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Claudelle von EckChief Executive Officer of the IIA SA

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Shall we dance? Leadership is an art - Part II

Posted By Claudelle von Eck, 25 June 2017
Updated: 28 June 2017

 

This is Part II of my blog on the leadership lessons I have learned on the dance floor. If you have not yet read Part I, I suggest that you first go to the previous blog as this follows on from there. Let me hasten to once again remind you that these are lessons I have observed, not what I claim to have mastered. These are a few more of my reflections from the dance floor.

Over the years I learnt to appreciate a variety of music genres as a result of the different dances Tony taught me. Of course not every single genre tickles my fancy (that would be weird. Nobody likes everything. Some types of music, which I will not mention here for fear of offending someone, are an acquired taste). But, in one dance lesson I can be transported from Argentina to Angola, and from the 60’s to the 2000’s in minutes. It is understanding how the dance steps (principles) relate to the music (context) that gives one a deeper appreciation for the music and increases what your ears can absorb with ease. Within genres one can however distinguish between musicians and the true talented geniuses who can create music that effortlessly transports you into the depth of the dance dimension. Some just have the ability to instantly touch and whisper ancient truths to my soul. I have however learnt that not every genre is for me, nor can just any musician’s music take me there. Sometimes I try to dance to a piece of music and no amount of knocking on the gateway will let it open. In some contexts I am just a fish out of water. In that moment I know: “This is for other people, not for me”.  Sometimes I’ll indulge Tony and go through the motions, but in those moments where I can feel myself floating too far away from that gateway, I have no qualms about stopping in my tracks and asking (ok, quietly demanding is probably closer to the truth) him to change the music. One should not be afraid to move on when the context is for other people and not for you.

 

1.       Resistance training enhances the dance experience

To my shame, I must admit that I have only really learnt this lesson in recent years. Perhaps only because I hurt my back in 2012 (yes, it was very sore. Thank you for asking) and had to work on strengthening my core. That, coupled with being told that I was overweight and did not have enough lean muscle (that was a shock), drove me to work on strengthening my core and muscles through resistance training. The unintended consequence was a stronger me on the dance floor. I cannot begin to describe what it had done for my dancing. I slowly started to realise that I have better control over my body and my movements, and that feeling my muscles at work enhanced my dance experience. I could do more, stay in challenging positions longer and was able to control my stops and starts with greater precision. It is like hitting the sweet spot golfers chase or being in the zone like a runner who runs with litheness. I could sense Tony’s approval, no doubt because I could keep up with him for longer, despite no longer being as young as the dance illiterate who arrived on his doorstep many moons ago. Until the penny dropped, I did not realise how important resistance training outside of my dance lessons was.

Building muscle does not come without sacrifice, as the saying goes: ‘no pain, no gain’. Google tells me that most theories around muscle growth are based on the idea that resistance training breaks down the muscle and that growth occurs as a result of an over-compensation to protect the body from future stress. Our bodies break down and rebuild muscles every 15 to 30 days, they say, and resistance training speeds that process up.

Building strength in leadership is important, but even more so in the volatile times we live in. Strength is built through resistance training and that does not come without feeling the pain. Leaders should continually ask themselves where and how they are building ‘muscle’. In this context, one should embrace the challenges that cross your path as they provide you with opportunities to build strength. Most of those who we revere as iconic leaders have the scars that tell a tale of an individual who has had to fight life battles. Mandela is a great example of someone who had been shaped by hardship. The stronger you are, the more responsibility the universe will permit you to carry. The last thing you want to do is fall apart in the middle of a challenge because you have not built enough resilience within yourself. As the saying goes: The highest trees catch the most wind.

Next time when you feel sorry for yourself because you feel victimised or ill-treated, rather see your current circumstances as an opportunity to build strength than seeing yourself as a victim. Whenever someone treats me badly I try (I said try) to remind myself that at some point, when the edge of the pain has lifted, I will thank that individual for being the instrument that provided me with the resistance my muscles needed to grow (not saying it is easy, but I refuse to be a victim). In hindsight all the bad things that happened to me only made me stronger. One has to periodically remind yourself of that. Leaders cannot shy away from the pain the resistance training bring, because they need to continuously grow in maturity. It is really hard to see someone, who victimises or bullies you, as an instrument sent to build your strength, and have the grace to forgive them for hurting you. I can think of one or two people who I am still battling to find grace for in my heart (committed to keep trying though). For me it is particularly difficult to swallow when it is about injustice toward a people who are not able to defend themselves. To find grace in those situations is challenging, but the freedom that it brings, kick starts the rest needed for the muscle to heal and increase in strength. When we see ourselves as victims, we hand over power and a part of us dies.

There is of course also a good argument to be made for the value that actual physical training brings to those in leadership positions. The stronger your body, the more resilient your overall being. Too many underestimate the impact of stress on their bodies created by continuous mental challenges that are often also accompanied by emotional stress. The harder you work and the more challenging the environment, the more effort you should put into exercising and ensuring that you nourish your body with nutritious food. The more you do that, the less of a sweat you will break through the intricate moves on the dance floor.

 

2.       You can only enter the dance dimension when you lose the trappings and go in as your authentic self

I’m not sure at what point I had learnt this lesson, although I think that a lot of it had to do with getting to trust Tony and know that I am in a safe space. To find yourself in that space of fluidity where you can close your eyes, touch the ether and become one with the universe, you need to die to what ties you to the matrix. For me it was inhibitions brought with me from the past, the dynamics with a white male in the South African context (oh, by the way, Tony is white, which in a normal world would be a completely irrelevant statement, but South Africa’s past is not normal) and switching off from the everyday noise, among other hang ups. I found that when I approached the dance with my authentic self, I was allowed to enter the dance dimension. You would now often find me dancing with my eyes half closed, clearly oblivious to the world around me – perhaps even oblivious to Tony’s presence as a separate individual, who at this point is the partner who fluidly becomes a conduit and let me just be.

I truly believe that one can only really enter the realm of great leadership if you’re able to untie yourself from what has become a system driven by greed, let go of self-interest and become immersed in what is right for the greater good. Self-interest seems to be that ugly shadow that follows many people in powerful leadership positions. Some are completely aware of the fact that they are working in their own interest. Some curiously seem to have developed the skill of masking their true intentions even from themselves and really believe that they are working in the interest of the greater good. However the proof is always in the pudding. Over time one recognises them by their fruit. Somehow their decisions benefit them directly or indirectly, or those who they regard to be in their inner circle, at the expense of the greater good. Benefit is of course not always financial, it can also be about increased power or recognition. Power seduces and turns many into addicts. It takes a measure of maturity to not become entangled in the trappings of the seductive nature of power.

In the South African context (and sadly in some other places in the world too), untying one from the system also means dismantling the illusion created by those who crafted the narrative around our peoples. Some have to shake the shackles of a deep seated insecurity that comes from having been told openly and/or covertly that they are inferior. Being stuck under the mental glass ceiling is the root cause of the potential of so many being locked away. So many of us are not even aware of how deep the pain of the past goes and to what degree it is holding us back. One’s ability to truly be a great leader can be held back by a masked inferiority complex. The truth will set us free.

For others it is about confronting the shackles of a superiority complex that sits at a subconscious level and can only be unseated by the ability to see their true self. These types of truths are very hard to face. It takes guts. It is so much easier to remain in denial and remain blind to how we adversely affect others by the covert messages embedded in our words and actions. We all like to believe that we are good people. One cannot truly be a great leader to all kinds of people unless you see equal potential in all and treat everyone with the same degree of dignity and respect. The truth will set us free.

Of course one can suffer from the two ailments at the same time, i.e. have an inferiority complex in relation to some people and a superiority complex in relation to others, be it based on race, gender, class or a combination thereof. When we’re able to look at ourselves objectively and see those stains on our souls, we realise how absurd it is that we have allowed ourselves to become imprisoned by structural ideologies that are divorced from true humanness. When we allow ourselves to remain in a space where we have a deep seated inferiority complex, we are disrespecting ourselves and our potential. When we allow ourselves to remain in a space where we have a superiority complex, we are also disrespecting ourselves because we are allowing ourselves to be inhumane. We should never underestimate the impact we may have on the souls of others.  

As a collective, too many of us are broken because of what the system taught us. I call us the walking wounded. But,…….the truth will set us free.

This is deep stuff. It requires brutal honesty with oneself and an ability to confront those things that shape who we are as leaders, including self-interest, prejudice, insecurities and greed (for money or power or both). Leadership is about stewardship, not lordship, thus about servanthood in the area where you have been appointed custodian and not about misuse of power to bend others to your will. If your decisions leave unnecessary casualties behind, you have to question whether you are operating in the true leadership dimension or whether you are a despot. Good leaders always consider the impact of their decisions on the people in their sphere of influence, especially those who cannot defend themselves. One of the most difficult things to do is to acknowledge to yourself that you have allowed the dark side of leadership to taint you and that you must change if you are to properly fulfill your role in exercising good leadership.

 

3.       You need to carry your own weight

 

Tony and I have had plenty of conversations about how so many students are not able to truly progress because they expect their instructor to carry them. Although he still remains my instructor, we have long moved to a partnership simply because I am prepared to carry my own weight in the dance. When each partner carries his/her own weight and they do so while integrating with the music, thus interpreting the music together, beautiful patterns emerge. More importantly, it leaves room for experimentation and immense creativity. See, we co-create. My destiny, i.e. whether I will enter the dance dimension or not, is not in his hands. My destiny is in my hands. I do of course understand that the more I carry my own weight, the more he is able to enjoy the dance with me, which in turn adds to my enjoyment of the dance.

 

As one enters the leadership space, it is important that you sit at the feet of mature leaders from whom you can learn. It is however far more important that you understand that you have to take responsibility for your responses, actions and decisions, but most importantly for your emotional maturity. You need to see your role in the greater collective and own the responsibility that comes with it. Within your organisation you should be clear about how you contribute to the leadership collective and ensure that you do not ride on the contributions of others. 

 

Too often one sees people in leadership positions who are not able to carry the responsibility that comes with the position. They want the title and the authority that comes with it, but not the accountability. So many leave destruction in their wake and do not take any responsibility for the consequences of their decisions and actions. Blame shifting is certainly not a leadership trait. Good leaders have the ability to see and admit when they have made the wrong call and have the ability to apologise, and not throw others under the bus. Amazing how many are allergic to saying ‘I’m sorry’, with a remorse that is authentic. I suppose, it is so much easier to remain in denial and blind to the pain we cause in others.

 

In order to be able to carry your own weight, you need to be strong. This ties neatly into the first concept I talked to in this blog.

 

4.       Watch the pros

 

Thank goodness for YouTube. By watching the pros dance, one is able to get a feel for what great looks like and know what it is that you need to emulate. Tony introduced me to a new contemporary dance recently (no, I’m not telling you which one. My mom may be reading this blog). Not only am I one of only a few of his students who have embraced it, very few of us have actually excelled in it. I believe that a great contributing factor to me understanding the essence of the dance was watching videos of great dancers on YouTube. By watching them I started to understand what makes the dance tick and I started to experiment while dancing with Tony. Once I understood what the flow feels like and what great looks like, I started to take to the dance like a fish in water.

 

I have learnt in the process though that not all great dancers are good at every single dance genre in the world. One therefore needs to look at different experts in their genres of expertise, based on what it is that you need to learn. So while you may have your favourites, learning does not come from observing only one or two of the pros.

 

When we watch leaders, we must be sure that we’re watching the pros and integrate their good example into our behaviour. However, we need to be sure that we are watching good leaders who are mature and display wisdom. Intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. Just because the person is in a powerful position and has a great following, doesn’t mean the person is a mature and wise leader. Look at the fruit they have produced over time. Not just the money they have made or seeming success attained. Do they always consider the impact and ripple effect of their decisions and do the right things for the right reasons? Do they display ethical courage? Do they use a sledge hammer to take out opponents who are in a far less powerful position than they are, or do they consider their power in relation to who they are dealing with? Do they build trust and can people confide in them without fear that their vulnerabilities will be used against them? Do they protect those who blow the whistle or do they leave them exposed? Look at the staff turnover in their leadership team, the quality of their team (do they surround themselves with yea-sayers?) and how often they rearrange their top team without an apparent good cause. Do they treat those in “lesser positions” with respect or do they look down on them? Are they open to criticism or oppress those who dare speak out against their views? Do they feel entitled to lord over others or do they see themselves as servants of the greater good? One can learn a lot from watching great leaders in action, but you must make sure that you’re watching the right calibre.

 

When asked who my role models are, my response is always that I have a number of role models who all have something different they are exceptionally strong in. It is about multiple role models who collectively gives one a holistic picture as opposed to only looking up to one individual. It is however also important to remember that we all have our flaws and that one should never think of any leader as being infallible. You can’t go and fall apart if your role model’s feet of clay are exposed. Whenever I am referred to as a role model, my first thought goes to the weight of responsibility that comes with it. The more people look up to you, the greater the responsibility to exercise good leadership. It is not for the faint hearted. It is never just about you.

             Yes, of course I am not yet done. Some more on this topic in my next blog.

Looking forward to seeing you at our National Conference in August. For more on the conference, follow this link https://iiasa.site-ym.com/page/NationalConference

 

 

 

Tags:  collective  dance  ethics  greater good  lead  leaders  leadership  muscle  music  resistance  strength  training  wisdom 

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Comments on this post...

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Nokwethemba R. Nkosi says...
Posted 26 June 2017
Thank you for always sharing the greatest lessons we hardly hear about from most leaders. From every communication and every single words from you speak of the wisdom you have acquire as a leader and the lessons you have learn yourself ‘to become who you are today. It stimulating to people like me who are still young and aspire to be leaders of tomorrow. It’s a privilege to get to eat from the palms of a leader like yourself.

Seating on the edge of my chair for Part III.
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Zwakele Majola says...
Posted 28 June 2017
Insightful indeed. Much appreciated.
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Claudelle von Eck says...
Posted 28 June 2017
Thank you for your kind words, Nokwethemba and Zwakele
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Devoshum Moodley says...
Posted 11 July 2017
Vey beautiful and insightful. I hope and trust as audit leaders to read and take cognisance of the tips mentioned in your blogs. It is indeed true that we all can aspire to be the leaders of tomorrow. Its a tough road ahead however with wisdom and aspiration nothing is impossible. We should also encourage CAE's to develop opinion pieces on their journeys in the audit profession.
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