Some concepts reveal themselves to us as epiphanies while some others remain at a cognitive level. We often mistake cognitive appreciation as the final frontier of capability. Things must come alive to really make a difference in our minds, and in our lives.
Leadership literature has oil spills aplenty to make that point. So much literature is available on what makes the contours of effective leadership and what makes a great leader, yet we hear and experience the lament of deteriorating quality of leadership all around. This chasm between what ‘should be’ and what ‘is’, is tragic and ironic at the same time — and when it’s neither, it is funny. Maybe a decade back the lack of research into this subject kept thinkers awake at night — now the gap itself should cause insomnia.
My hypothesis is as follows. Cognitive appreciation of concepts may be a necessary condition for awakening but it’s not a sufficient condition. Some may argue that cognitive appreciation is actually not needed at all. Recently, I was listening to a speaker who was making a case for humility for leaders — every word he spoke and manner of his elucidation betrayed arrogance. One could not argue with his cognitive erudition but the audience knew instinctively that he was an unlikely practitioner.
Ironically, the methodology of leadership education is dominated by cognitive appreciation; even when it is about the ‘essence’, it is dealt like a concept.
So what makes the penny drop for the rare few for whom it does? Frankly, it’s difficult to predict. For some, it is life-threatening circumstances, and for others, an epiphany – either way, it’s a game of chance. If the deliberate pursuit of awareness did indeed cause a heightened self-awareness, most of us would be saints. Talking about awareness is not the same thing as being aware. The merchants responsible for ushering in leadership change are equally at sea because no one knows for sure what really works. Everyone has a favorite methodology — experiential, labs, outbound, or sometimes just conversation. Once the favorite is established, then that becomes the only methodology. (To the hammer, the world looks like a nail).
We must definitely create spaces for conversations but not depend on them to create true changes in behavior. Shifts in thinking, behavior, and mindsets have a mind of their own. No one ever changed because the world wanted them to change — we changed when we wanted to change. The same applies to others — particularly those whom we have the onerous task of leading. Believing otherwise is intellectual arrogance.
The deluge of behavior change literature would want to make us believe that all around us, much behavior changes because it must — either because of inputs given, development process or if everything else fails, then a walk with the boss! A casual observation would also reveal that there is more talk about behavior change than real change — and in worst cases, the promoters of such changes are themselves the most unwilling (or incapable?) to change. I would like to believe that such dichotomy is not because of a lack of intent. Everyone wakes up in the morning wanting to be a better version of them. Somewhere along, life takes over.
I am gradually veering towards the following conclusions —
- We have overestimated our ability to understand human change, and that no one has any clue why people change and why they don’t.
- We have arrogantly started to believe that human change is a DIY toolkit that anyone can work with.
- Just because we can describe human change also means that we can control it and influence it.
- Erudition of the subject of human change is not the same thing as the ability to usher it.
- We must spend time in finding out who in our respective systems is really enabling change rather than those who are only talking about it intelligently – or else we deserve those we have.