When I was coaching senior executives overseas this Spring, I learned a great deal about myself, about cultural differences, and about leadership in general. I also had the opportunity to work with an amazing international team of coaches from TLG’s partners in the Enablers Network . It was a fantastic experience for me, with the added bonus that I got the chance to explore the beautiful city of Paris.
One of my favourite places in Paris was the Sacré Coeur Cathedral – a spectacular building that affords what is arguably the most amazing view of Paris (as long as you’re able to climb the 300 stairs to the top!) The story behind the building of the cathedral provides a lesson in visionary leadership.
Joseph-Hippolyte Guibert, then Archbishop of Paris, was climbing the Butte Montmartre in October 1872 when he was reported to have had a vision as clouds dispersed over the panorama: “It is here, it is here where the martyrs are, it is here that the Sacred Heart must reign so that it can beckon all to come”. Guibert would devote the rest of his life to seeing that vision become a reality.
Guibert faced many opponents, including powerful politicians who believed the project should not go ahead, but he persisted and managed to influence enough people for the project to get started. There were many other setbacks, including the death of the architect and a bill that was introduced in 1882 to stop the construction. Guibert, aged 80 at the time of the bill, fought hard and eventually the bill was defeated. He died four years later, before the completion of the project, but his energy and commitment ensured that it became a reality.
Leadership Isn’t a Position
So what made Guibert a great leader? It wasn’t that he was the Archbishop; there have been hundreds of those. What made him a true leader is that he took the lead on something he was passionate about. Many leaders have positional power and authority, yet never really take the lead on anything. Their leadership is a noun: a title, a position, but not an action.
Richard A. Couto, PhD, who has had a long and distinguished career in leadership studies, was recently quoted in the excellent journal Integral Leadership Review: “The critical task for the serious study of leadership is to separate the concept of leadership from leader as a noun denoting a person in charge with formal authority and to attach it to the verb to lead. The leadership of a leader is in leading.” [italics are mine]
Couto captures what made Guibert a true leader. I also agree with him (and the book he reviewed, “The End of Leadership”), that there a shift happening in the way we approach leadership. Today, leadership is not about the leader; it’s about the leading. That’s something that anyone can choose to do, no matter what their station in life.
Leadership is a Brain State
Once a person makes the choice to take the lead on something – once one commits to a cause or vision or initiative – it unleashes tremendous personal power, because it creates integration in the brain. When this type of commitment happens, the left and right hemispheres of the cortex work in partnership (the former works on the details and plans, the latter works on the big picture and long-term vision). The limbic system also kicks in and provides the drive and the excitement to keep the whole thing moving, and even throws in some “feel good” dopamine as a reward for continuing the work.
Perhaps in Guibert’s day, it would have been considered improper, even heretical, for a common person to presume that he could actually take the lead on an initiative the way Guibert did. In those days, “leadership” was reserved only for those with positional power. These days, however, it should be standard operating procedure that anyone in an organization can take the lead on an initiative if he or she so desires.
Leadership is a Team Sport
With the level of complexity of organizational challenges on the rise, it’s increasingly unreasonable to expect one person to be able to solve the challenges alone. The most effective leaders are those who empower their subordinates – literally giving their power away to them – in order to create the conditions for the right people to step forward and take the lead.
Most employees have far more to offer than what is taken advantage of in their workplace. When leaders focus on holding on to their positional authority and power they pass up a potential gold mine of creativity, knowledge, experience and brain power. But, when they allow (even encourage) subordinates to take the lead, they unleash passion, engagement and, possibly, brilliance.
Many ordinary people do take the lead in their communities or in initiatives of personal significance outside of work, and they create amazing results. In the organizational context, these same people are often expected merely to follow. In this way, the organization deprives itself of its greatest resources.
Having subordinates who want to take the lead is often misinterpreted by executives as a challenge to authority or as a threat to the executive’s career advancement. Other times, it’s simply considered too risky. This faulty reasoning prevents the fires of passion from burning in subordinates. They’ll come to work and do as they’re asked, but they won’t be using their full brain power. That requires full engagement.
What doesn’t help is that employees at the lower levels typically aren’t given all of the information that executives have. Hoarding information and keeping subordinates “in the dark” is a hallmark of 19th-century management. For organizations to succeed in the 21st century, it must be replaced by full transparency and employee empowerment. The failure to empower employees to take the lead on projects, initiatives and organizational change is a serious deficiency in many executives that must be addressed. There’s simply too much at stake.
Is Your Leadership a Noun or a Verb?
What happens in your organization? Do the leaders hold on to their decision-making power or do they encourage subordinates to take the lead? Do front-line workers and supervisors feel confident and encouraged to take the lead on projects or initiatives that interest them? Which word is more commonly heard from executives: “yes” or “no”?
Now, what about you? Have you identified the potential leaders on your team? Might there be a Guibert among them, who could, if given the chance, build a cathedral?