Leadership engages the head, body, heart and essential core and peak performance is achieved when we optimize and integrate these. Our cognitive thinking “head” (aka pre-frontal cortex) generates ideas and “selects” the data we notice based on what we deem is important. It is fueled by curiosity. Our physical body takes action, which is driven by motivation. Our “heart” rules our emotional life and relationships, based on our caring for one another. Our core essential being blossoms with presence. To understand how to develop leadership, we look to four corresponding “meta competencies” of leadership – seeing, connecting, doing, being.9 10 11
In general, leadership capacity is developed by developing each of the four meta competencies, which operate synergistically in a dynamic system, as leaders focus on achieving critical outcomes. These meta competencies are both distinct and overlapping. They dynamically co-arise and are co-created.12 Each of the meta competencies has an internal and external expression. Each is relevant to individual and collective leadership.
This raises the questions: Are all four of the meta competencies equally important? Can leadership excel with lopsided strength, across the four? Yes and…
• None of the four stand out as asymmetrically more important; all are important. However, “being,” our internal state, is the foundation from which we manifest the other meta competencies and a gateway to developing the other meta competencies, as it determines our stance, readiness for growth and openness to change.
• Each individual leader has his or her own “footprint” visa vi the meta competencies. Some leaders are breath-takingly strong across all four (think Gandhi, Martin Luther King, etc.). Some (weak) leaders are weak across all four. Most leaders tend to be stronger in one or two -- they tend to have a center of gravity, from which they most comfortably, intuitively lead. Their developmental path includes optimizing these areas of strength and exploring ways to authentically build (or complement through collaboration with others) the weaker zones, as the demands of their context require.
• Many leaders who are widely admired as strong leaders have such strength in some meta competencies that they compensate for weakness in another, to achieve outstanding results. Often in these cases, their strengths are particularly well-suited to take advantage of the opportunities or overcome the challenges presented in a specific time and place.
• Leadership does not take place in a vacuum – it is exercised in a specific context, with a specific set of challenges, opportunities, dynamics, and stakeholders. The performance of leadership depends both on the strength of leadership’s competency and also the fit between those strengths and what is required to achieve the desired results in the current context. Versatility (the ability to draw upon what is required in the specific context) is a key driver of effectiveness.
• Healthy Leadership Systems 13 create an environment where leaders with varying talents and strengths work together, with each able to step forward, to provide the leadership that is required, according to the context, according to their leadership strengths. Therefore, the collective can have strength across all four meta competencies, even when each individual leader may not.
Leadership liabilities can stem from not only limitations in any of these areas, but also from excessive dominance, a “virtue gone awry.” For example, in the external world, excessive dominance of seeing can lead to “analysis paralysis,” when needed action is thwarted in favor of more research or analysis in pursuit of ever illusive clarity. In our internal world, thinking can easily dominate the other meta competencies, like a runaway train. John Prendergast writes, “The rational mind is a good servant, but a poor master. …As we rely increasingly on a quiet, body-based inner knowing, our thinking becomes secondary; it is dethroned as the CEO of our life and takes its rightful place as a useful assistance.”14 15 Excessive doing is observed in a compulsive need for action that mistakes activity for progress or a “ready-fire-aim” dynamic where direction-less activity wastes time and other valuable resources. Leaders who over-dial on the connecting meta competency can get caught in webs of conflicted loyalties or can have a hard time charting a clear course or taking difficult decisions when it will interfere with relational harmony. Over-dialing on the being meta competency could manifest in “spiritual bypassing,” a term used to describe the pursuit of transcendent practices as an implicit strategy for avoiding the challenges of everyday life.16
© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham