Transforming Reactive into Creative Leadership

April 18, 2019

Transforming Reactive into Creative Leadership

The primary development gap leaders face is that they are leading amid a level of complexity that requires creative leadership or higher, yet most are leading reactively. And since reactive leadership has built-in limits to scale, and tends to cancel itself out, reactive leadership is outmatched by the complexities that leaders face. The resulting development gap is an adaptive challenge. Its solution is not a technical one (such as learn a new capability, add some knowledge, improve a skill, add a competency). Its solution cannot be found, neither from within our known solution set nor in our current internal operating system.

Rather, its solution requires evolving to a higher order of thinking and being. From there, we can solve the challenges that come with complexity. The development gap we face individually requires that we evolve or fall behind, that organizationally we evolve or become less and less relevant to our customers, and globally we evolve or perish.

This gap requires evolving from the inside out and booting up a new way of deciding, acting, and making meaning. We must deconstruct our current level of adult development, and reconstruct it at the next higher order of design—a design more fit for purpose in a world of escalating complexity.

Here, we focus primarily on the shift from reactive to creative leadership—the shift most leaders are challenged to make.

Most great symphonies have three movements. Each movement builds on the one before it to make an artistic whole. Metaphorically, this is also true of the shift from reactive to creative leadership. 

The First Movement
The first movement is from a person who is authored by others to one who is authored by self. The leader authored by others is running a socialized mind—the conditioning we were given in our youth and the identity we constructed over the years. However, when we deploy ourselves from a socialized mind, we are more likely to lead and live reactively, because our behavior is being authored by outside circumstances and expectations. We are doing our best to live up to the expectations of others—key stakeholders and authority figures in our lives, significant others (some of whom are long dead), cultural norms, political and religious beliefs, and messages from our past and current environment about who we must become to be successful, good, and worthy. We depend on outside validation for our security and self-esteem. But the structure of this game is self-limiting—it is not mature enough for the kind of complexity most of us face as leaders.

Out of all the many external messages, the self-authored leader has discerned what is most important and what he or she chooses to stand for. Self-worth is granted internally by discerning and living up to the internal dictates of an emerging and deeply felt sense of purpose. That purpose is translated into a vision of the future. Authenticity—acting in a manner consistent with that vision in every encounter—is the leader’s hallmark. In the wake of their action, creative leaders are focused on leaving an organization in which they would want their children to work. They are no longer run by fear—playing not-to-lose—but they are playing “on purpose,” acting in service to something larger than themselves.

If you don’t stand for something that’s important for you, you’re in danger of not standing for anything

The Second Movement
The movement, from safety to purpose, is imbedded in the first movement. The primary tension in adult life is between purpose and safety. We want to be part of something great, but at the end of the day, we still need to pay the mortgage. Both are important.

As senior leaders we work this balance constantly and it’s never easy to get it just right. If we play it safe all the time and avoid taking risks, we won’t benefit from the tremendous growth opportunities (and learning opportunities) that reside outside our comfort zone. If we take too much risk and fail to stay in contact with what is prudent, we put everything at risk.

Leaders working their way to the top are motivated to move up safely. The more we want to move up safely (knowing the fall gets farther and harder with each promotion), the more we need approval of those around us, especially those above us. Most of us would do almost anything to avoid losing the confidence of key stakeholders. Here’s the rub: You can’t pursue purpose and safety at the same time.

Courage is required to address most of the complex, difficult issues we face. The future lives and dies in those moments, and the self we deploy either contributes to the status quo or helps usher in the organization of our own choosing—canceling out or building our vision.

Living on purpose is risky, but paradoxically, by taking the future into our own hands, individually and collectively, we create a different kind of safety—the kind that comes with creating the life and future we were born to create.

The Third Movement
The third movement, from ambition to service, is interconnected with the first two movements. To distinguish between passion and drive, we must understand how high-creative and high-reactive leaders are motivated differently. This motivation is at the core of the inner game and determines how we deploy ourselves into circumstances moment to moment.

From our research, we’ve found that passion and drive are higher in high-reactive leaders, but it is possible to be too driven, which appears to be the case of reactive leaders. They are seen as more self-centric, or egocentric, but as the shift from reactive to creative happens, leadership becomes less self-centric and more about developing the capacity and capability of the organization. It becomes more approachable and skillful in working with people, listens well, builds high-performing teams, mentors, and develops capability in others and then empowers them. High-creative leaders embody their vision calmly and with integrity.

When we drive others for our self-centric purposes, we do so most often out of fear and playing not-to-lose. We lose sight of the larger purpose (perhaps we never had it in sight), and our self-centric purposes rise to the fore. We focus less on making a contribution, and work hard to meet the expectations given to us by others in our past and present. But as we move from authored by others to self-authored, we move from driving for our purposes to leading for contribution. We move from the self-centric ambition to serving something larger than ourselves.

The Authors: 

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Scaling Leadership by Robert J. Anderson and William A. Adams. Copyright (c) 2019 by Conscious Leadership, LLC. All rights reserved.