Whether or not we like it, life places us in positions of leadership everyday. For instance, as parents we are leaders to our children; often, our friends seek our advice and counsel; and as we grow older, parents, who used to be our leaders when we were children, look up to us for guidance. In everyday life, the question is not whether we are leaders—that we are, in any case—but whether we are good as leaders.
How do we learn to be good leaders?
Drawing on an extensive set of interviews, leadership gurus Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas have argued in their book, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2002) that successful people learn to become leaders from life-changing experiences that the writers call “crucibles”.
Crucibles are of three types: A reversal (a death or a divorce, for example), a period of suspension (losing a job, for instance), or “new territory” (such as a new role in unfamiliar contexts). According to Bennis and Thomas, going through a crucible and learning from that experience is what shapes leaders.
The concept of crucibles is insightful, but somewhat limiting in that they are defined as life-changing hardships. Everyday life brings us many experiences that are not “life-changing” but may hold important leadership lessons. Routine experiences often put us through—to quote the poet Cecil Day-Lewis—”the small, the scorching ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay“. Just like leadership is thrust on us quite often, lessons in leadership also come to us at all times. Consider a story that Nicholas Burbules and Paul Smeyers call the “Broken Cup Story“.
The Broken Cup Story
A little girl was helping her mother do the dishes when a cup accidentally slipped out of her hand. It fell to the floor and smashed into pieces. “Without hesitation,” said the daughter as she recalled the incident more than 60 years later, and before she could even cry, the mother picked up another cup, threw it to the ground, and said, “See? It doesn’t matter.”
This is a simple story that is a part of everyday life. What does it illustrate, though? Most apparently, of course, as Burbules and Smeyers say, the story is about how the mother reassured the child that material things do not matter and that all of us make mistakes. We can also argue that the mother’s action conveys she is not angry with the child.
But at a deeper level, this story is about a lesson in leadership: Specifically about how someone in greater authority handles a subordinate’s mistake; and more generally, about how one handles unforeseen, unfortunate turns in life—the big and small crucibles that we go through. Considering the daughter was recounting the story 60 years later, it is clear that the experience had formed a “lesson” in leadership that has stayed with her for decades.
Leadership in Everyday Life
Once we expand the notion of a crucibles from “difficult life-changing circumstances” to the smaller occurrences of everyday life, we are faced with two questions that demand we scrutinize the very notion of leadership as something that is relevant only to people who have official authority and public reach.
First, how do we learn a leadership lesson? It is not enough to have a transformative experience—the real lesson of leadership is in what one makes of the experience, what one takes away from it, how one distills it, and arrives at a solution that is sensitive to the context of the experience. Many people go through crucible experiences, but as Bennis and Thomas note, the difference between those who become leaders and those who don’t lies in how they learn from crucibles.
Second, a “leadership learning moment” doesn’t come with a name tag. So, how do we recognise such a moment in our everyday lives? As the Broken Cup story illustrates, everyday experience gives us tremendous opportunities to not only learn how to lead but also to actually engage in acts of leadership that become model acts for others. Consider the mother in the story. What kind of wherewithal gave her the ability to respond so quickly? Why did she choose to respond in that manner—herself throwing a cup on the floor—to demonstrate to the child that the dropping of a cup was a non-issue? Why did she not give the child a hug and reassure her with words? And, what about the fact that she herself could have possibly learnt something about leadership from that incident?
Both the ability to lead and to teach others about leadership depends on how well we develop and use two qualities: awareness and sensitivity. Awareness helps us to be alert to everyday situations—it enables us to recognise that a child has made a mistake, that a subordinate is facing an ethical dilemma, that a friend is going through a tough phase, that a senior-citizen parent has an “embarrassing” need. Sensitivity helps us develop a response that is appropriate to the context—a child breaking a cup and a subordinate losing a customer may both be unintentional mistakes, but everyday leaders will handle each of these situations differently.
Intelligence-Driven Everyday Leadership
Interestingly, ancient philosophical traditions coupled awareness and sensitivity. I have become convinced over the years that among all the different qualities needed to be a leader, the concept that unifies awareness and sensitivity is the most essential quality.
Greek philosophers called it nous, while Indian philosophical traditions termed it viveka. In modern parlance, we roughly translate both of these terms to “intelligence”. Intelligence is the defining trait of humankind (homo sapiens)—throughout human history it has been the driving force behind innovation and leadership. Given this, it is not difficult to recognise why Emotional Intelligence has become such an important component of leadership development programmes.
My own research and consulting over the past decade has taken the notion of intelligence further and built on the theory of multiple intelligences. A framework of five intelligences helps individuals and organisations develop the leadership and the context-sensitive dynamic strategy needed to succeed in turbulent business environments.
But, that would be fodder for another post!