Leadership and leading a meaningful life

By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

In the last couple of columns, I examined the power of attitudes and relationships as motivators.

In both instances, the influence of emotion is critical. When discussing motivation, I often hypothesize that in most instances involving human interaction, emotion trumps reason. This usually leads to a spirited discussion. In fact a fascinating and excellent read by a former University of Iowa neurology professor makes a strong empirical case in support of the import of emotion, “Descartes’s Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain” (Damasio, 1994). As you can infer from the title, Dr. Antonio Damasio posits it is emotion, not reason, that makes us truly human.

In human interaction emotion trumps reason

Recently, the New York Times Magazine had an intriguing and provocative article examining recent work on the teaching of emotional intelligence with children, at http://nyti.ms/GzQzkN.

If you can spare two minutes, read the first couple of paragraphs. They show how a skilled teacher can help kindergartners learn to manage their emotions. This is something that more than a few adults seem incapable of doing.

For some time now, the issues of self-awareness and interpersonal skill have assumed more importance in the management and leadership literature.

Management is a principle -driven art heavily dependent on a well-developed body of tacit/experiential knowledge that many people, but certainly not all, can learn with good coaching. Longitudinal research on what predicts managerial success also shows the importance of self-awareness and interpersonal skill.

Unfortunately, promotions into management positions are still based on competence or totally irrelevant issues such as “he is my son-in-law.” Most of the people who make decisions on such bases deserve what they get. Unfortunately, companies and employees pay a heavy price working for the manager from hell.

The leadership literature has taken a big turn in the past decade, completely refocusing from what the characteristics of leaders are to how to become a leader. Interestingly, I was in a meeting about 10 years ago, where a psychologist who has spent his lifetime studying leadership, presented 57 different theories of leadership. When you have so many theories, nature is telling you that you are going down the wrong path.

It is pretty clear that the single most-important characteristic of leadership is there is no single most-important characteristic of leadership. Rather, leadership is a cognitively-driven, life-long process. This means that leadership cannot be taught but certainly can be learned. We are back to tacit knowledge, also known as experience. This is good news for most of us.

Leadership is a personal journey of self-discovery driven by self-awareness. The life-long goal is to build an ideal life. Only if people are functioning at the top of their potential can they successfully deploy themselves to become effective leaders. Consider this the next time you read about a leader who has thoroughly messed up the organization he was determined to improve.

This means that leadership development, even more than management development, is basically personal development. At the same time this finding has emerged, research psychologists of a certain perspective are working to redirect the discipline away from exclusive focus on people who lead miserable lives to thoughtful consideration of how the rest of us can lead better lives. This movement is called positive psychology. For an excellent overview of this development, visit this TED Talk, http://bit.ly/1hl25wn.

The idea here is quite simple, identify high performance people and learn how they become high performance people. This means focus on peoples’ strengths, not their weaknesses. What a novel idea. And guess what? It works.

In a recent e-book titled, “Beyond IQ,” I have identified some of the empirically-verified tools people can use to alter their personal performance. Most of these self-management tools are focused on either learning how to use your mind to develop more effective ways of thinking and/or how to manage one’s emotions. This comes with a heavy dose of understanding your life-space or social context. The final section presents a systematic plan for developing a successful life. The process is an adaptation of the lucid work of Bill George and others on leadership.

Here is a list of the six elements, (note the action-oriented leading adjectives): learning from your life story, knowing your authentic self, practicing your values and principles, balancing your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, building your support system, integrating your life by staying grounded.

Thoughtful people have been considering what constitutes a good life for some time. Aristotle wrote specifically about the good life. Modern research has now provided a plan to attain such. Food for thought.



John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new e-book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available at www.beyondluck.net.