Aspiring Leadership

In our last blog, we shared some ideas about the necessity for a leader to follow their inspiration with enabling each person to aspire to a goal.

One of our astute readers, we will call him Sam Adams because he’s a devout patriot, sent me this feedback: 

“If the leader is unable to maintain THEIR OWN aspiration, they have little to no hope of promoting aspiration (or even initiating inspiration) in THE PEOPLE THEY LEAD.”

I like Sam’s thought because it resonates with the idea of servant leadership.  The reality is that leaders who leave all the aspiration to others, without doing it themselves, actually are nothing more than repeaters.

What do I mean by that term “repeater?” 

In my maritime days, we had a very valuable instrument on the bridge called a gyro repeater. It sure looked like the real thing, but the actual gyrocompass was in a different room.  This device on the bridge was merely repeating what its ‘boss’ was telling it.  The repeater shuttled information, handy for sure, but it doesn’t do anything on its own authority.

All too often I see folks in positions of authority who act like repeaters…they tell you what their boss demanded, and they tell their boss what you reported.  Check, done, communication complete?!?!  (uh….no.). I was working with an executive team at a government agency who believed their role in life was to be repeaters; get info from operating sites, tell the big bosses at HQ; repeat to the sites what HQ said. (Being a nautical group, they knew what they meant!). This is a repeater! 

One caveat, in some work situations, for safety and procedural reasons, there would be a person who whose job it would be to repeat instructions and replies back and forth between the worker and the person with the procedure, a repeater.  These are situations where actions must be performed exactly and having a repeater gives needed reassurance and accountability, but these are rare! 

The Leadership Calling: Aspire, not Repeat!

When I wrote the first blog on this, I was thinking that naturally the leader needs to be on the aspirational journey, but Sam’s response jolted my naïveté. He brought to mind the many people that I’ve seen in leadership positions who are nothing more than repeaters. Notice that I say leadership positions.  Not everyone with a nameplate on their office door or desk that says “boss” is really a leader.

In order to lead, a Leader must be going somewhere.  There’s no reason to follow someone standing still with a megaphone sharing information.  The Aspirational Leader is a co-creator that is on a journey to create value and contribute that value.

How do we spot an Aspirational Leader?

So, if a “repeater” has issued the inspirational kickoff of a change effort, do we see a change in that person?  Is that person at all motivated to personally take on the ‘aspirational’ journey? My guess is no. An Aspirational Leader gives the inspirational kickoff showing what will be different for them personally moving forward. They inspire others to pursue the journey with them.

“Repeaters,” on the other hand, keep the bungee that holds them as the shadows of their boss, good repeaters.  Interestingly, when you find an Aspirational Leader, they are some of the most demanding leaders to serve under.  They are demanding and focused toward a goal, because they know the danger of the bungee that pulls us back to the status quo.  Often, they are as relentless on themselves as much as anyone else.  They know that naturally we will stay where we are, so the tension on that bungee between where we are and where we are going requires determination.

The Aspirational Journey for Leaders

This is why the Senge message is so powerful and so daunting to us as leaders.  There are two parts to the aspirational journey.  The one that most business books cover is similar to the what Senge calls the discipline of Shared Vision.  This is the social aspect of being aligned on the perilous journey towards a new place, our vision.

But Senge has another discipline that he calls Personal Mastery.  I have found that in coaching teams with the five disciplines of a learning organization, Personal Mastery is the one whose name leads to the most confusion.  As Senge states, it’s not about being a master; in his words: “personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills … it means approaching one’s life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to a reactive viewpoint.”  It’s about mastering the art of breaking the bungee that holds us back, the “reactive viewpoint,” and having a sufficiently reliable bungee, “approaching one’s life as a creative work,” to pull us forward.  This is a PERSONAL journey (vice TEAM journey).

So, that personal journey has value for the average team member, the individual contributor so to speak. After all, in an organization that is changing its vision, its procedures, its processes… the individual contributor will probably see a change in what he or she does, how he or she is connected, how he or she can create value and the ease by which they can contribute that value.

But the repeater?  Well, unless the change is something like the radical reengineering of the ‘90s that obliterated the ranks of middle management, then he or she will very likely still be…, you guessed it, a repeater. No personal mastery required. No allure of “approaching one’s life as a creative work,” but rather destined to stay in a “reactive” repeater role.

Here’s the interesting part. 

Repeaters don’t really like being repeaters. Their bosses do.

These folks are always above average performers – we know that because they have been promoted. Along the way in their professional journey, they learned to become repeaters if they wanted to go home each night not worried about keeping their job.  I am reminded of a time I got the most valuable job rejection ever. A new managerial position opened up, and it looked like it was custom made for someone like me. So, I applied. The person making the selection was refreshingly honest.  He said: “Paul, you’re perfect for the job, but I can’t always be comfortable knowing what you’ll say to my boss.  You’re a little too candid. So, you’re not getting this position.” I flunked the “repeater” test. (I had found this to be particularly amusing since one of the position descriptors was to be an agent for change.)

Isn’t repeating a good indicator that you have alignment? 

We look to the famous Deming analogy of the orchestra. We are all aligned on the piece, but each of us, each instrument, has its part to play. We are not repeaters (that would be your Bluetooth speaker playing music from your phone); we are in symphony with each other. We each have a personal aspirational journey of how we need to be a better flautist or cellist given the new piece we’ll be playing, but we are also sharing the vision that the piece may require more or less accomplished flute or cello playing skill.

How do I become a more Aspirational Leader?

As with all of our blogs, we try to give you coaching to help you improve your leadership. We fully realize that you, like all of us, will be putting it into practice in a less than perfect world.  So, here are some ideas.

  • Before anything, do you have the personal desire to go on a journey to learn and do things different in order to guide the team?  If you prefer to just go along as a repeater, I’d say don’t embark on being inspiring.  Without the aspiration, the inspiration is fake and ineffective.
  • Practice personal mastery (the aspirational journey) and shared vision (the alignment journey) in a place where you can (Senge calls them “practice fields.”). Here’s a few ideas:
    • Committee you lead at work
    • Family Dinner Table
    • Traveling sports team
    • Church Committee you lead

I remember the dinner table being great for aspirational leadership.  I recall how when my kids, who were all good students, would get lax in their study habits.  I’d first work on changing my own attitude to boring days at work before I’d help restore our shared family vision of being willing to pursue what we needed to for an awesome present and a potential filled future. (for those wondering, no…that was never well expressed as a vision statement on our fridge.)

  • Ask yourself the same question as posed by our astute reader: Am I, as a leader, approaching life as a creative work or a reactive viewpoint, i.e. a repeater.  Listen to yourself when you talk to your team; are your words reflecting life as a creative work or as problems to react to.

(By the way, you can only ask yourself this, even if you’d love to ask your local repeater this question.)

  • Think about ONE situation that puts you into repeater mode.  What’s ONE thing you can do this week to put your mind into a more aspirational mode when that situation arises?
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