May 08, 2019

Transpersonal Leaders Do Not “Lead"

Hung Vu

Hung Vu
Chief Executive Officer/GROFACT /ɡrōTH faktər/

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As a student of leadership for 30 years, Jim Collins’ framework has always resonated with me as a most comprehensive, in-depth and actionable study of such an elusive and profoundly impactful art of service. In this article, I will comment on parts of the framework that might be useful to your organizations, particularly if you are embarking on an accelerated growth cycle where things can get knotted up quickly. Then, rather than contrasting, I will attempt to unify how the East and the West characterize the leader at the most evolved level – the Transpersonal Leader.

   Level 5 Executive: Humility + Fierce Will to accomplish great and lasting missions.

   Level 4 Effective Leader: Motivates high performers to achieve compelling visions.

   Level 3 Competent Manager: Organizes people and resources.

   Level 2 Contributing Team Member: Productively works with others.

   Level 1 Capable Individual: Competently leads self


People First then Strategy


Collins: Right persons on the bus, in the right Seats and Wrong persons off the bus, then set the direction.

If the saying “You can’t say the wrong thing to the right person and you can’t say the right thing to the wrong person” resonates with you, then by extension, your most solemn duty – the crucial predictor of your mission’s outcome - lies with who you recruit, mentor, retain, and align with appropriate roles and teams. Strategies, culture, roadmaps and operating plans, etc. will work themselves out. In winning form, your self-directed teams will collaborate effectively and co-create products and services in alignment with market needs and corporate goals. The right teams in the right environment will embrace their diversity, feed from one another’s energy, thrive on creative ideas from all corners, and play-to-win collectively. I’ve been fortunate to have served an unassailable team of 20+ “ordinary members” that delivered an enduring best-in-class corporate learning management system (LMS) that became GE's sole global system that was integrated into their 300+ businesses in 20+ industries. It was singularly gratifying.


Lucidity and Decisiveness


Collins: Face the brutal facts and handle the realities.

Organizational success or failure has always been largely about who’s on the team, are they on the right seat - at the right time?, can we make bold decisions?, and how we pull together the collective effort. External factors from the markets, clients, partners and investors will always be dynamic and represent problems to the surviving teams and opportunities to the thriving teams. 

If your initial team has successfully produced product or service innovations that resulted in the much-desired market adoption, recapitalization and or new investments, congratulations! Your talent, grit and creativity are being validated and rewarded! However, if the increase in scope, scale, complexity, ecosystem and level of scrutiny is significant, it may require different leaders, different team composition, more innovations, more technologies and processes. More often than not, the existing teams have been overstretched for quite some time, grinding out the next-level opportunity for their organizations, and should be well rewarded! But greater no-rest-for-the-weary demands on overmatched teams can feel like pushing ropes. Adding more experience and structure around knotted ropes isn't the answer, you'll need to build around the right leaders and key people for the new mission. You'll need to level up your core strength. The increase in complexity and effort are almost never linear; building or integrating one additional technology product to an existing one-product portfolio can often mean increasing the overall work effort and market impact 300-500%! Obviously, it would be insane to scale the portfolio by expanding the team 3-5x for every additional product, and it increases almost exponentially for subsequent products and or services, if you don't reorganize and level up. 

“We cannot solve our problems [or certain next-level opportunities]  with the same level of thinking that created them.” —Albert Einstein.

The explosion of new interdependencies between systems, databases, workflows, user goals, underlying technology stacks while meeting targeted scalability, survivability, and interoperability requires a different level of perspective and experience. A struggling leader will typically recruit those that s/he is comfortable managing, and this can spread costly dysfunction, confusion, lack of accountability, under-performance and general insecurity throughout this living breathing organism we call a work team. You can’t build and unleash thriving autonomous teams this way. Set your organization up for success at this well-earned next-level by lucidly finding meaningful and equitable resolutions to the leadership gap that you may have.


Grind Out Your Ikigai


Collins: Hedgehogperseverance to be the Best = Passion of Organization People + Organization’s Strength + Best Economics

Ikigai (pronounced [ee-kee-guy]) is a Japanese concept that means "a reason for being."

This Ikigai concept for individuals extends to the collections of individuals, the work teams and their larger organizations. When groups are built to thrive, their energy and richness of ideas expand to become more than the sum of its parts! 

Leaders must creatively and consistently ground the jovial, vibrant, and sometimes high-minded energy of the millennial work teams to the organization’s purpose and economics to effectively align the deliverables with market, corporate and investor needs.

Mr. Collins differentiates further between what you are good at and what you are genetically encoded to do. Generalists can do several different things well and they are needed in those areas in many instances. Specialists tend to be the ones built for what they do, especially if they have had progressive experience and demonstrable success in those areas. I have learned that most of us are doers who serve best when we are presented with clear and compelling opportunities to collectively or individually respond to (Operations, development, client support, account management). There are those of us that are masters in our domains and serve best in advisory roles (Architects, designers, trainers, coaches…). Even fewer are those who serve best by monitoring the pulse of the market, identifying and timing the correct responses, and informing the rest of us of what we should collectively manifesting (Product managers, analysts, sales…).

As leaders, you have not only the responsibility of recruiting, retaining and aligning talents and leaders with the right roles, but also matching them at the right time! As strategies change, requirements and other parameters such as funding, time-to-market and associated economics might change drastically. Horse-trading or role change might be needed even though you’ve had the perfect team for last year’s mission. Once you have the right talents in the right roles and the right environment, foster trust and hold a safe space for them to swing-for-the-fence but do so with discipline. Aligned, strongly connected, autonomous and talented teams paired with disciplined people, disciplined thoughts and disciplined actions are unassailable.


The Transpersonal Leader


Curiously, the top 2 characterizations of Mr. Collins’ leadership framework align well with the top 2 leadership style descriptions of the 5,000-year-old Chinese philosophical taxonomy of the universe called the I-Ching, when roughly translated and distilled below:

Level 4: The loved and honored Leader: Solves problems and productively delivers team results; practices situational leadership and servant leadership.

Level 5: The invisible leader: Doesn’t call attention to self and values the collective and its mission most, regardless if s/he is at the helm or not. Once mission is accomplished, s/he steps out quietly. This is the principle of Lao Tzu’ Self-directed Team or “Not violating the Way/Dao Action Management”.

The I-Ching delves extensively into the many dimensions and ways invisible leaders would go about fulfilling their responsibilities, as broadly illustrated in the last 2 diagrams. However, roughly translated and distilled into English below, the descriptions line up well to Mr. Collins’ characterization of the humble executives building lasting organizations that transcend their own egos and near-term objectives:

  • Create visions, core values and missions that teams naturally adopt as their own
  • Provide the resources, infrastructure, engineer processes and optimize operating procedures to.
  • enable self-directed autonomous teams to thrive in a transparent and accountable environment.
  • Foresee and prevent potential problems that may arise. With problems averted, leadership was effective but is typically taken for granted. 
  • When mission is accomplished, grant credit to teams but not to self. Pass to able hands and quietly leave when appropriate.
  • Recruit, mentor and build more leaders. Winning with more winners.

The transpersonal leader thinks, speaks, acts and congregates in accordance with natural laws. S/he cultivates and defends the collective trust, integration, alignment, and connectedness throughout. S/he effortlessly galvanizes and mobilizes troops when success is already assured. In this environment, the thriving cohesive team naturally harnesses the limitless creative inspiration, innovates, co-creates, takes the right risks, and swings for the fence.


Can You Learn to be a Transpersonal Leader?


In Mr. Collins’ 2001 leadership study, commissioned by the Harvard Business Review, he identified only 1% of the Fortune 500 companies (11 of 1,435) as having Level 5 leaders in their c-suites. True to their ethos, you probably haven’t heard of any of them outside of studies like Mr. Collin’s.

Mr. Collin: “My hypothesis is that there are two categories of people: those who do not have the seed of Level 5 and those who do. The second category of people—and I suspect the larger group—consists of those who have the potential to evolve to Level 5; the capability resides within them, perhaps buried or ignored, but there nonetheless. And under the right circumstances—self-reflection, conscious personal development, a mentor, a great teacher, loving parents, a significant life experience, a Level 5 boss, or any number of other factors—they begin to develop.

In looking at the data, we noticed that some of the leaders in our study had significant life experiences that might have sparked or furthered their maturation.”

Although they are 5,000 years and oceans apart, both descriptions of this most evolved leadership level highlight the same transpersonal perspective and ethos. While there are countless ways these leaders meaningfully impact and guide the movements, interactions, and the resulting deliverables of individuals, teams and organizations, they do so effectively but quietly, with styles that are less observable as exhibited by the more visible leaders at the other levels. 

Instead, they establish and safeguard a virtuous cycle that perpetuates itself: hire and mentor the best people for the mission at hand , meld them together with an authentic and thriving culture, then expect them to own, lead, self-direct and overachieve!

These leaders can almost be invisible, yet their imprints are omnipresent if you recognize and appreciate the coherency vibes and winning forms in contrast to the often-chaotic and perplexing feel of major company pivots or accelerated growth phases with leadership gaps.

Read the fuller version of the articles with graphics here

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