Updated: Feb 23, 2021
The essential value of commitment and agreement as a conscious activity.
There is a common misperception that leaders are born, that some of us are just natural leaders and others are not. Those of us who prescribe to the value of developing leadership would make an alternate case.
It is better, I would argue, to consider leaders as emergent. They emerge from a collective mix of life experience, opportunity and challenge as these interplay with personal traits and capabilities. In this model, all leaders can grow through experience and targeted personal development (sometimes with support) to emerge more capable.
The process of surviving and growing out of leadership challenges is a form of natural selection for recognising leadership potential. Of course, this is in the context of being sure that a leader could deliver through challenges, rather than them being insurmountable.
There are plenty of approaches for supporting leadership spotting and development, many of which are used by organisations to reduce the risk of leadership collapse or team fractures.
In the context of leadership development, I want to draw your attention to your own engagement with your work, through the concepts of commitments and agreements.
Commitments and agreements
Let’s start by considering what is meant by the terms ‘commitment’ and ‘agreement’.
One approach to framing these two words is to consider them as right or left brain approaches to engagement.
The left hemisphere has been associated with rational decision-making processes, where language (our internal dialogue) is used to weigh up or make plans. It is the left hemisphere that accommodates the language centres, for most people, which link to the frontal cortex (decision-making) via our memory centres. The right hemisphere is associated with more creative processes and is considered to be less influenced by language based arguments, rather visual, emotional and creative concepts.
Left brain processes are more arguably logical or rational (as much as we can be rational) and so work to draw logical conclusions. The logical route to a judgement about a proposed plan, for example, is therefore based on evidence and weighed up arguments, both from others and within one’s own internal voice. It seems sensible — so we go with it…why not? However, these ‘agreements’ to logic are founded on ‘facts’ and ‘argument’ that are prone to change or be updated as personal experience is added into the process. They are, by definition, flexible to change and particularly weak when times get tough and pressure builds.
Conversely, right brain processes can be characterised as more emotional and experiential rather than judgement based. When an agreement is experienced as a positive emotional process, such as excitement, inspiration, aspiration etc... the agreement becomes more cemented as a goal and is better described as a commitment. These commitments we feel motivated to achieve and so are less influenced by interim negative experiences, such as pressure, failures etc… and so you are more amenable to make repeated attempts, to adapt your approach and to ride the bumps in the road towards something you want.
As a leader, it is important to be sure that your work is aligned to your commitments — to yourself, your family and your organisation/team. This is not the same as a contract, as it is a wholly internal process — a contract is an agreement. At some point, you need to have consciously made commitments with yourself, the universe, your God… to do whatever it is you are driven to do. Without this, you have no aim in your DNA. No passion to fall back on in times of difficulty and no inspiration to spread to your team.
This commitment is the first step in your leadership career and is often missed or has arrived without notice.
So right now, take time to notice:
What have you committed yourself to?
What values does this commitment embody?
How will you know when you are doing it?
It can help to sit down for 20 minutes and to write these down for yourself.
The next internal check-up — which is often hard to not notice if it has arrived — is whether or not you are experiencing wobbles:
Are you starting to question your role?
Are you questioning your goals?
Do you feel unsettled?
Is there interpersonal drama appearing in the workplace?
Are you struggling to motivate yourself?
Do your team feel distant to you or to misunderstand you?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it is time to re-assess and to update or create your commitment. I would argue that this is central to the function of all leaders. Before you explore other areas such as stress, locus of control, demand, life-balance etc. (Of course, if your life has significant stress events in it — this may require urgent attention).
Without a clear idea of what you are committing to, you can’t check your agreements and whether or not the context is introducing problems.
At this point, a review process is worthwhile. This is an opportunity to reflect across your work and life to be sure that you are not committed to conflicting goals (between family and work etc), compromising on your values or serving out of date aspirations. Explore the following questions:
What are you committed to at work?
What are you committed to in your family / personal relationships?
What are you committed to for yourself?
Each of these can be broken down using the questions below if you are struggling to connect with your drivers:
What do you value?
Where do you experience the most joy?
Where do you experience the most abundant output, despite little effort?
What can you do without any external push?
What does success look like?
(Again, sit down and write this down…. it helps!).
The goal of this exercise is to create clarity, for yourself, about what you are committed to do, achieve and have in your life. Most importantly, these are motivating, exciting and aspirational to you — engaging your whole brain as an emotional and rational commitment.
This is your rudder.
As a consequence of this self-development work, the agreements you need to form to serve your needs should flow out of your self-awareness:
Who: With others who connect to your work, personal life and also to yourself.
When: as a consequence of your commitments needing to be met.
What: activities and processes that align with your core principles.
To maintain this flow of agreements — that align with your commitments — you need to watch for any wobbles or drift to old ways of being or organisational norms. The rules are actually quite obvious, but difficult to follow:
say yes when you want to
say no when you don’t want to
do what you agreed to do
don’t do what you said you wouldn’t do
work to change or withdraw from any agreements that no longer work for you
As the last point, it is important to recognise that as you grow and your life expands — commitments you make will become outdated. These exercises are the equivalent of engine maintenance — they need to be repeated to maintain the hum of the engine. Outdated commitments will lead to agreements that do not align with your life and work — which could be perceived as external forces getting in your way (stress) rather than recognising that it is time to reflect and rediscover what your life needs you to commit to.
Take an hour every 3–6 months and check your engine is humming.
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