Leading from the Core:
How to "Be" Versus "Do" Leadership

by Nick Craig

According to Business Week Magazine, a total of 1,300 CEOs were fired in 2005. That's more then double those fired during the previous three years. The next year, 2006, was right on pace to beat the 2005 number with an average of six CEOs fired each day. At the same time, more than 22,000 books on leadership are available today on Amazon.com, so the good news is that there is no lack of advice on how to lead. The bad news of course is that advice isn't necessarily the solution.

The majority of those books on leadership profess that if you practice key elements, you will become a better leader. Some advice is helpful, but does it create real leaders? We have all taken courses on leadership and practiced the given set of six or 10 key elements central to specific theories. Today, those course books and accompanying materials are collecting dust. Hopefully, we have integrated at least one or two elements and have become slightly better leaders than before.

True leadership is that invisible, unmistakable something. My experience suggests that, as elusive as it might seem, each of us has the gift of being a powerful leader.

Unfortunately, as the levels of uncertainty and change accelerate in our world, the half-life of what one "does" that works is becoming shorter and shorter. What is "in" today is "out" tomorrow. In the past 10 years, leading through cost cutting, operational efficiency, and re-engineering were all in. Today those kinds of leaders are being replaced by new ones who can focus on innovation and creativity. Tomorrow innovation and creativity will be out and xyz will be in.

On the other hand, most of us have been around a leader whose tenor and core values transcended the style of the day. In those cases, it wasn't the things the person did or said, but who they were as a complete package, that made us stand up and take notice. The difference was how they were "being" at that moment. Contrast this person with someone who does or says the right things, but your instincts don't trust or feel that the expression is genuine.

In the process of working with thousands of managers over the last 20 years, I have heard each tell me about a time in their lives in which they literally stepped up their game and showed up as a leader.

Each leader has a unique style. Some are quiet and focused, while others are high-energy visionaries. Leading is not a fixed set of elements, but a unique high "core" state.

Janine decided to make a big leap, from working within a highly structured for-profit corporate executive job, to working for a nonprofit institution. What she didn't realize is that she would really have to show up. In the for-profit, the leader was very strong, and Janine only needed to be a good manager. In the nonprofit, she discovered a huge leadership void. Immediately, she had to make big decisions, think four to five steps ahead and operate with a very high level of focus on values and impact. Quickly, she became a role model for the organization on a set of behaviors she had never exhibited before.

John, on the other hand, was always leading the charge and leaving everyone dependent on him as the star to pull off the impossible. When stress and overwork caused John to miss three weeks of work, he was confronted with the downside of his management style. To everyone else, it looked like John changed overnight into a leader who now empowered others and became a great mentor. John realized that whom he had been as a little league coach was a more powerful expression of his core leadership style.

I use the word "core" to suggest that it is already hardwired into each of us. When we operate from our core, decisions get made, results occur, people are motivated, we say the right things, we tell the deep truths that wake everyone up, and we really make a difference. The paradigm shift is seeing leadership as a unique high-performance state versus a set of the latest popular characteristics and traits. Leadership becomes a different game when we access our own style, instead of duplicating someone else's.

When was the last time you were operating from your core?

Think of it this way… we all have a red Ferrari inside the two-car garage, which also houses an Impala station wagon. On occasion, the Ferrari works great, but most of the time it doesn't want to start. At some point, we forget it's there. The manuals are in a foreign language and it costs a fortune to have someone coach it into starting. The dependable Impala always works, but it just isn't the same thing, i.e., big, heavy, boat like maneuverability, with performance of a slug. We may try beefing up the Impala, but it is never going to be a Ferrari.

Much of what we do well, whether driving to work (in the Ferrari) or addressing an issue we have resolved before, is "hardwired" into our brain. Do you remember everything about your trip to work today? The good news is, because it is hardwired in, we don't need to focus much energy on it. As we access visual images of a scene, we connect with the hardwired neural circuits that are associated with that image. Just think of what happens when you hear a song from your early years, and how you instantly go back to that experience. What if the same is true about leading? What if it's simply a matter of accessing the existing hardwired core leadership state?

What you need is a simple way to access your core state. Find someone and share two to three stories of when you really "showed up" and led. What were your leadership characteristics at this time? What strengths did you demonstrate? How can you apply that to your current situation?

Notice the impact of sharing. When I ask executives to tell me two or three stories of when they have really stepped up and "led" in a way that changed them and the people around them, magic occurs: they "show up" right in front of me! All their strengths are expressed, their weaknesses disappear, and they begin to access their core high-performance leadership state.

And yes, it's great taking the Ferrari for a spin…

Nick Craig focuses on leadership development and coaching, top team effectiveness, strategy implementation, large group interventions, and the application of intuition to decision making and future growth. Nick splits his time between supporting MIT's Center for Leadership and leadership initiatives at a number of Fortune 500 companies. Nick can be reached at 978-772-7268 and ncraig@leadershipatthecore.com or www.leadershipatthecore.com .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2007 by Nick Craig. All rights reserved.

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