Leading Like a Monk: What Do Real Leaders Actually Do?

Leading Like a Monk: What Do Real Leaders Actually Do? June 28, 2018

What Do Real Leaders Actually Do?

I have worked in places where we began to wonder what real leaders actually do.

In our experience, leaders said a few words to get people started, then disappear into meetings all day. Sometimes leaders disappear into offices, which can be even worse than meetings.

We had a vague, general idea leaders are concerned with budgets and productivity. They did not, though, seem to want to hear our ideas about either of them.

Leaders have a way of looking nervous or anxious a lot of the time. They seem to be waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

Some leaders tried to be our friends. They might buy pizza or celebrate when we did something well. We got the feeling they were trying to lull us into feeling secure. One leader I knew held a work party to recognize the contributions of people he laid off.

It felt like leaders did not really know how to relate to us. They were not comfortable being themselves and had gotten advice about how leaders acted. It was as if they were more at home with budgets and plans.

They did not want us to really understand what leaders do.

The way I understand leadership has changed with experience. I have come to see leadership does not come from having a title or a specific job. We do not work our way from being followers to being leaders. While real leaders do care about budgets and productivity, they do not hide in meetings all day.

I have spent time in a diverse variety of groups and organizations. Each one has shown me something about leadership.

One group which has shaped how I experience leadership is the monastery where I am a lay Oblate.

What do leaders actually do?

What Leaders Actually Do: Knowing Themselves Well

The leaders who inspire me know and accept who they are.

Leaders may have practical experience with things they would like to strengthen about themselves. There are ways they would like to continue learning and growing. They have developed a good, honest relationship with themselves.

Like monks in a monastery, real leaders commit the time and effort it requires to know their true selves. Leaders realize they can be their own most important ally and their own most challenging adversary. When we do not know or accept ourselves it is a challenge to do what leaders actually do.

Each leader, each person, finds their own way to deal with the obstacles of knowing their true selves. We deal with the expectations, fears, and assumptions which get in our way.

As we grow more comfortable with ourselves we are able to understand other people differently. Our focus expands from numbers and projections to encompass more personal qualities.

When we know ourselves well we share our true selves with other people. Knowing ourselves well strengthens our abilities to do what actual leaders do.

We become leaders who inspire other people.

What Leaders Actually Do: Listening

We need to learn to listen to ourselves to know ourselves well. As we begin listening to ourselves we often become better able to listen to other people.

One challenge for us as listeners is we think we already listen well.

We do not interrupt people and let them finish their sentences, but we are not really listening. Our idea of listening is thinking about what we are going to say when they are finished talking. We think we are listening when, in our minds, we have already moved on to our next conversation.

Listening is more than taking a breath between ideas. It is not waiting for someone to finish talking so you can tell them No.

When we listen to ourselves, or to someone else, we are trying to find the truth in what they are telling us. That truth may be hidden deep in what we are hearing.

Many people put deep truths into surface language. When they are talking to you about their schedule they are saying something important about their families. They may be saying something much more important to them than the words they are using.

Listening well to people is something real leaders actually do.

What Leaders Actually Do: Bringing Out the Best in People

Our focus as leaders changes as we get to know our true selves well and become better at listening. Budgets and plans, productivity and efficiency are still important, but there is more.

One of the things real leaders actually do is treating people like human beings.

Each of us wants something more for ourselves. We do not become part of organizations to be treated like we are not important.

We may aspire to move up in the corporate structure. Some of us want to gain valuable experience and learn new skills. Almost all of us want to do interesting things with people we enjoy.

Each of us has our own leadership abilities we want to be put to work in effective ways.

Leaders have inspired my interest in leadership. Without them I would be somewhere else today doing something else. Their inspiration, their listening, their interest in me changed my life.

The leaders I meet continue to change my life each day.

The leaders who bring out the best in me continue to do what real leaders actually do.

Do Monks Do What Real Leaders Actually Do?

The monks at the monastery where I am a lay Oblate each lead in their own ways.

They spend time in reflection and contemplation, getting to know themselves well. The monks are excellent listeners, especially since they are silent so much of the time. People who spend time with them appreciate how they bring out their best.

Each time we interact with anyone, including ourselves, has lessons for us about leadership. We are becoming the real leaders who inspire other people.

What do real leaders actually do?

How will we do what real leaders actually do today?

[Image by NCVO]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and leadership coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and university professor, and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com, and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.

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