Getting Ready to Lead

Earlier this year, a partner in Dubai approached us to develop a programme for “30 young nationals” in a Dubai government agency, who were not yet in leadership/management roles, but were identified as high potential candidates for such roles. This was an interesting assignment, and it pushed my buttons in ways and led me to react in ways that were, on reflection, quite embarrassing. I’ll get to that embarrassment, because I think it is telling, and perhaps even useful.

Some context about the UAE, and “nationals”. Only about 15% (1,3 million) of the UAE’s population of approximately 9,6 million people are natural-born members of the seven original Arabian tribes that were brought together in the early seventies as the United Arab Emirates. The UAE’s ambitions to make the most of their oil windfall required opening their doors to the rest of the world, with the result that (there is a strong perception that) most of the work in the country is done by people from elsewhere. 80% of the “native population” (oh, I know my foot is in the vicinity of my mouth) are younger than 35, 60% are younger than 30! The native population is extremely young – highly educated, but inexperienced, and in a very real sense very sheltered. It would be easy enough for this nation to keep relying on foreigners, but the government of the UAE mandated the focused development of its young population as future leaders.

At about the same time we received this development request, I became very interested in maturity theory, as developed by most notably Susan Cook-Greuter, and explored and developed by our South African partners and friends, Aephoria Partners.

With the certainty of a novice, I was clear: This group of youngsters are in the early developmental stages, in Aephoria Partners’ EIT terminology: probably mostly Group Defended. I needed to develop a programme that would help Group Defended individuals to gain enough self-awareness to ignite their differentiation (or individuation) from strong group-identity bonds (including the accompanying forces of peer pressure, normative morals, and inclusivity/exclusivity dynamics) and to step into management/leadership roles.

This is where the first version of Ready to Lead was born: as a programme for youngsters with high leadership potential, at an early maturity stage, in a context of high conformity to social norms, and where there is a high level of entitlement to career progress (in this country without economic hardship, status is an important marker of self-worth) without necessarily an appreciation of the need to correspondingly take on expanded responsibility and to develop emotionally.

I won’t tell you about all the challenges I faced in this project, specifically relating to the target audience (how I shudder when I use that phrase). Let me just quickly tell you about something I am still embarrassed about, because it highlighted my own cultural insularity and easy and unthinking Western superiority: The client specified the development of “charisma” as one of the outcomes. I was scathing, thinking that it was a shallow and outdated notion linked to notions of the hero leader, as well as the general cultural altitude of the UAE, until I realized that “charisma”, in its fullest meaning, expresses a beautiful quality of lovingness highly appreciated by the people of the UAE, and absolutely necessary for anyone who wishes to be a leader of quality in this world. When we design, we often do so with the baggage of our own prejudices.

I was fortunate to work in the UAE with a very experienced partner, who kept me real, and foregrounded the work and social realities of the delegates of this programme. (Also, during the development of the programme, I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in the UAE working on a project at a very large, very multi-national organization in the energy sector, where I had the chance to question some of my very basic assumptions about Emiratis and Emirati culture – often I was left more confused than enlightened.)

The programme introduced a simple leadership compass to guide individuals on the journey into self-awareness: Vision and purpose in the North; Values in the South; Talents and Strengths in the East; and Habits and Styles in the West. At the centre of the compass: leadership presence. The world we navigate with this compass: Our relationships, our organization, and even our society. Some of themes we explored: what do these young Emiratis believe about leadership? Who are their role-models, and what do these people role-model for them? What matters most to them – and as far as values are concerned: what values provide development pathways beyond the values related group identity?

Months later, talking to Yendor Felgate of Being Human Group and your go-to person for anything related to Gallup and Gallup StrengthsFinder in South Africa, we realized the potential for a programme aimed at high leadership potential individuals in organisations, who are not yet in leadership roles, incorporating Gallup’s StrengthsFinder.

The original Dubai programme was instrument-agnostic (it incorporated an EQ instrument already used by the client); I always wanted to create a version of the programme using the Enneagram, our preferred personal development framework; we thought that StrengthsFinder, with its positive psychology basis, would enable us to bring an element of powerful recognition for your natural talents into the programme (the East in our original compass).

And so this version of Ready to Lead was created, and piloted in the first week of October 2019. Let me immediately say this: We pitched the programme at people who were not yet in leadership roles, yet there was much interest from people at all levels – CEOs, Regional managers, etc. Of our first group, maybe half were in relatively senior roles, and only a quarter in no (official) leadership role. We still think this programme will be great for people who are young and not yet leading; however, we see the potential, and the need, for it for people who already lead their organisations and who wish to pause, pay attention to themselves, reflect on their “readiness to lead”, and gain a better foothold in themselves to0 navigate our crazy times and our madhouse organisations (and I say “madhouse” with love, astonishment, frustration, self-recognition, and a whole gamut of feelings).

Does maturity theory still hold water? I think so, but it depends on the ability of the facilitator to adapt to the complexity of the participant group. In our pilot we went to places we probably would not go to with a group where all are at an early stage of maturity.

At each level of maturity, there is a need to firstly, integrate at the level in its healthy aspects, and secondly, provide stimuli for transcending the level into the next level. For instance, a strong group-based identity provides, in its healthy aspect, the foundations for belonging and for being together in this world; its normative morality, however, may easily create us/them dysfunctions, and hold back individuals who may start to develop an identity that is less conforming to the group. This work happens, so to speak, in the background on the programme encounter, especially when the group is diverse; in more homogenous groups, we can work specifically with the integration and transcendence of the dominant maturity level.

Ready to Lead focuses on the individual, however, and the integration of Strengths presented interesting design challenges. Initially, I thought it was just a matter of dropping it into all micro-processes dealing with the East on our compass – and this is indeed where it was explored most extensively.

A more daunting design challenge however quickly presented itself in marrying the underlying positive psychology approach of strengths with our peculiar flavor of existential ontology. I won’t go into all the details now, but suffice to say: When we ask, “How do organisations become what they are?’, and “Why do people in organisations do what they do?”, we unflinchingly explore the shadowy organizational and individual constraints on our boundless positive agency or potential. On our compass, this is the West: habits and styles – the patterns that shape how we show up, for better or worse. This is where we love to use the Enneagram, and also maturity theory; where we ask, with Susan Cook-Greuter: “To what extent are we free to choose our behavior?”

Ready to Lead aims to bring our constraints into awareness, and to open up the possibility for shift. Shift here means, unconstraining agency, or, creating enabling rather than restrictive constraints. We have all these talents, all these natural gifts, they are our birthright: why don’t we use them? Why are we not doing the sensible thing, namely to focus on our talents, the 20% that will give us 80% of our results? We suspect that this lies in the structure of the organization (or society, or family) on the one hand, and in our psychological structure, on the other hand. We are, in a certain sense and to a certain degree, predisposed to helplessness.

While developing the programme I found an article by someone who integrated the Enneagram and Strengths in a very different way; staying within the frame of positive psychology, the Enneagram is used to explore how different people specifically express their Strengths. This is an interesting direction, however somewhat positivistic in its insistence on exploring what is rather than what emerges.

I resolved this challenge in one way by taking an existential ontological approach to “talent” itself: talent is an enabling constraint. To act into the field of my potential, I need to discover and explore my talent, make a commitment to develop my talent, and use my talent (including rearranging my work to suit my talent), until it becomes integrated and fully potentiated. In this work, the Enneagram provides us with clues and maps to unshackle ourselves to do what is better for us. I think this challenges positive psychology in a productive way; also, I think it brings realism to the endeavor of developing our talents beyond saying “Just do it.”

This was a long, technical digression. So what, you may ask?

Well, we believe that transformation is possible. We believe that we can grow up, and come to create better organisations and better societies.

We are full of appreciation for the government of a country with a very young population who believes that their process of maturation can be supported, that they can claim their independence from expert outsiders, and take on the task to lead themselves. We see and we are moved by the sincerity with which participants in our programmes, such as Ready to Lead, enquire into their own being and grapple with the call to lead. Never, when working with young managers, were they not eager to learn, to examine their habits, and to imagine different possibilities.

We created and continue to refine this programme to support this deep intention to transform in all who are getting and who are working to stay Ready to Lead.

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