By Xavier Coll

Image credit: NASA

“The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” — Michael Collins, Apollo 11.

At root, leading is the ability to motivate others to achieve a common goal. For this to happen, a good leader must create a clear sense of purpose, making it crystal clear where we are going and why. Leading implies the ability to unlearn to relearn. Without it, one cannot innovate or adapt to changing settings.

Leading is also an act of service based on compassion and humility. It is the art of putting oneself in other people’s shoes and recognising one's own limitations. Finally, leading is being able to see beyond the here and now and give a deeper meaning to our daily lives.

Leading implies the ability to unlearn to relearn

Leading organisations and people competently and sustainably has always been an arduous task. Embodying all the skills of a good leader in a single person is a huge challenge. Now, this sounds like a miracle as our society and organisations undergo systemic change.

I have this mental image of a ship's captain at the helm as he battles against wind and waves to steer a course. Just to make life harder, there are other variables too: crew, how much fuel he has left, uncharted shoals, and even the port he is bound for. Standing in front of the binnacle, the captain steely resolve and firm stance inspires confidence. Moments later, a huge wave sweeps him overboard.

We all face a rising storm, with ever bigger, less predictable waves. That is why the ability to lead is increasingly questioned. Recent global surveys show that only one in five employees consider their boss to be inspiring. Another survey shows that most employees would rather change their boss to getting a raise. This largely reflects managerial (mis)behaviour patterns that show arrogance, a lack of focus on people, and callousness.

Only one in five employees consider their boss inspiring

In such a hostile setting, how can we prepare managers to be competent leaders and withstand the onslaught of waves and changes of sea state? Peter Drucker once said that leading begins with oneself. The ability to guide and motivate others involves knowing how we think and acting in consequence. Self-knowledge lies at the root of good leadership.

The good news is that business schools and companies are now aware of the issue. Meanwhile, cognitive sociology, neuroscience and medicine are providing a growing number of tools to guide personal and professional growth. The next few years will bring about selection processes for executives that are as rigorous and scientific as those for athletes preparing for the Olympic Games.

Today’s captains of industry are no longer the result of schooling in hierarchy, mission and command, nor are they all men. The new helmsmen and helmswomen are individuals who connect with themselves and with others and who have a sense of duty towards the organisation, its people and society as a whole. They have the patience and wisdom to listen, they guide and give people space to grow, and they transform and adapt to changing environments.

Self-knowledge lies at the root of good leadership

They are women managers and male managers who invest every day in their growth and in that of their teams. They are healthy leaders in body and soul. These people are rarely taken by a wave and, when they are, they have the resourcefulness and strength to swim, reach land and start sailing again.

Beyond these attributes, leadership must go beyond the daily grind, organisational tasks and immediate goals. It is not an easy or obvious journey and only a handful of people from a given generation get to take it. It is no longer about sailing to reach a known port. It is about rising, dreaming and discovering new ports and lands.

The astronauts revealed that their most shocking experience was not seeing the Moon close up but seeing the Earth from afar. This has been called the overview effect, which refers to the cognitive change people who see the Earth from space undergo.

From the Moon, our planet is perceived as a small and fragile sphere hanging in the void, protected by the atmosphere’s thin veil. From a distance, borders disappear, the conflicts that divide us become footling. The need to create a society with the common goal of protecting our tiny pale blue mote in the cosmos becomes self-evident and pressing. 

People who see the Earth from space undergo the overview effect

The overview effect in leadership translates into the ability to see from afar, to seek and find global and profound meaning in our goals and actions. The challenge is to close our eyes, visualise what Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins saw fifty years ago and set our priorities, not only to help us achieve our daily and most immediate goals but also protect our fragile world. This means taking a more generous, broader, collaborative, innovative vision of how we create wealth.

There are many reasons why one could question this broad vision of leadership. Knowing yourself, one can argue, is not the basis for being a good manager. The best proof of this is the superficial books that sell this concept and fill our airport shops. One can get the impression that this is just the latest fad.

Leadership needs to go a few steps further

To sum up, many argue that the keys to leading are: having clear ideas, executing specific goals and rewarding those who do most to get results. This does not require witnessing an Earthrise, just rigour, reflection, and application.

I grasp these arguments and I do not question this grounded vision of what it may take to be a good leader. After all, this model has been the driver of many business successes in recent decades so why question it? The challenge now is to realise that this model, though still useful, is no longer enough.

Despite the close on $50 billion spent each year on management education, employees’ evaluations of their bosses continue to worsen. At the same time, business environment complexities are growing exponentially and our individual capacity to interpret and manage these changes keeps shrinking.

The number of managers swept overboard by rogue waves is likely to climb

That is why the number of managers swept overboard by rogue waves is likely to climb.

Leadership needs to go a few steps further. These steps need to be both inward – towards knowledge and self-management – and outward to experience the overview effect and to understand the global impact of our actions.

For this to happen, one does not need to be a psychoanalyst or an astronaut. But we do need to push our leaders towards new concepts and learning.

Back in the Fourth Century B.C., Aristotle wondered: How can someone run a city if they do not know how to manage themselves? Almost 25 centuries later, seeing the photos of our tiny blue sphere from the Moon we face this question: How can we lead to protect ourselves from our fragility and move together towards a common goal? The key lies in the answer to these two questions.

Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Let us take this to heart and imagine a different type of leadership that is freer, broader, more agile, inclusive and innovative.

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