The Power of Balance

The myths and nonsense of leadership traits

January 11, 2021 stephen barden Season 1 Episode 3
The Power of Balance
The myths and nonsense of leadership traits
Show Notes Transcript

Leadership coaches inundate us with advice on "What great leaders do"  or "The 6 characteristics of a good leader" or "The 14 leadership Traits" or, pick a number, "The 5  habits of great leaders."

Even if they are all entirely true, what use are they? Do aspiring leaders, simply have to mimic these  sacred qualities. Are we asking them  to be good actors or impersonators?  Is that why there is so much talk about "leadership style" - because it's about performing rather than doing the job?

In excerpts from his controversial book, "How Successful Leaders do Business with their World", , Stephen Barden argues that leadership is never about acting - or adopting a so called leadership style. It is a hard job that requires deep learning and an apprenticeship in managing  ourselves in our world. And  very successful leaders start that learning a long time before they get to the top.

Stephen Barden  0:07  
This is a series about power, and why it and more importantly, what we have learned to believe about our relationship with it affects every aspect of our daily lives. I'm Steven Barden and I've spent most of my working life with power, and leadership. I'm a coach-mentor of leaders and I used to be a corporate leader at one stage. My late in life doctorate was on how successful leaders manage power and my book is called 'How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World', which, of course, is also about power. 

Stephen Barden  0:48  
Episode Three, in this third episode of the series, I'd like to read a few extracts from my book, to give you some idea of what it's about, and why I came to write it. And included in the Why is what I've seen as the problems, even failures, we have with the way we tend to identify, choose, develop, coach, and manage leaders. And I mean leaders in all sectors: political, commercial, or institutional. However, despite the title, this book is aimed not just at corporate or political leaders, or the coaches of leaders, but of all of those of us who lead, and we all have to every day as parents, as carers, as voters as recruiters, investors, educators influencers and the influenced. 

Stephen Barden  1:48  
So what's this book about? Here's an extract from the introduction to 'How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World: The Navigational Stance.'

Stephen Barden  2:01  
This book is about leaders, learning, and power. It's about how successful top leaders learn to use their power to manage their world, and therefore us. It would be nice to say that it also informed my previous 15 years or so as a senior corporate leader, but I can't, the lessons came too late. In fact, my own story of leadership is topsy turvy. I did, I learned, and then I investigated. Yes, I know, much more sensible would have been to investigate, learn, and then do. 

Stephen Barden  2:40  
Maybe this book is as much about our avoiding that mistake, as it is about leaders and power. In my research, I set out to discover how successful top leaders experienced their learning. I was not looking for some magic formula about why they were successful. I was more interested in the inside story, how they experienced their learning, the assumptions that guided them, and how they viewed power, authority, and leadership from within themselves. I discovered from these leaders, that the way they learned and use their learning was very closely related to how as children they experienced their power relative to that of their worlds. That in seeking to explore and navigate their spaces as children, these successful leaders had formed a foundational assumption that they and their worlds had a manageable equilibrium of power and that their world was a partner with which they could do business. 

Stephen Barden  3:50  
Those without this assumption of equilibrium form an assumption that they are in opposition to their world and that their world, in very broad terms, needs to be overcome, obeyed, manipulated, or avoided. As you may have gathered from that excerpt I didn't research successful leaders because I thought I'd been successful in my own Managerial career. In my last job as CEO, I had stumbled, and that made me stop and think, not about my methods or leadership style, or whatever you want to call it, but about my values, and about my assumptions that had created those values. 

Stephen Barden  4:33  
As I say in the book, in describing what happened after I'd been fired. While I waited for the case to go to court, the sensible thing to have done would have been to look for another job. After all, I had no money to spare and my confidence could have done with getting back on the horse. For once, I did the irrational thing. I took out a loan on our apartment and sat down to do some thinking about what I believed in, rather than what I had absorbed unquestioningly from society, parents, mentors, necessity, experience, and compromise. 

Stephen Barden  5:15  
I embarked on a year of reflection and writing to try and help differentiate between those values, ethics and assumptions I had adopted wholesale from my family and society, from those in which I truly believed. And the work certainly helped me discover how and when some of those values had been formed, eroded or changed. But what I did not discover, or even ask, was what had made it easier for me to erode or ditch certain values, but not others. 

Stephen Barden  5:50  
On what assumptions were those choices based? Were they choices in the first place? I was actually asking a very specific, impersonal question that later became the foundation of my research. How come some leaders, admittedly too few, behave in a totally different way from you? Meaning me, by the way. How come they face down voracious shareholders, and insist that they're there to nurture the interest of the entire organisation? 

Stephen Barden  6:24  
As that extract shows, I hope, the key question I was chewing on was around assumptions. Was it assumptions and values their view of the world that made certain leaders behave in a certain way or make certain choices? Or was it really what so many coaches and recruiters seem to be focusing on: leadership style, leadership behaviours, and outcomes. What we see those leaders doing, rather than what drives them to do, or even what they intend to do. 

Stephen Barden  7:02  
If you want to try and find out somebody's assumptions, you need that person to be able to reveal something of themselves and their view of the world honestly and safely. If you want to find out about somebody's leadership, style and behaviour, it simply needs you to observe and assess their conduct and their impact. It tells you nothing about the experience, the motivations, the priorities of the leader herself. 

Stephen Barden  7:33  
As I went on to develop my coaching practice, I suspected that this was a huge gap. Why? Because as I say in the book, by understanding what our current and future leaders at their core feel about their world, and about their ability to do or not do in the world, we begin to understand how they feel about us, and what they will do to us with their power once they have taken office. And it's not just a one-way street. How on earth do we manage our leaders? 

Stephen Barden  8:10  
Do we manage the way we want to be led if we are always on the outside looking in? What worried me as I developed my practice, was that not only was most of the leadership literature focused on the external view, the observer's view, but so was the way we chose developed, coached, and appointed leaders. And as you'll see from this next extract, I believe that to be true today. Here's a piece from a chapter I call 'Choosing Our Leaders Blind.'

Stephen Barden  8:48  
Look up leadership on Twitter, and you'll be drenched with advice on anything from how to unmask insecure leaders, apparently, they shy away from challenges, to stripping away all that is unimportant because apparently, that's what blocks us from our, quote, highest purpose and dreams, unquote. 

Stephen Barden  9:09  
Now, it may well be true that some insecure leaders sometimes shy away from challenges, but have you never encountered one who deliberately and recklessly confronts challenges to mask that self-same insecurity? As for stripping away the unimportant, unimportant to whom, and in what context? If you're focusing on, for example, an IPO, an initial public offering, you may well think that a minor labour dispute in your supplier's factory in Bangladesh is trivial, until you realise that the market finds a minor labour dispute over fire safety or child labour to be very problematic indeed. 

Stephen Barden  9:55  
Leadership coaching sites and articles will inundate you with advice on who great leaders are, the top 10 qualities that make a great leader, the Nine leadership qualities, and even seven things great leaders do or five habits of great leaders. Even if these qualities were all entirely accurate, what are we to do with them? We can either assume that these people are born with these sacred virtues, and that the rest of us can pack up and go home, or that we can join their ranks by simply adopting their apparent habits, by cloaking ourselves with their clothes. 

Stephen Barden  10:36  
As these leadership specialists presumably would like to sell their wares of developing great leaders, one can only assume that they do believe leadership can be learned. However, if they simply tell me about the apparent habits and impact of leaders, their outward expressions, how do they hope to help their clients? Is this goal reached by teaching them to be good mimics? 

Stephen Barden  11:04  
So there was clearly a problem, as far as I was concerned. We talked about leaders and leadership but we know very little about the experiences the assumptions of the leaders themselves. And I don't simply mean that capture of self-awareness. I'm talking about awareness of oneself and the world in constant relationship, in constant interaction, awareness of self in the world. 

Stephen Barden  11:35  
So I decided to do my doctoral research on how objectively successful leaders experienced themselves, rather than on how the world experienced them. And that research became the basis of this book. But where was I going to find those narratives? There certainly were plenty of autobiographies and biographies around, but they were going to be a very limited value. 

Stephen Barden  12:02  
As one of my favourite writers on dialogue William Isaac's put it "while many people privately will admit to themselves, that they do not understand why things happen as they do, that in some respects, they are as puzzled as the next person. They rarely if ever do this in public." 

Stephen Barden  12:23  
So, I had to try and find leaders who would be prepared to talk to me in a space where they could feel safe to be vulnerable, confused, and curious about themselves, and where they did not feel bound to protect their record or reputations. In the book, I do go into how I found my sample of leaders, which was quite a saga in itself. But one of the most important decisions I made was that I insisted those leaders be anonymous. 

Stephen Barden  12:54  
Even where I thought that an individual was not particularly concerned about displaying vulnerability in public, I still thought it was important to anonymise them. It wasn't actually the ego, I was worried about it, it was about the human tendency to make sense of our lives in public. 

Stephen Barden  13:11  
To give one's life some form of coherence, I wanted to make sure that they didn't feel that they had to defend, justify, or even make sense of anything publicly. And less by design than by sheer good fortune, I helped that process by not asking them to tell me about what had made them successful. I simply wanted to know about their experiences, and what they went through while they were leaders. That was my intention.

Stephen Barden  13:42  
In their telling, however, they steered me one by one, and much to my surprise, to their childhoods. And that, in turn, opened up the doors to what I called their navigational stance, their entry point into dealing with their world, based on what they'd learned to assume was their level of power, vis-à-vis that of their world.

Stephen Barden  14:06  
And from there, I could build a model, a theory, about what objectively successful leaders had in common as far as their navigational stance was concerned, and what other assumptions, or worldviews, they had formed as a result. And the book expands on that initial research, both with further investigation, but also with how I use that model in my own practice. 

Stephen Barden  14:33  
An extract I thought would be useful is one that is about someone who was not entirely successful, and not entirely unsuccessful either, like most of us. Here's the story of someone I call Harry. Harry, a man in his 60s, was not a part of the original research, but I had worked closely with him for a number of years. I include his story here as a contrast to those whom I identify as successful leaders, not a direct contrast but someone who had all the appearance of a 'partnering navigational start', who in fact, fully understood the value of it, but could not get past his true foundational assumption. 

Stephen Barden  15:20  
Harry had developed a navigational stance that concluded that the world was manageable except in one vital aspect, physical power. He learned in a childhood dominated by older brothers, a variety of boy's boarding schools, and a 1950s macho small town that you could be as smart, charming, popular or studious as you'd like... But it could be all trumped by a punch in the mouth. Was this entirely true? Probably not. But it was his truth, the truth that he had experienced when he had first started exploring his place in the world. 

Stephen Barden  16:00  
There were plenty of other dorky kids in the town who had concluded they could do business with the local jocks, or even that those jocks weren't worth talking to at all. However, Harry had concluded that physical power was one, something to be valued, and two, an asset he didn't have much of. He assumed the former, partly because his world had emerged from a war in which all heroic exploits were still being celebrated as largely physical. He accepted the latter because, ironically, it was true. He was younger and smaller than anyone in the class. 

Stephen Barden  16:43  
To make matters worse, unlike most of his classmate's dads, his father hadn't fought in that war. So when his father advised, don't retaliate, ignore those bullies, you're much better than that Harry's silent response was, what do you know, you've never even seen a fight? So, Harry's stance, his central assumption about the world was that even at its most stupid, it could always Trump you with a swift kick in the teeth. 

Stephen Barden  17:16  
Harry did not assume he and his world were balanced. His world held superior power, which it could unleash at any time, it could not be trusted. Harry and his world were in opposition to one another. His spacemaker, his oppositional navigational stance was working with the enemy. He could do business with the world but in the manner of the frog and the scorpion. Some time or other, the scorpion world would sting, simply because that was its nature. 

Stephen Barden  17:57  
So that's part of the story of Harry. The good news for Harry and the rest of us is that since that foundational assumption is learned, it can be unlearned, adapted, or changed. And as I've said, so many times this book isn't just about leaders, it may have used successful leaders as the starting point, but the model applies to all of us. And in the book, I expressed the hope that it may help us to reflect on at least how we bring up our children. So with apologies to my own adult offspring for my not uncovering the navigational stance 40 years earlier, here are some thoughts on children from the book.

Stephen Barden  18:43  
There are three elements that as parents and educators we can influence. The first is space, we can provide a space which is relatively safe from abuse from those with greater power. The second, problems, we can stop protecting our children from problems and make sure that they see them as normal world-things rather than crises. And the third is learning by experience. We can give our children the space both to understand and experience that problems, like life itself, can only be managed by being faced and tackled. 

Stephen Barden  19:25  
We need to enable our children to learn to experience managing their world, a world where obstacles and problems are normal and not specifically designed to frustrate their uniquely unencumbered path to success. All we can do as parents is to ensure like lionesses that our offspring have the space to explore without invasion by hyenas, and if at all possible, without falling off a cliff. 

Stephen Barden  19:56  
Those of us born in the 1950s, particularly in the middle classes, are responsible for a space distorting shift. Baby Boomers had to fit in around the rest of the family but when it came to raising their own children, they put them right in the centre. The family revolved and still revolves around the children. The focus on our children as special, and making sure they don't disappoint us has shrivelled the space within which they can explore their world and trial their own errors. 

Stephen Barden  20:32  
They have little room to develop their own relationship with the world in which they can manage problems without the smothering benevolence of their parents. We may not rule quite as openly as our parents did, but that's only because we have robbed our children of the ability to be responsible for themselves. We may say to our children, my darling, you're special, you can be whatever you want, as long as you're happy. But make no mistake, they feel our disappointment when their chosen career or even ballet class is not special enough. 

Stephen Barden  21:09  
And if they persist and choose their own path, they will always worry that they did not measure up to our standards of specialness. When problems do arise, they are seen as abnormal, or even crises, which by their nature trigger alarm and anxiety. Alarm, in turn, suppresses rational thought in favour of the faster fight or flight response. So they may become very good at fighting or avoiding their world, but not so good at living in and with it. 

Stephen Barden  21:43  
Ironically, a byproduct of this fight or flight may be very good news for our society. The generation of children born after 2000 has quickly become alert and alarmed at real crises, and they have become sceptical enough of their own elder's filters to push back. A glowing example of this is the global climate change movement Friday's for Future, beginning with solitary protests in 2018 by the then 14-year-old Greta Thunberg in Sweden.

Stephen Barden  22:18  
This movement now includes millions of children throughout the world who at the time of writing strike every Friday from their schools to force their elder's attention onto climate change. They do this consistently and peacefully every week in the face of open bullying and abuse from political, and corporate leaders, and many media commentators. 

Stephen Barden  22:43  
Another example of this mass pushback was the strike by 1000s of children in the US who walked out of their classes in March 2018 to protest against gun violence and the slaughter of their classmates. They did so despite the scorn of their elders and betters, including the lunatic claims that either those massacres were staged, or the protesters had no minds of their own and were organised by sinister, manipulative adults.

Stephen Barden  23:15  
If this book does its job, it should say something to all of us, whether at work or in our families. But because I believe that our leaders have such a significant impact on us, particularly in times of crisis, much of the book is focused on helping us change what I believe is a flawed, if not a broken, model, about how we choose our leaders, how we develop them, and how we manage them while they are in power.

Stephen Barden  23:47  
I'll close this episode with a short extract from the end of the book:

Stephen Barden  23:53  
"current leadership models with their persistent emphasis on mimicking or emulating individual leadership figures have failed and badly so. There are very few major political or business leaders, at the moment, who are committed to moving their entire constituencies forward. 

Stephen Barden  24:13  
There are very few such leaders who can continue to burst the leadership bubble around them by making sure that their challenges, and by that I meant those people or systems that challenge them, are always heard. And there are too many leaders who assume power in opposition to their world, rather than working with it to help us all to thrive. 

Stephen Barden  24:40  
Ironically, most such leaders display much more hostility to their own constituents than they do to their competitors or peers. They brood and rage at the betrayal of criticism and disagreement, or protests from inside their domain even at the most trivial level. 

Stephen Barden  25:00  
Why? Because their childhood constituencies and their families, their most intimate arenas, where were they learned to assume their disparity of power. As adults, oppositional leaders remain trapped by the assumptions and worldviews of children. My hope is that the navigational stance model will help them, and us, to find true adulthood."

Stephen Barden  25:32  
'How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World: The Navigational Stance', is published by Routledge and is available as a hardback or ebook from their site or from your local or online bookseller. 

Stephen Barden  25:48  
I really hope you enjoy it and more importantly, I hope you find it useful.