Book excerpt: The Infinite Leader

Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren discuss flow, momentum and humour in an excerpt from their new book, The Infinite Leader. 

A zero-sum game?

In any group without a designated leader, it is quite possible that there is no visible or obvious leader. Native American and Aboriginal tribes often remarked that they had no leader until confrontation with colonialists forced them to designate someone to that task.

In modern-day societies, someone in particular usually emerges as a representative. The most common manifest of this is in the context of an American jury. Twelve people are required to elect a representative. Of course, when someone volunteers to lead, this means that some people can then sit back.

They can place (or offload) their trust (or responsibility) in someone else. In this respect the leader absolves the team of their personal responsibilities. In theory, this could allow them to specialise, but it can also create another normative field – that of the team rather than the leader.

For this reason, non-commissioned officer leadership is given a great deal of thought in the military. It is essential that the normative field is created by formal rather than informal authority. If the latter exceeds the former through any breakdown in trust, then we end up with mutiny.

Modern leaders tend to inhabit the stoical group. They are leaders for whom the needs of the team come before their own requirements.

For this reason, the military offers individuals every chance to experience leadership during training, so they can feel the responsibility of leadership. It is hoped that by so doing, they will have greater sympathy with and understanding of the role of leadership.

This illustrates clearly the role of training and role play not only in leadership but in team development, too. It’s not enough to train the leader to lead. The team needs to be trained to follow. Without this, a leader may be taken for granted and no matter how stoic they are, the more cynicism they can attract.

The cynics and stoics are philosophical schools passed down to us by antiquity, but one can see them at work today. The former are those for whom leadership is grudgingly accepted as a necessary evil. They do not support it, but they do not attack it either. You don’t need to look far for this.

A new age of cynicism has grown up distrusting the motives of others and showing contempt for accepted standards of honesty or morality. This is an approach where only selfishness motivates human actions, and there is a belief that the world’s actions are mainly negative. It’s dangerous stuff.

Modern leaders tend to inhabit the stoical group. They are leaders for whom the needs of the team come before their own requirements. Leaders can thus advertise their own capabilities paradoxically by extolling the virtues of their team members.

This unselfishness is one of the traits of great leadership. It also explains how great teams can be created. Individual identities are welded together into something bigger. How is this done? Let’s look at the ways.


Humour, the ultimate clearance to zero

One of the great shortcomings of all psychometric testing is its inability to recognise key human leadership skills like humour.

All great leaders use humour for communication. When Ronald Reagan’s desk was emptied from the Oval Office, it contained written jokes – hundreds of them. When leaders use humour, they display judgement, timing, sensitivity, shared perspective and intelligence. Humour is therefore something we should take seriously in leadership.

The psychology of training is such that people tend to get good at things they like doing. Because work is a social process, it’s therefore probable that if you like your team, you’ll want to work well with them. Competence follows preference.

This can create another circle – a virtuous one where people like their team, therefore they work well together, therefore their skills improve, therefore they become more valuable, therefore they receive higher rewards and therefore they like their work more.

Unfortunately, the cycle doesn’t work in reverse. When teams are enjoying themselves, they tend to be less focused on the rational/physical realm. This makes them less likely to compare, contrast, analyse and notice difference. Work no longer seems like work and the team enters into ‘flow’.

Momentum as a path to zero

Another path to a balanced team may be through the creation of momentum, whether on training tasks or work in progress. Nothing enhances team cohesion quite like pressure of work. This is why so many military organisations keep new recruits busy for their first months in the service. Apart from the fitness benefits, it also allows the meta skills of teamwork to be put in place.

This momentum could be likened to the effect that forward motion has on the stability of a bicycle. A vital element of zero-state thinking is the creation and maintenance of momentum. This creates a gyroscopic effect pushing forces to the centre of the axis. People are still debating what keeps a bicycle vertical. All that matters from our point of view is that it does.

Is the leader responsible?

One of the problems with leadership is that it assumes it must come solely from leaders. You are the leader. We are all the leader. Leadership can never afford to be personally certain. In a quantum superpositioned environment, the provenance of certainty must be mediocrity.

Zero leadership doesn’t just predict one outcome, it prepares for ALL outcomes. It must be disinterested. Zero preparation speaks to the pre-existing mindset required for key leadership insights.

When someone goes actively in search of creativity, they may find some of it. But most leaders relate that real epiphanies often occur outside the office space, outside the work group and often when not trying. This emphasises the importance of the zero state as a precondition for creative epiphany.

This is similar to the state of love. The person who searches for love is less likely to be found by it. We don’t need leaders with brains or with hearts, we need them with both.


About the authors

Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren are authors of The Infinite Leader, published by Kogan Page Ltd and available to buy here.


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