Research Paper By Jose Antonio Villalobos Sarria
(Leadership Coach, CANADA)
Most of the time, it is easy to assume that a leader is an individual that sets the direction from a position of power. A leader is thought to be well-connected and well-situated in a hierarchical structure, maybe with a high professional profile including an MBA. For many a leader is an organizational authority expected to dictate “strategic” decisions, an aggressive negotiator (with very little compassion) who embraces challenges objectively. We might even assume that a leader is an individual earning a high salary and living under a lot of stress and pressure, someone who subscribes to multiple business magazines and who has an impeccable LinkedIn profile with a picture taken by a professional studio. We are taught that leadership is a logical approach that leaves no room for “emotions”. Indeed we are taught that the word “emotion” itself should not even be said out loud. Perhaps all of this describes the stereotypical leader. There may even be many leaders who fit this description. But what happens if a leader possesses a different set of qualities? Is that even possible?
Allow me to share a story. It is about a woman from the Peruvian Amazon, from the native community of San Francisco de Yarinacocha. I can always relate to her story because there are a number of qualities that I believe make her an exemplary leader. My intention is to portray how those qualities from that extraordinary woman benefited me, making a difference in my life. Her modest, yet rich, story was an inspiration for me to become a leadership coach.
Many years ago, at the age of seventeen, during the early nineties, Peru (the country where I was born) was in the middle of a constitutional crisis, suffering from an unstable economy, political crisis, and terrorist attacks. In other words, the country was suffering from poor leadership. I clearly remember society craving for peace. In the midst of this chaos, I obtained a hands-on work experience, traveling throughout Peru to promote a leadership initiative, working with different local governments.
In one of the work trips, I encountered a native woman whose name was Wano. She wasn’t too tall, maybe around 5 feet, with straight, deep black hair. She wore a skirt made of palm fiber and had bare feet. In many different circumstances she might be considered part of what a lot of people label “minority” groups: a woman, an indigenous person, an illiterate. I remember that it was early in the morning, and she was ready, along with a group of other women and their children, to start their day with the routine of selecting and hand-picking rare roots, flowers and insects. The fruits of their harvest were used in the preparation of a natural ink needed to color and paint hand-made fabric.
At that moment, I wasn’t yet sure if Wano, who had a big smile, was the leader of her community or whether she was just our guide. I did know that I was interested in observing and learning from her. She acted naturally, she was careful, and her movements were soft. She didn’t need a map for the road; rather, every once in a while, she would just look at the sky between the gigantic trees of the jungle. It was as though the sun was her compass. Wano was ever watchful and very conscious of her surroundings. I learned my first fundamental lesson about leadership and coaching from Wano:
always look to the outside rather than only relying on knowledge you already possess on the inside.
While writing this article, the scene from the Peruvian jungle reminded me of what neuroscientist Dr. Antonio Damasio explained during an interview about consciousness:
it’s this ability that we have to look out on the world and grasp it. It is a way evolution found to increase our effectiveness in dealing with life and its struggles.
It is beautiful to recognize the quality of consciousness in Wano. While walking to our destination, she listened to her group talk in their dialect, Shipibo, part of the family of the Panoan Language. There was dialogue and everyone participated.nWhen Wano spoke, her participation was short; she was clearly more interested in listening.
Later, while picking the plants, the children also participated. They clearly didn’t know what they were doing, and they were picking randomly, maybe the wrong kind of roots and flowers. Wano never judged them. Rather she demonstrated sensibility and kindness. She never told them that they were picking the wrong “supplies.” She was accepting of the children’s behavior, simply returning a big smile. Every effort was a celebration. Wano validated their efforts and demonstrated to all of us the importance of participation and of learning from our own efforts. Wano created a climate of trust, and I was speechless admiring how magical that can be.
Another great lesson learned from that morning searching for roots and flowers was about enabling others to act. I came across this lesson again many years later in graduate school, while reading the book “The Leadership Challenge,” which stated that
we can’t happen without trust. It’s the central issue in human relationships.Without trust you cannot lead. Without trust you can’t get people believe in you or in each other.[i]
On that day in the Peruvian jungle, Wano observed her environment, she understood the goals of her community, but more importantly, she helped her community to reach those goals without imposing. Along the way, she was a role model for enjoying the process and creating space. She was a leader and a coach and she didn’t even know it.
Harvard University president, Drew Gilpin Faust, said in an interview that
leadership means having a sense of responsibility and a sense of ethical commitment to society and to those you are leading.[ii]
It is possible to identify those same values in Wano. Thanks to my experience with her, I was able to identify the value of people, of bringing the best out of people, as well as the value of communication, of having a conversation. I also identified the value of creativity, imagination and emotions as business tools. I was having a master class of how a dialogue and the power of listening are able to build leadership, contributing to a sustainable environment. More importantly, I learned that each individual is unique in many different ways.
The Art of Leadership and The Art of Coaching
In today’s reality, it is absolutely necessary for leaders, especially young leaders, to be thoughtful human beings. We need wise leaders. During the time of my graduate school, I learned the benefits of coaching, and I discovered the value of coaching as a way of communication. I witnessed how coaching can transform leadership, and I decided to continue the journey and become a leadership coach. As I read once in a magazine dedicated to Emotional Intelligence,
Coaching is not pure science, it is also an art, its success depends on the talent of the coach.[iii]
I can see coaching becoming an art, the art that can help transform leadership.
We are living in a globalized world where cultural exchange and different sets of values and beliefs are incorporated into our day-to-day routine, presenting a universe of new challenges and new demands, but also wonderful opportunities. Nowadays some organizations are aware of the importance and value of enhanced leadership, and they are investing in developing practices to leverage an internal culture that also embraces change and develops opportunities.
One of the outcomes that should be valued in a leader is the power to connect, to relate with others, to create a community, to communicate not only verbally but also with empathy. These qualities are necessary to embrace change, to be empathetic, to listen and to be open to new ideas. I am taking this opportunity to portray how academic and technical skills are not enough by themselves to survive. Of equal or greater importance, a leader must demonstrate humanity and possess the power to connect with their surroundings.
Continuing with the story in the Peruvian Amazon, when we returned with all our supplies to the workshop, the rain started. Not any sort of rain; I never saw rain before in my life that was so strong. While enjoying the sounds made by the heavy rain, the first thing we did was eat. Everyone was quiet; we enjoyed the silence and how much silence had to tell us. The silence brought awareness. There are a number of recommendations that can be used to tailor and cultivate a coaching approach, taking into consideration, for example, education, training, thinking process, knowledge and culture, but nothing is more important than master empathy and awareness.
Another very important remark is the exploration of powerful questions like “what does it takes to be an effective leader?”[iv] During lunch, Wano guide was observing, she was attentive, she was always trying to find ways for me to understand what they were doing. She frequently asked for help with translation; she used body language; she smiled; she needed to make sure I was connected. I truly was connected. In fact, I still am. After lunch, we worked. I learned so much about textiles. I saw how women painted the textiles and how they combined colors. I learned how to create my own story with those colors. There was a moment when I was in the middle of that space, surrounded by approximately 25 women. It was magical and I will never forget that scene or sensation. Preparing the textiles was not an easy job at all, but everybody seemed happy. After the rain ended, we all danced.
Overall the contributions Wano to her group as a leader were huge. I found a statement that perfectly aligns with the story of Wano:
The strongest predictor of leadership was the amount of compassion that members expressed towards others in need. Compassionate people were judged as more knowledgeable.[v]
Wano was amazing through her compassion. While it may be true that every woman in the group had the capability to be a leader, only Wano actually led. I knew that one day in the future I was going to share the story of this generous woman. At the time those events occurred in the Peruvian jungle, today’s technology did not exist. However, I think storytelling is a good resource to bring back those good memories.
As coaches, we are agents that facilitate change. We are an instrument that brings clarity, even in a time filled with constant change, and where everything can be operated from a smart phone using an app. We help individuals to find their hidden qualities. It is exciting to see that coaching is growing as a profession, that there is an opportunity to know ourselves better, and that thanks to coaching we can be open to new possibilities, including developing leadership. We are ready more than ever to operate in this new world of constant innovation. We can learn that there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable and that our limitations might be transformative. Our emotions are powerful, and like Wano, they can help us be an inspiration and foster an environment of solidarity and trust.
[i] Kouzes, James and Posner, Barry. The Leadership Challenge. 5th edition, 2012. Page 219.
[ii] Distefano Michael and Kurtzman, Joel. Korn / Ferry Briefings on Talent & Leadership. “The historian who made history” N° 15, Page 53.
[iii] Chamorro Premuzic, Tomas. Harvard Business Review, Emotional Intelligence, Selected Articles from HBR. Summer 2014
[iv] Van Velsor, Ellen, D. McCauley, Cynthia and Ruderman, Marian N. The Center for Creative Leadership: “Handbook of Leadership Development.” Third Edition. 2010. Kindle Version. Introduction: Our view of Leadership Development, written by McCauley, Cynthia D., Van Velsor, Ellen and Ruderman Marian N. Loc. 618, 7%
[v] Grant, Adam. Strategy + Business. “Leading Ideas” N° 71 Summer 2013