Lately, when I am not working as a leadership development consultant, I am neck deep in my dissertation study as I work toward a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Yes, I do have hobbies: I enjoy going out to dinner with my wife, catching the latest movie or spending time with friends. However, as any grad student will confirm, when you’re in the middle of your dissertation, these are all activities you're excited about getting back to when it’s all done!
Now for some grade-A irony. Lately I have been spending much of my consulting time applying the principles discussed in Ginny Whitelaw’s, The Zen Leader, to my leader clients, however, I’ve completely failed to see how this applies to my own grad work. I think I’ve just experienced what Ginny is talking about when she says we can get in our own way!
The reality is that, while I am not an executive at a huge, global company, I am a leader. In this study, I have research assistants, dissertation committees, grant committees and research participants all looking at me to steer this ship, none of whom I have position power over. Now that I think of it, this may be the greatest leadership role of my life.
And as I reflect upon what kind of leader I have been running this study, I have been a leader of tension, control and coping. Cue the red flags and loud alarms! With tension, I fear that I won’t get enough participants, that I won’t get the results I expected and that my dissertation committee will reject my draft. The more I think about all that can go wrong, the more tense I get. In order to deal with this tension, my Organizer/Driver (see FEBI) takes over, and I look to control every possible aspect of the study. Admittedly, the academic processes, riddled with forms and committees, certainly reinforced this mentality. The problem with this strategy is things often don’t go as planned. For me this resulted in, you guessed it, more tension! Exhausted, but moving forward, my new strategy was to play defense, struggling to keep pace with the demands of leading a study, all while running with an empty tank. To put it in Zen Leader terms, I was stuck in coping.
This all came to a head when, having dinner out with my wife, she saw how exhausted and unhappy I was and said, “I can’t wait until you’re done with this study so I can have my husband back.” She was right: this study was getting all of me. It was at that moment that I realized I was smack in the middle of the same kind of problem many of my clients face. Furthermore, I was spreading my tension to those around me. If I am projecting tension, controlling and coping mode, how can I expect potential participants to spend their time, a precious commodity indeed, on my study? How can I expect my committee to trust in my process or my research assistants to be fully engaged? Simply put, I can’t
Needing to make a change, I looked to my copy of The Zen Leader in a new light, for how it might apply to me as a grad student rather than to my clients as leaders. I quickly realized why my strategy was not working and began making the flips discussed in the book. I was reminded by Ginny's phrase, “Leading with extension extends our value into the world,” to flip from my tense state to a more open state of extension. I was reminded of the value my study has and of the importance of extending this research into a world that can really use it. I had to let go of my worrisome micromanagement of every detail, and rather flip to a connecting state that brings the right people of the present together with the work of the past to create the future. Applying the most foundational flip of The Zen Leader - from coping to transforming - I had to stop getting stuck in coping mode and realize how far I have come and what an amazing opportunity I have to transform the direction of the literature and practical applications of the teamwork concepts I am exploring.
As it stands now, I am grateful to be a grad student in the position I am in and, once again, excited about my study. Making these simple flips changed everything, and I am now leading my study with extension, connection and transformation. I suspect that I am not alone in failing to recognizing the everyday leadership roles we assume and exercise, where The Zen Leader could be applied to our situation. If you are a parent, teacher, active community member, or just planning a get together, you are a leader. So to all those leaders out there who may not even think of yourselves as such, I encourage you to try leading like a Zen Leader. Sometimes the changes closest to home can have the greatest impact.