Following is the full transcript of leadership expert Lars Sudmann’s TEDx Talk: Great Leadership Starts With Self-Leadership at TEDxUCLouvain conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
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Lars Sudmann – Leadership expert
Good afternoon. Today I want to share with you my leadership utopia. And when I was discussing this with a friend of mine, he was asking: Leadership in Utopia? Would we need leadership in Utopia? Isn’t Utopia finally the place and the moment where we can get rid of all of these leaders and live free? Well, I don’t know.
I think in a Utopia there will be humans hopefully, and if they’re humans, they will hopefully still be social beings as well. And whenever there are social beings they come together as well and form sometimes groups, sometimes organizations as well. And when they are these organizations, then I think the words of Peter Drucker are true. “Only three things happen naturally in organizations: Friction, confusion, and underperformance. Therefore you don’t need anything but everything else requires leadership.”
So I do think also in Utopia, we should look at the leadership but the question is: what kind of leadership? Should we look at the hero model of leadership where the shining star is the ideal person? I don’t know. Today I want to explore with your different kind of leadership, and for this I want you to do a little thought experiment.
Think about the best leader you have ever worked with. Take a couple of seconds. Think about that person. What did he or she do say and so on? Now all of you will have experience other people but I would dare to say I don’t think you will have things like well, you know, the way that person yelled at me in the morning that was excellent, that was — that was just brilliant, the way — and I wanted always have more. Probably not. Probably that person would have done different things. And I want to explore that together with you.
Now I do think leadership is an interesting thing, and sometimes it’s over glorified. But whenever you become a leader and I have the chance to lead small teams, large organizations, non-profit, profit organizations. Whenever you become a leader you have like a rendezvous with reality. Leadership is a bit like parenting, and you have all these visions and ideas what you will do and then you’re in the moment, and then what I would call the leadership problem formula kicks in. And probably the people you have thought about just a second ago have mass of this formula.
What does that formula look like? Every leader when every of you who has ever been in a leadership position might have faced these challenges. I think every leader faces the leadership problem formula and that goes: TLT times people times power.
Leadership problem formula: TLT x People x Power
First one is TLT which for me stands for too little time. There’s just not enough time to do things and you can’t pass it around or somebody will take care of it. No, it’s you and then you need to do something. And what many people then fall back in is what I would call the headless chicken syndrome. They run around and say I don’t know, you do that, you do that, you do that, you do that. And that might then not be the greatest leadership.
Then comes as well people. All leaders have to deal with people and for me, I’m always reminded of my very first official leadership position more than 10 years ago. So I would have my first direct reports and the first direct report was coming into the room. And I had it all lined up. I had the vision; I had the team spirit. I had the story to tell basically. And that was a very assertive young gentleman who came to me and said, “Lars, it’s all nice but I have a question for you. Actually I studied the email policy of the company and you know, I have a motto I live by. And I always include this, and I have this for the past five years. I always include this in my email signature. Can I do this as well in this company?”
And there was with all my stories and with all my vision and so on, it was like what? Is that what leadership is all about? So I was studying the manuals for two hours and so on. Finally we said okay let’s go ahead with this one. But everybody who’s ever led would see like it’s not always about the glorious and shiny things; that’s all about the little things, the little discussion that we have to do.
The last element is power and that’s an interesting one. There’s a very interesting study done at University of Berkeley in ‘98 and they brought in random students and selected them randomly in groups of three. And from these groups of three, two of them had to do a two-hour assignment. And one of them was randomly assigned to be the supervisor and then a social science experiments goes.
There was a special twist to it; at half an hour the researchers then brought in cookies. And of course, it was videotaped and then they observed what happens actually there. They had some hypothesis and sure enough the people who were randomly assigned to be supervisors significantly had more of the cookies but not only this: they actually left significantly more of the bread crumbs as well on the table, like I’m there… and it was very visually measurable.
And that it shows after 30 minutes of random states of higher status, this power thing kicks in – it’s something within us in humans — and I think that is also something that we need to take care of.
Now I do think these are the classic leadership problems that are not very often taken care of. But I think in a Utopia we need to address those. So how do we do that? What is the way out? For this one I think we need to travel back in time actually almost 1800-1900 years to Rome, to a person called Marcus Aurelius.
Now some of you might know Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius is one of the predominant figures of the stoic school of philosophy. Stoics like the Zen of the West almost. But Marcus Aurelius is interesting for leadership because he was running a little like you know little side business also on the side. He had a little side job in moonlighting. He was — and that’s why on the statue he’s also, you see, in there on a horse as well. He was at the time as well on top of being a philosopher, he had the side job of being the emperor of Rome at the time. And the historian William Irvine called him actually the true beacon of Enlighted leadership. He was supposed to be one of the last — of the five good kings of Rome.
Now Marcus Aurelius, what we know of him said things like this: “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” He said, “So act virtuous, use your time well, and be cheerful. Then when you drop from life’s tree, you will drop like a ripe fruit.”
Now can you imagine these words being uttered by some of the leaders like Trump and so on today? Most likely not really. What did he do? And we know a couple of things that were transmitted from this. And I think that is a sign for utopia leadership that we can dive into. He was focusing a lot of his time on field which I would call self leadership. Leading oneself first before going out and leading others. And I think that in my leadership challenges helped me enormously to actually face some of the challenges of the leadership core and the formula that I’ve shared with you.
The founder of VISA Dee Hock once said, “If you want to lead, invest at least 40% of your time in leading yourself first, before you go out to others.” Now how do you do that? And what I want to share with you a couple of strategies that I’ve tested that have worked with and so on to really try to see what can we do with that field of self leadership.
The first strategy and the first field of self leadership that’s out there is self-awareness. When you become a leader, it’s actually some of the crucial things to be self-aware of yourself. But it’s getting more and more difficult. Any of you have ever been a leadership or in a leadership position, if you’ve ever asked – tried to ask for feedback that’s not so easy. You ask like hey team, hey group, do you have some feedback? Very often what you encounter is the silence. Like in these ancient western movies, Despots, come on some feedback, you are brilliant but everything’s fine. And you know, now that’s not right.
Well, I mean you’re signing the paycheck basically. They’re like, brilliant. Now there are some ways of course to learn to ask also for better feedback. One of the things, I think, every leader can do is to check that for themselves. And one of the tools that I have is what I would call the character traits check.
A character traits check, you can do that on a rainy Sunday and do the following: ask yourself, for example, what was the worst leader that you ever had and then think what your face does them with this? This is me reflecting upon this. And then go further then, ask like what did he or she do actually to be such a worst leader? Did he yell or did she yell or did he maybe withhold information? When I was doing this exercise it was like that bad leader withholding information.
And here comes now the trick in this tool: give yourself a score from 1 to 5 for yourself how good are you for, example, at sharing or withholding information, how bad are you at this one? And for me that was like, oh, I’m actually not very good at this. So what is my plan to move that up to become very good at this one, because what we find bad in others will very often resonate also with ourselves. One of the key things to do from time to time, but if you do that you will see also the way portrayed effect. You do that the next morning you’re fully engaged but then like one of these trails at the beginning it’s very sharp, but later on it goes, it fades away and that’s why what you can do is a strategy that Marcus Aurelius did every day. And that is self-reflection — taking just a couple of minutes during the day and thinking about the challenges that you have achieved but also that you are maybe about to have during the day. Marcus Aurelius was famous for doing that in the night. For me this 5-minute reflection sometimes I did in the evening, sometimes often in the morning, going to panco having a quick coffee and then just opening my black book and just asking a couple of questions.
One of the challenges that I’m about to say: how did my leadership go yesterday? How would leader I would like to be, do, and face the challenges that I’m about to face today? Then asking this and putting this answer. In just one or two minutes of those actually the interesting study at University of California, just one or two many minutes of those can help raise your compassion level as well for others and maybe beat that cookie problem that we’ve talked about easier as well before.
Self-reflection, two to five minutes and then we come to the last one, and that is self regulation. You know you’ve done your awareness; you’ve done your reflection but you still will encounter the moments. You will still encounter the meeting, the discussions that you have where people come in who promised you yes I will do everything; I will have everything ready. And they come in the room and say and let’s talk it like… let’s talk what? The report you said was ready… oh oh sorry, I don’t have this. And all the other things, the people who challenge you think they should be on your side and you should be on the other side and so on. And all these moments that you will face as a leader, when these moments you think… stop doing this; do what I told you now. This is of course not the best leadership.
But how do we do best in that? Self regulation and one tool that has helped me enormously is what it’s called reframing. Reframing, a simple tool where you think — where you have this coming up.. I want you… you stop and ask yourself for one to two seconds. Well on a scale from one to ten, how important is that issue right now with 10 being reading my life goals so to speak, whereas that if it’s a 10 well then you better engage really fully in it but maybe very often it’s more like a 2 or 3 and so on. And that reframing, that taking a step back can help you enormously and actually addressing the situation.
Small strategy, small things but what I would encourage you to do is think about this when you have a leadership position. Invest this time in self-awareness, self-reflection, self-regulation, and self leadership in general before you go out and lead others, because very often we hear about leadership like people want to lead others who want to do everything, why not start first leading yourself?
I think we all did this. This will lead to leadership utopia that we can strive for. And I think we can start all by doing now and hopefully if you all start doing now and somebody asks in 10, 20 years, maybe now utopia, the question who was the best leader that you’ve ever worked with and maybe they think of you. Thank you.