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Four Keys to Personal Mastery & Change

If we were able to peer long enough through the fog surrounding leadership, or listen hard enough above the cacophony of noise – at its core – leadership is about change. And at the very heart of leadership is creating and leading meaningful change.

Adaptive Challenges Will Trip You Up

Most of us know from experience however that leading change effectively is rarely a straight-forward undertaking as we navigate the complexity and sometimes murky waters of adaptive challenges. Ron Heifetz at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government first wrote about adaptive challenges nearly three decades ago. He drew the distinction between adaptive challenges – those that keep on keeping on – versus technical challenges where we know how to solve the problem. Examples of adaptive challenges are climate change, recidivism (are we ever not going to need prisons?) and changing the culture of an organisation.

They are the challenges that sometimes create confusion, frustration and sometimes conflict within us. For example, a High Court judge once told me about the dilemma in balancing the needs of the perpetrator, the victim and the community. And how personally tormenting it was looking in to the eyes of the mother of the victim who was pleading for justice – and then looking in to the eyes of the mother of the accused who was pleading for mercy.

…how personally tormenting it was looking in to the eyes of the mother of the victim who was pleading for justice – and then looking in to the eyes of the mother of the accused who was pleading for mercy.

These challenges are non-linear in nature in that our approach often doesn’t create the intended changes. It sometimes feels like we’re riding a wild river, where you attempt to make a correction but it takes you off in a different and unexpected direction! Our measure of success therefore may not be resolution, but just making progress. (For those interested in learning more, I wrote a book entitled Leadership Without Silver Bullets in 2009 (updated last year) which features many adaptive leadership principles, then I wrote about an immersive experience at Harvard in 2010). So adaptive challenges are more about the heart (values, loyalties, priorities) than the head (logical, well-known strategies), but both are important and shouldn’t be neglected.

A Simple Way to Kill a Dinner Party Conversation

I have found from experience that if you want to kill a dinner party conversation, simply mention the words ‘personal mastery’. Most people – sometimes even those who work in organisational development – either (a) don’t know what it is; (b) don’t care or (c) think it all sounds a bit weird.

Most people attribute the term ‘personal mastery’ to Peter Senge, who wrote about it in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline. While a little elusive to grasp as a principle, Senge described it as “the discipline of personal growth and learning” , but added that it’s more than just growth and learning. It starts by clarifying what really matters most to us. It’s about creating a desired future and moving toward it.

Introducing the 4C’s of Personal Mastery and Change

In my consulting, coaching and facilitation career, I have worked across almost every imaginable industry at all levels up and down and across organisations. I have worked with leaders who were ‘walking egos’; others who knew no other way to behave except in aggressive or passive defensive ways; and others who were introverted and trying to find their voice in the world. I have also been privileged to have worked with many, many extraordinary leaders who want to make a difference in the lives of people and their communities.

Regardless of which type of leader I have worked with, many continue to struggle to be effective in the core responsibility of their roles – leading change. I need to draw the distinction between what Dean Williams calls ‘counterfeit leadership’ and real leadership, with the former – counterfeit leadership – looking like we’re leading but we really aren’t. Instead, we overlay a technical solution (one we know how to do because it’s usually our default) over an adaptive challenge. There is enormous pressure to deliver in organisations today, so it is no surprise that we sometimes take the easy road rather than the messier, zig-zag road of adaptive leadership.

The 4Cs of Personal Mastery are not meant to be a panacea, but rather seeks to highlight four key areas that can help create meaningful, deep change. It helps create the type of change that brings people along rather than alienates them. It aims to balance the logical with the emotional. It can also help create the type of change that is enduring rather than wallpapering a technical solution over a much deeper problem. It requires a ‘go slow to go fast’ approach, where there are no simple answers. For most challenges, if they were simple to fix someone would have done it a long time ago. These are the types of challenges that will benefit from the approach (see model below).

A Deeper Dive

In theory, you can start anywhere in the model. For example, you may decide that you need to be courageous to highlight a significant issue in your organisation, or you might decide that you need to be compassionate to really understand an individual, team or indeed the challenges and pain-points in an organisation. For the purpose of this article, we’ll start at Connection.

Connection – it is important to be able to connect with ourselves and other people. We need to know what is important both personally and professionally. These questions can help to clarify your thinking:

  1. What is important (to me, my team / business unit, the organisation, etc.)?
  2. How strong are my relationships? How trustworthy am I in the eyes of others?
  3. What is my purpose as a leader / contributor?
  4. How self-aware am I? When was the last time I asked a broad cross-section of stakeholders for feedback?
  5. How much personal reflection do I do?
  6. What do I want for myself? My team? My business unit, etc.?

Commitment – A clear commitment usually starts with a clear intention. A clear intent helps pave the way forward for committed action. One feeds of the other. However, we shouldn’t have blind commitment to achieve the goal however as this doesn’t represent the flexible approach needed to lead change effectively. Yes, we must have tenacity and resilience, but not at the expense of everything else. To understand commitment, reflect on the following:

  1. What is my intention? Why is this important?
  2. How committed am I to this course of action?
  3. How open and committed am I to learning from the experience?
  4. What are my core values and do I have a sense of conviction about them?

Courage – Courage is acting despite our fears and (perceived) threats. It means understanding how the team or organisational system is working and challenging the status quo. Perhaps Winston Churchill said it well when he said:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Reflect on the following questions:

  1. What do I fear will happen if I do ‘x’? What is my evidence to support that belief?
  2. How much is wanting to be liked getting in the way?
  3. How might I build my confidence to confront this challenge?
  4. How vulnerable am I being? Why? Why not?
  5. Who might I be able to partner with?
  6. Who can I confide in and use as a sounding board?
  7. What professional help (e.g. a coach) do I need?

Compassion – Compassion has been variably defined, but the version I connect with the best is Brenee Brown’s where she says, “Compassion is the feeling of wanting to ease the suffering of others. Self-compassion is the feeling and desire that we, ourselves, not suffer.” While the word suffering may sound a little dramatic, it can feel like that in organisations. You may connect better with thinking about alleviating pain or pressure points. Compassion is taking empathy to the next level. In empathy, I can feel what another feels, whereas compassion is feeling it and wanting to do something about it. That’s my interpretation anyway. And in terms of self-compassion, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that most people are their own harshest critics. We all need to practice a little more self-compassion.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What am I feeling in this situation? Why?
  2. How are other people feeling? Why?
  3. What will enable me to sit with the pain and discomfort long enough to truly understand it?
  4. How might I give myself a break?
  5. What boundaries do I need to communicate so I can be of service to others in this situation? Where have I allowed my boundaries to be weakened?

And So the Cycle Continues…

Once we have demonstrated compassion, we will connect more deeply with those around us, which then enables us to more fully commit to the right course of action. Our levels of courage demonstrated and compassion towards others may need to be amplified as our leadership work ‘levels up’ exponentially. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that as we follow the cycle in an upward motion, we will create more insight, influence and ultimately positive impact.

And one final comment if I may, don’t forget to demonstrate a healthy dose of self-compassion as you navigate the murky and rocky waters of change and experiment with different ways to bring the 4C’s to life.

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