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Elements of Leadership: Part One – The Matrix

Phil Hawkins

In the movie, “The Matrix”, our protagonist, Neo, was horrified to discover that the world he lived in was not real, but rather a ‘matrix’ – a false world that had been artificially created by machines that wanted to control humans and take over the ‘real’ world.

While evil machines created Neo’s artificial world, the fact is human beings each possess their own matrix, their own view of how the world works. And each of us interacts with it as if it were a true representation of the ‘real’ world. Every individual sees every aspect of the world differently; some would see a threat where others see comfort and assurance – actually, more threats than assurance.

Where does this matrix come from?

Where does this come from? Everyone's matrix was not actually created by them, but rather by their environment, their experiences, and the decisions they subconsciously made in their interactions throughout their lives.

One day, when I was in kindergarten, the teacher asked a question. A little girl gave an answer, and the teacher laughed at her! I didn’t think the girl’s answer was so silly, so I couldn't wait for the enlightenment to come. When the teacher gave the “correct” answer, I felt I liked the girl's answer better. At that moment I made a decision that it would be best to keep my mouth shut. It became part of my matrix, and existed to guide me for many taciturn years.

Similar interactions can happen with parents, grandparents, with other humans. The matrix can, in part, be formed from cultural values, traditions, school, radio, TV, advertisements, politicians, work situations, some even say past lives(!). To tell the truth, the source of the world view in the matrix does not really matter, what is important is a) that it exists, and b) we are unaware of its existence. So long as we are unaware of its existence then our actions are controlled by it. The fact is that when one is unaware of the presence of the matrix, one believes all the values contained within it to be “true”. They actually think that this world view is their own, that they created it and they believe in it.

What does leadership look like in the matrix?

So why do I go on about this in a paper on leadership? Why is this important?

Studies – including those that I have conducted – have shown that people generally have a specific view of leaders and leadership. That is to say, they have a similar picture of leadership and leaders in their matrix – which, of course, they subconsciously believe.

The commonly held perspective of leadership looks like this:

They think a leader is a tall person with a deep voice, they think a leader knows everything, makes all the decisions and is always right. A leader is always calm, confident and wise.

They think that followers are failed leaders, that they can't think for themselves (the word “sheep” comes up often). They think that followers are bereft of ideas and are generally not admirable.

They feel that followers have no power. In fact, they think that power is something you either have or don't have, and it mostly comes with position in the organization. Someone has to give you the power.

There are (at least) two very serious outcomes of these – mostly subconscious – beliefs.

The first is that most people feel that they could never be leaders, so why bother. And why would they, given the fearsome list of attributes they apply to leaders?

The second outcome is probably more damaging. Leaders are people too, so if someone finds himself or herself in a leadership position (and you know they don't feel they stack up to said list of attributes, who could?) they proceed to act as if they do. In other words their main focus is to appear to be what they think a leader should look like, instead of fully applying themselves to their work.

When is the matrix in action?

So how do you know when a matrix is in action? You can pretty well assume that there is a matrix – including your own – in action all the time.

And what can you do about it? Question your own views and opinions, how do you know they are “true”? Did you reason it out for yourself, or do you just “know”? This is the first step of leadership. To (unwittingly) pit your matrix against someone else's is destined for conflict.

What really is so, is that leaders do not universally share these superhuman characteristics. They worry, they don't have enough information, they are not sure they have made the right decisions. If they are not allowed to, or are incapable of, expressing themselves, then they are but walking wounded. As I write, I am wondering if the management tendency to be “risk averse” stems from this “leaders are always right” phenomenon.

A leader trying to live up to an unquestioned picture from his or her matrix can be very damaging to the company.

Leaders can occur at any level of the organization, they do not have to be anointed by someone with a position of power. Sometimes following is leadership. They do not have to look or sound a certain way, they just need an environment in which they can grow and come to their full potential. Anyone can be a leader – even a manager, in fact, especially a manager!

It is interesting to note that, in a typical organization, there are usually few “leader” titles. I wonder also if those who are designated “leaders” (team leaders, section leaders etc.) are actually given the space and scope to really lead and inspire.

Take the red pill.

Because these feelings are derived from the matrix in each of us, it is a difficult thing to overcome.

Neo was a character in a movie, so the solution to removing himself from the oppression of the matrix was a simple one – take the red pill and the truth will be revealed.

For the rest of us, the solution is a lot more work, but it can be done with listening, addressing (matrix generated) concerns, creating and holding a vision and communicating that vision

It is very stressful to have to act out a role whose standards (even though they are imagined) you know you cannot meet, so you have to pretend. How much energy do you think this takes and how much better would things be if this energy were turned to the job at hand – the job you get paid for? People are normally hugely relieved, and gratefully surprised, to find out that they can be themselves. When they do, they are almost immediately more effective.

Most organizations are hierarchically arranged. In real life this means that the demeanour of the person at the top of the pyramid flavours the whole organization. As one CEO said to me, “the person at the top cannot stop leading: he, or she, will simply lead stopping”. If the person at the top is beholden to the matrix notion of leadership characteristics, then the whole organization will behave in this manner – they have led stopping.

The good news is that with a change of emphasis from the top, an organization can change virtually overnight. However, as Morpheus told Neo, no-one can tell you what is in the matrix, you have to see it for yourself.  A great many of us will never be able to break free of the influence of the matrix that we face every day without the assistance of someone who is on the outside. This is where the input of an experienced coach is invaluable. The influence of the matrix is so pervasive and invisible that we need a third party to question our responses to given interactions. In fact, our reactions only become apparent to us when pointed out to us by another person.

So, in summary, we have an imperfect view of what leadership – and leaders – look like. We must fight against these conceptions (conceptions that, by the way, most people don't believe they have) and create an environment in which other leaders can grow and flourish.

Yes, leadership involves creating a vision of the future, but leaders must also deliver. Thus, it also means creating an environment where other leaders can flourish and make a great contribution to fulfilling the vision – because by then there will be a different vision to implement.


Phil, I thoroughly enjoyed this article.  It resonates with my own career experience and certainly as a consultant also.  There is so much written about leaders and leadership training, I stepped back a bit to put myself back in my shoes when I was a manager on the ground and in the trenches.  I have been teasing out the nuggets that got me through difficult situations and the qualities of the leaders that won my loyalty. I have started to write an ebook to capture my insights from an applied perspective. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we have an imperfect view of what leadership is and what makes great leaders. I also agree that you can’t act out this role. Thank you again for this.

By Diane Thompson on 2015/03/30

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Posted by Phil Hawkins
Posted on February 6, 2015

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Categories: communication, culture, engagement, hr & talent management, leadership, management, teams