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Unlearning Leadership

Why you need to forget what you know and lead

I always wonder what it must have been like being Galileo. Not when he came up with his theory that earth wasn’t the centre of the universe (using nothing but bits of metal and glass), but when it came to telling people about it. Can you imagine what that was like?

“Hey, guys. Guess what? So that thing you knew, and built your entire world view around, well, not so much.” His name came off a lot of party lists that year.

You see, in that moment, Galileo wan’t just asking people to learn something new about space. He was asking them to unlearn something old about themselves.

And if there’s anything that gets the proverbial goat, it’s being asked to unlearn something you hold to be true. If you don’t believe me, please also ask Darwin, MLK, the people involved in the Middle East Peace Process, #MeToo, a non-binary friend.

But, while challenging, that list also tells us that letting go of what we hold true is a vital step to progress. Galileo and co. have shown that the way we move forward as a society is not simply by adding more knowledge, but by taking the odd step back. Having the ability to pause, reflect and unlearn old stories to make room for new ones.

We won’t achieve social justice without unlearning racial prejudice. We won’t embrace gender equality without unlearning gender stereotype (and even the biological ‘fact’ that there are only two sexes). And we won’t change how we do business without unlearning how we lead.

Follow the leader

At Within we’re curious about the qualities of leaders who will grow a different kind of company: purpose-led and values-driven, where people love who they are and what they do. Companies founded on a context of freedom, where people are treated like self-responsible adults and hierarchy no longer has a strangle-hold on how we value ourselves and each other.

It’s a different kind of company because when you ask most people to draw theirs they’ll start with a triangle. The leaders are the important people at the top, holding the knowledge, power and influence over people below, who are organised into neat reporting lines according to their steadily declining value.

Leadership in these companies is defined by the ability to amass control and power and then dispense it judiciously as a reward for toil. It’s the ability to command respect, often through awe and fear. To maintain an aura of infallibility, and protect it by avoiding uncomfortable public displays of emotions, numbers or truths.

Over time this has accumulated into a story of leadership written by Lords of the Manor to Captains of Industry to Internet Billionaires. The moustaches may have got steadily less extravagant, but the lead roles are still played by people who hold some magic combination of gravitas, seniority, masculinity, ruthlessness, self-confidence, experience, connections, schooling…

And for those who don’t display these qualities, the story follows that they can’t lead. Or they aren’t ready to until they can be just like those who came before them.

And that’s a problem. Look at how people feel in these companies and the picture is pretty bleak. In a recent Forbes article, Rasmus Hougaard revealed the horrifying statistic that 50% of employees leave their jobs at some point because their leaders are so bad that they’re literally ruining their lives. According to Deloitte’s Shift Index Survey, 80% of Americans claim to be actively dissatisfied at work, and apparently a third of people in the UK even claim that work is robbing them of their sense of humour. Crumbs.

And it’s especially problematic for 21st century business. Because empowering people throughout a company doesn’t mean abolishing leadership, but democratising it. It means that anyone can — and indeed everyone should — be able to lead.

Meeting our impostors

Despite what we might assume, the traditional approach to leadership isn’t much fun for leaders either. In our work we meet so many founders and CEOs who are stuck trying to align who they are with who they have been taught they need to be. Who are caught in the purgatory of having to choose between being themselves and being a leader. The feeling at the top is not great achiever, but great impostor.

I have been one of those people, and I have even named my impostor — Ignoramus Young. He is inexpert and inexperienced. He is small, and he definitely can’t grow a moustache. But he’s nonetheless willing to defend his ego with great postures of intelligence, confidence and resilience.

A few years into my career, I was busy ascending the ladder of seniority in the agency I worked in. I had a little team of my own. I had a seat near the pointy end of the triangle. Things were going just as planned.

Then one of my team told me they were scared to approach me and ask me a question. I was floored by that. Being quite little and very geek, I had been called many things, but scary had never been one of them. The idea of being intimidating was literally intimidating to me.

The kind of leader I wanted to be was inspiring, benevolent, smart — leading a motivated army toward some earth-shatteringly brilliant idea. Yet here I was shattering nothing other than the confidence of the very army I was hoping to inspire to greatness.

I realise I had let Ignoramus Young do the leading instead of me. As my impostor he needed to compensate with overconfidence to mask inexperience. He had to be too busy to talk, because he had to prove just how vital he was to keeping the ship on course… It wasn’t remotely effective, it was just exhausting.

A different kind of leader

Perhaps, instead of bending people to fit the mould, we change the mould itself. And there are lots of people doing an amazing job of reimagining what it means to lead in a modern company. Who are starting to question some of the fundamental assumptions we hold about strength and vulnerability, control and power, success and failure.

Over the last year, Within has been adding our insights to what it takes to be a leader in a 21st century organisation. We spoke to the leaders in our global community — from San Francisco to London to Hong Kong — who have battled against traditional leadership ideals, and who have found new ways forward.

With them we identified seven qualities that will best equip the leaders of the future. They are: vulnerability, creativity, courage, conviction, empathy, curiosity and patience. (Listen here to a short discussion on each of them with leaders who have been there, done that).

We’re excited about these qualities because they can make leadership accessible to any of us. They are neither male nor female, old nor young, educated or not. The capacity to show up to them exists in all of us. We are born vulnerable, curious and creative, and we learn to lose those traits as we grow up.

These qualities ask us to remember something essential about ourselves, not learn something new. And they invite leaders to step out of their armour, lay down their ego, accept and embrace people for who they are, and inspire others with vision not fear. We’ll start to lead 21st century companies when we sub out the likes of control, power, competition for the qualities on this list.

Unlearning how we learn

The standard approach to helping more people lead has been to teach unconventional leaders the art of conventional leadership. How do we help introverts embrace their inner extrovert? How do we ignite the competitor in the compassionate? How do we help women ‘lean in’? What’s the quickest way to slather qualification and experience onto young people so we can respect them?

However, the invitation here is not to learn more about leadership, but to unlearn what we think we know about it. To let go of the stories we each hold that get in the way of us showing up to lead.

And that’s quite the ask, because we rightly attribute huge value to learning. It’s how we grow as individuals and innovate as businesses. It’s why we invest in training and development for our people and go to great lengths to cultivate learning environments in our companies. But where leadership is concerned, that investment isn’t translating well enough into joy or growth. Hougaard’s other revelatory stat is that the billions upon billions of dollars spent on leadership training has improved productivity by only 2%.

Whilst adding more learning is obviously of huge benefit, constantly applying layer upon layer of information and insight has its limits. A bit like painting an old room, at some point, you need to scrape away some of the layers underneath, so that the fresh paint will really stick. If we don’t, before long the latest coats will peel away, to reveal the hardened layers underneath.

In my own leadership story, what I have needed to embrace is vulnerability. My problem isn’t that I skipped the class on how to be vulnerable. It’s that over years I have learned to feel shame. In a loving home, I learned to make the best of every situation, to cope not complain. At school, in between classes, I learned to hide my insecurities safely out of harm’s way. At university, in the shadow of Oxford’s spires, I learned that the alternative to great success was great failure. And at work I learned that getting ahead meant do it all, do it best, come what may.

Being more vulnerable is as much about unlearning shame as it is learning to be open. Just as being more curious isn’t only about seeking new information, but rather letting go of prejudice. We’ll only truly unlock creativity when we unlearn failure.

Like Galileo, we can’t keep teaching the world new things about their universe until we ask them to reimagine their position in it, and in some cases, to forget what they knew about it in the first place.

Learning how to unlearn

Maybe the reason we’re so focused on learning is that unlearning is way harder to do. It’s much easier to see, hear and feel than it is to unsee, unhear and unfeel. Especially when so much of what we ‘know’ wasn’t consciously learned in the first place, but absorbed from the collective story being told around us.

The collective story about leadership no longer serves us. And embracing the qualities of a 21st century leader asks us to become aware of that old story and reject it.

Unlearning is not new. But it is hard. Perhaps we can take confidence from the leaps forward we’ve made when we’ve let go of something that holds us back, and the knowledge that in doing so we are not letting go of who we are, but rediscovering it. When we let go of a story that doesn’t serve us, it makes room for us to write A new one that does.

Our business and our clients are not alone in thinking about this, and we certainly haven’t got it licked. So we want to speak to more leaders. People who have felt the ache of impostor-hood, and have found a way to embrace some of the qualities of 21st century leadership.

And we want to ask you to share with us how you did it. The great thing about unlearning is that it’s even more powerful when we do it together.


Please join our conversation. Start by picking a quality from the list of seven, and post a short comment below that speaks to what you unlearned, and how, to show up to it.

You can also join us at our Meaning Conference workshop on 15 November 2018 where we’ll be exploring that very question, or email us at laurie@withinpeople.com.