Rethinking your own leadership

The success of your organization or workplace, as you already know, begins with you! Over the next couple of weeks your challenge is to be brutally honest with yourself by constantly reflecting on these questions:

  • Is my leadership, more often than not, aligned with traditional, autocratic approaches or would others describe me as participative and democratic? Click here to read more on an array of different leadership styles.
  • Do I regularly give my people opportunities to share their ideas; do they feel as though they are being heard?
  • Am I skilled in the art of tapping into the combined wisdom of groups?
  • Do I constantly remind myself, and others, in day-to-day dealings that every single action, interaction or inaction can potentially affect the future of the organization?
  • Have I created a climate and culture that values and nurtures mutual trust and healthy relationships?

Before moving on, please take the time to carefully ponder each question. You may even want to go out on a limb and ask others (e.g., employees, colleagues, and supervisors) what their perceptions of you are in each area. When you’re ready, read on.

Taking leadership to a higher plane

It is only fitting to start off with W. Chan Kim and Renee A. Mauborne’s leadership parable, The Sound of the Forest.  It reads:

Back in the third century A.D., the King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear.

“Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.”

When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request.

Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy.

“These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard.

“Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard – the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.”

The master nodded approvingly.

“To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.”

This remarkable parable can definitely help springboard your reflections, and serve as a framework for the ideas that will be captured throughout this post.

Listening to your people

Do you have any disgruntled employees in your workplace? Maybe a couple, huh? Is their lack of motivation or periodic outbursts harmful to the progress of the organization? What is their reasoning?

Try this.

Next time you see one of these employees, pull them aside behind closed doors and ask them the following question. “(Name), I noticed that you were a little upset over . . . .  What’s going on?” Pause, sit, wait, and just listen. I bet you 9 out of 10 times they will, in one way or another, share with you that they feel that their input is not valued. They will tell you that they are not feeling “heard.”

As a leader, and a facilitator of change, one of your primary objectives should be to constantly collect the perceptions and ideas of your employees. The information is of incalculable importance. Too often, we tend to make major decisions without seeking the advice of those upon whom those decisions have the greatest impact.

This is the mark of autocratic practice, a path so rife with roadblocks it can quickly defeat every change initiative in several ways. In due course, results achieved without involvement can lead to bitterness and a lack of buy-in. Once employees disengage, it is difficult to sustain results. With that in mind, leaders aiming for sustainability ought to seek techniques to help facilitate participation.

Try this.

You have to get your hands on a copy of two must-read books.

  • The Change Handbook by Holman, Devane and Cady (2007). Sixty-one different change methods are offered and written by the originators and leading practitioners in the field.
  • The Practical Decision Maker by Harvey et. al. (2001). This resource includes fifty-four different structuring devices for problem solving with your people.

Also, take some time to read the post Open Space Technology: A truly inventive meeting design.

Structured meeting formats using effective techniques allow the leader successfully to obtain information on complex problems from several people. And it is your responsibility to seek out a pocketful of these approaches. Listening by means of purposeful, structured facilitation induces rich dialogue and creative ideas.

Try this.

After perusing flipping through the above-mentioned books try out a couple different meeting designs with your staff. You will be surprised at the group’s wealth of knowledge that might surface.

Always keep this in mind. Your authority and respect are earned through your acts of listening and invoking a diversity of ideas from others. Better yet, you acquire power when you empower.

Complexities in the organization

Every action, inaction, or interaction either positively or negatively impacts the entire system. I cannot stress this point enough. It is a fact of life; everything is interconnected.

Hopefully after reading this section you will have the outlook to begin dissecting your own workplace—seeing all the connections. There are two helpful posts that can help capture this fresh perspective. The first is Bringing the Organization to Life, in which organizations are compared to the delicate living organism. The leader’s responsibility, using this metaphor, is similar to that of a medical doctor. They must treat dysfunction to keep the organization healthy and vibrant. In another post, Employee Conflict Resolution: Eight Essential Practices, I offer what Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky (2002) described as “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” Both metaphors offer the insights necessary when trying to make sense of everything.

Try this.

You have all heard the proverb, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” With that being said, once you have a grasp on the metaphors your task is to create a depiction or map of your organization. Yes…draw a picture of your organization. This may seem elementary, but the process will give you the chance to sit and quietly reflect on the dynamics that are currently unfolding within your organization. Take into account the continuum from each individual all the way to the organization as a whole. Do not worry; there will be no need to turn this representation in to anyone.

It might not be transparent at first, but repeatedly ask, “What is really going on here?” Keep probing—the breakdown will emerge.

This procedure can take whatever form you feel most comfortable. A great resource to assist with any brainstorming process is a book titled,Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative-thinking techniques, by Michael Michalko (2006). This book is an ingenious tool to get your inventive juices flowing, presenting you the ability to approach problems in unconventional ways.

Feel free to use any routine that best suites your strengths and needs. For example, if you feel comfortable with the old-fashioned pencil and paper model, then knock yourself out. I, on the other hand, prefer to use various computer software like Microsoft® Word or MindManager® in my art/brainstorming sessions. This allows me to better my skills in each software application, as well as develop an attractive document.

Nurturing trust through relationships

There is one thing that is common to every individual, relationship, team, family, organization, nation, economy, and civilization throughout the world—one thing which, if removed will destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business . . . . On the other hand, if developed and leveraged, that one thing has the potential to create unparalleled success and prosperity . . . . That one thing is trust. (Covey & Merrill, 2006, p. 1)

Trust starts at the top. You caste a big shadow—whether you like it or not. Everyday, your formal and informal conversations are under a scrutinized microscope. Everyone weighs the value of each of these interfaces and follows your lead. The struggle that refuses to go away is that all it takes is one misstep and trust can be broken.

It is important to note the study that Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (2002) conducted. The researchers facilitated a survey to 75,000 people worldwide, asking the open-ended questions, “What values do you look for and admire in your leaders?” Overwhelmingly, honesty and trust were selected more often than any other characteristic.

Trust is paradoxical though; in order for one to gain trust they must make themselves vulnerable by extending their own trust. In other words, you must demonstrate your trust in others before asking for trust from others.

Try this.

This is a simple one. Spend the next couple of weeks really getting to know your people. Make a concerted effort to share your own life outside of work, your families, and interests. Share a funny story with them. Be vulnerable. Schedule a meeting with an employee who may be hesitant to trust you. Ask about their weekend. When you make a mistake; admit it!

Final Thoughts

Recently, I had the fond opportunity to get lasik eye surgery and now my vision is 20/10. What a great feeling. The lens I view the world from has gone from the dipole antenna (also known as “rabbit ears”) to High Definition—overnight. I had no idea what I was missing. Now I can drive along the road on those beautiful days; capturing the magnificent colors of the leaves within the trees. It used to be a blur.

I hope this initial post has improved your leadership “lenses.” From now on find clarity through listening, relationships, and the fact that each encounter—between you and your employees—is an intervention or prevention.

Next time you are behind closed doors with an employee, facilitating a meeting, or having a friendly conversation, remember that this contact has an effect on the system—big or small. Remember the “butterfly effect?” One small “flap of your wing” could eventually provoke adversity in your organization. If you keep this notion in mind in your day-to-day dealings, then you will be off to a great start.

Activities in a nutshell

  1. Reflect on your current leadership practices.
  2. Develop a meeting agenda filled with inclusive processes.
  3. Draw a picture of your organization.
  4. Continue building relationships with your people.


Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change

Strong Schools Strong Leaders Cover

References for this post

Covey, S., & Merrill, R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York: Free Press.

Harvey, T., Bearley, W., & Corkrum, S. (2001). The practical decision maker. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Education.

Holman, P., Devane, T., & Cady, S. (2007). The change handbook: The definitive resource on today’s best methods for engaging whole systems. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2002). Leadership: The Challenge. (3rd Ed.). New York: Jossey-Bass.

Michalko, M. (2006). Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative thinking techniques. Berkerley, CA: Ten Speed Press.


7 thoughts on “Rethinking your own leadership

  1. Pingback: Discovering your informal leaders « WiseFoundations

  2. Pingback: Creating explicit norms or protocols « WiseFoundations

  3. Pingback: Re-inventing organizational values, beliefs, and goals « WiseFoundations

  4. Pingback: WiseFoundations » Blog Archive » Creating explicit norms or protocols

  5. Pingback: WiseFoundations » Blog Archive » Re-inventing organizational values, beliefs, and goals

  6. Pingback: WiseFoundations » Blog Archive » Discovering your informal leaders

  7. Thank u for your words of wisdom. Living in a remote part of the world, I feel good to hear such pieces of advice from a practising Principal. Indeed my situations are quite similar.

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