Leadership: A Spiritual Boot Camp

Leadership expert James MacGregor Burns, once wrote something that we think is very interesting to consider. He said, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” Since those words were originally written more than 40 years ago, we suspect that leadership has actually become one of the most observed and the most understood phenomena on earth. We now know what makes great leaders great in granular detail—their characteristics, their behaviors, and how they are perceived by those they lead.

In our own in-depth review of more than 1 million rater surveys in our database of 360-degree leader assessments, which was the foundation of our first book, Mastering Leadership, we gained a tremendous understanding of what makes great leaders great. We learned how senior leaders describe the kind of leadership that works and can scale, and the kind of leadership that does not and cannot. We learned exactly what it takes for anyone to become a better leader.

But while we clearly understand what makes great leaders tick, there’s more to the leadership journey than just checking boxes on a list of desirable leader characteristics or qualities. At its very heart, leadership is a spiritual boot camp—one that elevates and inspires us as humans while we elevate and inspire those around us. The very pressure that the scale, complexity, success—and sometimes failure—we experience as leaders exerts upon us is a remarkably powerful force for our own transformation and evolution.

Becoming a truly great leader requires first transforming yourself and then the system. We are inextricably intertwined and interdependent with the larger system’s evolutionary requirement. As leaders, we must recognize this interdependency and leverage it to our advantage.

The most effective leaders understand that…

  • Individual, collective, and systemic development is a business imperative.
  • Organizations, like people, have an Internal Operating System—culture.
  • An organization will never perform at a level higher than the consciousness of its senior leadership.
  • The collective consciousness of senior leadership is the primary carrier of the culture.
  • Our primary job as leaders is to lead development—that is, to develop other leaders.
  • We are not separate from the system.
  • We are a microcosm of the whole system.
  • Our efforts at personal change, and team effectiveness, are more likely to fail if we do not change the system that supports and sustains the ways of leading that put us at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Its function and dysfunction are in us.
  • It will not change unless we do.
  • We must do so publicly and vulnerably.
  • There is no safe way to be great.

Individual change and system change must happen together. This is what makes leadership a spiritual boot camp. This is why the best leaders make their weaknesses public and ask for help. And this is why they put into place a change process that encourages the entire system to learn out loud. They institutionalize feedback, learning, and ongoing development. Development is led from the top. It is led out loud and it is led vulnerably. The focus is on individual transformation that catalyzes collective leadership effectiveness.

Great organizations and the men and women who lead them build a crucible of transformation and put themselves through spiritual boot camp. This is the only way we have found that works. We cannot recall a single organizational transformation effort that succeeded without senior leadership doing its work. Not one.

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