Today’s insights are brought to you by my colleague and global futurist, Keith Coats.
What do you do, after you stop pretending?
This sentence arrested my attention like few others. I was reading an absorbing book recommended by a friend with whom I work at London Business School titled, ‘At Work In The Ruins – finding our place in the time of science climate change pandemics & all the other emergencies’ by Dougald Hine.
The question immediately sent my thoughts spinning in a different direction, one admittedly out of the contextual orbit in which I had encountered the question, but one that nonetheless is relevant for many of the leaders with whom I have had the privilege to engage.
It is a question that strips bare the often unspoken fear behind leadership. So many find themselves thrust into leadership responsibilities not sure that they are ready, prepared or even capable of ‘leading’. Furthermore, they worryingly suspect that they don’t even fully subscribe to the underpinning ‘code of leadership’ that they now find themselves expected to uphold and exemplify.
They are encouraged to ‘fake it until you make it’ – a well worn survival code of sorts and one that besides traversing in the very opposite direction of what it means to be ‘authentic’, acts as a cancer that undermines a leader’s ability to position themselves as a learner.
How does one hold leadership and vulnerability in balance? How can a leader admit to being beyond their depth or comfort level and yet still have the trust, loyalty and commitment of those being led?
The first realisation is to acknowledge that the very terrain of leadership is beyond that of the known, the familiar and the ‘well travelled’. The definition of adaptive leadership is to lead others to make progress in the face of their biggest challenge – and for the leader, it usually means, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’.
Today leaders are facing increasing amounts of adaptive challenges, challenges that demand they assume the stance of a willing learner; challenges that require them to embrace the understanding that they ‘don’t have the answers’ and that to ‘fake it until you make it’ is to travel in the exact opposite direction to where it is that they need to go.
Once thrust into a leadership role, it takes extraordinary courage to, at the outset, resist and reject the pretence that is seemingly an accepted part of the role. It takes courage to say, “I don’t know…what do you think?” It takes courage to listen to learn rather than listen as a mere formality – a begrudging stepping stone to whatever action you have already made up your mind about.
We are not too familiar with such leadership role models and yet in a world where the prevailing conditions are those of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, surely we need to reassess our understanding of leadership practice and what it means to be a leader.
In the same way that our strategies and much of our understanding of various aspects of what it means to build an effective and successful company have had to adapt and change – it stands to reason that so too does our understanding of leadership.
Perhaps it is easier to embrace and explore whatever lies beyond ‘the pretending’ for those starting out than it is for those who have long been in the saddle of leading. The interesting thing is that I have often encountered those ‘long in the saddle’ who have privately admitted to high levels of pretence. It is simply better hidden and disguised…but that also makes it harder to discard and step beyond.
Perhaps this is why so many leaders are unwilling to change themselves or their business models; why so many leaders become so disconnected from the reality that is so obvious to others? It was author Max De Pree who said that the ‘first responsibility of leadership is to define reality’. Perhaps so much of what we have been ‘taught’ about what it means to lead makes this ‘simple task’ beyond the grasp of so many in leadership.
‘What do you do after you stop pretending?’ It is a great question and one that I would encourage you to explore in whatever direction beckons. Philosopher Sam Keen suggests that to be on a quest is no more or less than to be an ‘asker of questions’. This seems a good question to start with…
P.S. I really haven’t done this great question justice. There is so much more that it deserves than this very light engagement that I have offered. I think in part it has to do with my ‘haste to get it out’ and allow you to begin to explore it in the context of your own life and leadership that has contributed to me simply putting a light first primer on the question. I am sure you will take it both further and deeper and as you do so, I would value you looping me in on that exploration. As Meg Wheatley said, ‘reflection is the place where all intelligent actions begin’…
About the author of today’s Tuesday Tip – Keith Coats
Keith Coats is a founding partner of TomorrowToday Global and leadership specialist. He is now based in Cape Town, South Africa having relocated from London towards the end of 2021. Keith works with blue chips companies and in multiple business school leadership programmes worldwide helping senior leaders prepare today for the challenges and threats of tomorrow…and sometimes, the ‘day after tomorrow’.
Recently Keith’s travel has included working throughout the UK, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, and of course, South Africa.