What if power, anxiety and love lie at the heart of leadership? Christo Nel TED Aruba 23rd September 2016

What if power, anxiety and love lie at the heart of leadership?

“What could occur if you and I, if we could be simply human enough to embrace and celebrate power, anxiety and love as the drivers that guide us as leaders? If we can make Power, Anxiety and Love the guiding light of our thinking, decisions and actions we create the freedom that sets us free to become the leaders we can truly be!”

The roots of my own experience and thinking about leadership lie in three elements of my life. The insights I gained did not occur at the time. It is only with years of reflection and discussing it with many colleagues that my insights slowly developed to what I can offer with more certainty today.

• My first exposure to deliberate leadership development occurred when, as a 16 year old, my school sent me on an intensive 3 week leadership development camp. Together with 40 other young men I learned that leadership is a combination of working as teams and exercising my personal will. But this meant crossing the boundaries of my own comfort zones and learning to at times place my well being entirely in the hands of others.

• Over the past 35 years I have had the privilege to work with hundreds of managers and executives, and almost three thousand MBA students.

Completing an MBA must be one of the toughest academic programs there is. The vast majority of participants at some stage wilt under the tsunami of pressure that threatens to overwhelm them. A common response is for participants to start questioning their ability to cope with the demands and even start questioning their own competence. Initially the majority of individuals recede into a self-protective cocoon or relay on individualistic behaviour. In one of the most recent Executive MBA groups I worked with I witnessed an entirely different dynamic. As the pressure mounted and stress got worse individuals openly spoke about their feelings rather than suppress it. Almost 100% of the group started to reach out for support or offer it to others. A deep sense of caring and compassion developed, and yet when some individuals did not fulfil their commitments other team members addressed it in an assertive and no nonsense manner.

In my experience the life of a senior manager or executive is remarkably complex. On a daily basis executives are confronted with really tough and complex problems for which there are virtually never any obvious solutions. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many executive teams that were embroiled in big Merger and Acquisition deals; major restructuring of their organisations; company turnaround drives; hiring and firing of important team members. Some teams succeeded time and again while others failed.

In one on one conversation with sustainably successful executives and CEOs there is not a single example where at some stage they do not admit that they often feel the pressure of feeling isolated and lonely. But then the same individuals more often than not do not admit their sense of vulnerability. One of the most remarkable CEOs I ever worked with had the habit of ending important meetings by asking each one of us what troubled us about any decision that had been reached. He invited us to state our uncertainties and even confusion. Being vulnerable became a value that was encouraged not suppressed. But for this to work there was a general feeling of camaraderie and mutual support, as well as an atmosphere that expected us to state our views in unambiguous and well informed ways.

• By far the most influential impact and learning occurred when I became involved in an anti-Apartheid and pro-democracy movement led by business. During the 1980s my country, South Africa, was caught in the vortex of Apartheid. It was some of the darkest days in our history. Civil war raged in some areas of the country. The police and army were deployed in the largely Black townships. Leaders of the anti Apartheid movement were being jailed without trial and hundreds of people were killed and even tortured to death in the name of protecting the Apartheid state.

In the mid 1980s a small group of influential business leaders approached me to facilitate discussions and establish collaboration between them and representatives of the disenfranchised and oppressed majority of our citizens.

Over a period of almost two years and with the help of many extraordinarily courageous individuals I met and engaged with representatives of the entire spectrum of South African society. It ranged from almost exclusively White business executives who were committed supporters of liaizes faire capitalism to ardent socialists and communists; from White supremacist and racist groups to dedicated champions of non-racial democracy; people with eleven primary mother tongues and several dozen dialects; haves and have not’s representing the world’s worst levels of inequality; supporters of the racist Apartheid regime to people who were willing to die and many who did for the cause of equal rights and democracy.

Working in this cauldron of diverse and often deeply conflicted humanity I learned lessons that changed my life. It led to the establishment of an organisation named the Consultative Business Movement which became the secretariat for our national negotiations and ultimate pathway to a constitutional democracy.

History now shows that we were able to navigate our way through this virtually unsolvable maze of conflict and even hatred. Some people call it a miracle. That is an insult. It was not a miracle. It was the result of leadership of a different type exercised by thousands of people over many years.

My personal lessons and insights emerged over many years. It is only in the last ten years that I have been able to really make sense of it and articulate it in any meaningful manner.

Success in all leadership endeavours were due to people who were capable of putting aside their own narrow self interests and instead step forward to exercise influence and use their networks and reputation in ways that served the community at large. In the process every individual had to cross thresholds of anxiety and make decisions armed with inadequate information and no guarantee of success. Without relentless love none of this was possible.

The 1980s in South Africa were some of the most stressful and anxiety filled times of my life, but my stress and anxiety pales into insignificance when I compare it to the hundreds of people who were jailed for their convictions; those who were fired from their companies or had contracts cancelled; the visionary individuals who were willing to face the ire of their peers and followers who viewed them as sell outs and traitors because they were willing to consort with the so-called enemy.

But above all else wherever there was sustainable success it was because of the remarkable capacity for forgiveness and ability to put aside personal convictions and biases so that we could truly listen to and appreciate the perspectives of our enemies. It was a different type of truly relentless love.

I must confess that the insights that grew within me over many years are closely tied to my own experiences as a leader, but much more so my own exploration of my own identity and how the pressures, conflicting perspectives and ambiguities of leadership affected me. So it was an inside out and an outside in process of growth and learning which has not stopped.
Now, after a period of more than 30 years I can look back at the cosmos of my own history and extract a few core lessons. What is it that makes the real and sustainable difference between leaders that are consistently part of delivering above average performance and those who don’t? My insights were helped when I encountered the work of the great philosopher, Aristotle, who defined 12 virtues of being. He defined virtues as a set of characteristics that underpinned all else
When we apply the idea of virtues to leadership it reveals some challenging perspectives. The literature offers a great deal of insight into the first three layers of leadership:

• Behaviours represent the readily observable ways in which leaders walk their talk.
• Below this lies the spectrum of competencies – the knowledge, skills and attitudes that inform and enable behaviours.
• At a deeper level lie the values that guide interpretation and application of competencies.
• But at the deepest level lie the virtues of leadership that tie the awesome complexity of sustainable high impact leadership together to weave a tapestry for you and I to unveil and express our deepest being.
I call them virtues because they sit at a deeper level than even values and worldviews, and far deeper than behaviours and competencies.
Virtues are the deep inner attributes and glue that bind together the diverse aspects that build our character. Over the past 15 years I increasingly suspected that there were a few such binding factors that held the key for sustainable high impact leadership. What if there is a key that enables individuals and teams to deliver transformational and high impact leadership? And what if it is teachable?
My conclusion is that leaders who make a sustainable difference have come to terms with and exercise the three virtues of power, anxiety and love in ways that others don’t. Together the virtues weave an infinity triangle where each virtue feeds into and from the others.

Whenever I share these insights with leaders in any context I see a pattern of responses:

Of course leadership is about power – without exercising power no one can be a leader.

Anxiety? This so often causes some raised eyebrows. Almost immediately some people will challenge how it is possible for someone to be a leader if they experience anxiety and never mind admitting it.

But Love?! This is where you can literally see most initially almost get nervous twitches and shiver at the thought. A typical response is, “Hey, this is about business and getting things done. It’s not some lovey dovey and fluffy world we live in!”

My own exposure to truly sustainable leadership has provided me with some personal lessons which I increasingly believe have relevance for all of us.
Each of these three virtues contains a range of intertwined leadership capabilities that, together, create a set of deeply transformational forces.
What if we underestimate or do not understand the power of power?
Leadership and exercising power are synonymous. But there is a cardinal choice: Do you and I exercise power that relies on domination and subordination, or do we use our power to unleash the energy and potential of self and all those we engage with? Do we own our power to influence situations literally every time we speak or act?
We often unfortunately only focus on the negative aspects of power. The media and movies reinforce this. All too often we see individuals in positions of authority acting in authoritarian ways that rely on bullying others; talking down at people; or simply never engaging others in participative ways. It subverts the human spirit. Such power does not need to be brutal or obviously deplorable. It can be very subtle and is then often difficult to identify, name and resist.
You and I have all experienced and probably used such subversive power. One of my personal experiences demonstrates just how subtle yet impactful it can be. I was presenting the findings of an investigation into the leadership culture of an organisation to the CEO and executive team of a potential client. The CEO clearly did not like the findings and at one stage moved his spectacles to the front of his nose, looked around the room, and said, “Are there anymore questions?” He may as well have pointed an assault rifle at his colleagues and dared them to speak. Everyone remained silent in the face of this sophisticated violence. How often do you and I see such subtle use of negative power and perhaps remain silent? This is when power becomes the silence of abuse.
The reality is that high impact leaders use non-coercive and highly participative ways to engage and energise those with whom they work. In my work and life I have been the recipient of generative power and felt its positive impact.
Mike, a valued mentor of mine early in my career taught me a special lesson. He told me, “When you whisper the people hear a roar!”
A CEO that I reported to had an interesting habit. When our team had argued long and well about an issue and reached a conclusion Leon would ask, “OK, now that we have reached a decision let’s ask ourselves why we should not do what we have decided?” In this way he forced us to question our own assumptions and to check whether we had really thought of everything. Leon used to say, “We need to make sure we have discovered the reasons anyone either does not understand why we have reached this decision, or to give anyone the chance to disagree because perhaps there is a better answer!”
These two mentors taught me that I need to be conscious of the often unintended consequences of my own power and to always respect and invite the power of others into conversations.
During the tense days of the 1980s I constantly witnessed how people used their power to exert great influence that slowly brought opposing forces together to forge an alternative future. They did it with great consciousness and awareness, often debating how to exert influence for days and even weeks on end – weighing options and deliberately making trade-offs even against their own desires and needs.
But what if exercising power creates anxiety?
All of us have at some stage had to make difficult choices that required trade-offs between competing and even conflicting options. This inescapable element of leadership naturally creates anxiety.
When we exercise our power it always requires making choices and decisions, and taking action. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard explains this. During a holiday he was walking in a forest he was unfamiliar with. He came upon a clearing with several paths leading out of it. He was confronted with the dilemma of choosing which path he should take. The range of options paralysed him because he realised that if he took one path he would never know what lay in the other directions. If the path he took was not pleasant he would forever wonder what the others may have offered.
This is something each one of us has experienced when we look back at life and wonder what would have happened if we had made another choice? But Kierkegaard recognises that this anxiety is not negative – it is creative. It is the human response to options that hold possibilities of real gifts or total disaster and everything in between.
This anxiety is not a symptom of something negative. It is as much part of life as breathing or a beating heart. I often wonder what may have happened if during the early years of setting the foundations for negotiations in my country during the 1980s we had perhaps been more open to also voicing our anxieties and admitting how often we really did not know what the best options were. I’ve so often been part of meetings where powerful executives clearly suppress their own uncertainty because they don’t want to be seen to be weak or not coping with the complexities of a situation. And I’ve seen how MBA students become burdened by their own anxiety that they do not voice.
It is as if we view anxiety as a symptom that we are not coping and are incompetent. Instead we want to put forward the facade that we are in charge and totally OK while nothing could be further from the truth.
I experienced the wonder of creative anxiety through my son, Roark when he was ten years old. We had recently moved into a new home and he had started at a new school. When I arrived home from work one evening he asked me, “Dad, do you have time for a chat?” This was a signal to me that there was something serious on his mind. We sat down in the lounge and I waited for my son to start talking. After a while he said, “Dad, I think this is something we need to talk about while we are walking in the garden.” Now I knew that it was something really serious.
We went outside and walked around in the garden for a few minutes when he said, “No dad, I think we should rather sit down.” Now I was really getting nervous about what on earth my son was so nervous about. We went to sit in the lounge again. He took a deep breath and asked, “Dad, what do you do when you want to approach a woman?” It took everything I had to not chuckle!
I asked, “Is there a girl you like?” His face lit up. “Yes dad, her name is Sharon!”
“Well,” I said, “do you know that when I first asked a woman for a date I got so nervous that the palms of my hands got all sweaty and wet?”
Relief washed over his face. He thrust out his hands towards me and said, ”Really dad! Feel that!” “I’m just talking about her and my hands are sweaty!”
Anxiety is something that is not a negative symptom. It is a signal that we are alive and confronted daily with something that creates nervousness and confusion. I had the very special opportunity to discuss this with the philosopher and wonderful writer on leadership,
So what if we all could view anxiety differently – if we view anxiety as a signal that we are confronted by a new challenge? After teaching more than 2000 MBA students, and working with hundreds of managers and executives I still experience anxiety when I face a new task or a new group of people. I’ve come to realise that it is not something to hide but rather to embrace as a signal that I am wonderfully alive and crossing fresh thresholds.
What if we stopped seeing anxiety as our inability to cope or something to feel ashamed about, and instead embrace it as evidence that we are living life more fully? What if anxiety could become your and my signal that we are daring to grow?
During the most stressful times in the 1980s I consistently saw people putting their freedom and reputations at risk to overcome the barriers of Apartheid. One of the most remarkable things that I witnessed was how people from often deeply conflicting walks of life overcame their distrust of one another and the anxiety of even being seen in one another’s company.
Something enabled them to cross the barriers that divided them and to instead recognise and deeply appreciate the common humanity that united us. With hindsight I can now track a pathway that evolved as erstwhile enemies got to know one another.
At first deep mistrust slowly evolved into reluctant respect for the others intellect and perspectives. Deeply embedded prejudices slowly gave way to cautious curiosity. Sometimes remarkably quickly opponents started to find common ground, most often related to personal life experiences and sharing stories about family and life in general. Once this barrier was crossed a new texture emerged in conversations. Humour and light-hearted comments started to connect people in almost magical ways.
As individuals and groups discovered that we were all more simply human than otherwise a new sense of friendship and even endearment emerged. And out of this relentless love was born.
But I’ve seen exactly the same patterns of our shared humanity when executives were driving major restructuring of their organisations, or contemplating and conducting mergers and acquisitions. It is endemic when MBA students feel overwhelmed by their workloads. And those of us who have children have seen it when they face the pressures of exams and deadlines for tasks.
At these times the force that enables us to continue can only be described as relentless love.
I’m not referring to the romantic and dramatised love of Hollywood and Bollywood movies, or popular novels and TV series. I’m taking about the remarkable capacity we have as humans to cross even the greatest divides and to develop both deep respect and caring for someone especially when we still have deep stark differences in opinions and beliefs – or our innate capacity and willingness to embrace the concerns of others and provide a place of comfort.
What if we were taught to love even when if it is not in the truest and purest form – how do we love even the unlovable; how do we love even when it is tough and hard? What if our first response in times of need is to reach out and ask for support or to be conscious enough to sense someone else’s need and offer our support and endearment?
We are talking about the deep virtue of tolerance, engagement, living with the common good in mind, caring for the interests of others, and living the capacity for forgiveness. An increasing body of research demonstrates that love is indeed one of the primary binding forces of sustainable high impact leadership and performance. Research published under the lovely title of Firms of Endearment states that it is increasingly share of heart and not wallet that counts.
Love is perhaps the most complex and at the same time most simple of the three virtues. It enables us to use our power in ways that serve my own interests in ways that also contribute to the fulfillment of all those I interact with. It enables me to open myself to my own anxiety and also to create the safety for others to voice their anxiety and dare to be vulnerable enough to reach out for support and understanding.
One of the most powerful and enduring lessons I ever learned about leadership was during the 1980s in South Africa. Due to my involvement in some of the anti-Apartheid processes I had met one of my country’s greatest leaders, Albertina Sisulu, the wife of Walter Sisulu who was one of Nelson Mandela’s principle mentors. She became a spiritual guide and practical mentor to me.
At the time she was under restriction orders which meant she was not allowed out of her home between 6 in the evening and 6 in the morning, and she was not allowed to be in the presence of more than 4 people at a time – that is how dangerous the Apartheid state felt this grandmother in her 70’s was.
Due to my activities in trying to bring together people to find ways out of the deadlock of Apartheid, a White supremacist group agreed to meet with me, but they insisted that it had to be in secret. I was concerned that meeting them would be leaked and damage the trust I had developed with several Black leaders in South Africa, so I went to Mama Sisulu for advice. I asked her whether I should meet with this group who viewed what she stood for as a major threat to their beliefs and way of life.
Without hesitation she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “My son you have no choice. They are Africans and we must take everyone into the future with us.” Then she said something which to this day I wrestle with and try to turn into a guiding beacon of how I live my life. “You may hate what they stand for,” she said, “but you may never hate them. You must love them. It is only through love that we can move into the future together.”
It is now more almost 30 years ago that Mama Sisulu said this to me and to this day I wrestle with the profound meaning and personal challenges it poses for me. What if we are able to fundamentally disagree with someone but in ways that do not undermine their dignity or self esteem? What if we are capable of rejecting something another person says yet remain curious and open to explore what it is that they are trying to say?
Mama Sisulu’s deeply embedded belief and her virtue of love made me realise that this was something that I had never read in any book on leadership. And yet it is one of the most ancient forces and virtues of human existence. Without it no family, clan, society or nation could survive. Each time I look at another human being and open myself up to the curiosity and awe of exploring his or her authentic being I am opening myself to love.
Mama Sisulu taught me that without love we cannot be a leader if we cannot speak and act with the greater good and sustainable success in mind.
The exceptional impact and importance of these three virtues become so much clearer when we see their independencies,
As we enter into this space we know that:
 Power without love is oppressive and brutal.
 Power without anxiety is manipulative and sociopathic.
 Anxiety without power is the curse of victimhood.
 Anxiety without love is isolating and terribly lonely.
 Love without power is an empty gesture without commitment.
 Love without anxiety is never having lived life fully and consciously
As we enable others to speak and we listen our anxiety recedes. Creativity and vulnerability flow into this human space and give birth to change. It is there that we fulfill our capacity to create organisations and systems that are fit and friendly for life.
Power, Anxiety and Love – all three are about pushing ourselves over the threshold of what is comfortable and essentially in service of our own interests. And what is so wonderful is there is no real magic in this challenge. It merely requires that we open ourselves up to three of the most core ingredients of life. You and I have after all experienced each of these virtues virtually every day of our lives.
What could occur if you and I, if we could be simply human enough to embrace and celebrate power, anxiety and love as the drivers that guide us as leaders? If we can make Power, Anxiety and Love the guiding light of our thinking, decisions and actions we create the freedom that sets us free to become the leaders we can truly be!


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