Have you ever thought you fully understood someone, when it turned out later that what they meant was truly different? All of us have. Most of us are initially certain we understand. The filling in the gaps machinery not only completes a less than complete message - it adds to it a certainty factor that becomes more entrenched the longer the message stands uncorrected.
This mechanism can be used in political practice as we have recently witnessed. A key metaphor used in the 2016 US presidential campaign was the system is rigged.
Seldom was this phrase modified, or if it was, it was from one candidate’s point of view. Most of the listeners already had a complete mental understanding of a rigged system and that it was a negatively biased against their interests.
Yet all systems are rigged. Any system we create has inherent rules and procedures developed from some systems framework. We “rig” the system to achieve certain goals - hopefully ones that account for all interests. In the governing arena these systems concern how to manage the economic, health, security, freedom, and other aspects of a national society.
In the current election cycle “the system is rigged” referred to different mental models depending upon whether it came from far left, centrist, or far right political speakers. In this election when the far left or far right suggested the system is rigged, they meant in a negative manner.
The far left rigging referred to the power of Wall Street, unbridled greed of certain capitalist elements, the insensitivity to changing economics that affect the middle class and poor, and the promise of globalization. The far right referred to the government corruption, job loss due to immigration, inadequate security, poor trade deals, and insensitivity to the religious, rural, and white middle class. The centrist view, infrequently spoken, attempted to suggest the system could use reform in both the governmental and private sectors.
This metaphor was powerful in 2016. And it relied upon a great deal of filling in the blanks. Once a mental model is created, a simple repetition of a key metaphor can drown out all competing messages. It might be a great communication practice for elections, but it is a poor companion for governing.
At the age of ninety-one, a young music student found him rehearsing alone and asked him why in world he continued to practice. He replied, “Because I am making progress.”
Communication requires the same devotion, if you want your leadership to rise above the ordinary. Even if you have a senior role in politics, are an officer of a renowned corporation, or are the head of a public sector charity, you need to continue making communication progress.
Platform skills communication training is largely constructed from anecdotal evidence, and some basic nods to corporate etiquette. It is surprisingly helpful when teaching those who have few or no communication skills. Advanced leadership communication skills require a far more reaching understanding of linguistics and cognitive science.
Aristotle’s rhetoric was the gold standard until about one hundred and fifty years ago for public speakers. Many of his thoughts still echo in modern rhetorical studies. Modern versions of rhetoric have updated his thesis and improved upon it. However, rhetoric alone often feels like memorizing the properties of all the periodic table elements without first studying the few fundamental particles that create all elements.
My study of neuroscience and linguistics reveals all communication employs three pervasive cognitive systems – factual, emotional, and symbolic. Facts never speak for themselves. Strictly emotional decision-making is a similar myth. And the power of metaphor and story are under-estimated at your peril.
Going beyond platform skills requires as much work as learning and applying other advanced knowledge domains such as strategy, economics, quality, or big data analytics. Yet far more time is given to these arenas than communication. Like any endeavor, advanced development requires advanced techniques and a devotion to learning that goes beyond the basics. You don’t become an Olympic weight-lifter by only practicing push-ups.
Among his insights is the following from his book Excellence, “Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued avidly to the end of our days.”
Many leaders I have worked have avid interests. I’ve know men and women who pursue sports or athletics passionately, practice a variety of forms of meditation or contemplation, actively engage in social causes, or extend themselves in some artistic way. I have caused many of them to wrinkle a brow and think about their honest answer to this question.
“Do you pursue your own growth as a leader as avidly as you do your other interests?”
Some of them say they do, some reflect and wonder if their leadership is perhaps enhanced by their well roundedness, and others remark that leadership growth happens when you are active in the world whether you think about it or not. While I appreciate their perspectives, any one of them seems to fall short of Gardner’s thoughts concerning not leaving growth up to the chances or circumstances of life.
I have pondered his advice for years and in my own research and contemplation have some suggestions for how any leader can improve their own growth. I will say up front that the following ideas may sound familiar, so I encourage you to reread them. They may also sound easy, but I assure you they are not.
1. Get involved in some things. Many believe that experience teaches and I agree, but only if you are willing to learn. Make deliberate choices about your activities and use them as a powerful source of learning about your own leadership. And while you are at it – vary your choices. It’s just like any kind of athletic training. The wider the variety of exercises the better the overall tone of your mind and body.
2. Self-reflection must become a habit. You can’t save up all the experiences in your life for a short duration review on your vacation or at a leadership retreat. Periodic self-assessment enhances the learning loop and while deep insights may or may not increase in frequency, they will occur closer to the time of the experience, which means you will get to leverage them sooner. I have had a conversation with more than one leader who has remarked that they wished they’d thought about certain experiences sooner because of the perspective they provided.
3. Make friends with the truth. Whether you are engaging in deep self-reflection as a matter of habit or due to some timely feedback, make truth a trusted advisor and look at yourself honestly. This is never really easy to do and at times confusing as to whether we are getting to the truth or engaging in one of a variety of self-delusions. However persistence in using the truth to help you increase your ability will yield value over time.
4. Make friends. Growth has two great voices – monologue and dialogue. Self-reflection is great, but having others involved in your develop is great as well. One of the mainstays of psychology is that development of nearly all human endeavors is a sociological process. Get others involved in your personal development.
Leadership ability is abundant, but its perfection is rare.
Nearly every person has led something at some time. Ask any manager to describe any significant leadership periods they have experienced over the course of their lives and they readily recount them.
Episodic, temporary, project-oriented leadership has never been difficult to observe. Acting as an individual leader is very common, and the lessons from these episodes have a striking degree of similarity.
Organizational leadership complexities, however, are more difficult to observe. Although both oral and written histories have heralded the great deeds of organizational leaders, generally the emphasis in these stories has been upon the individual. From the agricultural aristocracy of the Sumer delta to the technologically adept of Silicon Valley, humans have strained to sift the notions of organizational leadership from the deeds of the individual leader.
Leaders of Sumer theocratic city-states used the word lugal for king. Some lugals enjoyed kingship for the sake of having personal power. Some had more cooperative concern for the general welfare. Near the end of the Old Sumerian period, some 4500 years ago, Urukagina declared himself lugal of Lagash, a city in Southern Mesopotamia. He enacted laws concerning usury, theft, property disputes, and murder. He encouraged many freedoms that were unknown before his consolidation, such as supporting widows and orphans, and sought to ensure a positive future for all who lived in his lands. Some historians suggest that his code in particular supported women’s issues to a greater degree than did the later, more famous codes of Hammurabi, Lipit Ishtar, or others associated with Assyrian or Babylonian governments.
Under Urukagina’s rule, Lagash was prosperous and thus became an appealing takeover target. Eventually, Sargon I, a Semitic ruler from Akkad, conquered this Sumerian empire along with those operating out of Ur and Umman. Historians suggest that Sargon I was the first leader to consolidate a multiethnic society or empire. Records indicate that he too, worked for general prosperity and enacted state level legal codes, learning from Urukagina and other organizational leaders before his time.
Text evidence suggests that Urukagina and Sargon I were admired both as individual or personal leaders and for the quality of their organizational leadership skills. Political scientists might consider them as being effective statesmen, not just beloved, or perhaps feared, politicians.
The reforms initiated by these two leaders helped promote a prosperous society - one that invented and used wheel technology in several applications, starting with the potter’s wheel. Sumerian cuneiform was used by these political leaders to maintain an accurate commercial accounting and appears to predate Egyptian hieroglyphics. These societies engaged in astronomy, and their division of time into sixty-minute and sixty-second periods is still in use today. They grew Emmer wheat and barley with sophistication for their age, and were perhaps the first Asians to raise sheep and cattle on a grand scale.
These brief examples shed light on a repeated historical reality: lasting leadership is experienced not just by the individual leadership efforts of a great person, but also by the lasting impact of the organizational system that is created through organizational leadership efforts. Studying the personalities of Sargon I, Qin Shi Huangdi, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, George Washington, and other famous leaders, one can see that personal leadership abilities may immortalize a person, but organizational leadership abilities stimulate a significance others desire to emulate.