Leadership is a Choice and Like an Iceberg

by Sandy Nelson on July 23, 2012

Effective leadership comes in many forms. There is no single formula or prescription for being or becoming an effective leader.

Optimally effective leaders, though, share a set of common characteristics—they have and declare a clear vision for the future. They are authentic. They have and consistently act with integrity, and exhibit courage in the face of adversity and risk.

Truly inspirational leaders—those who inspire passionate followership—deepen authenticity through heartfelt and frequently demonstrated empathy and care, are audacious in the boldness of their actions, decision making and choice of focus, and have a strong presence that attracts others to share time, space and engagement with them.

Sadly, trust in leadership is at a disturbing low today. In her recently released book, The End of Leadership, Barbara Kellerman notes that only 7% of all employees trust their leaders.

Describing an abject failure of organizational leadership development over the last three decades, Kellerman advocates for continuation of proactive development programs, but contends that most leadership initiatives lack focus, are poorly executed, absent meaningful metrics and produce few sustainable, value-additive results.

Regrettably, I largely agree with these assessments. Something is badly missing from most leadership programs and there is a need for radical re-imagination of the beast.

What is missing? First and foremost, acknowledgement and understanding that leadership is a choice. You and I choose, each day, to lead or not to lead.

In the absence of the mindful choosing of leadership, there is none. Shall we step up to the plate with a higher purpose in mind, deep commitment to service and a willingness to opt for actions that serve the greater good? Or, shall we allow ego, insecurity, personal interests and comfort zones to overcome our opportunities to wisely, selflessly and courageously help others achieve shared and individual aspirations, while positively influencing the course of history?

In my experience, far too many organizationally-generated and -facilitated programs gloss over the role of choice as an essential driver of leadership. Uncomfortable with the perceived risk of going too deep in a politically correct and seemingly perilous world, leadership and development professionals tend to choose safety and continuation of personal engagement over the possibility of conflict and feared retribution.

Secondly, leadership is like an iceberg—10% above the surface and 90% below. In most internally designed and managed leadership programs, far too much attention is focused on the 10% above the water. Asking what can one can do to become a leader, the foundational questions of who am I and what matters to me, go largely unasked and unaddressed.

This approach, of course, assures failure. Leadership is much more about being than doing—as Socrates declared, “Know thyself”. Self awareness, integrity within risk, contradiction and uncertainty, the courage to ask, answer and act consistent with what matters are each and collectively essential to effective leadership.

Leadership, therefore, emanates primarily from within. The optimally effective leader has asked and answered the important questions in life:  Who am I? What matters to me? Where am I going, what are my values, standards, promises, commitments and priorities? In my life, what is negotiable and what is not?

Yet, so many leadership gurus and programs, organizational and independent, focus primarily on the doing part of leadership.

A decade or so ago, Jo Anne and I proposed and were invited to lead a session entitled “What’s Your Bottom Line?” at a Fast Company sponsored conference in Philadelphia. During a break in our preparations, we stopped by a conference-wide session featuring one of the leading authors on leadership— then and now. The course title? “Fifty Things a Leader Must Do.”

Early in this gentleman’s presentation, somewhere around the twelfth thing that must be done, an audience member interrupted. “Mr. ___, which of these fifty things should I focus on, because there is simply no way I can do them all.” The speaker, unfortunately was dumbfounded. Unable to utter a sensible response, he simply said, “you choose” and went on with his lecture.

Fortunately, there are only a very few things an effective leader has to do—read the world, reduce complexity to essence, inspire, align, mobilize and focus talent and action. No small order, but achievable given discipline and effective commitment management.

If leading were solely about doing, we could all learn to lead in relatively short order. But, with all due respect for those of you engaged in designing and delivering organizational leadership and development efforts, the time has come to focus on the 90% of the leadership iceberg that is below the surface.

The 10% above is continuously transformed by the elements, changing, sloughing off, morphing as winds, waves and temperature shape and reshape the visible. No number of hours devoted to delineating things to do as a leader will successfully produce effective leadership.

Under the surface is where the heart and soul of successful leadership is to be found. It is there that the key questions are asked and answered, choice made and leadership born and driven.


Sandy Nelson

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