively when necessary. Sticking to patterns may be detrimental in the long run. Although this could just as easily be good news, because to quote Leonard Cohen: ‘sooner or later there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. The future belongs to those who understand and capitalise on this. 

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