By Maya Bernstein and Sarah Mali
What if the reason Moses could not lead the people into the Land of Israel was because he lacked the range necessary to lead them? Faced with the stress of the children of Israel’s water crisis and the uncertainty of its resolution, Moses resorted to his usual pattern. This paragon of Jewish leadership hit the rock rather than addressing it. Moses had become predictable. This example can teach us a lot about one of the greatest dangers of leadership: becoming so enmeshed in one’s own dispositions that one is no longer able to hold the attention of the people, and push them towards the growth and change necessary for them to advance and thrive.
Predictability is an important feature of organizational life. It helps us maintain order and identify people’s working patterns and expectations. We often become predictable because our patterns and dispositions have, for the most part, served us well. They have gotten us to where we are today. But they can also get in the way of leadership.
The fact of the matter is that there may be no ideal leadership disposition. All you have in any given moment is the capacity to choose the right kind of moves that can mobilize people to do the real work they need to undertake. When the moves end up choosing you, as in the case of Moses, you risk becoming less capable of leading people beyond their own expectations to a place where they have never been before.
It is important, therefore, to develop a wide range of behaviors and emotional aptitudes. It might be helpful to consider this range the way we understand voice, as a kind of tuning that allows us to reach both high and low notes as well as those in between. Range provides us a way to capture and hold attention, generate meaning and inspire action. If we have a range of dispositions at our disposal, we can apply them according to the circumstances, depending on the leadership challenges to be faced.
Self vs. Role
Leadership, as defined by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, founders of adaptive leadership theory and co-authors of Leadership on the Line, involves mobilizing people to bridge the gap between their aspirations for their organizations and their current reality. When moving people to tackle tough challenges and grapple with the inadequacies of the status quo, we require acts of leadership that challenge social norms, habits and behaviors. As such, these acts of leadership need to be diverse, disruptive and less predictable than people would naturally expect.
Exercising leadership sometimes requires us to divert from our own default habits and behaviors. When faced with common features of change processes, such as ambiguity or duress, leaders need the dexterity to face current conditions: What right now, in this moment, would leadership look like? What do people need, as opposed to want? If we intervene with minimal range, we are doing the expected, and ultimately become complicit in perpetuating the status quo. The choice to repeat our own patterns of behavior will keep the people around us, whom we are keen to mobilize, stuck exactly where they are. In this way, we sustain the inertia.
We see this tendency to lean towards natural dispositions in our own leadership work. First, there are generalized, sometimes stereotyped, dispositions that are placed upon you, regardless of your natural dispositions. As women involved in a field, leadership education, that primarily has been dominated by older men, we constantly struggle between people’s expectations of us to play a nurturing, gentle, kind role, and roles that the work often demands such as seriousness, provocation and distance. We have each been told, on numerous occasions, and in various forms, to “soften our edges,” and that the kind of leadership teaching that the founders of the methodology employ “won’t work for a woman.”
Default patterns frequently appear in the students we teach. As an example, take the tall, bearded man who is quick to insert a joke. His role is somewhat surprising to his peers who, given his appearance, expect someone more stoic. The group enjoys his endearing remarks and his way of lightening the mood when things get too serious. In a short time the group has come to depend on him for their own entertainment and the sense of group-togetherness that his behavior engenders.
Another student is vocal about justice and equality. She sees it as her role to protect every member of the group from harm. She gently ensures that no voice is left unheard, and that each member of the group feels secure, avoiding discomfort at all costs. She challenges us, the facilitators, if we say something she understands as unfair or too personal. Soon the group depends upon her to ensure that things don’t get uneasy and to make sure that all are okay.
These individuals are playing roles that are critical for group life to flourish; both humor and compassionate care respectively help groups reduce stress, bond and look after themselves. The challenge is that leadership often requires us to embody the dispositions that are against type, to move away from giving the group what it wants and focusing on what it might need. The group might need to hold itself accountable to the seriousness of its situation, or might need to tackle a personality in the room head on. It is then that these roles, which have served as a resource, come to hinder the groups’ growth, to serve as a constraint. In this changed environment where the group’s needs are at odds with the roles that these individuals are playing, these individuals require greater range.
In the absence of the ability to let go of their roles and play with other ones, one of two things will likely occur. These individuals will obstruct the work of the group, and the group itself will fail to make progress, or these two functions become, at least for a while, dispensable and “taken out” by the group. In the latter scenario, predictability is a factor in the rejection of these two roles by the group. Besides hindering the group, the displays of humor and empathy have over time become less effective. The roles are so anticipated that the functions that they serve have become less influential. The disposition that might be natural or comfortable might not be what is needed to make progress.
It is crucial to be able to separate self and role. Those in a leadership position play a specific role, and this role sometimes needs to be different from who they normally are. Leaders may need to acknowledge that the disposition that is necessary for their leadership work is different from the way they might be in other situations, different even from their sense of self, their self-concept. Leaders may have to remind themselves that they are playing a role in order to achieve a specific purpose: bridging the gap between the group’s or organization’s aspirations and their current reality.
Purpose: Disposition to What End?
The question that ought to orient our decisions around range is, How might I intervene in this complex system in order to bring attention to the work that really needs to be undertaken collectively here? We want people to be better able to have the freedom to make choices so that they in turn can give the people around them the capacity to make choices in the process of change. We always need to stay focused on purpose: What is the reason we are engaged in leadership work? On behalf of whom and of what cause are we prepared to engage in acts of leadership of this kind? And what disposition does the work demand of us in each phase?
The participant in our group whose natural disposition was towards jest, and who had primarily intervened with humor, at one point got very serious. He made use of his height and physical presence to draw and hold attention to need of the group for emotional gravity, even raising his voice slightly. The language he used was more pointed and his metaphors provocative. The room was silent; people were taken aback, engaged, somewhat alarmed, and they listened. He was able to make an intervention in the system, shaking the group out of a pattern of complacency, because he exhibited range. He used an alternate disposition of seriousness because he diagnosed the group as stuck in its pattern of comfort, and connected to the purpose of forcing the group to see that it was spinning its wheels. He veered from his natural disposition because that disposition was ultimately not going to be helpful to the group at that moment. He “tried on” being stern, for the purpose of helping the group make progress.
The Seductive Rivals of Range
The twin challengers of range are authenticity and consistency. They are seductive rivals, since they speak to values that we are taught from an early age: to be true to ourselves, at all times. We want to stand by our values and to exhibit those values in each of our actions. We want to matter, and we don’t want to let people down, to frustrate the expectations that people have of us. Sometimes, though, leadership work involves disappointing those around us, avoiding the temptation of delivering on the promise of what they have come to expect from us, so that, collectively, we can learn new ways to meet the challenges we face. If you always do what you’ve always done, as the saying goes, you will get what you’ve always gotten. We must be willing to let go of the focus on ourselves and the value of being perceived in a particular way, in order to advance the work.
When we inhabit a different disposition, not only are we trying on something potentially uncomfortable, but we are also likely disappointing those groups and individuals who know us as a particular set of dispositions and who have benefited from it. As educators, we’re asking our students to do this very thing. When we teach our students, we hope that the understanding they gain will create shifts in their behaviors and values. Even in the most progressive environments, those shifts are going to brush up against norms, behaviors and expectations of other groups to which they belong; we are asking them to re-negotiate their identities. In exploring their new range, they’re going to have loss. It would benefit them to see us diversifying our range and exploring different dispositions depending on our purpose.
The Unexpected Song
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When we are faced with adaptive leadership challenges that require us to help change the behaviors, values and even senses of identities of the people involved, we must pause in that space between stimulus and response. We must carefully decide which disposition, which role, which song will best serve the people we are striving to mobilize. We must be brave enough not to sing our best song, the song people have come to expect of us, or even the song that we think is most true. We must sing the unexpected song – the song that will awaken the people to engage in the growth and change that is needed.
We have partly avoided the core question of this volume: What are the dispositions that are critical for effective leadership work? We could argue for the importance of empathy, sensitivity, malleability and courage. For the necessity of flexibility, humility, passion and drive. These, and others, might make some of us more inclined towards leadership. There is no question that we should strive to cultivate the types of dispositions that allow us to weather the storms that leadership evokes: resilience, commitment, compassion and grit.
Our purpose has been to argue for the importance of range. The broader your tuning, the more songs you can sing, the greater your capacity to choose how to deploy yourself in tough situations, rather than letting your usual song do its thing.
Maya Bernstein is an independent facilitator and consultant in the areas of leadership, innovation, and creativity. She currently works with the Jewish Agency’s Global Leadership Institute, Yeshivat Maharat, Georgetown University’s Center for Transformational Leadership, the Wexner Foundation, and as an associate at UpStart.
Sarah Mali is the Founding Director of the Global Leadership Institute at the Jewish Agency for Israel.
This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Winter 2018 issue of HaYidion, Prizmah’s online magazine. The original article can be found on Prizmah’s website.