Your Leadership Yoda

There is a battle raging in your life, right now, between two parts of yourself: Leadership Yoda and Leadership Saboteur. Leadership Yoda wants you to gain insights and grow in wisdom and power. Leadership Yoda seeks inner growth that will fuel your work as a leader in 2012 and beyond. Leadership Saboteur wants none of this to happen.

Leadership Yoda loves this time of year the most. Our biology, far older than electric lights, wants to spend the extra hours of darkness huddling close with our tribe and share stories rich with meaning and values. During this time of year when the briskness of life turns into a stroll, Leadership Yoda wants to learn the unlearned, think the unthought, and clarify the unclarified.

Leadership Yoda is especially fond of spending time with wise friends and mentors. At the top of my gratitude list this holiday season was a breakfast meeting with Warren Bennis. Dr. Bennis’ liberal arts education, wisdom-seeking compassion, and tough love expressed as questions, came together with his first query, borrowed from Emerson: “What has become clear to you since we last met?”

Hours passed and we were stunned to see that breakfast time had become lunch. After four hours with Dr. Bennis, my inner Leadership Yoda was pleased well, he was.

And throughout the meeting, I felt the stirrings of Leadership Saboteur. His work is to prevent what Steve Zaffron and I called “becoming Shogun of your own life” in Three Laws of Performance. This person, alive in every one of us, wants us to never reflect, never examine our concepts and assumptions, and never learn from experience. He seeks to maintain the status quo of your life, and by extension, of the world.

Dr. Bennis wrote about what drives the Leadership Saboteur in his 1976 article “Learning Some Basic Truisms About Leadership” (part of Why Leaders Can’t Lead) and reprinted in The Essential Bennis): “I had become the victim of a vast, amorphous, unwitting, unconscious conspiracy to prevent me from doing anything whatever to change the university [of Cincinnati]’s status quo.” He goes on to find the underpinnings of the conspiracy, and explains: “Routine work drives out non-routine work and smothers to death all creative planning, all fundamental change in the university—or any institution.”

Leadership Saboteur seeks to displace reflection-causing epiphanies, and work that would create transformation, structural and lasting change, with routine work, and distractions. If the Leadership Saboteur were a god, he would raise his arms and call forth the modern tempests of traffic and ticked-off shoppers. He would implement social norms about gift giving—if I give you a present, you have to give one back. He would convert our gadgets into reflection-interrupting demands. He would own stock in Microsoft and Apple, and distract us further by making them not work together at a time with then IT people are on vacation.

He would fill our schedules with holiday parties, making sure they were well stocked with alcohol to prevent heart-level connection with our colleagues and reflection beyond drunken toasts of love and appreciation that are awkward to those who drink more water than Grey Goose.

One of Leadership Saboteur’s strongest assets is our revolution of confusion. He screams “BS!” when people quote Salvador Dali: “What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.” The Leadership Saboteur and Leadership Yoda both know that confusion is like the turbulence early test flight pilots reported as they neared the speed of sound. After pushing through, Chuck Yeager and his fellow speed pioneers regained full control of their planes, and felt a surge of acceleration.

Confusion comes with a sense of discomfort, and so Leadership Saboteur often whispers: “this is a waste of time” and then transfers our attention to any distraction, like an iPhone buzz announcing the arrival of another one-day only special Macy’s.

For Leadership Yoda to have a few days to do his work, Leadership Saboteur has to be put in a penalty box. There are times when the opposite needs to happen—to get work done and check off items on our to-do list—but the end of the year is not one of them.

How, then, do we give Leadership Yoda fighting chance?

First, make use of the time now. After the end of Christmas or Hanukkah, and before the world starts work again in January, there’s a period of time that drives the Saboteur nuts. The days are still short, and the psychobiological drive to reflect is still strong, and the errands can wait. We can return gifts later. The tree will be fine another few days. If we go to work, let’s face it, not much happens. TiVo hasn’t recorded anything good since the finale of American Horror Story, and thanks to Hollywood’s lack of creativity, we can watch all the “must see” movies in one day—with several hours to spare.

Second, take a nod from David Allen and get a big box, write on it “Not Doing Now” and dump everything in it. Really. Presents to be returned. Our laptop. Our iPhone. Our TiVo remote. Our to-do list. Just for a little while. If there’s something you just have to do, write it on a piece of paper and toss it in the box.

Third, get Leadership Yoda started with a conversation with someone wise. I was fortunate to have breakfast with Warren Bennis. You can, too, by picking up The Essential Bennis. Or another book, but that book must be written in code.

The people who write good leadership books have a problem. If we write about the mindset of a leader, or the epiphanies required to lead effectively, the Leadership Saboteur in the reader’s mind screams that this is confusing and a waste of time. If, on the other hand, we write something practical, it may get a lot of readers, but doesn’t do much to create leaders. I sounded off on such books in a recent Money Watch blog.

The writer has to use bait-and-switch by talking about tips, tools, and techniques, but conveying the real message more subtly. Here’s a challenge for your Leadership Yoda: find the secret message in Tribal Leadership, or in Bennis’ Organizing Genius, or in the epilogue of Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup.

To satisfy Leadership Yoda, the book has to be about leadership, not about life effectiveness (e.g., Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), spirituality (e.g., M. Scott Peck’s Road Less Traveled), or personal discovery (e.g., Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0). Also, this is not the time to crack open that leather-bound set of great books your uncle got you as a graduation present. All of these are good books, but they’re not about leadership.

Fourth, don’t merely read, converse. Imagine the words on the page were uttered by someone sitting across from you. Listen deeply and Leadership Yoda will respond. Write down what he says, in a notebook, or if you’re like me, in the margins of the book you’re reading.

Fifth, keep going until Leadership Yoda starts speaking without the need for prompting. This isn’t mystical, and if you hear the voices of spirits, stop reading and dial 911.

You’ll just start thinking of your life and how it relates to the principles you’re reading. When Leadership Yoda starts talking, just listen. Leadership Yoda does convey wisdom, but mostly, he asks great questions, and the leadership insights come in dwelling in those questions. When you’re confused or this effort seems pointless, celebrate. Leadership Yoda will smile when you do, he will.

Sixth, once Leadership Yoda is engaged, stay in a reflective mindset. Carry something to write down your thoughts, insights, or questions. This is a perfect time to do something physical—go to the gym, take a walk or a long run. Keep a notepad by the bed, so that when you have ideas in the fog of early wakefulness, you write them down before they burn off.

Seventh, before January 1, spend a few hours in this reflective mindset reviewing the year. If you keep a journal, read it. If you don’t, reread old emails, or scroll through your calendar. What happened? What were the patterns? What did you learn? What did you fail to learn that would have made you more effective? What did you learn about leadership? What will you do differently in 2012?

Finally, as the pace of life picks up in January, inform your Leadership Yoda that you will ask the following question in the future: “What has become clear to you since we last met?” Pick a date on your calendar now when you will schedule a meeting, free of distractions, with your Leadership Yoda. You might even write that question in the calendar entry, unless you have other people who will read it and refer you to HR for counseling.

The brilliance of taking some time every year for an extended meeting with Leadership Yoda is that he’ll work in the background all the time, connecting the dots, shining a light on something that has is in your dark side. He’s the ultimate brain app.

One last piece of advice. The moment these “steps” become a process, stop them immediately. Remember, routine work is domain of the Leadership Saboteur. These are ways to get a conversation with Leadership Yoda going, nothing more.

I have used this process, which is really an un-process, for over two decades. Next to family and staying healthy, I can’t recommend anything higher.

My hope is that this community will turn the last days in December into an annual Leadership Yoda convention, so that we can all learn from each other’s discoveries. To get this effort started, I hope you’ll share your thoughts from your Leadership Yoda below.

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