5 Things Leaders Are Not Taught Pt 1


Recently, a participant in one of my seminars excitedly exclaimed to one of his colleagues, This stuff is great…we should have learned this ten years ago!”

He was referring to our discussion on some fundamental communication processes that underlie all human transactions occurring in the workplace, or for that matter, in all aspects of our lives.

In Part 1, I’ll focus on the first three as steps to enlightened leadership.

  • Reflective Consciousness
  • Thinking
  • Responsive Listening
  • Mindfulness Practice
  • Assertiveness

If you’ve been to leadership seminars in the past, some of these topics may look familiar, but they’re rarely explored in the depth needed to engage the complexity of human behavior in today’s workplace.

  • Reflective Consciousness

Being conscious is more than just being awake and aware of yourself and your surroundings. It  involves a deeper level of knowing and is one of the foundations of emotional intelligence.  It’s the ability, or if you prefer, competency – to bear witness to your experience in the moment.

In my work with senior level leaders, the one skill that is often missing in their leadership “tool” box is reflective consciousness. – the ability to be tuned into their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors in the moment.

For many of these leaders their successes often comes at a high cost, usually in the form of chronic stress.  While they are typically highly proficient in their area of expertise, they often are less comfortable and familiar with their own internal processes.   Without a commitment to deepen self-knowledge, these leaders tend to rely on fixed behavioral strategies and often feel frustrated when confronted with resistance from others.

Because self-knowledge can never be “mastered,” enlightened leaders understand that the commitment to inner learning is continuous. They also realize that a crucial pathway in the learning process comes through engaged commitment to relationships.

Increasingly, self-awareness is being recognized as the key element necessary for effective leadership.  A survey from the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop. The authors of this study concluded that self-awareness is the inevitable starting point for managing one’s psychological preferences. Without it, executives will struggle to evolve or find coping strategies. 

  • Thinking

Take a minute and look around you, look at the room in which you’re sitting…. everything you see is representative of an idea…a thought.

Thought is the bedrock of creativity. Still, most of us do not give much  thought to our thinking process except when trying to analyze, evaluate, and diagnose. Beyond critical thinking is the understanding that thought has a structure and is created out of sensory experience. Because our thought process is intimately interwoven with our emotional life, the enlightened leader recognizes the value of a balanced understanding of experience.

We are all immersed in an atmosphere of our own thinking, which is the direct result of all we have ever said, thought or done.   The contours of our lives, whether at work or our personal lives, are a result of our thought processes. Every conscious act is preceded by a thought. Our dominating thoughts (internal narratives) determine our dominating actions. These actions, when engaged repeatedly overtime, become habits. Our character, in turn, could be viewed as the aggregate of our habits.

We experience our thoughts as inner maps of outer experience, but they’re also deeply a part of what we see and how we see it. What becomes our reality, however, is the meaning we assign to these external events. As far as how the brain is “hardwired,” it cannot distinguish external “reality” from our interpretations of those external events.

The latest research in neuroscience suggests that one of the ways we experience the world is through our default network. It is also called the narrative mode of thinking and is activated when the brain is at rest – which means, when we’re not actively evaluating or involved in analysis, we’re either thinking about ourselves or other people.

The enlightened leader understands that to the extent they learn to control their thoughts, they can control their responses to external events and conditions. When enlightened leaders encounter resistance, they are better able to peel away the layers of behaviors and get to the essential core. In the classic Harvard Business Review article, “Managing Oneself,” Peter Drucker wrote, Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.”  Learning to examine one’s thoughts is clearly a fundamental leadership – and life skill.

  •  Responsive Listening

Listening is so much larger than a set of competencies. I can’t tell you how many leaders have suggested to me that they are beyond the need to improve their ability to listen, deeply, to others. Too many say they just don’t have the time. The enlightened leader believes that  everyone shares the need for self-expression and that their skill and willingness to engage in  responsive listening sends the message that others have a real contribution to make. Imagine the impact that has on self-esteem and self-motivation.

According to Michael Nichols, author of The Lost Art of Listening, “To listen is to pay attention, take an interest, care about, take to heart, validate, acknowledge, be moved and appreciate.” Responsive listening is a powerful leadership skill because it shifts the focus of attention to the speaker.  It is the pathway to building trust, collaboration and demonstrating understanding of another’s world’s view – without necessarily agreeing with or accepting it.  Leaders who exercise this skill demonstrate a willingness to take the emphasis off themselves, also shifting the power imbalance that is often present between leaders and those who work for them.

Many leaders are over reliant on advice giving.  Traditional models of management have created expectations that leaders speak and the “managed” listen.  But the enlightened leader committed to listening demonstrates a willingness to suspend control and judgment and creates an opening for authentic dialogue. In the Discipline of Listening, author Ram Charan highlights the critical importance of listening as an essential imperative in today’s global workplace, At its core, listening is connecting. Your ability to understand the true spirit of a message as it is intended to be communicated, and demonstrate your understanding, is paramount in forming connections and leading effectively.”

Unfortunately, most of us are not taught any of these critical skills in formal education, although some business schools are beginning to add them as “electives.” These are mostly the skills we learn as part of the “school of life.” Too often we learn these skills – the hard way, though we don’t have to. If we make a commitment to self-knowledge as part of our life’s work, we’ll grow our ability to become exceptional leaders in the process.  

Thanks for reading,  You can read Part 2 here

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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