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Elements of Leadership: Part Two – Take The Red Pill

Phil Hawkins

In part one we discussed the notion that everyone's view of the world was not actually created by them, but rather by their environment, their experiences, and the decisions they subconsciously made throughout their lives.

As in the movie, “The Matrix”, those who do not question their view of the world are doomed to live their lives according to the picture that is fed to them by external actors.

(The following will make more sense if you have read Elements of Leadership: Part One.)

You – the leader – now understand that your thoughts and actions are dictated primarily by a framework of expectations that have been accumulated in your lifetime. We refer to this as “The Matrix”. You react to situations by defaulting to your personal matrix rather than examining every situation and evaluating the appropriate response, guided by rational examination.

Breaking Free of Your Matrix

So how do you break free of your matrix?

The first thing is to examine your own devotion to the matrix. Remember, if you are not aware of the matrix, then you act in accordance with everything it tells you.

How does it tell you? That voice in your head, the one that you think is you, thinking. Unless you question it, you are not thinking, you are having thoughts fed to you by the matrix.

It is like taking the red pill, once you see the matrix, you will always see it.

So start today and begin to question the messages being fed to you through your matrix. You can start with anything that you have “known” forever.

I remember a friend of mine making a statement, and I scoffed at him. Then I realized that the reaction came from my mother – I didn't even agree with what I said. I was 42 years old, and still mindlessly repeating what my mother would have said. I was having thoughts rather than thinking.

How many thoughts that we have not re-examined recently are contained in our matrix? Luckily, in terms of leadership, everyone's matrix values seem to be consistent, which makes it easier to recognize its influence.

The matrix idea is not all bad. You can use the matrix to prompt you. If, for example, you feel angry with a direct report, maybe it is because they are not acting in accordance with the matrix view of “following”. This is an important point: the values held in the matrix can actually cause an emotion, like anger or despair. Once you realize this can be the cause, it gives you an opportunity to think, “Why am I angry?” and, “Is this a more productive behaviour than the one I was expecting?”, “Has the person seen something that I have missed?”

Now you are thinking!

You Are a Failure

One thing I often hear from leaders is that their followers expect them to behave that way – the way that the matrix defines “an executive” – or else they will not be seen as true leaders. This might be true, or it might be direct influence from the matrix. So, if you start to feel that things are not going as well as they might, question those feelings, because make no mistake, the matrix will cause an emotional response with its messages. A common reaction to feeling that things are not going well is to look in the mirror and conclude that you are failing as a leader.

The truth of the matter is that you are only failing in the matrix version of leadership. It has nothing to do with reality. A corollary of this is that “they” are not doing things properly – born mostly from an unwillingness to admit that you are not living up to leadership standards (of the matrix).

The answer in both cases is to go and talk to people – and listen.

I have often found that when leaders talk to followers, they don't really listen. After all, according to the matrix, what insights could followers possibly contribute?

The Nike Way

Can you spot when the matrix version of leadership takes over? I believe so.

You work with someone, you work well together, you both contribute, and then that person gets promoted. Within a week he/she is acting all “executive”, trying to exhibit all the characteristics that the matrix has made him or her feel that leaders are supposed to have. They might even dress differently.

It is such a shame.

I think this goes a long way to explaining why, as a person rises higher in the organization, his or her language becomes less and less understandable. I have seen this in action. As an employee in a large corporation, I have been to meetings in which I did not understand a word of what the upper echelons were saying. They speak in the canned phrases and the bland statements that the matrix tells us is the language of the executive class, so no lower level employees dare ask for clarity!

I have seen someone promoted to a VP position – someone who was a great guy, and someone his peers and staff liked to be around and enjoyed working with – turned into “an executive”. I know it is not a popularity contest, but how effective are people going to be if they are acting out an imaginary role rather then being themselves?

How many times have you heard a leader, when asked reasonable and important questions by followers, resort to the Nike school of management: “Just do it!”


What do leaders do anyway?

They talk. They have conversations.

In general, it is probably fair to say that a conversation consists of speaking and listening, but how many times have you been in a conversation that consisted of “speaking” and “waiting to speak”? Not much listening goes on there.

To be effective, you must listen to the other person. Notice your immediate response – from your own matrix - and then respond. If you don't understand, or suspect the person does not share your vision or views, you must ask. After a while you begin to get glimpses of the matrix guiding you and the people with whom you interact. This is important, not only because everyone needs to be “on the same page”, but because you will then have opportunities to relieve some unspoken fears, clear up miss-apprehensions, and let people know that you really do want to hear their ideas and learn from them.

In my experience, nothing motivates people more than to be truly listened to.

Everyone wants to contribute and feel that his or her work is appreciated. And, in spite of what the matrix tells us about leadership, you need their contribution. Here's something to try (if you are brave enough). If someone is trying to tell you something – good or bad – and you think you understood, ask! The only one who can tell you if they were truly heard is the person speaking.

Reflect back on when you have called a customer service department, told them your problem and see if you think they listened. If you try this again, don't tell them they didn't listen – that doesn't help – just observe and see what it feels like. I notice that employees who meet the public regularly or provide services are expecting complaints, so that is how they listen. It is very hard to convince them that you are not complaining.

Developing this listening skill is not easy, if for no other reason than if you encourage people to speak, and you truly listen to them, you must be prepared to hear things you would rather not have heard.  you may find out, for instance, that your truly honest attempts to help were really annoying.

It is in these situations that, once again, the help of an experienced coach can get you through these difficult situations. It is, in fact, a huge all around opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Make Believe Village: Eoghann Irving via Compfight cc
Businessman: / 123RF Stock Photo


Congrats Phil on two excellent blogs!

By Alcide on 2015/02/20

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Posted by Phil Hawkins
Posted on February 20, 2015

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