Leaders create the conditions for positive organizational health, and are a product of them.  Yes, you heard me right.  Leaders make organizations healthy or not, and they are made by them.

This can occur as an irresolvable paradox—how can I be responsible for making something if it is also making me at the same time?  In my experience, both personally, and in working with leaders all over the world, a paradox tends to exist where we haven’t yet discovered the simple essence of something that appears complex on the surface.

When we describe the attributes of effective leadership—of those leaders whose teams and organizations are disproportionately happy, productive, and successful—we tend to describe people who take decisive action, inspire greatness in others, and take leaps their competitors shy away from.

Time and again, though, I’ve seen that these characteristics only truly contribute to greatness when they are the product of something much deeper.  For myself, I’ve learned (often the hard way) that fast decisions, flashes of inspiration, and courageous leaps of creativity come only by letting my guard down, letting others in, and trusting in the wisdom of the group to be more amazing than anything I could ever dream up myself.

The kind of listening that happens when one is willing and able to be vulnerable—to not have any investment in being more important, more right, or more recognized for success—IS the secret to exceptional leadership.  This is because those people who can listen so deeply and with such intensity to the wisdom in their organizations, without trying to control or dictate the outcome, are the ones who are inevitably several steps ahead of their competition.  They maximize the wisdom of the group, get people excited about what they have to contribute, and cause more (and more valuable) disclosure than leaders who think that they already know best.

So what gets in our way as well-intended leaders?  Trying to behave as other leaders we know or admire rather than working to be like them. Whenever I get sucked into the trap of wanting to be seen as decisive, inspirational, or innovative, I find I lose that capacity to listen deeply.  When I get worried about being leader-like, my success (perceived or otherwise) overwhelms organizational health.

When, instead, I stop worrying about what I already believe and focus intently on what my team is facing and appreciate what they are doing, we invariably discover things together we hadn’t previously considered, strengthen one another’s resolve and capability, and unleash the kind of creativity that both delivers great results, and leaves us stronger as a team and organization.

One Response to “Leading Healthy Organizations”

  1. November 29, 2012 at 8:58 pm, Brad Sadler said:

    Hi Jennifer,

    Thanks for your article which found me at a most opportune time. One of my earliest hard earned lessons in leadership was to develop a personal credo of ‘Listen with an intent to understand first … and then respond’.

    My passion to grasp the moment, convince people ‘I’ got it and that ‘I’ could help them often found ‘I” (me) jumping in mid story with an answer before the real question had been put to me. My enthusiasm often found me listening to words only and engaging mostly at a verbal and therefore superficial level.

    It took me a while to learn that Leadership wasn’t just about being right and that far greater success as a leader comes from sharing victories and therefore inspiring more of them no matter how big or small.

    Well back to listening, sharing and learning!