BY MARYBETH GRONEK
Volatility does a number on the human soul.
It makes us lean on protective mechanisms, revert to old and unhelpful patterns, and embrace suspicion and desperation where we tread. At best, it makes us shrink back. At worst, it brings out the ugliest parts of us.
It’s at this point, in the middle of a crisis, where we need leadership.
We need it more than ever.
A leader can be the head of a household, the head of a classroom, the head of company, and yes, the head of a country. There are no minor leagues here. If you have people looking up to you for direction, you are a leader. And you owe it those under your authority to wield the power well.
The good thing is, what it takes to be a leader in bad times is the same as it is in good times. It’s just that the stakes are much higher. And the gap between effective and ineffective leaders is more obvious.
So what does it take to lead with excellence? It’s the 3 I’s of Leadership.
The 3 I’s Of Leadership are intelligence, instinct, and inspiration. Let’s unpack what each one of these mean & observe how they operate in action.
Intelligence relates to the past. It is the ability to acquire knowledge and skills. This can be personal acquisition, or, surrounding yourself with knowledgeable ‘others’ who can help you make informed decisions. Psychologists have broken down intelligence into two categories:
Strong leaders have both crystallized and fluid intelligence in spades. We have all had leaders who possessed one without the other and observed the negative ramifications. For example, a person who has more degrees than Fahrenheit, but can’t seem to figure out that a direct report is so-obviously-duping them. Not a good leader. Or the person who operates from common sense but lacks the polish or communication skills to garner the respect of others. Also a poor leader. Both crystallized and fluid intelligence are needed to lead with excellence.
Instinct relates to the present. It is your gut reaction or *intuition* that guides you. People make decisions based off of 1) what is concretely available through the 5 senses OR 2) off of their intuition. Sometimes, it’s a bit of both. Those familiar with the Myers Briggs personality test understand this as the sensing vs. intuition (or S vs. N) dichotomy.
Only 25% of the population are intuitives. Meaning they perceive indirectly by way of the unconscious and let their instinct guide their decision-making process. They are more concerned with possibilities than actualities. To sensors, this sounds terrifying. Why would someone let anything but objective reality guide their choices and actions? I’ll tell you why. Because in most situations, it’s the best and most reliable option. It just so happens, that our intuition is more trustworthy than we realize: it’s comprised of primordial knowledge, millions of years of interpersonal dynamics, compiled over generations and generations. Instinctual knowledge is hard-wired into our brains and is as healthy for us as their air we breathe.
Over time, we have come to suppress our instincts in favor of the ever-trusted, socially-lauded “objective reality,” that is, that which can be perceived through the five senses. Don’t get me wrong, objective reality is important, but it isn’t everything. Martin Lindstrom, CEO, renowned author, and leadership authority posits that instinct is the most important leadership skill, and provides example after (CEO) example to prove his point. Why are we so hesitant to embrace this? Or rather, how do we come to suppress it?
What kills a person’s ability to lead with instinct:
Yes, instinct is mysterious. Yes, it is unpredictable. But a leader needs it. An excellent leader is not only in-tune with their unconscious, but is also comfortable and adept leading from it.
Inspiration relates to the future. It is the ability to influence, move, or guide others into the unknown. It is being visional and missional. It is having goals and letting the mission drive you. Inspiration is like a cold — first you have to catch it to pass it on to others. You can’t lead others well if you fail to effectively paint a hopeful vision of the future, and if you don’t, at your core, believe it yourself.
An inspirational leader:
Every notable leader though out human history — Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Theodore Roosevelt— all had this. The ability to inspire people. The ability to live a life of integrity. The ability to rally others around a common culture and vision for the future.
I was recently on a Virtual Happy Hour call (those are becoming more frequent in these times) with friends from across the globe. While we are in different time zones, and possess different worldviews, we converge on this point — a collectively shared experience of crisis. Every country, company, and individual is dealing with the same hidden enemy: COVID-19.
We were talking about how the respective leaders in our sphere were dealing with it. My friend Fred, who lives in Canada, mentioned a public figure in local government who was experiencing a surge in popularity in the wake of this crisis.
“He was called out in press conference by a journalist saying that two weeks ago he said something that his actions now are contradicting. This leader responded Yes, I said that. Things have changed. We are in a different moment now. And we have to change course.”
Bingo. No one wants a stubborn leader. Someone who sticks to their old decision even when new information proves it is not the best path. That’s a poor leader, someone who is leading from ego not from instinct or intelligence. Also, we don’t want a leader who refuses to own their past actions. Who pretends they didn’t say what they said or do what they did. That is also a poor leader, someone who is leading from self-protection, not inspiration.
This leader did both things — owned his past decisions & statements, but also the responsibility to change course with new information. He embodied intelligence, instinct, and inspiration in that one moment. Which is why his people respect him. And his popularity is soaring amidst the crisis.
The CEO of my day job did something similar. A few weeks back, right when everyone started working remotely, he sent out a company-wide email saying that based on the criticality of services we provide to the public, we would need to continue reporting in-person to the office. I remember feeling a bit disappointed about it. But I trusted that he had all the information he needed to make the right decision in the best interest of our customers, communities and associates. It took a lot of guts sending that when other CEOs were sending similar emails with a different directive.
Two days later, he sent out another email to the following effect: ‘Due to the rapidly changing circumstances we are facing in this challenging climate, we are moving toward a remote working approach.’ In just 48 hours he changed course. That second email took more guts than the first. This is what effective leaders do: they use up-to-date intelligence, instinctual knowledge, and inspiration to make critical decisions. They pivot irrespective of ego, in alignment with the 3 I’s. Leaders who abandon any or all of them steer their ship off-course. And lose the respect of their people in the process.
An important note re: CEOs and world leaders. Understand that they have the weight of their companies and counties on their shoulder. Quite literally. I appeal to your humanity for a moment. Imagine having such pressure, and having to make decisions with those considerations. Another one of my friends that was on the aforementioned call is a small business owner. He had to lay off 5 people this week. It was the first time he had to lay someone off in 40 years. It broke his heart. But it was the tough decision he had to make to keep his business afloat. He grieved with us on the call. And we held space for him to mourn what had to be done.
So have some grace for the leaders in your life. Even the ones you don’t particularly like. They are people too. They are doing the best they can with the information in front of them. They bear the immense responsibility of best stewarding that which was entrusted to them. Let’s do our part to respect their decisions, even the ones we don’t necessarily agree with.
I started this article with what it takes to be a good leader. I ended it with a discussion on what it means to be under authority, and how to do that well too. This wasn’t an accident. They are two sides to the same coin. The brutal truth: we need to understand how to be under authority just as much as we need to understand how to lead. Because everyone has both in their life. The more I am called to lead others in my life and bear that responsibility, the more I hold sacred my ability to be easily led by those in authority over me.
Because I understand the weight of leadership.
And I understand the unspoken rule between leaders and followers.
As a leader I know personally there is always more to the story, always more than I am at liberty to share. As long as I lead from the 3 I’s though, I will have the respect of my people. And there is an implicit, unspoken agreement between leaders and followers, that as long as leaders abide by the 3 I’s, followers are okay with not knowing everything. They trust their leader is making decisions in the best interest of their team/constituents.
So for those you lead — hold fast to the 3 I’s. Make decisions in-line with intelligence, instinct, and inspiration. You’ll rarely stray from the path. And when you do, your people won’t bludgeon you.
And for those under authority— be easy to lead. We see in part, they see in full. And they are making decisions accordingly.
And for the leaders you have lost respect for? Don’t offer them ire or contempt. Any impassioned response from you gives precious energy they haven’t earned. Offer them grace. That is all an honest person, in-tune with their own leadership shortcomings and their own ugliest moments, can give. A little humility goes a long way.
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