How to Tell a Stuck Leader From an Unstuck One


Meet Bob. He’s a CEO.

Bob’s a vision guy. He believes his personal brand of visionary leadership is imperative to his company’s continued health and success. He is fiercely loyal to and protective of his team and has fostered an “us against the world” mentality when dealing with suppliers, regulators and sometimes, even customers. He’s a great problem solver who reacts quickly and decisively during a crisis, and there are lots of crises to react to. Though he has set targets, created a clear reporting structure and put operating policies and procedures in place, he often handles things on his own because he doesn’t want his team to know that at times, the company has been in danger of going under. He gives great, constructive feedback at annual reviews. He’s a relentless competitor who is deeply focused on driving his target numbers each and every quarter. But, he’s also a fact-based decision maker and loves a good debate. He has his go-to data people who know exactly the kind of information he likes and needs when making decisions. And to keep himself motivated, he seeks out life-hacking books, videos and articles. And even though the company has stalled and maybe even begun to backslide in the past few months, Bob won’t give up. He’ll keep fighting.

Bob seems to have the qualities most of us believe make for a good leader. But the truth is, Bob is stuck. And that’s because as diligent and focused as he is, he’s bought into an outdated leadership mythology. He’s bought into the three most damaging lies we tell ourselves about leadership.

Meet Chris. He’s also a CEO.

Chris too, is a vision guy. He engages his team in an ongoing process of co-creation where the vision is repeatedly evaluated and adjusted to meet the changing marketplace. Chris and his team include their suppliers, regulators, customers and community in their long-term vision. Team members are encouraged to work within their personal values systems as well as that of the organization. This personal alignment frees employees to fully express their creativity, producing better solutions to problems they encounter. Because Chris and his team are so connected to the systems in which the company operates, they’re able to sense what’s emerging in their industry and community. This allows them to anticipate difficulties and develop strategies before they become crises. Chris is devoted to enabling his team to do their best work and sees his primary role as that of the “obstacle remover”. Chris doesn’t do annual reviews. He prefers a continuous feedback cycle, both giving and receiving accolades and constructive criticism. While Chris understands that he must be competitive in the marketplace, he’s also focused on the long-term growth and health of the company, rather than one quarter at time. Chris loves facts and debate, but only within the larger context of the systems at play inside and outside of his organization. When making decisions, he resists going to the same people for the same data, over and over. Rather, he seeks out a variety of sources and perspectives. He likes to experiment, and then use his learnings from those experiments to do things better the next time around. And to keep himself motivated, Chris ensures that he’s living up to his values and purpose each and every day. His company is growing, staff engagement is high, and productivity and profitability are increasing.

Chris is most certainly unstuck.

There’s one key difference between Bob, the fake leader and Chris, the real leader.

Bob is operating from an ego-system. He’s focused on himself, his immediate team, hierarchy, personal achievement and short-term timelines. He is independent and decisive. This allows him to meet his quarterly numbers most of the time.

Chris is operating from an eco-system. He’s focused on the networked independence of himself and his team within the eco-system in which his company operates. He thinks long-term. He is open, communicative and transparent. He gives permission for his team to be the same way. This makes it easier for him to sense what’s emerging in the world and to be successful within it.

Basically, it’s me, me, me (ego), vs. we, we, we (eco).

The complexity of operating from an eco-system makes it much more difficult than operating from the relative simplicity of an ego-system.

But despite its challenges, the eco-system is a far more pleasant place to be. It’s more engaging, more creative and ultimately, far more prosperous for everyone.

Here are the Differences Between a Stuck Leader (ego) and an Unstuck Leader (eco):

A Stuck Leader is Certain. An Unstuck Leader is Watery.

A stuck leader is tied to the past. Their need for certainty causes them to deny the future that is emerging around them. And frankly, they’re denying themselves, or rather their true selves as well. They’re out of alignment. A symptom of this misalignment is when a leader prioritizes should values over could values. That is, they focus on what they should do and be, over what they could do and be.

Should is limiting. Options are narrowed. Possibilities are stunted.

Should is a product of fear. And fear leads to entrenchment. There’s only one reality. There’s us and there’s them. And there’s only one right way for things to be done. For a leader with a high need for certainty and significance, this entrenchment feels safe and comfortable. But in reality, it’s anything but. It puts them in a contractive state. It makes them small. And over time, completely ineffective.

An Unstuck Leader is watery. They’re listening and watching for what’s emerging around them. They’re tuned into the story, the trend, or the shift in the collective consciousness that will change everything. For them, it’s all about could values. They focus on what they and their organization could be or do.

That said, watery Unstuck Leaders aren’t attached to a particular outcome or circumstance. They have an idea of where they’d like to go and they are committed to a healthy and growing bottom line, but they aren’t locked into a set of steps to get there.

They don’t have to have all the answers. But they do have to be curious and observant. They have to ask tons of questions. And they can’t be afraid to ask seemingly stupid or obvious ones. This is how employees know that everything is up for examination and change.

The Unstuck Leader’s watery quality is enabled by their mastery of the self-renewal process. Upon hitting a plateau in life or business, they don’t allow themselves to become discouraged and demotivated. Rather, they engage deeper. They transition to new places, new cultures and new areas of focus.

An Unstuck Leader is in alignment with their personal values, purpose and mission. They are action oriented. They are committed and consistent. They have strong core values and an open heart. They’re expansive in nature.

In her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck perfectly defines the difference between certainty and wateriness.

In one world – the world of fixed traits – success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other world – the world of changing qualities – it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.”

A Stuck Leader Reacts. An Unstuck Leader Anticipates.

A stuck leader’s entrenched, contractive state leads to intense navel gazing. That is, they lack a view of the world beyond their immediate purview.

This leads them to focus on safe problems, the kind that are nagging, but never seem to get solved. Safe problems allow stuck leaders to procrastinate, hesitate and avoid decisions. These problems create the illusion that they’re working hard, without them having to face any actual risk.

This behavior leaves them blind to what’s emerging around them. When a quality problem arises, the kind that involves risky, forward thinking decisions that will take the organization to a new level, they are thoroughly unprepared.

So, they react. And most often, poorly. Or as author and spiritual teacher Gary Zukav puts it, “You go nowhere by continuing to respond to the difficulties in life in the same ways that you have responded to them in the past. Your experiences change when your responses to your challenges change.”

An Unstuck Leader works on problems, not in them. This means quality problems only. They don’t fall into the trap of letting the urgency of endless little fires distract them from what’s really important.

They’re connected to their team, their customers, their suppliers and their community. They observe the goings on, both in and outside of the organization, to better understand how information flows and how decisions really get made. Their understanding of this interconnectivity and interdependency allows them to predict how a change in one system will affect the system at large.

This allows them to anticipate. And to make better decisions. And often, prevent a crisis before it even starts.

A Stuck Leader Imposes Structure. An Unstuck Leader is a Designer.

Stuck leaders operating from an ego-system love their top-down authority. They love rules, regulations, cascading goals, performance reviews and engaging in the illusion of certainty these things give them. These leaders believe their role is to reduce tension and conflict. And one of the ways to do that is through limiting access to data and information. If no one knows what’s going on, no one can form an opinion strong enough to create tension or conflict.

Another way stuck leaders seek to reduce tension and conflict is to always rely on the same metrics from the same sources of data and information. In a complex adaptive world, this creates a multitude of blind spots and emerging trends are missed.

Creating organizational silos, discouraging cross-departmental conversations and having a rigid hierarchical structure are also ways stuck leaders seek to reduce tension and conflict. If no one is talking to anyone, there’s no arguing and no debating.

An Unstuck Leader sees their role as having two primary functions. First, they must enable the complex adaptive systems from which emergence, well, emerges. And second, they must act as a buffer between the administrative part of the business – legal, accounting, human resources, etc. – and the parts of the business where innovation happens.

Unstuck leaders not only prevent the administrative functions of the organization from suffocating emergence, they insist that the administrative functions adapt to the needs of those engaging in complex adaptive systems in the organization.

In balancing these the two functions of enabling leadership and administrative requirements, the Unstuck Leader must carefully design the conditions for emergence to arise, and to reap its benefits in the long-term.

The first thing the Unstuck Leader must do is embrace uncertainty. And, make it clear throughout the organization that uncertainty is not bad, it is desirable. This makes administrators, board members and other stakeholders uncomfortable. That’s the point. No one should be comfortable.

Speaking of discomfort, most people find tension and conflict uncomfortable. That’s a shame, because surfacing tension and conflict are a sure way to invite emergence to the table. Unstuck Leaders must ask uncomfortable questions and issue uncomfortable challenges. They must encourage uncomfortable discussions and welcome uncomfortable answers. Over time, people in the organization will become rather comfortable with the discomfort of tension and conflict. And when that fear is gone, real emergence, the game-changing kind, will begin to occur.

Unstuck Leaders encourage conversations and information sharing. They value transparency, and intelligence is distributed across the organization. In particular, Unstuck Leaders encourage conversation with and between middle managers. These are the managers who are experienced enough to really know what’s going on, but not so high up in the organization that they’re out of touch. They’re the line managers, the people who have direct customer contact, and the people who are solving 99 percent of the organization’s day-to-day issues. When middle-management is heard, the organization will focus on the real issues at hand. And, as we say in my tradition of coaching, where focus goes, energy flows.

With fear out of the picture and everyone on the same page data and information-wise, the Unstuck Leader can now encourage co-creation and iteration. No one freaks out if a project fails, they simply iterate. Over and over. Build, test, measure, adapt. When emergence occurs, the Unstuck Leader commits and mobilizes, even if what’s emerging is challenging or unfamiliar.

Unstuck Leaders are excellent and inspiring storytellers who promote new ideas and solutions throughout the organization as well as externally. Emergence becomes a source of organizational pride. And it becomes the primary source of energy on which the organization thrives.

Unstuck Leaders design for diversity. Diversity of people, backgrounds, schooling and ideas. Diversity creates tension and tension creates conversations, adaptation, learning, creativity and innovation. Diversity is the surest way to avoid the perils of path dependence, making “the way we’ve always done it” wholly and mercifully irrelevant.

A Stuck Leader’s Employees Experience Disillusionment.

An Unstuck Leader’s Employees Experience Networked Independence.

The deeper a stuck leader’s entrenchment into the ego-system, the more problematic their leadership becomes. Communication is unilateral. There’s little tolerance for dissent. Transparency decreases. Employees are only told what they “need to know”. And the focus is on the benefit of the few at the expense of employees, suppliers, customers and the community at large. This leads to organization-wide cynicism, which is the ultimate poison.

Cynical leaders and employees engage in manipulation, deluded thinking, faulty, half-hearted execution, internal competition and sabotage, and lazy decisions with little or no thought or analysis.

Employees disengage and bide their time. There’s little to look forward to. There is a genuine fear of becoming “like them”; “them” being senior management.

“Over time, I looked around and struggled to find someone I’d be proud to become later in life.”

– Liam, Unstuck Project interviewee

Stuck leaders have a dysfunctional relationship with failure that furthers the divide between managers and employees. When failure is unacceptable, when it is seen as the product of faulty thinking and personal weakness, employees refuse to take risks.

And that’s demoralizing.

An Unstuck Leader recognizes the need to connect values and purpose to work. They develop organizational structures that allow for the networked independence of their teams. Employees are provided with the tools and autonomy to allow them to focus on personal development as well as long-term, sustainable growth for the organization.

When engaged in ongoing communication and feedback with their teams, Untuck Leaders listen generatively, meaning they strategically ask questions that will allow new theories, new possibilities and new actions to emerge from conversations.

Unstuck Leaders don’t set the best direction. They listen for it.

A Stuck Leader Does What They Have to Do.

An Unstuck Leader Does What They Want to Do.

A stuck leader doesn’t think about thriving. They’re focused on merely surviving. They become victims of their own fear. And that creates a tremendous gap between what they’re doing each and every day and what they want to be doing every day. We’re back to prioritizing should over could. And that’s what makes them entrenched and stuck.

And that’s a travesty for us all.

Why? Because stuck leaders are extremely adept at creating results that no one wants.

Just think: what if the leaders at Facebook had fully understood and accepted their role as a media platform in the political eco-system? Would fake news be so influential and destructive?

And what if rather than entrenching themselves in old ideas, the leaders of the newspaper industry had sought to fully understand the new digital eco-system that was emerging all around them? Might they have disrupted their own business model rather than having it done to them?

What if politicians who decrease local school budgets sought to understand the supply and demand issues for future labor markets? Would every child, no matter their household income, get a chance at an impactful career?

All of these leaders are doing what they think they have to do. And all of them are creating results no one wants.

An Unstuck Leader spends most of their time doing what they want to do. They connect their needs, values and life purpose to their work. There is no gap between what their organization makes them do and what they want to do. This gives them much more energy and focus. And this allows them to create excellent results.

Sounds good, right?

Okay. Enough chit-chat.

Let’s talk about how to become an Unstuck Leader.

Hiya! 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.

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The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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