Leadership Passages: The Personal and Professional Transitions that Make or Break a Leader
by David L. Dotlich, James L. Noel and Norman Walker

What Is Effective Leadership?

Sweet are the uses of adversity. -- William Shakespeare, As You Like It

If you want to become an effective leader, what, specifically, should you do to make that happen?

Hundreds of leadership books purport to answer this question. Broadly, the research, thinking, and writing about leadership can be divided into two camps. One camp holds that leadership is all about behavior and that if you want to excel, you should learn and replicate the key behaviors of good leaders. The other camp holds that leadership is all about character, values, and authenticity, and companies that adhere to this view focus on transmitting company values and orienting leaders to the right way to do things.

Both approaches are valid - and incomplete.

Consider that in recent years the leadership development industry has exploded. With the increase in training programs and knowledge about this subject, logic dictates that we should be doing a better job of meeting the organizational demand for talent. In fact, most organizations bemoan the dearth of "ready now" leaders with maturity, judgment, and skill.

What's missing?

Over the years, we've taught, coached, and counseled hundreds of senior executives in Fortune 200 companies throughout the world. Leaders who do not succeed tend to be people who lack self-awareness. Daniel Goleman has made this basic truth clear by describing the importance of emotional intelligence as an important component of effective leadership.

High-performing leaders are aware of their strengths and their weaknesses; they talk and think about their limitations and failures and try to learn from them. They see themselves as continuously learning, adapting, and responding to both positive and negative circumstances. Most important, they are highly conscious of their feelings and behaviors as they move through life, including personal and professional passages: losing a job, being promoted, changing companies, mourning the death of a loved one, dealing with a divorce, and so on.

These passages have an impact on leaders, just as they do on all of us. If you go through them with your eyes-and your mind-closed, you diminish your own development. If you go through them consciously and are open to the lessons they hold, you dramatically increase the odds of being a consistently effective leader.

Ineffective Leadership Development

Most organizations, of course, don't look at leadership development from the perspective of passages. Because of intense competition and the need to build a pipeline of leadership talent, many companies have recently begun to recognize the value of coaching and of conducting 360-degree assessments, as well as other self-awareness-building tools. But companies are still intensely results-driven. Leadership development tends to focus on outcomes, behaviors, competencies, cases, and skills. The reality of leadership is denied, including its self-questioning, its self-doubt, even its vulnerability. Every day, we encounter messages equating strong leadership with certainty, firmness, and the absence of self-reflection.

Explicitly or implicitly, most companies discourage people from talking about their problems or seeking help as they navigate some of the most important circumstances that affect their lives as individuals and as leaders. People may talk to their boss or coworker about the demands of work, company politics, conflict, unmet expectations, or inadequate performance. Or they may discuss specific issues that were pointed out during a performance review. But the discussions usually stay focused on action rather than feeling-on how they can solve the problem rather than face the underlying issues with which they're wrestling.

Similarly, in the senior ranks of most large companies today, discussion of significant personal experience remains a taboo. People experience all types of traumas in their lives that shape their outlook as well as their character and commitment. And they are expected to suppress discussion of these events at work. Only through coaching senior executives have we discovered how significant these personal passages can be and how much they affect, actually even shape, leadership behavior. The result is that people sit on their feelings and separate their leadership role from their private self. Invariably, this chasm is projected into the work environment, creating a perception of inauthenticity and even distrust.

Working through the significant passages of life and career requires time and space for reflection, and companies generally don't allow people this time and space. Consequently, they persevere through these passages oblivious to their impact. If they fail at work, they deny culpability. If they feel terribly sad, they force themselves to be relentlessly upbeat, optimistic, and confident.

Although this may look like effective leadership, it comes with significant costs. When leaders aren't in touch with who they are and what they feel, they are ineffective as leaders. They do not convey passion, power, or persuasion. They may reject feedback, fail to see the negative consequences of their actions, respond poorly to stress, or miss important relationship signals from others. Perhaps most significantly, they don't deal well with change. Only when people know themselves, acknowledge their experiences and feelings, and confront their humanity do they demonstrate resilience and the capacity to adapt.

Leadership Development That Includes Learning from Passages

The good news is that passages can serve as a career roadmap. If you're aware of what the passages are and how to go through them, you'll learn and grow from each experience. And this constitutes effective leadership development. To understand how this leadership learning and growth takes place, let's look at a 2 X 2 matrix (Figure 1.2) that puts it in perspective.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the matrix shows that there's more to leadership development than taking on a variety of work challenges.

The combination of diversity and adversity, cross-hatched with personal and professional experiences, drives leadership learning and growth. More specifically, it's a leader's willingness to reflect, face into, and talk about what he's going through that facilitates his development. Unfortunately, many companies don't encourage reflection, conversation, and openness. The personal side of the matrix is generally ignored, and job adversity, especially any type of failure, is viewed with disapproval. In succession-planning discussions or promotion decisions, failure, setbacks, and reversals are entered on the negative side of the ledger. And yet good leaders fail frequently. Although some of these failures are public and spectacular, such as a CEO missing the analyst projections for three quarters in row, many are private and partial. It's not unusual for someone to do well with one aspect of an assignment and not so well with another. For example, leaders may succeed in mastering the technical or financial aspects of their job but fail to develop or engage people.

At times of adversity, people experience teachable moments. These are windows for learning, for making quantum leaps in emotional intelligence.

Although everyone experiences adversity and diversity in unique ways, the general nature of these experiences can be predicted and prepared for. When you know the passages you will encounter, you're better able to maximize their value as learning tools.

A Test of Learning from Passages

The odds are that you've gone through at least a few of the thirteen passages.

  • Joining a company
  • Moving into a leadership role
  • Accepting the stretch assignment
  • Assuming responsibility for a business
  • Dealing with significant failure for which you are responsible
  • Coping with a bad boss and competitive peers
  • Losing your job or being passed over for promotion
  • Being part of an acquisition or merger
  • Living in a different country or culture
  • Finding a balance between work and family
  • Letting go of ambition
  • Facing personal upheaval
  • Losing faith in the system

Choose one passage from this list that you've gone through. Based on this particular passage, answer the following questions:

When you were going through this experience, did you have much time to step away from it and think long and hard about what was occurring?

After the passage ended, did you reflect on what had taken place? Did you put this event into the larger context of your life (work or personal) and attempt to figure out its meaning in the greater scheme of things?

Did you engage at least one other person in conversation about this passage? Was this conversation confined to the problem and possible solutions (what happened and what you might do about it), or did you talk about deeper issues: how it made you feel, your fears, your expectations?

If the event had an adverse consequence, did you admit to yourself or others how you may have failed or come up short?

Is there anything you learned from this passage? Motivate you to reassess certain assumptions? Make you aware of vulnerability? Motivate you to acquire a specific knowledge or skill? Prepare you to handle a similar passage better in the future?

If you're like most people, you answered no to at least some of these questions. Most of us lack the time, energy, and inclination to go through these passages consciously and deeply. Consider, though, that the benefit of doing so is greater leadership effectiveness.

David Dotlich is the author of five books, including Why CEO's Fail. He is the CEO and Managing Partner of the world's leading executive development firm - CDR International, now a Mercer Delta Company, which specializes in top-tier executive education, consulting, and coaching. Former Executive Vice President of Honeywell International and Groupe Bull, he has worked with leaders at Johnson & Johnson, Intel, Pfizer, Washington Mutual, Nike, Sprint and Novartis, among others.

James Noel is a leadership consultant and executive coach to the world's top corporations and their leaders, and he is a Principal of CDR International.

Norman Walker is the former worldwide Head of Human Resources and member of the Executive Committee at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.

Leadership Passages:
The Personal and Professional Transitions That Make or Break a Leader

by David L. Dotlich, Norman Walker and James L. Noel

One of the best of the year!

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Copyright 2005 by David L. Dotlich, Norman Walker and James L. Noel. All rights reserved.

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