Written by Greg Lourey, Director at The Leadership Circle Asia Pacific
We all have insecurities to do with our work where we want to be relevant, look good to others and know we have worth in the greater context of the organisation. These insecurities, fears and assumptions can shape our behaviour and cause us to act in ways that limit us from being more effective and successful leaders.
Many senior executives make the mistake of thinking, “What I do is who I am.” The moment we associate our sense of self, our worth, our security with external conditions, we sentence ourselves to a roller coaster experience in which we never quite catch up because of the prevailing anxiety that exists.
One of the most significant transitions leaders must attempt is reframing the belief that they need to please and be respected by those around and above them to be effective and successful. We may develop many competencies and a solid track record of success along the way, but to the extent that we assign approval of ourselves to others, we’re essentially playing to avoid losing respect.
In the heat of organisational life choosing to fully engage requires the capacity to hold the paradox which exists in the fear of winning or losing anything (including this year’s bonus) and is an emotionally demanding journey few leaders undertake. However, there is a level of effectiveness and inspired performance on the other side of this threshold that comes with more flow and less effort.
Most organisations have a set of leadership competencies and measure against these with various 360-degree assessments, peer reviews and customer feedback. We seldom look more deeply at the assumptions and the mental operating system that drive our behaviour. We ask leaders to change aspects of their behaviour (like delegate more effectively) without looking at the assumptions that create the old behaviour (if I want the job done properly I must do it myself.) No wonder we revert to the old ways so quickly.
There are three self-limiting assumptions or mindsets that can reduce the effectiveness of leaders:
1. Excessive control
This strategy for reacting to unrecognised fear or anxiety can manifest as a need for perfection, an exaggerated driven stance or heightened ambition. The tendency to adopt an autocratic style when greater involvement is actually called for is a lead indicator.
We’re trying to prove something to someone and the only barometer of success is a perfect score or a pile of achievements or acquisitions that continue to grow. There is a secret inner assumption we don’t measure up and excessive control is the compensatory strategy to keep us feeling worthwhile, valuable and secure. It seldom does for long.
2. Excessive aloofness and criticalness
With this strategy we attempt to stay on top by knowing more than others and using our perception of being smarter and more intelligent to critique and diminish the contributions of others so as to secure firm footing for ourselves.
This is largely a cerebral kingdom and the distance that needs to be kept from ‘lesser’ others is a core part of the strategy. We don’t see ourselves as part of the culture or operations we criticise. To admit to not knowing is to invite catastrophe. In extreme cases, people simply cannot be found – they bury themselves in the details of their work or lob their decisions from afar.
3. Excessive approval seeking
If we hold an inner assumption our true value and worth lies in the hands of others, then it stands we will do what we can to manage how others see us. We avoid conflict and have trouble telling the truth if important others may be upset by it.
We say yes when we mean no and then quietly sabotage the work we say yes to. The mere act of coming to work can be an endless game of walking on eggshells. We don’t learn to contend for what matters to us. The candour required on elite teams is missing. You might be surprised to find even the toughest sounding leaders can struggle with approval seeking.
We may achieve a level of excellence in our leadership results for a period of time, sometimes years. However, until we can identify and address our self-limiting assumptions and mindsets we will miss higher, more elegant levels of leadership where we can achieve more with much less effort and strain. Transformation happens when leaders see their own mental software.
About the Author
Greg Lourey is a Director of the Leadership Circle Asia Pacific. He has worked with executives and senior teams in the United Kingdom, US and Australia over a period of 30 years advising businesses in systems effectiveness, operational efficiency, organisational structuring, risk management, business start-ups and culture transformation.