Good leadership: With self-reflection and asshole filter

by our CEO Florian Feltes
Good leadership: With self-reflection and asshole filter

A good leader – is that something you are or is that something you become? – Let me put it this way: you are one if you are willing to become one. In other words, leadership requires a willingness to develop. Leading always means learning to lead. It is an ongoing process that is never finished, especially in the fast-paced world we live in. 

I consider three spheres to be important in which leaders should continuously train themselves: 

  1. reflection on my own current state,
  2. my own development process,
  3. the development process of those I lead.

These spheres do not necessarily build on each other. Rather, I am constantly moving between them, sometimes more in one, sometimes more in the other. 

Leadership starts with myself

Let’s start with the first sphere, my own current state. Dealing with this usually becomes more urgent when things are not going well. When I notice that I keep falling into certain counterproductive behaviors, for example. Recently, a very interesting article was published in DIE ZEIT. It deals with the question of whether and how you can change your own personality or certain characteristics. The author refers to findings from psychotherapy research and thus to four essential steps for making changes to oneself: 

  1. Awareness of goal and reality: Where do I (as a leader) want to go (goal) and what is currently holding me back (reality)? 
  2. Awareness of my own feelings: What situations trigger what in me and why? 
  3. Conscious “artificial” behavioral change: Practicing new behaviors, even if they don’t feel natural yet.
  4. Getting feedback from others: Ongoing reality check.

The common thread in this sphere is self-reflection. Knowing and leading yourself is the starting point for leading others well. 

Resisting the temptation of linear thinking

The second sphere comprises my own development process as a leader in the sense of “leadership by doing”. Just like personal development, this process is also ongoing. It’s about consciously “taking the lead” again and again when the situation requires it. And, before and after that, moving within the organization and the outside world with a questioning and curious attitude: 

  • How are my employees, our customers, the competitors doing? 
  • What drives them? 
  • What can we do differently and better? Or rather: what could we do differently and better, as leaders should think big, have a vision in mind or be able to develop one.

To do this, it is helpful to keep broadening my perspective, to move in new contexts, to surround myself with people who do completely different things than me or the organization I work for. 

I also train myself to recognize trends and patterns and am careful not to think too quickly in simple cause-and-effect relationships. Because the world is complex. And the flood of information and data sometimes doesn’t make it any easier. What helps is a systemic way of thinking that makes it possible to recognize the interplay of different dynamics and resist the temptation to think too linearly (X is the cause of Y and that’s it). This includes the willingness to realign myself in this system (what to keep doing, what to start doing, what to stop doing), to look at the system and my role in it from the outside and to search for new ways to make it work. 

People and data skills

This in turn requires me to remain open to change. But also to take along those who have a completely different mindset than me. For me personally, the latter is one of the most challenging parts of leadership: actively engaging not only with those who are similar to me. But also and above all with employees who think and work very differently and have very different challenges than me. Good, unbiased data, generated with the help of artificial intelligence, can help here. This comes with another important leadership skill, though: Data competence. I.e. the ability to analytically and critically engage with data and derive the right conclusions from it. For example with regard to the individual potential and development of my employees. Which brings us to the third sphere: “actual leadership” in the sense of my leadership role in direct interaction with the people in the organization.

Leading and letting others lead

I keep asking myself when I, in my executive role, should actively take the lead and when it is better to let others take the lead. For me, this is the core of modern leadership. In which leadership is not based on a formal position, but rather unfolds situationally. In the face of the complex interplay of people, markets and global developments, the knowledge and experience of all employees is valuable for making good decisions.

Everyone can do or knows something that someone else cannot do or does not know. So anyone who wants to take responsibility for solving certain tasks and take the lead must be given the opportunity to do so. Decision-making power can vary depending on the task and project. It is no longer linked to the position, but to the competence for the current task to be solved. For example, a new employee can lead a project if he or she has the necessary know-how. While the senior manager only assists in this project. 

Leadership Culture

This requires a leadership culture in which people have the confidence to take the lead if, for example, they notice negative developments in the organization or a project is set up that requires their expertise. Such a culture is created above all by an empathetic, well-informed leader who is capable of reflection (see spheres 1 and 2). Their goal should be to make themselves as dispensable as possible in day-to-day operations. This requires employees to know the framework in which they operate and the degree of freedom for situational leadership within this framework. As a leader, I need to decide where to define hard criteria that give employees guidance when making decisions. And where it is possible to leave decisions open so that employees can negotiate things with each other and individual team members can take the lead themselves. 

Thank you, asshole filter.

Stimulating and supporting these processes is also important in order to bring up a new generation of leaders who can develop further in the three spheres mentioned. Employees who are particularly well suited to executive roles due to their personality traits can be identified during the application process with the help of smart AI technology. At the same time, AI generated data helps to ensure that people with toxic behaviors, who according to my experience are neither interested in self-reflection nor have great empathy or special interest in the strengths, wishes and abilities of their colleagues, fall off the grid at an early stage. Technology with a built-in “asshole filter” for sure will not make the perfect executive team by magic. But it does make a significant contribution to ensuring that the right people can start to become leaders at the right time. 

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