Leader? Be Different!

You’ve been there. Things are going well for you and those around you. Then suddenly, problems arise. And true leaders step forward.

She’s not always the one with the clearest voice. He’s not the person you’d picture on the bubble gum trading card. But, in the moment, they are clearly leaders.

The world abounds with books, articles, videos, and academic courses on leadership. Based on the sales and the enrollment, the drive to be a leader is a strong one. Despite all of the advice and training, in the moment, many of those with aspiration to lead horribly fail.

Experience indicates that leadership failure occurs as individuals attempt to take control and enforce their will on those around them. It is true, that forceful people do take control in some situations and that others do acquiesce to their quasi-leadership.

Yet, narrative after narrative told after a time of high stress and even danger tells a different story. True leaders are chosen by their followers. A hierarchical structure can be enforced and authoritarian orders may be followed. However, leaders transform their followers. And transformation is always the choice of the individual in the ranks.

Peter Steinke, in his book written for church leaders, Congregational Leaders in Anxious Times, speaks to the key capabilities of true leaders. Steinke says that leaders must learn to balance two life forces — individuality and togetherness. For those who have taken conflict resolution training, you will recognize in this concept the underlying principles of the Dual Concern Model.

Dual Concern Simple.007In the Dual Concern Model, we learn that conflict is most effectively managed by balancing our concern for self with our concern for others. While the conflict modes of  avoidance, competition, accommodation, and compromise are useful depending on the circumstances, much better things are accomplished if people can move forward with collaboration.

Steinke asserts that true leadership is recognized in those who have learned this incredible balancing act. And when that recognition takes place, others choose to trust and follow those who have achieved that balance.

The study of group interaction has been greatly enhanced with the lens provided by Murray Bowen in his family system model. Bowen Theory looks at what happens when people come together and interact. It recognizes that every person within a system (or gathering of people) is influenced by the others in that system. In turn, that person influences the rest. While the group is comprised of individuals who all have, to some degree or another, the opportunity to make independent decisions, Bowen Theory begins to explain how peoples’ behaviors create something larger than (and often different from) themselves.

In viewing roles within the system, an individual can be assessed by looking at two variables: (1) his degree of anxiety, and (2) his capacity to differentiate. Steinke, in applying Bowen Theory, emphasizes that the difference between a follower and a chosen leader is the leader’s capacity to differentiate.

Steinke then lists seven behaviors that leaders exhibit and that instill confidence and trust in those who would follow:

  1. Leaders must think clearly.
  2. Leaders must act on principle.
  3. Leaders must define themselves by taking a clear position in issues facing the group.
  4. Leaders must understand their personal, instinctive reactions to others and to situations.
  5. Leaders must learn to regulate their reactions.
  6. Leaders must stay in contact with others and not isolate themselves.
  7. Leaders must choose a responsible course of action.

For those who have read books and taken leadership courses, this looks like a pretty straightforward and easily-accomplished list. However, the leader must achieve each of these tasks while experiencing the same anxiety that others are feeling.

Remember, true leaders are chosen.

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Your First Choice

Difficult moments abound.

Dozens of times a day, you are confronted with those difficult moments. Angry words rain down on you. The assignment on your computer, the one that’s due in two hours, suddenly disappears from your screen. Your co-worker fails to deliver her part of the project. A friend turns to you in a time of great distress.

You have a split second to make a choice, your first choice. The choice isn’t natural and the ability to make it has to be ingrained in your thinking systems.

This instant choice is whether to respond or to react.

REACTThe scenes mentioned above are tension builders. In fact, some of them take your stress level from 0 to 100 instantly. When your body senses a difficult moment unfolding like that, it goes into action. Specifically, a part of your brain called the amygdala captures the general landscape and, in many cases, immediately sends instructions all over your body on how to deal with the problem. You react.

While the brain is involved in this activity and what happens during this time is an incredible story of our brain’s ability, reaction involves little, if any, of what we define as thought.

Sometimes, when we have a little time to see something coming or we have conditioned ourselves to expect the unexpected, our amygdala will reroute the incoming threat and stress stimuli to another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is the place of thought. And the left prefrontal cortex is where our powers of primary decision making or discernment take place. When properly prepared, the brain can move matters here for handling. You respond.

Leaders and peacemakers — and that group is often comprised of the same individuals — are those who have spent time preparing for difficult moments and who, in most cases, can choose to respond rather than react.

You can’t control what your initial impulses are when you’re confronted with a challenge. And in face of danger, you often need to react to those impulses for survival’s sake.

Most often, you can condition yourself to make a choice and bring your thinking ability into the equation. The difference between responding and reacting may be ever so slight at that difficult moment. Yet the work of time and emotion can create a rapidly divergent outcome with tremendous implications for ongoing relationships and long-term positive results.

Again, the key that allows you to turn from reaction (action with no thought) to response (thoughtful action) is your preparation. You can train yourself to be what scholars call the “non-anxious presence.”

S-b Logo.001Not surprisingly, the non-anxious presence is a foundational element of any private or public discourse involving disagreement. In the next couple of articles, we will look at ways that you can prepare and nurture your non-anxious presence and how you can employ it to help those around you who are in difficult moments.

All in all, you will be helping to bring a better understanding.

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