Editor’s Note: Moments of Greatness by Robert E. Quinn is an excerpt from HBR’s 10 Must Reads “On Managing Yourself,” a compilation of Harvard Business Review articles.
By Robert E. Quinn
As leaders, sometimes we’re truly “on,” and sometimes we’re not. Why is that?
What separates the episodes of excellence from those of mere competence? In striving to tip the balance toward excellence, we try to identify great leaders’ qualities and behaviors so we can develop them ourselves. Nearly all corporate training programs and books on leadership are grounded in the assumption that we should study the behaviors of those who have been successful and teach people to emulate them.
But my colleagues and I have found that when leaders do their best work, they don’t copy anyone. Instead, they draw on their own fundamental values and capabilities — operating in a frame of mind that is true to them yet, paradoxically, not their normal state of being.
I call it the fundamental state of leadership. It’s the way we lead when we encounter a crisis and finally choose to move forward.
Think back to a time when you faced a significant life challenge: a promotion opportunity, the risk of professional failure, a serious illness, a divorce, the death of a loved one, or any other major jolt. Most likely, if you made decisions not to meet others’ expectations but to suit what you instinctively understood to be right — in other words, if you were at your very best — you rose to the task because you were being tested.
Is it possible to enter the fundamental state of leadership without crisis? In my work coaching business executives, I’ve found that if we ask ourselves — and honestly answer—just four questions, we can make the shift at any time.
It’s a temporary state. Fatigue and external resistance pull us out of it. But each time we reach it, we return to our everyday selves a bit more capable, and we usually elevate the performance of the people around us as well. Over time, we all can become more effective leaders by deliberately choosing to enter the fundamental state of leadership rather than waiting for crisis to force us there.
Defining the fundamental state
Even those who are widely admired for their seemingly easy and natural leadership skills — presidents, prime ministers, CEOs — do not usually function in the fundamental state of leadership. Most of the time, they are in their normal state — a healthy and even necessary condition under many circumstances, but not one that’s conducive to coping with crisis.
In the normal state, people tend to stay within their comfort zones and allow external forces to direct their behaviors and decisions. They lose moral influence and often rely on rational argument and the exercise of authority to bring about change. Others comply with what these leaders ask, out of fear, but the result is usually unimaginative and incremental — and largely reproduces what already exists.
To elevate the performance of others, we must elevate ourselves into the fundamental state of leadership. Getting there requires a shift along four dimensions.
First, we move from being comfort centered to being results centered. The former feels safe but eventually leads to a sense of languishing and meaninglessness.
In his book The Path of Least Resistance, Robert Fritz carefully explains how asking a single question can move us from the normal, reactive state to a much more generative condition. That question is this: What result do I want to create? Giving an honest answer pushes us off nature’s path of least resistance. It leads us from problem solving to purpose finding.
Article Continues Below
Second, we move from being externally directed to being more internally directed. That means that we stop merely complying with others’ expectations and conforming to the current culture. To become more internally directed is to clarify our core values and increase our integrity, confidence, and authenticity.
As we become more confident and more authentic, we behave differently. Others must make sense of our new behavior. Some will be attracted to it, and some will be offended by it. That’s not prohibitive, though: When we are true to our values, we are willing to initiate such conflict.
Third, we become less self-focused and more focused on others. We put the needs of the organization as a whole above our own. Few among us would admit that personal needs trump the collective good, but the impulse to control relationships in a way that feeds our own interests is natural and normal. That said, self-focus over time leads to feelings of isolation.
When we put the collective good first, others reward us with their trust and respect. We form tighter, more sensitive bonds. Empathy increases, and cohesion follows. We create an enriched sense of community, and that helps us transcend the conflicts that are a necessary element in high-performing organizations.
Fourth, we become more open to outside signals or stimuli, including those that require us to do things we are not comfortable doing. In the normal state, we pay attention to signals that we know to be relevant. If they suggest incremental adjustments, we respond. If, however, they call for more dramatic changes, we may adopt a posture of defensiveness and denial; this mode of self-protection and self-deception separates us from the ever-changing external world.
We live according to an outdated, less valid, image of what is real. But in the fundamental state of leadership, we are more aware of what is unfolding, and we generate new images all the time. We are adaptive, credible, and unique. In this externally open state, no two people are alike.
These four qualities — being results centered, internally directed, other focused, and externally open — are at the heart of positive human influence, which is generative and attractive. A person without these four characteristics can also be highly influential, but his or her influence tends to be predicated on some form of control or force, which does not usually give rise to committed followers.
By entering the fundamental state of leadership, we increase the likelihood of attracting others to an elevated level of community, a high-performance state that may continue even when we are not present.