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The Leadership Energy Journey

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“How do I overcome burn-out? Will power corrupt? Why do I always face resistance? What is the difference between leadership and management? How will I excel at both? Where am I on my leadership journey?…

These are, of course, complex questions with complicated answers. Seeing and understanding the journey that leaders go through, however, can give you a map to see where you and your team members are, and how to address the challenges you face. This holistic framework empowers you to move forward confidently.”

The above was an extract from my Masterclass session: The Leadership Energy Journey shared at the 8th Leadership Energy Summit Asia on November 19, 2020. LESA is our annual leadership conference hosted by the Iclif Executive Education Center at Asia School of Business. This year’s virtual setup drew close to ten thousand attendees from across the globe. Each of the Masterclasses were a 30-min showcase of ASB faculty’s research focus.

I was nervous, to say the least. This would be the first time I spoke globally about this novel leadership framework, since the publication of my book The Leadership Journey (2018) in Thailand. In fact, the nerves persisted until I received my session’s feedback from Serena yesterday. The comments in that report put me at ease.

“Very true what Dr Thun shared.”
“Such a good presentation to check where are we heading to and keep focused on it.”
“Very practical session. I believe the Leadership Energy Journey is crucial and critical for an individual or an organization to excel further. Awesome presentation.”
“Great session! Wished the session to be longer so that we’ll have interaction on this interesting topic. Thanks!”
“HR should bring this course to conduct for our leaders.”

In this piece, I share with you some key ideas from that session so that you can judge for yourself. Is leadership an art? Or science? Or both? Well, leadership may be an art. But energy is a very scientific term. Like Einstein said, everything in the universe is energy. It is the smallest common denominator that ties all things together. Thus, leadership is also about energy – and a leader’s job is to use it to create a better future.

Leadership is the art of harnessing human energy to create a better future. Mankind has studied energy for thousands of years; with observations noted; experiments conducted; hypotheses tested, and laws written. Given that Iclif’s leadership definition draws a linkage between the two, I thought it would be useful to look at the art of leadership through the lens of energy science.

One property of energy is flow. Electricity flows through circuits causing the voltage that powers your light bulb. Water flows through rivers and streams to create currents. Wind is cool air flowing low to replace the hotter air that rises. My doctoral thesis was on the flow of electrons from the food we eat to the energy we have to do things – a flow of chemical to physical energy.

The laws of energy themselves are also a flow: energy converts → energy releases → energy stops.

From Laws of Energy to Leadership Energy Journey

Humans have been leveraging this flow of energy to create useful work since our first days. From the beginning, we hunted the physically superior mammoth by dropping it off a cliff – converting gravitational to mechanical energy. We made our evolutionary leap by burning wood to make fire – converting chemical energy into heat. Then, we used the steam-turned turbines to generate electricity – converting pressure into electrical energy.

Decades ago we even learned how to split the hidden potential within atoms to release nuclear energy. And recently, humans have been investing in more sustainable energy conversions such as solar and wind. What if we were to view leadership as a flow of energy, too? Could there be a useful relationship to help us in making the most of our own potential?

The Leadership Energy Journey is a pathway that overlays the scientific concepts of energy onto the art of leadership. It guides leaders to navigate their flow of energy to create the most useful output and sustain its longevity. The journey is made up of 8 key mileposts:

The journey and these mileposts follow, literally, the natural process of how energy converts. It is the same overarching process that we would go about designing a battery or building a dam. A tree growing in the forest channels its energy through the same route. Chemical reactions in our body help us to extract energy from food in this similar manner.

The laws of energy have been proven to be universal to all things on earth. Thus, the Leadership Energy Journey is not simply an artificial collection of items leaders should do. It is the governing path that science has uncovered for years regarding how energy flows.

Allow me to give a broad understanding of these mileposts. For those with an appetite for practicality and action items, I also highlight the corresponding Executive Education courses of Iclif@ASB where you can build your respective skillsets for that step of the journey.

Milepost 1Start Now! discusses the fundamental nature of our brain – It is lazy. The brain is an organ that evolves to fill certain roles for the body, much like the heart, the lungs, the legs, etc. Its mandate is to keep the body alive. The brain’s functions, however, consume energy at a furious rate – approximately 20% of the total.

As such, its default mode is to conserve as much energy as possible in case a tiger, or a boss, walks by. Unfortunately, this also means that biologically speaking, the brain keeps us in ‘auto pilot’ mode whenever possible, which leads to complacency, hubris, and confirmation-bias, among other symptoms. This first step serves as an importance reminder that leadership is a choice.

Leaders need to be proactive about shifting the world, or at least their environment, towards a better future. Stories of popcorns, plane crashes, and failed business changes demonstrate the neuroscience of our comfort zone in the program Brain-BASEd Leadership: The Neuroscience of Personal and Organizational Agility.

Milepost 2Discover Who You Are discusses the meaning of leadership ‘potential’. In science, the term potential refers to a ‘difference’ of states. The apple that hung high on its branch had more potential than after it had fallen on Newton’s head. A raised hammer has more potential than one that sits on the floor thus it could be used to drive the nail. Hydrogen and oxygen have higher potentials so when water forms heat is given off.

The ability for energy to do useful work arises from the dissipation of such potential. Similarly, to build up our leadership potential we need to create a difference of states. Leaders do this by driving apart the ‘present’ and the ‘future’. The greater the gap between how one perceives the current world and the future possibilities, the greater one’s leadership potential.

This step stretches our integrative thinking between art and science. The linkage between leadership energy and one’s values & purpose was described at length in Iclif’s previous two books Too Many Bosses Too Few Leaders (2013) and Open Source Leadership (2017) by Rajeev Peshawaria. Leaders are encouraged to introspect, visualize, and even verbalize their two states. The program Leading Self and Others offers support to facilitate this uphill climb part of the journey.

Milepost 3Cross the Activation Barrier introduces the concept of the ‘activation barrier’. This is a rather interesting phenomenon that basically says: it takes energy to release energy. All changes in life require an input of energy to unleash. Newton’s apple needed a gust of wind to push it off the stem before it could accelerate towards the ground. A gun needs its trigger squeezed before the bullet can fly out of the barrel.

Even lighting a fire requires the striking of a match to get the initial spark going. In leadership, we see similar observations. All changes are faced with resistance, and all leaders must persevere over these activation barriers before a chain reaction of productive output can be generated. Unfortunately, many fail to lead because they give up before the floodgates can be opened.

This step is about helping leaders to release their leadership energy. Being able to reframe challenges as not resistance but rather an opening of a gate is already a helpful mental model for aspiring leaders. Our Emerging Leaders immersion program can be a great catalyst (an agency that helps lower the activation barrier) for developing leaders to overcome this barrier.

The 3.5-day residential program also allows participants to build their leadership resonance (having others to reinforce your potential) and leadership fusion (a process of unleashing the power within).

Milepost 4Feel the Energy Flow describes the first downhill portion of the journey. When the built-up potential is released, energy transfers. Think of a dam that lets go of its water; you see the earth-shattering power that is set free. Once we have clarified our values, found our purpose, and overcome our activation barrier; the released energy will make us feel energized, unburdened, and free.

When your leadership potential is triggered, the released energy may literally overwhelm your physical capability. Have you ever experienced a blast of ideas and were frustrated by your fingers not keeping up? Or have you ever been so determined to make a point that your mouth couldn’t form words fast enough? These are situations when your energy is being released at a furious rate; analogous to the dam breaking.

This step focuses on leaders recognizing and controlling the freedom that comes with this release of energy. The program Managing by Freedom Within the Framework addresses this core question: How much freedom is productive? Can you give your people freedom while avoiding unnecessary risks?

When might you be operating outside the safe zone? This course introduces the leadership tools necessary for allowing an appropriate degree of freedom. The content is especially useful when managing younger leaders who are generally very driven by their sense of autonomy, passion, and energy.

Milepost 5Channel Towards Usefulness is when leadership skills begin a transition towards management skills. Energy itself is value-neutral and having it doesn’t always equate to being productive. Have you ever seen energy spent on tasks that are not useful? For example, when office gossip is so tempting you’re your people are unable to pull themselves away to finish that (much more important) marketing plan.

Or giving the first impulsive answer that comes to mind when an unexpected problem arises, only to regret it later. Or even filling our lives with urgent tasks while postponing less time-critical yet supremely more important matters such as family and health. Or avoiding a personal confrontation, even knowing that delaying this will have a negative impact on the team.

The root of each of these situations is the same – it reflects on how well individuals channel their energy.  As a leader, you don’t just manage your own energy; you are also responsible for managing the energy of each member of your team. This step is where much of the people management capabilities are discussed. Managing PerformanceStrategic MindsetCatalytic Conversations, and our Coaching are some of the skills in which leaders must be well-versed to help their team to achieve its goals. 

Managing Performance addresses managerial components that enable people to perform well. Strategic Mindset builds the ability to envision a desired future and to plan towards it. Catalytic Conversations keep people focused on what matters with accountability. And Coaching empowers your team members with the capability to take charge of their own destiny.

  1. Milepost 6Celebrate Success is about cherishing our accomplishments. On the Leadership Energy Journey, there are two ‘viewpoints’ where you should feel joyful:
    at the end of Milepost 2 when you have discovered who you are through achieving clarity on your values and purpose; and
  2. here at Milepost 6 where your work and efforts are paying off. At these two stops, you should feel a different sense of pride – the first from an internal realization that you have uncovered your core, and the second from recognizing your leadership output. As a leader, you must make sure your team members feel that sense of celebration, too.

A program that is useful to reiterate this step is Innovating Inside-Out: Becoming the 1%. Nothing provides a sense of accomplishment like being able to create something new that contributes to a better future. In the open source era, the barrier to innovation has been drastically lowered.

Everyone can be significantly better and faster at innovating. Appreciating how innovation has changed in the 21st Century, the Innovating Inside-Out session aims to challenge the outside-in organizational approach to innovation. Instead of looking externally for the next best ideas, this course ignites and grows the inner innovator DNA from within, and with it that intrinsic sense of pride.

Milepost 7Replenish the Energy discusses ways in which leaders can restore their leadership energy. In this fast-paced, high-demand world, many leaders are too busy with busi-ness. Exercise is a great way to replenish energy. Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School described a 17% performance increase when college students used the treadmill for 40 minutes before taking exams.

Moving around is good for thinking as more blood is supplied to the brain. Interestingly, humans in modern times make most important decisions sitting down. Sleeping is also another powerful technique to recharge. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that pilots have eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in between their eight-hour shifts. In 2011, new regulations for medical residents went into effect limiting work hours to ensure that doctors get enough sleep.

Eating breakfast, short meditation routines, mindfulness in the workplace, and stress management are more examples of practical actions being taken to help leaders restore their energy. When designing a leadership development for clients, we make sure to include components that allow the participants to replenish their leadership energy.

Sometimes it is a physical replenishment; like morning activities or mindfulness practices. Sometimes it is an affect replenishment; like being on a new adventure together with your friends. Even an intellectual replenishment helps to sharpen one’s saw; like attending our annual Leadership Energy Summit Asia where global speakers are brought together to stimulate your leadership energy.

Milepost 8What’s Next? is the last but perhaps the most important milepost. It reveals that the Leadership Energy Journey is not linear but rather a continuous loop. While that final summit is the better future, a leader can only try to progress as far as possible towards it – one goal at a time. Sustainability is about the relentless push to keep moving.

Take the life cycle of water: rain falls on the mountains; it collects into streams, rivers, then oceans; the water evaporates back into the air and condenses into rain and the process starts over. Or take a simplified life cycle of retail banks: money comes in via deposit; it is reinvested via loans to customers; projects generate profits that come back as more deposits and the loop propagates.

The leadership energy journey is the same; beyond the hill climbed there is the next one – hopefully each time becoming a little bit better. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who cannot wait for retirement and those who never retire. In this case, the latter have figured out how to sustain their leadership energy by recognizing the infinite loop, and learning how to ride its flow.

If you are interested in becoming one of these, or to learn where you are and how to overcome the current barriers, while figuring out what your next steps towards the future might be, you’ll want to be part of our Leadership Energy Journey: Deciphering Secrets of Long-Lasting Success at the next calendar event.

I hope to walk this very enlightening journey with you. Till then, stay safe and lead well.

Dr Thun Thamrongnawasawat (Tan) is one of the foremost experts on dissecting complex management and business models and cascading them for easy implementation by companies across different industries. His innovative B.A.S.E. model has inspired numerous organizations to transform.

He’s the author of the Brain-BASEd Leadership book series (2013-2016), a bestselling The Leadership Journey (2018) and a regular newspaper columnist. In 2015, Dr Thun was the recipient of World HRD Congress’s “Global Coaching Leadership Award” and named “Consultant of the Year” by the Ministry of Industry, Thailand. He can be contacted at thun@asb.edu.my.

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