In the classic book Zen in the Art of Archery, the Master advises, “What stands in your way is that you have a much too wilful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”
Written by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel, the book explores how motor learning is done, which is to say that much of our learning is acquired unconsciously.
This idea ran contrary to the Western ideal that everything we do comes from control and intentional direction. But anyone who learned to ride a bike will know that gripping the handlebars too tightly and making rash turns is a sure recipe for disaster.
Becoming an expert cyclist starts to unfold only when we learn to ‘let go’ of trying to control so much. Rather than making the bicycle move, we move with it, almost as though we become part of the bicycle.
Mastering this stage, we usually find we fall off a lot less than before.
Whenever we want to succeed at something, there’s a good chance that we will try to control as much as we can in order to minimise the risk of failure.
But just as gripping too tightly on the handlebars is likely to lead to bashed knees and bruised egos, trying to control too much in positions of leadership is also bound to lead to problems.
These days, we can all look to one or two examples of leaders who try to control everything and react rashly whenever things don’t pan out quite as well as they planned.
At best, bullish leaders can inflict unnecessary inconveniences on those around them; in the worst-case scenarios, attempts to control things too tightly can result in major problems that affect many people.
Like everything else, leadership evolves with time and we’re constantly discovering new insights into how leaders can be more effective, efficient, engaging and empowering.
Having said that, even the best advice received isn’t always the advice that’s taken, and it’s often the case that leaders with rigid styles only receive the message through unwelcome results.
Here, I’d love to share three insights from my own leadership journey on how to get the best out of yourself and others (keep in mind it’s an ongoing learning process):
Seek input from others
An old mentor of mine once said: “I know more about what I do than you do – but there’s an awful lot more you know that I don’t.” While leaders often have more knowledge about a particular subject than their followers, there’s a lot of knowledge they’ve still to acquire – the kind of knowledge that others around them hold.
For example, a leader might be an expert in finance but has little idea about digital marketing or how to reach an audience through video content. Great leaders seek input from those around them. Not only do they get to build on their own knowledge, but they gain insights from different perspectives and cultivate a culture of knowledge sharing throughout their organisation.
Humility is key
Being a leader can be quite seductive, particularly when you get the first few success stories under your belt. It can lead us to believe that we “made it on our own” and “achieved success single-handedly”.
From Moses to Mark Zuckerberg, not a single leader has ever achieved anything without the help of others. In all leadership journeys, there will be successes and failures and we’d do well to keep the poet Rudyard Kipling’s advice in mind and treat Triumph and Disaster as the same.
When we fall down, we need help to get back up, and help from others is most readily available when we remain humble in times of success.
Read – a lot
It’s no surprise that many of the world’s most successful leaders are avid readers. In books, we have portable masterclasses from the greatest thinkers both past and present that show us how to achieve, succeed as well as overcome challenges and avoid pitfalls.
Research has shown that reading books geared towards self-improvement are what separates the top one per cent of earners from the rest – a love of lifelong learning is what fuels the fire of creativity and innovation.
Personally, I recommend reading a biography (or autobiography) of a particular leader you admire alongside self-improvement books that explore a related skill. So, for example, you might want to read about Abraham Lincoln in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals in conjunction with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
The first book provides insights into one of the greatest negotiators and communicators in American history, and the other serves as a manual on how we can emulate Lincoln as a leader we admire by developing the same qualities he espoused.
So there you have it: be proactive in seeking advice; stay humble; and learn from the greatest thinkers. Whether you’re in leadership, thinking of a change, or just starting out in your career, I hope these three pieces of advice will serve to guide you well whatever path you’re on.
If you have any leadership tips or book recommendations of your own to share, I would love to hear from you!