I like this definition of leadership from Greg Dess: "Leadership is the process of transforming organizations from what they are to what the leader would have them become. This implies dissatisfaction with the status quo, a vision of what should be, and a process for bringing about change."
Based on this definition, are you a leader? How about the managers, directors and executives in your company? Are they exercising leadership, or simply maintaining the status quo?
Notice that all three aspects of this definition are necessary for good leadership. If you are satisfied with the way things are and can't see any way to improve, there's nothing to lead people towards. Hence, dissatisfaction is necessary because it points out the problem. I guarantee that your life is not perfect, and your workplace includes areas of friction where change would be beneficial. If you want to increase your leadership skills, begin to be intentional about seeking out friction areas. Watch the people and processes around you for areas of improvement and you will soon find them. Ask questions. "What if I..." "How could we..." "Why aren't we..." The squeaky wheel will become apparent and you will have the opportunity to lead others in applying the grease.
But dissatisfaction alone is not sufficient. I've worked with a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the way things are, but have no vision for what could be. They complain to their peers, grumble to their friends and family about how bad they have it, and become jaded and sarcastic about almost all aspects of life. But they have no idea what to replace the status quo with.
If that describes you, the road to health involves intentionally asking yourself "What makes me angry, frustrated, or annoyed about this situation?" "What do I really want?" "Why am I here, instead of somewhere else?" Many people stick around too long in an unhealthy situation because they have never allowed themselves to give an honest answer to these questions. Leadership starts with yourself, and if you are so dissatisfied that it leaves you bitter and jaded, it may be time for a drastic change of scenery. Find a new job, go worship at a different church, get a new group of friends. Wherever that bitterness is coming from, it will keep you in a downward spiral until you either change the situation, or give yourself the freedom to get out.
People who have dissatisfaction and a vision don't become jaded because they have hope. That vision for what "could be" is one of the greatest energizers available to humankind. It provides direction and a goal to strive towards. A vision can become a rallying point for friends, coworkers, and even strangers. Think of all the people who showed up in Washington D.C. for the women's march in January, 2017, or all of the disenchanted individuals who camped in public spaces across the United States during the Occupy movement. Dissatisfaction provided the impetus, and a vision was born for what could be. But what was the result of these movements? It's not completely clear.
While publicity was immense for the Women's March and Occupy, both lacked a process for achieving change. As a result, whatever net effect these movements had are minimal compared to what could have happened if stronger leadership had been in place.
What applies to these large movements also applies to much smaller situations, including your own circumstances. If you have both dissatisfaction and a vision, use that energy to create a process. Write down a plan. Set goals and objectives that are measurable (measurable means they are not abstract; you could either achieve them, or fail to achieve them). Now you are exercising leadership, as you have not only cast a vision, you have also created a road map and have started down it with everyone else who was captured by your vision.
Books I am currently reading to satisfy my curiosity and increase my understanding of myself, the people around me, and the world at large:
On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman
This is an engrossing look at the psychology of killing from ancient times through the Vietnam War. According to Grossman, the vast majority of soldiers in combat (not just in the military, but actually in combat) have never killed and have never even fired their weapons at an enemy soldier. This is due to a healthy psychological barrier. Starting in Vietnam, the U.S. began using a new type of combat training that makes firing a weapon more instinctual, undercutting the natural psychological barrier. As a result, firing rates have gone up dramatically. This has implications for our military, as well as our law enforcement. An increase in someone's willingness and ability to shoot must come hand in hand with increased ethical and situational awareness training.
Grossman also addresses PTSD and the support structures that make PTSD less likely, and the book is worth reading for that section alone, particularly if you have a family member in the military or law enforcement.
On Killing is not without flaw. First, where are the sources? Some of the data feels questionable and Grossman does little to acknowledge critics. Also, Grossman should stop with his area of expertise (killology), and not foray into cultural exposition. After some hyperbole about Hollywood and video games in the introduction, I read the rest of the book with one eyebrow raised. Still, it is a fascinating read and will introduce most readers to a new subject they know little about.
Man's Search for Himself by Rollo May
Boredom. Anxiety. Fear. Loneliness. These are characteristic symptoms of the modern self. As western culture shed cultural rituals and traditions after the dissonance of WW2, we found our orientation towards meaning shaken. The ancient ways gave us stability and a sense of affirmation that we were doing something meaningful with our lives. But the cultural revolutions that happened in the early 20th century have left us to seek and create our own meaning (this is one of the things we will talk about in a coaching session). Rollo May wrote this insightful book in 1953, but it is prophetic in the way it foreshadows the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, and later, postmodernism.
Rollo May (d. 1994) was one of the fathers of existentialist psychology and was incredibly well read. This book draws on philosophy (kierkegaard), psychology (Freud), Greek myth, and theology (May earned a degree at Union Theological Seminary and was a pastor before becoming a psychologist. He was also lifelong friends with influential theologian Paul Tillich). While this book is clearly dated (some of the psychological trends he describes are more pertinent to my parents' generation), nevertheless, it is invaluable for the insights it gives into the making of our national ethos, and the evolution of our self-perception. Reading May, I find myself stimulated and challenged to become more fully myself, and I have to thank my wife for introducing me to one of her favorite psychologists.
Reading these books side by side has been illuminating. Grossman is concerned with a mechanical question: How are humans, who are naturally reticent to kill, made into more effective killing machines? His answer has to do primarily with unconscious conditioning. May, on the other hand, sets the reader on a journey that frees the person from unconscious influences to move towards a complete and independent self that is full of wonder and intention. Together, these books lead to intriguing questions for reflection: How does the soldier, or the person conditioned to a response for the sake of survival, become a whole person? What is the proper place of authority, the kind of authority that asks to be obeyed without question, in a mature humanity?
A good manager seeks out and listens to complaints.
Complaints reveal priorities. When someone complains about a problem in the workplace, what they are really revealing is something that matters to them.
However, it's not enough to just listen to complaints and respond. A good manager is able to help people turn their complaints into commitments. In addressing this subject, Kegan and Lahey use the example of a person who complains that they are kept out of the loop on important projects. Turning this into a commitment resulted in the statement "I believe in open and candid communication."
Next, a good manager encourages people to ask how their OWN actions contribute to the problem. Phrasing it in a positive manner, "What are you doing or not doing, that is keeping your commitment from being more fully realized?" (Kegan and Lahey, 87).
Lastly, a good manager helps people overcome hesitation about making personal changes. "If you imagine doing the opposite of the undermining behavior, do you detect in yourself discomfort, worry or vague fear?" "By engaging in this undermining behavior, what worrisome outcome are you committed to preventing?" (88)
Managers who respond to complaints in this way will unlock the potential of their employees, and their company.