The Journey Of Leadership

Leadership can be seen as a journey, not a destination. And as one travels to different places within that journey, one encounters new and more complex challenges that shape the leader within you. Those new places generate different oportunities, that push you into the next phase, making you climb the ladder of leadership evolution. What are the different “cities” the leader visits, as he travels through the world of business?  Having some preparedness, as if one was a tourist self-consciously reading the guide of each country about to be visited, helps you getting  ready to the new encounters and responsibilities that inevitably occur, while moving around in the world of business.

What are the phases one should expect to encounter?

The Seven Ages of Leadership

Prof. Warren G. Bennis, the founding chairman of the University of Southern California’s Leadership Institute takes upon a monologue in Shakespeare’s play As you like it,   to describe the different phases of the leader in his intriguing essay “the seven ages of the leader”.  Bennis starts his essay by saying: “Each stage of leadership brings new crisis and challenges. They’re wrenching,  but knowing what to expect can help you get through them.”

In Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy  “As you like it” character Jacques compares the world to a stage and life to a play : “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” declares Jacques in the beginning of his monologue. He then continues by cataloguing the seven ages of manhood . These are infancy, childhood, the lover, the soldier, justice, old age, and extreme old age.  By applying these to the path of leadership, Prof.  Bennis  parallels  them in a more uplifting way turning them into  the infant, the school boy, the lover, the soldier , the general, the statesman and the sage.

The Infant Leader and the Mentor

The infant corresponds to the young man or woman on the brink of becoming a leader: the neophytes to the business world look at it with expectancy and as being a mysterious, even frightening place. As any infant, that young man or woman needs a guide, a mentor. The word Mentor comes from the greek mythology as Mentor was the tutor of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he asked Mentor to take care of his son. The Mentor is an interesting mythological character as it has both male and female characteristics. As a term, mentor has been adopted in English to signify someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague.  Bennis advices to the new young leader is then to: “Recruit a team to back you up; you may feel lonely in your first top job, but you won’t be totally unsupported”.

The SchoolBoy: First Leadership Experience

The schoolboy corresponds to the first leadership experience, and this can be a stressful period, that corresponds to your education. Bennis compares it to “ parenting in that nothing else in life fully prepares you to be responsible, to a greater or lesser degree, for other people’s well-being”. The difference is that you do your job in public, which means that inexorably you will be subject to scrutiny, as you will be on the spotlight. Like it or not, as a new leader you are always onstage, and subject to comment, criticism, and interpretation (or misinterpretation). So the best way to proceed is with low key. That was the case of Steve Sample that when becoming the president of University of Southern California, in 1990, would go to the campus incognito, to speak to the students and staff, so he could feel how the University really was. Sample acted like many historical and legendary leaders, that as the legend says, would disguise themselves as common men, to learn about the unmediated reality lived by their people. That was the case of Peter the Great, a Russian Czar that worked as a ship carpenter and travelled in disguise throughout his empire and Europe, while being the Emperor of Russia. He is known for having led a cultural revolution that transformed traditionalist medieval Russia into a modern thriving Country. Just as Peter the Great, and for six months, Sample didn’t make any single high-profile decision as the president of USC. His discreet approach made him more empathetic and a better listener to the views of his followers. Something else to account for is that as a new leader, one functions as a fresh mirror onto which followers project their own dreams about power and relationships. Your main challenge here is not to take criticism personally and the second one is to consider if their assessment is partly accurate, even if it is unfavorable.

The Lover

And then, one day, the leader achieves the position he has dreamed of all his life. But with the new role, new challenges come up, and the toughest one of these is how to set boundaries and reshape the working relationship one once had with former colleagues and friends. As a contemporary leader, if its expected from you to keep former relationships, as one is promoted, connections inevitably change. You may no longer be able to speak openly as you once did, and that might provoke feelings of awkwardness and resentment amongst your former friends and coworkers. The key is once again to find a balance:  learning who to listen to and who to trust.

The Bearded Soldier

“Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard” was the way Shakespeare described this age of manhood marked by the soldier´s seeking after  “the bubble reputation”.  As time goes by, the stage of  leadership corresponding to Shakespeare´s “bearded soldier” grows comfortable with the role, gaining confidence and conviction. The flip coin is that the connection between leader and followers can become damaged: leaders may forget the true impact of their words and actions, and they may assume that what they are hearing from followers is what needs to be heard. Leaders should continue to work on open channels of communication. A second challenge for leaders in this stage is to facilitate the process of those whose are soon to follow their own steps on leadership.  The real and authentic leader is a generous soul.

The General

With the coming phase, which is the height of ones career, the greatest challenge a leader faces, is not simply allowing people to speak but actually being able to hear what they say.  To continue to develop skills to truly listen to people is the key here. To remain focused on what is really important for the company is another important issue.

The Statesman

Shakespeare’s sixth age covers the years in which the leader’s power begins to decrease. The leader in this stage starts the process of passing on his or her wisdom in the interest of the organization and of the people. This is a period where the leader is strengthened with the knowledge and perception that comes with age and deep experience.  Likewise, she or he might be called upon to play important interim roles. One of the gratifying roles that a late career leader can play is when they are called to solve acute crisis. A leader is able to perform an even better job, as he or she brings a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience, that is not being wasted in engaging in the political schemes often needed to advance a career.

The Sage 

The greatest reward of this phase is Mentorship. When you mentor, you know that what you have achieved will not be lost, as you engage in leaving a legacy for future generations. Mentoring isn’t a simple exchange of ideas but a profound and reciprocal relationship. Bennis cites Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, that  lived among wild baboons , discovering  that alliances between old and young apes were an effective strategy for survival. Older males that connected with younger males lived longer, healthier lives than their unallied peers.

Bennis finishes his essay by stating that age in leadership is neither end nor oblivion. Rather, it is the joyous rediscovery of childhood at its best. It is waking up each morning ready to devour the world, full of hope and promise and with a deep desire to leave a legacy to the ones who will begin their journey afterwards. The journey of  a successful leader, finishes where it starts, but now,  within a reversed position: you are now the mentor of an infant leader about to initiate his path, his journey.