Leaders sometimes face challenges that, with their current thinking, they find insurmountable. The problem may be sudden and unexpected, like a serious illness or natural disaster. It may be a slow-building crisis, like a marriage failing over time, the exhaustion of backbiting competition or workforce dissent. Or it may be challenges of success, like the emptiness of material excess, alienation from children, or slowly waking up to one’s complacency in the face of humanitarian or ecological devastation.
The seemingly unresolvable pain of situations like these can force re-examination of unquestioned “truths,” beliefs, values and priorities. This process is often deeply painful, as a leader in such a situation is repeatedly humbled in the face of existential realities. However, in the drive toward resolution with a more embracing solution, one’s neurology can literally upgrade itself to a higher level of complexity: a new way of being and seeing that is congruent with the demands of the more complex life conditions. Clare Graves’ “Levels of Existence” theory of adult development describes this neurological upgrade process as a leap of consciousness.
Previously, a leader may have used objective rationality, strategic thinking and calculated risk-taking to compete and win in the game of business. They mastered “directive management.” But after navigating the kind of transformative crisis described above, their way of being in the world changes dramatically. Suddenly, this leader hears feedback from subordinates that they have become weak, soft and indecisive. To followers, the ship appears to be rudderless. One of the “crew” may even seek to take over the role of skipper. The leader often suffers a crisis of confidence.
Notably, contrary to their team members’ critical views, leaders in this situation have greatly expanded their capacity to handle complexity and ambiguity. They have greater empathy and tolerance for multiple and potentially contradictory views. While this perspective increases the data available for decision-making, the leaders have in parallel become less autocratic in making decisions. They are drawn to more inclusive, less hierarchical group processes. Their directive approach has morphed into participative management. In “The Never Ending Quest: Clare W. Graves Explores Human Nature,” Graves describes the new mental perspective: “Organizations will prosper when all play a role in the decision making process, when all have a say. [Participative management] gives power to the managed and acceptance to those who run the organization.”
The leader’s locus of control has shifted outward to the group, and groups accustomed to directive leadership may flounder or even mutiny. The leader may struggle with low self-confidence, wondering if they should even be leading. They themselves often do not recognize the leap in capacity that they have made: the ability to consider more perspectives empathically, cope with greater uncertainty and ambiguity, and lead with diminished aggressiveness. The mailroom employee’s opinion is now listened to with the same respect as that of the senior vice president of quality. The leader highly values sensitivity, interpersonal communication and contribution from all.
How can a coach support this leader in leveraging the benefits of their new capacities while bridging the potential credibility gap between the leader and his or her team?
Firstly, this stage of development is focused on collaboration that should be named and mutually appreciated by coach and leader as such. If you’re not able to work collaboratively with the leader, coaching won’t work. Openness, candidness, authentic honesty and mutual understanding are key to generative coaching with such a leader.
Secondly, with the new worldview activated, the leader may not wish to manage using earlier directive approaches. But those earlier systems are still accessible and sometimes indicated. The circuitry remains, but it has been transcended. Help the executive realize that his or her former behavior patterns are a choice, not a reflex. Leading from the front is still an option when needed.
Thirdly, with an expanded capacity for relativistic ambiguity, the leader can slip into valuing all equally – which can impair his or her capacity to prioritize. Introduce or co-create a framework for ordering and sense-making. This framework allows movement beyond “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking, which then lead toward “both/and/and” thinking.
Fourth, with all the joking criticisms of holacracy aside, the executive at this level can hold a working mental model of situational-hierarchically organized, collaborative work, which translates into teamwork where leadership responsibility shifts across team members according to work/task requirement fit.
At this level of existence, decentralized command and self-directed teams can become a reality. Typically, these leaders have the opportunity to create a new degree of transparency and psychological safety, which, as Google’s team effectiveness research has shown, dramatically increase team effectiveness. The coach needs to encourage these leaders to maintain their confidence in the face of heavy criticism from the people surrounding them, who are literally unable to see the world (yet) the way they see it. And the coach should be aware that leaders reaching this level of existence often experience a legitimate pull to leave the organizations they have been part of, because they no longer tolerate the organization’s stiffness.