Leadership Spokane is committed to the truism that leaders always learn. I attended a veteran education conference at Gonzaga recently and was impressed by a presentation from Professor Katie Herzog summarizing Ronald Heifetz’ popular book on adaptive leadership entitled Leading Without Easy Answers. The theme of the book addresses how mounting societal problems cannot be addressed by experts alone, but requires group participation to mass both intellectual capital and leverage group synergy. In essence, leaders need to adapt their leadership to marshal the needed synergy. Traditional leadership models often cannot effectively address modern day problems. One point she emphasized that resonated with my servant leadership musings was a comment on the importance of leaders keeping a “sacred heart.” Heifetz suggests that leaders need to maintain their innocence, curiosity and compassion, characteristics that often harden over time.
Well said, well said indeed. Innocence refers to a leader’s purity and optimism. Servant leadership is implicitly based on noble goals and leading by a natural inspiration to serve. Servant leaders need to remain anchored to their original motivations to lead by helping. As leaders mature, it is easy to become cynical and even corrupt. As leaders develop scar tissue from difficult decisions or criticisms, it is easy to have their hearts hardened. Corrupt influencers may lead servant leaders astray. To keep a positive heart, servant leaders need to remember their youthful optimism and pure beliefs. Cynicism is the enemy of innocence and optimism.
Curiosity keeps leaders engaged. Young leaders hunger to make a difference. They search out clues and find self-satisfaction from leading well. Mature leaders have the benefit of experience and wisdom. But, repetition and boredom dulls their curiosity. Exceptional leaders build upon experience, but continue to question procedures and dogma. They remain curious. Overconfidence and arrogance are the antonyms of curiosity.
Compassion is a final characteristic that both young and experienced servant leaders must never lose touch with. Succinctly, empathy for others is a hallmark characteristic for any servant leader. How can we serve others if we cannot relate to their position? Over time, as leaders settle into their position, it is easy to lose touch with followers. As curiosity diminishes, leaders ask fewer and fewer questions and rely on past mental models to address present challenges. Losing touch with followers is the quickest way to lose compassion. Compassion builds from understanding and is nourished by continued engagement. Clearly, a servant leader’s heart stays young if compassion remains strong.
Heifetz states: “Leadership then is about mobilizing and engaging the people with the problem rather than trying to anesthetize them so you can go off and solve it on your own.” Adaptive leadership relies on using the group to solve problems. Keeping a “sacred heart” is central to keeping the group strong. To keep the heart strong, innocence, curiosity and compassion should never leave a leader’s toolkit. Servant leaders have heart.
Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye. ~ H. Jackson Brown, Jr.