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Leadership Development: self-awareness, action and service

Does it matter which leadership development model you follow? Mayvin Director James Traeger explores what’s available and how to apply them.

Another day, another Harvard Business Review article with a five-step model to business success. God knows the author is probably trailing their current book, or even more of a professional foul these days: ‘the book I am currently writing’. (Aren’t we all?) All this earnest, heartfelt verbiage! Yet aren’t they all kind of saying the same thing? So, Leadership is a developmental process – you don’t say?! Well, let’s see if we can boil it down to 500 words or less. Five steps even.

Most workable leadership theories suggest that there are a few key developmental steps if you want to make a positive difference to an organisation or in life more generally. To paraphrase (ever so slightly), these are: Become more self-aware (‘know thyself’), learn to empathise, focus on ‘how you are‘ rather than just ‘what you do’, develop a sense of purpose-built on a firm moral/ethical/spiritual grounding, and finally, recognise that ultimately, no matter how much you think you know, what lies at the core of most of what happens is a bemusing, paradoxical mystery.

That’s it really. I don’t claim to be all that original here, but I have seen a lot of leadership development stuff over the years, and they all seem to point this way. It reminds me of what the Eighth Century Japanese sage, Kobo Daishi, said about the steps to enlightenment. The first step, he said, was ‘Get a good religion’. He didn’t specify which one. What he was saying was that it didn’t really matter as long as it was a good one. All the good ones are basically asking you to devote your life to practices of self-awareness, right action and service. So, find the nearest one to hand, practise it wholeheartedly, master it and then begin…

A slightly annoying habit, which is, I notice, shared by both most religions and leadership models, is that of suggesting that one of these good paths, the one they happen to be expounding, is the ‘best’, or worse still, the only path to progress. This trope is sometimes more blatant, sometimes more subtle. In religion, it is phrased in terms of being the ‘only truth’. In leadership models, it is often expressed through a little ‘Trademark’ Symbol, as in The Bleedin’ ObviousTM. Of course, both the institutions of Leadership and God are doing it for the same reason: it’s a crowded, buyer’s marketplace. But it is irritating to see some prophet, either of God or Harvard, suggesting that wisdom, generosity, transformation and compassion are all only truly available here! It seems to miss the whole point, somehow.

Now I don’t want to seem ungenerous myself. I do recognise that many people devote huge amounts of earnest effort to researching and thinking about and living their ‘way’ and that there are a great number of excellent approaches, jostling, perhaps unfortunately for headroom in a monetised, fashion-led industry. (That is true again both for the Leadership and the God Business). It is a shame that this means both tracks seem to lose their way as a result.

So my advice would be to follow what Kobo Daishi said: get a good leadership model and follow it religiously. Then let the work begin.

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