The Four Journeys of the Leader

A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project onto other people his or her shadow or his or her light. A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what is going on inside him or herself, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.

Parker J. Palmer

This way of thinking about leadership places emphasis on reflectiveness, understanding the self and the ‘being’ of the leader, as a complement to skills and techniques for the ‘doing’ of leadership.

A helpful framework for holding the two together is the idea that each one of us is on four journeys through our lives, and that people with responsibility for leadership need to be particularly aware of each journey and the work of keeping them in balance.

The underlying journey is the journey of the self – the events through which we insert ourselves into the world as well the as events that unfold around us; where we are born, grow up, study, work; the people with whom we live in childhood and adulthood.

Reflecting on the journey of the self helps each of us to hear our own story, to see things differently from the way they seemed at the time, to understand more of the experience and to see what we have learned. The particular responsibility for leaders is to deepen their understanding of their own strengths and vulnerabilities, and to become more aware of the stories of those they lead.

An important element in the journey of the self is our ‘capability’ as it unfolds over time. Capability is how we use our judgement when we do not – and cannot – know what to do, how we ‘get our head around’ the complexities and volatilities of a challenge.

A match between capability and challenge gives the individual a sense of being ‘in flow’ – confident, competent, enthusiastic. When the individual is ‘in flow’, the organization gains the power of robust and resilient decisions.

Research has shown that capability grows over time. As individuals we all do our best to ‘go with the grain’ of that growth, to find challenges that stretch but do not over- or underwhelm us, that are just right for us at each stage of our growth. A leader is responsible for combining and pacing those individual patterns of growth for the good of the organization as a whole.

Leaders also have a special responsibility to reflect on the growth of their own capability – their own readiness for the complexities and uncertainties of the leadership role. The role may have come a little too early, or perhaps they have been waiting for it for a while and find disillusion creeping in.

Our research suggests that when leaders are not ‘in flow’, they – like anybody else – will not be able to make sense of the ambiguities, interconnections and unpredictabilities of their work, and so will struggle to make robust decisions. And – this is a key leadership element – they will be far less able to provide the conditions in which others can use their judgement wisely to sustain the resilience of the organisation. Capability, as the necessary but not sufficient condition for effective leadership, is of the essence in volatile, complex conditions.

The second journey is the public journey at work, in which our capability is expressed and affirmed – or not. It is in this journey that leadership is expressed and responsibilities are clear.

A dilemma all leaders face is the need to hold a balance between delivering value and controlling costs on the one hand, and sustaining high-quality relationships with people (customers, employees, partners, suppliers, communities) on the other. As with all dilemmas, the temptation is to address one or the other, or one after the other. Leadership holds the ‘and’ of quantity and quality in the face of pressures and change.

In times of rapid change, the public journey makes heavy demands on everyone. Leaders often find that the demands on time, responsiveness and presence can overwhelm to the point where this journey seems like the only one. It is in precisely those circumstances that leaders need to be mindful of the importance of the other three journeys, for themselves and for those they lead.

Everyone will have experiences of being over- or under-stretched by the challenges of their role, and of the effect of this discrepancy on their feelings and their decision-making. A leader may have considerable experience early in his or her working life of longing for more challenge, for more complexities and interconnections to navigate. Some people, faced with this, become impatient and try to rush changes; others seek ways to offer their capacity to see a wider and more nuanced picture, in support of those with whom they work.

When the public journey and the journey of the self are in balance, we are ‘in flow’. A leader must not only seek that experience for him or herself, but also take responsibility to provide conditions for others to be ‘in flow’.

The private journey is shared with family, friends, and a community, and in it we are very close to others’ journeys.

In many marriages and partnerships, both have public journeys, with all that means for expressing and affirming capability, for pressure on time, for managing two careers in addition to a household. And it seems often to happen that one partner may take on a more senior leadership role around the time when adolescent children need more time and understanding, or when parents become frail and require more care.

There has been a significant change in the nature of this journey in recent years. For many years it has been common for one partner to have a ‘more important’ public journey – a leadership role – and the other to see their role, in part, as providing support for it. So the first partner would not have been expected to buy milk on the way home, make the supper or put children to bed. For leaders this change adds to the expectations on them – and to the depth of their relationships with their children – not to mention requiring an additional understanding of the balancing of journeys of the people they lead.

The private journey is our ‘habitat’ – all that belongs to the place we leave and return to as we set out on our public journey. Pressure on this journey comes from a demanding public journey, from growth in capability not yet appreciated by those we work with, from knowing we are ‘out of our depth’ but have not yet been able to acknowledge it.

And it is easy to feel burdened by, and/or a burden to, those with whom we share this journey. It can seem as if there is no place in our life where nothing is expected of us.

When we feel guilty about neglecting the private journey, we often retreat from it rather than trying to weave it into the other journeys. There may still be a sense that this is acceptable for leaders, and to an extent that has to be true. But even if the leader and his or her partner make the choice to sacrifice the private for the sake of the public journey, many of those led will either choose not to, or will not be able to. The leader has to carry the responsibility for resourcing, carrying projects forward, and meeting emergency demands, while being understanding and patient about the ‘life style choices’ of others.

A way of reflecting on the balance between the private and public journeys is to pause and learn from where one has chosen not to be.

The fourth journey is personal. It is the journey through which we do, or do not, care for ourselves and weave together the other journeys. It is about finding the ‘grain’ of the self and learning how to go with it.

This journey may be expressed in running, listening to music, making models, cooking, orienteering, sailing. Its essence is time and space for ourselves and for reflection – whether it be momentary or more focused. Some people give very little time or attention to their personal journeys until they face a crisis. But this is the journey to ensure that your self does not disappear.

The personal journey puts us in touch with our inner resources – with that judgement that allows us to make a wise decision when we do not and cannot know what to do. It may do so fleetingly, or we may choose to become more aware of that ‘answering activity’, the ‘knowing that can see forwards and backwards, and in a flash give form to the confusions and chaos of everyday living.’

For a leader this journey is a ‘duty of care’ – for the light and shadows of the self, and thus for others.

There are three important elements to the personal journey:

  • Developing and deepening reflectiveness – pausing to consider the way we approach things; thinking about the way we think; about the way we respond to change; how we give meaning to things, decide what is a challenge, what an impossible demand, which game is ‘worth the candle.’
  • Ensuring that understanding of the self through reflection is complemented by how we are seen by others – as Robert Burns put it, ‘O would some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us.’
  • Making sure there is some one person, or some people, the leader can count on to ‘tell it like it is.’ Leaders can all too easily become cut off from honest feedback free of agendas. The greater the power and uncertainty, the more critical is this responsibility.

The personal journey supports the underlying journey of the self by helping us to free ourselves from the idea that our conscious thoughts and endeavors are all there is. It helps us to be in touch with – to trust and hand over to – our inner resources. This comes more easily when we are ‘in flow’. When we are either under- or overwhelmed by challenges, we become estranged from those inner resources. It is a particular responsibility of the leader in volatile, turbulent circumstances to stay in touch with inner resource as the core of sound judgement essential for his or her public journey.

Each of us seeks to be ‘in flow’ for the well-being it brings – not least in physical health. A leader has an extra responsibility to learn how to recognise when he or she is out of ‘flow’, and how to regain it – for the well-being of the people led, and of the organisation as a whole.

© Gillian Stamp