The First Lesson of Effective 21st-century Leadership: Stop Being the Boss
As a leader and entrepreneur I often want people to do as I say and not give me their opinion or disagree. So often we’d get through things much faster and I that way. But I try not to give in to that easy solution because I’ve learned, time and time again, that without my team’s input and feedback, I am wandering around in the darkness of my own small view. I still feel like imposing my will on others by reminding them that I’m the boss, but I’ve discovered that however satisfying the results are today, I don’t like what happens the day after, and the day after that. It’s not worth it.
Facing disagreement isn't easy and I don’t like it much, but I trust the process, and I know that if I listen, we will all be better off. My colleagues really have good minds. If I shut down their perspectives I lose our collective vision; and let’s face it, an individual’s vision is way smaller than a collective vision. I have to open to new information, stay centered and in my body, aware of my breath and presence. Then the new information can roll in unobstructed, and I have the capacity to integrate new ideas and respond effectively to complex situations that are changing rapidly.
This has been the secret of much of my success, and I’m not the only one discovering it. We are in the midst of a profound change from a mechanistic view of the world to a systems view.
The mechanistic view has been with us since before the industrial revolution. In organizations, it still shows up as factory-based models of management that rely on command and control. Although many organizations still maintain commanding and hierarchical models of management, these kinds of models are in conflict with what is emerging and needed. While still able to create financial success, command and control models are not as resilient as systems of shared leadership and collaboration. They get short term results, but they bring catastrophe with them tomorrow, and the day after.
If we can complete this transformation to a systems perspective, the results for the world will improve almost every aspect of daily life; but this will require consultation, a toleration of honest disagreement, and constant vigilance against taking the easy way out by reminding the people whose perspective we need to see the big picture that we’re the boss.
It is not easy to transform our ways of leading toward collaboration. Yet the times we live in demand it. There is huge change afoot, and we need to respond and adapt to the conditions that are upon us. If we want to adapt, learning about a systems view is critically important. The shift away from a mechanistic view of life is part of our reality. Sparked by findings in physics and fueled by the discoveries of neuroscience, the understanding of our interconnectedness rests upon and within a systems view of life.
One of the most important principles of a systems perspective is that everything is connected to everything else. This sounds logical, and yet it is hard to remember. When we are locked in a difficult meeting where no one understands anyone else or the real issue is the elephant in the room that no one can see or is allowed to speak about, the world can shrink to a small and intense series of interactions that do not seem connected to anything else.
“The world is wide and vast,” is a Zen saying that expresses a truly systemic view. Although my life and being may be small in the vastness of the universe, I am part of the vastness and the vastness is in me. If I remember this, my actions connect with a larger purpose and I am able to rest in the deep and mysterious vastness with more ease, remembering our interconnectedness and the space we inhabit together.
This also means that my actions, even if small and in the moment, can have an impact that is greater than I perceive. If I am centered and feel joy or peace or kindness, then that experience can touch others. Our brains are designed to understand each other. Our mirror neurons not only enable us to understand what another person is experiencing, they enable us to experience the other’s exact experience. When frustration, anger, or panic move through a meeting, my own ability to lean into the difficulty creates integrative resources of energy for myself and others.
Remembering that we are part of the living Earth connects us deeply with others. We breathe the same air; we all rely on the oxygen created by the plants on earth. How we treat each other and our work in every meeting is important, and it affects others who may not be present. Life on Earth is a dynamic interplay of systems, chemicals in the atmosphere and on the earth. We may think that our petty arguments and conflicts are harmless, but they are part of the living systems, and impact the outcomes of our collective efforts, sometimes for years to come.
Everything we do is interconnected with living systems, humans, animals, forests, land, water, and air, and the web of life. It may sound ponderous, but it is really magical and wonderful. Whatever we do, we are in it together, and the more we develop our ability to work together, the more we foster life. Sounds awfully good to me.