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How to Become an Unstuck Leader

There’s a big difference between a stuck leader and an Unstuck Leader. You can read all about it here, but the crux of it is this: a stuck leader operates from an ego-system (as in me, me, me) and an Unstuck Leader operates from an eco-system (as in we, we, we). And as a result, Unstuck Leaders are far more effective, especially in the long-term, than stuck leaders (obvs).

Below, I’m going to show you the five steps to becoming an Unstuck Leader.

But first, a warning.

All this Unstuck Leader stuff sounds awesome, but it’s also really, really hard. And uncomfortable. And at times, exhausting. And that’s why the most important type of management for the Unstuck Leader is self-management. That is to say, it’s impossible to become the kind of person who does the things an Unstuck Leader does unless you’re willing to do a substantial amount of inner work.

If you’re not, stop reading now and go watch some Netflix. If you are, here’s an overview of what you’re in for.

Step 1: Stop. Assess. Align.

Here’s the deal. You can’t possibly become an Unstuck Leader until you are in alignment with your true self. And understanding your true self begins with discovering what’s driving your current behaviours and patterns.

We all have the same six basic human needs. The ways in which we choose to fulfill them affects how we spend our time, what we focus on and ultimately, the quality of our lives.

How do you rate your fulfillment on each of the following needs:

Certainty (comfort, security, safety)

Uncertainty (variety, spice of life)

Significance (to know that you matter, to feel validated)

Love and Connection (to have people in your life you love and who love you)

Growth (to expand your knowledge, capabilities and spirit)

Contribution (to give back to the world)

What are the positive and negative ways you choose to meet these needs? How are your choices affecting your career, your relationships and your wellbeing?

Discover what drains your energy. Are there activities, people and environments that leave you feeling depleted? What do they have in common?

Next, examine the qualities in life that you value (i.e. family, creativity, exploration, honesty, community). Here’s a list to help you get started. Prioritize them. Are you living your values? Or are you betraying yourself? What keeps you from living your values?

Use this new self-knowledge to write a purpose statement. This is the reason you’re here on earth. It will likely be smaller in scope than you might think it should be.

For example, here’s the Dalai Lama’s: To be happy and to help others be happy too.

You are now grounded in solid values and purpose. This allows you to be open to new ideas, people and situations.

You’ve become watery.

Step 2: Listen and Observe

Open your eyes and look around you. This is where ego becomes eco.

Understand others.

Now that you’re familiar with the universal six human needs that drive our thoughts and behaviours, see if you can spot them in others. How might your communication with a person change if you understood that they have a high need for certainty? Or variety? Or significance? How would you choose the words you use to inspire them?

What if you knew that a person values creativity? Or independence? Or justice? Would this change how you choose to incentivize them?

If you do this with enough care and conscientiousness, you’ll realize that everyone around you is absolutely fascinating. They have stories and experiences. They have loves and passions, aversions and fears. You will come to genuinely care about them.

Now you have the gift of credibility, trust and influence.

Understand the whole.

You live in a world of complex, interconnected systems. Your mind and body are systems. The team you are a part of is a system. The division of your company you work in is a system. Your company is a system. Your industry is a system. Your suppliers operate within multiple systems, as do your customers. Your local, regional and national governments are systems. And all of these systems exist within global eco-political systems. And of course, the planet is a system. In fact, it’s the mother of all eco-systems.

Each of these systems produces a pattern of behaviour over time. Understanding, respecting and learning to influence these patterns is what makes real leaders truly exceptional.

Systems, by their nature are the sources of their own problems. Understanding the nature of a system leads to the wisdom required to restructure it. Observe the systems in your world. Actively communicate with its players and listen deeply when they tell you things.

First of all, what are the elements, interconnections and purpose of each system? And I mean the real purpose, which isn’t always as advertised. The stated goals of a system are one thing, but in action, the reality is often quite the opposite.

How does information flow into, out of and within your systems? Are you getting real with your data? Or are you going to the same people with the same sources and the same perspectives? Do you really listen? Or are you confirming biases?

How do decisions really get made in your systems? How do you make decisions? How do you set goals?

And where does the real power reside? Are you really leading your team? Or is someone else? How influenced are you? How influential are you?

What are the system’s driving factors? Are the system’s inputs likely to remain the same? And if they changed, how would the system change? What or who is driving the driving factors?

Next, listen for what’s emerging. Where are the cracks? What’s on the margin? What are the trends, patterns and stories?

Now you have the gift of anticipation.

Step 3: Let go

In the field of System Leadership, it’s frequently mentioned that the Indo-European root of “to lead” is “leith”. It means to “go forth”, to “cross a threshold” or “to die”.

For most systems, the most important function is to ensure its own existence in perpetuity (or at least for as long as possible). This means that the participants within it often won’t or can’t see when it’s time to let something go away.

Letting go, or letting go of the old ways of doing things, is terrifying to most people. Fear makes us grasp into the past. A leader’s job is not only to let go, but to make it possible for others to do so too. This means creating space for what’s to come.

Look at the systems you’re a part of. I mean really look.

What’s not longer needed? What’s dying? What must go?

Letting go, or more specifically, letting go of old ideas and old ways of doing things, is terrifying to most people. Fear makes us reach into the past. The Unstuck Leader’s job is not only to let go, but to make it possible for others to do so too. This creates space for what is to come.

Can you let go of stability, inauthentic power structures, message control, ego, and the things in your life and business that are coming to a natural end?

Now you’re free to co-create the future.

Step 4: Co-create

Embrace what’s emerging.

Once you’ve let go of what’s dying, you must embrace what’s emerging. And you must provide those around you with a compelling vision of that emerging future. And the only way to do that is to bring them into the conversation. Create understanding. Foster optimism. In other words, lead.

What wants to emerge? What wants to be born? What must grow?

This is difficult. It will test you. And fear will pull at you.

The key is to stay in alignment. Develop a daily ritual to maintain your focus. Perhaps you’ll meditate. Perhaps you’ll run. Maybe yoga is the key. Or keeping a gratitude journal. Or perhaps, a simple, 20 minute walk will do the trick.

Now you’re ready to begin your exploration.

Explore possibilities.

I call the mental quality that allows you to stay in the realm of possibilities “wateriness”. You can read more about it here.

As explorers, you and your team will have an idea of where you want to go, but will need to cultivate several possible paths to get there. If any of these paths take you off in a new direction, simply ensure it’s in alignment with your values and purpose. And if it is, go, but leave room for surprise, serendipity, uncertainty, fear and discovery.

It’s all about options.

One option is no choice at all. It’s an attachment. And it’s trouble.

Two options is an ultimatum. No one likes an ultimatum.

Three or more options, well now you’re making a choice. Now you’re exploring.

And now you’re ready to create and iterate.

Create and iterate.

If you’ve done things properly to this point, you and your team will probably be a little scared in addition to excited. And there are likely lots of things standing in the way between where you are now, and where you want to be. In other words, there are constraints. And over time, that can be tiring.

You will need fortification.

First, envision the best possible outcome. Next, list all the constraints that will keep you from reaching that outcome. Now, for each obstacle, strategize. Think of how you’re going to overcome them.

And to do that, use the phrase, “We can, if…”.

No miracles are allowed. Only things that are real and implementable. (The incredibly powerful “We can, if…” methodology comes from Morgan and Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint)

It’s so damn simple. How can it possibly work? By keeping you focused on the right question. And where focus goes, energy flows.

So what are you going to focus on? The obstacle? The problem? The constraint?

Or the solution?

And if your solution doesn’t work, try something new. And test and measure and then iterate again. There’s no room for perfectionism. Ditch it. You’ll be in a constant state of evolution and learning and building and testing.

Now you’re ready to say yes.

Step 5: Say yes

When you see the emerging future and when you find a solution that works, just say, yes.

Act now. Make it real. Or else it will pass you by.

The thing about this real leadership stuff is that it’s not for the weak, the cowardly or the lazy. It’s hard. Like, really, really hard. And it requires things of you. When you say yes to an emerging future, you also have to say yes to courage, kindness, gratitude and best effort. And you have to say yes to those things each and every day.

And then, truly commit.

Look at you. You’re a real leader.

Ready to learn more? You're in luck! This post includes excerpts from my book, The Unstuck Leader. If you’re ready to get and stay unstuck, you can buy a copy here.

The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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