The majority of leaders, in my experience, are already familiar with the notion of ‘Level 5’ leadership, a term coined around 20 years ago by Jim Collins and made famous in his best-selling book, Good to Great. He used it to describe the very best leaders: those possessing the capabilities to enable the transformation of a company from good to great.
Collins’ work was remarkable because it challenged the accepted wisdom of the day – that CEOs should be charismatic, larger-than-life figures. He initiated a major shift in leadership thinking by showing that, far from being high-profile individuals with big personalities and a love of success for their own glory, the most effective leaders avoided the limelight wherever possible. In his words, “They weren’t aggressive, self-promoting or self-congratulatory, but diligent and hardworking, self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy.” He discovered that these outstanding leaders were absolutely committed to the success of both the team and the organisation, whilst at the same time being the first to pass credit to others when things went well and to accept the blame when things went badly.
In summarising their qualities, Collins said that such leaders were remarkable because of their ability to:
“Build enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.”
Unfortunately, Collins stopped short of providing guidance on how such leaders could be developed; indeed, he even suggested that to propose a method to do so would be “speculation”! The means of developing emotional intelligence to this level are not well understood, so perhaps it is unsurprising that both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that very few leaders have achieved the goal of mastering leadership at Level 5. How few? According to one study, by David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute, where he evaluated the related qualities of goal focus (similar to professional will) and social skills (within which humility is a uniquely powerful resource), scarily few! He discovered that less than 1% of leaders were rated high on both goal focus and social skills.
As this article explains, some of the difficulty involved in developing a balanced capability in both analytical and social leadership skills may be due to fundamental characteristics of how our brains work. When we focus on either of these two types of task, we engage specialised areas of the brain. However, countless neuroimaging studies have shown that, with few exceptions, there is an antagonistic relationship between the two areas, such that the more one of these networks gets activated, the more the other quietens down. This means that once we are engaged in one type of thinking it is much harder to engage the other, or even to recognise that the other type would be beneficial. I call this a neural seesaw.
This article describes the interaction between the two networks in greater detail. It also explains the importance and value of recognising that we all have a “natural”, or preferred, approach in terms of which network we tend to default to, and addresses what you can do to begin to learn how to create an optimal balance between them.
Read the Article: The Best Managers Balance Analytical and Emotional Intelligence
Leadership, like most things in life, requires balance. As such, the seesawing nature of mental function described in this article has huge implications for leadership development and performance. We are much less likely to succeed without focusing on our people, and they won’t succeed unless we’re focused on results – neither characteristic on its own will consistently produce great leadership. Furthermore, it is insufficient simply to understand or remember that we need both task and social capabilities, because so many of the decisions about where and how we focus are made unconsciously.
In the modern, high stress working environment (and life more generally), people are often juggling many priorities at once. When this happens, switching from one side of the brain to the other becomes too difficult, resulting in those tasks that are less automatic getting neglected. The solution requires us to overcome the inevitable neurological conflict that makes it difficult to switch between task and social roles. The foundation of that capability is:
To learn to be able to intentionally choose which parts of the brain to use.
… not easy, I know, that’s why it’s the subject of one of my in-depth workshops!