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Leadership and Psychology

There is an interesting dance between Leadership and Psychology. As a psychologist, I live and love psychology, but I’m also passionate about business. 

For the past ten years, I have facilitated leadership courses in over twelve countries. I have seen that many of the skills and behaviours that would make someone successful as an individual contributor are the very skills and behaviours that sink them as a leader of others. It is often very challenging for entry level leaders to make the shift from a successful individual contributor to a successful leader.

A significant change in leadership competencies, time management and even work values needs to be made in order to operate successfully on the next level. This transition is only possible if we as leaders are able to free up sufficient time to demonstrate effective leadership behaviours such as coaching and empowering others. Our team should then be able to focus their attention on tasks that really matter on ground level. 

In my experience I have found that most of us don't make the distinction between personality traits that constrict development and lack specific competencies that hinder development. Rather than finding the real issue, we as leaders (and often also the people that we lead) become stuck and perceive ourselves as the problem. It is here that Humanistic Psychology, and specifically Narrative Theory, can help us to make the necessary changes in our thought patterns. Narrative Psychological Theory claims that we write our own preferred life story, which is said to encompass our leadership story. The moment we entertain and believe self-negating ideas such as ‘I am shy’, ‘I have a short fuse’, ‘I am not assertive’, ‘I am not influential’, or ‘I don't trust others and therefore can't delegate’, we tend to become stuck in a problem-saturated story. 

Narrative Psychological Theory suggests that I myself am not the problem– the problem is the problem. It makes use of externalising conversations, which means that I see the problem as something outside of myself – a construct that I have a relationship with and can therefore manage. The moment I realise that I have a relationship with ‘shyness’, ‘having a short fuse’, or ‘being overly accommodating’, I realise that I can change my  relationship with it and control how much power I will give this construct outside of myself. The next step would then be to develop an understanding of where this construct got power in my life and of what untruths it has convinced me. Common destructive patterns include seeing the problem as part of my personality, holding the belief that I inherited it from my mother or father, and convincing myself of the ‘fact’ that I cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Upon analysis, I remember, think about, and then take specific actions and make use of specific competencies to overcome the problems that have too much power in my life as a leader. 

In leadership development we often make use of an array of psychometric assessments and practical exercises to further enhance an in-depth understanding of natural preferences and how this can potentially strengthen or constrict  leadership development. Transitions from individual contributor to leader can be made through gaining valuable insights via Narrative Psychological Theory, learning from colleagues, and utilising a safe environment to start practicing new competencies and constructs. A course in leadership development is an ideal way for a leader to develop an alternative leadership plot with new possibilities.

Gerhard Gous is a Psychologist and the Director of Significant Consulting (Pty) Ltd. He is also a facilitator on USB-ED’s Leading for Results that Matter Programme.

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