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The Deceptive Bliss of Ignorant Leadership

By Ted Powell

Leadership comes naturally to few people. For the rest of us, effective leadership is a skill we acquire through training, trial and error and experience. Most people have the potential to make excellent leaders, if they are willing to adopt new and different leadership behaviors.  Through 27 years of working with thousands of rising executives, we have found that adaptable leaders share one trait in common:

The ability to see how their past life experiences govern their current behaviors and tendencies.

Understanding how your past can positively or negatively govern your leadership effectiveness is a key advantage in leadership success.  Childhood experiences and life changing events truly do impact how we perceive the world and behave as leaders.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I am reminded of an old boss I worked with long ago. He firmly asserted, “ignorance is bliss”.  He had difficulty speaking his mind in the presence of authority figures.  He had lived in a household where “children were to be seen, not heard”.  He carried this belief into his professional life.  Too often he easily accepted his CEO’s imperfect judgments and opinions.  He didn’t challenge or bring forward new ideas.

A new CEO was hired and sought leaders with the ability to vigorously challenge those in the C-Suite. Under the new leader, my old boss’s career plateaued and then collapsed. Why?  He refused to acknowledge how his childhood pattern left him fearful of speaking his mind in the presence of authority figures.  This negatively impacted his ability to be decisive, be strong in his convictions, and communicate with his new boss. By ignoring how his personal history drove his behavior, he lost the power to influence.

Impactful Life Experiences Influence Our Leadership Capabilities

Influential past experiences in our life don’t just occur in childhood. Normal life experiences such as being re-engineered out of a job, being passed over for a position, or working for a difficult boss can impact leadership behavior.  Someone could develop a risk-averse decision-making pattern after working in a corporate culture where even small mistakes were deemed unacceptable and met with frequent rebuke.

Changing Leadership Behaviors

Participants in our High Impact Leadership Series (HILS) learn in great depth how their past life experiences impact their leadership effectiveness.  After attending HILS Participants assume greater influence over their career destiny by exploring these transformative questions:

  1. How am I leading today? What’s working? What do I need to change or improve?
  2. How did my past experiences impact and influence my current leadership style, strengths and weaknesses?
  3. How do my past experiences cause me to create leadership “derailers?”
  4. What tools will help me replace the outdated behavior with a more effective leadership approach?

Case Study:  “The Controller”

Bob is the CEO of a medium size company that has a new technology gaining a lot of attention. Delivery on their promises, though, may be derailed by Bob’s severe command and control leadership style. 

Bob’s leadership style grew out of his upbringing. He lived in a dangerous neighborhood, where walking outside could offer life and death situations. He was hard-wired to self-protect and trust his gut instinct. In his neighborhood, it was attack or be attacked.  He had to be right, if he was wrong, this could lead to dire consequences.

His leadership behavior leaned on “attack resistance, control, and direct people” rather than appreciate, accommodate, respect and guide them. It was hard for him to see win-win outcomes with his hard-wired zero-sum-game mentality. 

Through HILS, Bob brought these internal motivators or drivers into the open, and understood how they were driving his unproductive leadership style. He found the courage to acknowledge them as real, and to set them aside.

Upon his return from HILS, he asked his leadership team to keep this tendency in check by saying, “I think the controller might be back” in a moment of relapse. Over time, Bob’s non-useful behavior pattern faded away, and he naturally and consistently demonstrated the more facilitative style the business needed from him to be successful.

Case Study: “The Defender”

Deborah was the Chief Communications Officer for a large communications company.  She was a top-flight talent who knew her products and their potential better than anyone in the industry. But, her defensive response to negative feedback undermined her ability to collaborate effectively with peers. People cringed at the thought of challenging her work to achieve a better outcome.

She grew up in a family where failure was not an option, and getting all A’s was the expected norm. This perfectionistic mindset elevated her stress levels and lowered her creative ability. She had a strong need to have things her way. Eventually, people stopped talking to her and stopped giving her feedback.

Through her HILS experience, combined with some provocative 360 feedback, Deborah finally saw that she was living a lie. It was a voice in her head that said, “you must be perfect to succeed”. Going forward, she encouraged people to challenge her.  She became much more collaborative.  This powerful self-understanding freed her from a debilitating, lifelong stress pattern, providing much relief to her friends and family as well!

Are You in Control of Your Leadership Destiny?

How well do you understand your strengths and weaknesses?  Is a behavior pattern or tendency holding you back? Do you know where it comes from?

Letting go of a deeply-ingrained mindset or behavioral habit is not easy. It takes hard work and months to achieve. But the payoff is an increased command of your destiny. And that is one of the most rewarding and liberating leadership experiences we can create for ourselves.

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Each person on our team returned with renewed insight and inspiration. HILS has improved communication, developed stronger relationships in the workplace, and helped us to retain key leadership positions.

Connie Hodges

President and CEO
United Way of Northeast Florida