Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a Path to Effective Leadership: A Multi-Part Series, Part 1

Brad Morgan
Director, Bettye B. Lewis Career Center
University of Tennessee College of Law

“What could a children’s book have to say about leadership?” you may be thinking, “much less professional leadership?” Well, to that question I defer to one of the book’s primary antagonists, the Duchess, and her simple, reassuring words: “Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
And with that introduction, dear friends, I invite you to join me as we go down the rabbit hole….

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

We may be tempted to think that if we, as professionals, “walk long enough,” we are eventually going to become leaders. After all, as we look around we see individuals in positions of leadership that have—at least on the surface—appear to have longevity with the organization, been promoted, and simply stayed the course. However, we cannot simply “walk long enough” and expect to become effective leaders or display leadership at the end of the hike.

Accepting for the moment that we care about preparing ourselves and others to become effective leaders, there is, at least, one critical question we must ask with respect to leadership education: why? An admonition from the Harvard Business Review reminds us that “[f]or those who have an open mind for new ideas, who seek to create long-lasting success and who believe that your success requires the aid of others, I o¬ffer you a challenge. From now on, start with Why.” “Clarifying the result we want to create requires us to reorganize our lives. Instead of moving away from a problem, we move toward a possibility that does not yet exist. We become more proactive, intentional, optimistic, invested, and persistent. We also tend to become more energized, and our impact on others becomes energizing.” Or, as the Cheshire Cat would say “we must know where we want to get to.”

“Leadership,” we may say. “That is the destination.” Such a response makes good sense for a variety of reasons. Increasingly, organizations are incorporating into their competency models leadership skills such as communication, teamwork, client and team development, and service. In other words, many of us and those with whom we associate will be evaluated professionally based upon demonstration of leadership skills. Additionally—and looking to the long term future—“[s]ustainable competitive advantage depends on having people that know how to build relationships, seek information, make sense of observations and share ideas through an intelligent use of new technologies.” In other words, sustainable competitive advantage depends upon having effective leaders in an organization. The “destination” of leadership, therefore, makes a great deal of sense.

However, it should be noted that there is no clear profile of an ideal leader. There is, nevertheless, some degree of consensus when it comes to skills and behaviors that effective leaders exhibit. For example, Professor Deborah Rhode of Stanford notes that effective leaders generally exhibit skills in the arenas of self-awareness, integrity, oral advocacy, effective communication, work control and direction, social awareness, empathy, conflict management, vision, and technical competence. Likewise, former Elon Dean Leary Davis stated that to be effective, a leader must engage in self-management while attending to tasks embedded in the situation and relationship with others. Echoing these sentiments, renowned business author Peter Drucker frequently advocates that those who lead others must first become experts in leading themselves. Moreover, “[e]mpirical research find that leaders’ most essential qualities largely cluster in five categories[,] including self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-control.” Indeed, many authors have expressed the opinion that “[s]elf-awareness, or understanding one’s self, is foundational for the well-being, growth, and performance of leaders in organizations” And so, in answer to the cat’s question of “where do you want to get to?” this series responds: closer to self-knowledge and self-awareness.

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