Takeaways from 25 years of leadership

By John Langhorne/Guest Column

Some years ago, when the Corridor Business Journal began publishing, several colleagues and I were invited to write a weekly column. Looking back at my columns, I perceive an interesting evolution.

First, I wrote about management, then leadership, and more recently about personal and professional development. The change was driven by a deep appreciation that leadership is key to the effective operation of organizations and more recently by a shift in the leadership literature from describing the characteristics of leaders (i.e. walking on water) to the realization that the development of leaders is related to a systematic process of personal development.

This knowledge has been refined by my 25-plus years of participation in the Greater Iowa City Area Chamber’s Community Leadership Program. Since 2000, I have used this program as a living laboratory to explore the process of leadership development. Thank you, Nancy Quellhorst for inviting and supporting me in this endeavor.

Here are some of my take-aways from this experience. First, and perhaps most importantly, leadership is learned. However, not everyone can become a leader. The reason being that the core variable in this developmental process is self-awareness. My observation is that self-awareness is normally distributed in the population and, even with the capacity for self-awareness leadership, requires a lifetime of serious self-management.

Fortunately, psychology experts are currently producing a body of empirically sound ideas about the basic elements of developing self-awareness. In 2013, I published a short digital book “Beyond IQ” (Langhorne, Amazon, 2013). It is intended to introduce people to the basic framework of personal change and presents six proven processes for self-management.

Second, people seem to have many misconceptions about human behavior, especially personality. Unfortunately, some of these are self-defeating. It is reasonable to note that people are amazingly and delightfully complex.

However, there are, as in most complex systems, a small number of aspects that enable us to understand others and ourselves. These were introduced many years ago by the 4-H organization: head, heart, hands and health. The first three are the core foundations of human psychology: cognition/thinking, emotion/feeling and behavior/action. Understanding these and learning how to balance them are the core ingredients for successful living.

The fourth is your operating system. Caring for this system means attending to four additional elements: nutrition, exercise, sleep and supportive relationships. Mental health + physical health = a successful life. Of these eight aspects emotion is the most difficult to master.

Third, change is complex, as in most aspects of behavior it is paradoxically hard and easy. Many years ago I was an assistant professor at a small college in Michigan. In the fall we would admit high school seniors. At Thanksgiving we would send young adults home. The change had little to do with what happened in the classroom. Rather it came from the enormous changes in environment and expectations from high school, where your life is highly regulated, to college where your life is largely unregulated.

As many of you are aware, this transition can be difficult but most students manage it successfully. We often fail in our change efforts, think improvement, because we fail to comprehend that people can adapt relatively rapidly to changed environments where they have the assistance of experienced coaches. This level of support is probably the critical difference between very small and very large colleges.

Consider a recent major change in our larger community. I have been intrigued by the unwelcoming behavior of many at the University of Iowa and the local press to the arrival of a new and non-traditional president. Careful review of his credentials, viewing the video of his all-staff meeting, the subsequent Q&A and listening to people I trust who have interacted with him suggests that this is a person who is imminently qualified to lead change in a large organization.

His stated hope to make UI a “Public Ivy” is an admirable one. D. O. Hebb, an eminent early 20th century psychologist, noted “habits are cobwebs that grow into cables.” Enough said.

John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates, www.langhorneassociates.com. His most recent book, “Beyond IQ: Practical Steps to Find the Best You,” is available digitally at Amazon.