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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Leadership Shifts the Bounds Of Possibility

That headline sounds abstract, touchy-feely, and metaphorical. I actually mean something very specific and concrete by this.

Leadership creates limits on the range of behaviors from which people select.

At any moment, we could pick from any possible behavior – even things we would never consider. These limitations are set by our environment, and by preventing us from accessing certain behaviors they dictate the possible outcomes or impacts that we can have on the world.

Leadership has the power to shift these limits.

Let me illustrate.

I previously mentioned a client struggling to let go of her individual contributor patterns of behavior. She was insecure about her position and capabilities, and she felt the need to prove herself as she had done throughout her non-supervisory career. When she became a manager, this insecurity caused her to doubt her team’s commitment and support. Rather than resolve these personal doubts by working with her team to build their connections to the group and to herself as a leader (through emotion relationships, in other words), she attempted to control them and their behaviors. This approach took the form of punishment such as unpleasant work assignments, frequent write-ups, and passive-aggressive criticism and gossip – all characteristics of a lack of leadership.

Over time, these behaviors cause the client’s team to become increasingly negative. Rather than focus on the work, they began resisting the discomfort that was pressed upon them. Eventually, team members began performing actions that hurt the leader – and in doing so, these behaviors hindered the group’s ability to accomplish its mission. Think of a sales-person who intentionally throws the big pitch speech so that the manager can’t get credit for the sale. Yeah, that bad.

But here’s the thing: these group members would never have performed these behaviors without being pushed to a place where they wanted to lash out. Before my client took the position, the team was high-performing, mission-driven, and supportive of its leaders.

By creating a negative, even painful environment within the group, this leader moved the limits of possible behavior for these group members from a place where they could be successful to one where they made choices that lead to personal and group failure.

The moral is this: we as individual members of a group make individual choices, but those choices are circumscribed by the events and actions around us. When we take responsibility for a group as a leader, we also take responsibility for these limits. Whether we select leadership behaviors consciously or unconsciously, we are responsible for the impact of our actions upon those around us, because our actions determine what role those around us will play in the world. Leadership shifts the bounds of possibility.

The takeaway for us, leading others each day? Look at the indirect consequences of your actions and decide if these consequences accomplish the goal of the organization or not. If not, there are a multitude of other behaviors you could use to accomplish the same specific end, many of which will produce a different set of indirect consequences. If you want to accomplish the group’s shared goal, then you have to find a different behavior.

And this takeaway doesn’t just apply to our formal leadership roles. We can push past the limits circumscribed on us by others to find and perform behaviors that have the larger effect we want. These selections are more difficult than what the functions of leadership may predispose us to select, but that doesn’t make them impossible. Rather, it means we have to be aware of our impacts on others and set aside our emotional responses and patterns of interchanges (the function of relationships drives behavioral selection, remember). In other words: we have to do what we don’t want to do but is best for the group. This might mean that we don’t contradict a leader who is obviously wrong, or that we stand up when it would be easier to be quiet.

Leadership shifts the bounds of possibility, and when we understand this concept then we can do the same. We can lead from wherever we are, in other words. That’s the critical power that a functional approach to leadership allows us to see and do.

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