The Path To Mastery In Leadership: What It Is And How To Develop It

Pathum Thani – March 25, 2018: Gardener watering chrysanthemum plants in high summer


Do you ever wonder why leaders have such a varying level of accomplishment and followership over time?

I did for years and thought I had the perfect answer, too. I thought it was a matter of hard work. My thinking was ‘if only I work harder, deepen my skills and run faster than everyone else, with the combination of my cognitive capacity and work ethic, I can reach a level of mastery that offers success and influence in no time’. I believed in that and acted towards it for years until one morning I woke up and discovered I no longer wanted to walk, let alone to run…

The truth is none of my advisers – not during my education years, nor during my career – had ever talked to me about the path to mastery. How leadership is more of a roadmap towards mastering self, evolving your influence over others and growing your ability to shape future reality nor about the fact that path requires not intensity, rather an enjoyment of the journey.

The importance of mastery for organizations has certainly become more of attention with the context around knowledge-based economies now yet, remains a skewed definition.

To take a step back… The knowledge-based economy is often characterized by rapid expansion of knowledge and intensive technologies resulting in increase of market share. Our work in leadership and organization development consulting would qualify as a knowledge economy, for example, or doing research, providing technical support, design thinking, etc. Though the recognized ideology ‘Scientia potentia’ or commonly referred to as “knowledge is power” from the 17th century has materialized into the late 2000s, I trust it would be fair to say we are collectively discovering knowledge alone is not that powerful after all. Specifically, we are finding out people with the necessary knowledge and skills for a particular influencer role can serve others – individuals, organizations and communities, just as terribly.

Don’t get me wrong, developing mastery in its current definition is an equally vital part of any organization’s success. Without an argument, there’s a whole range of technical skills and competencies people need to develop in order to achieve the strategic business objectives; however, when we consider mastery only as in technical skills, we leave a crucial part of leadership experience missing.

What’s mastery?

Mastery is surely related to a sense of competence and skill, but it is also related to the wisdom of truth. It is about knowing and acting with the trust that a challenge calls for effort and learning, and that struggle is part of the journey. It is about the recognition that being good at something or to be able to perform well in a job alone is not sufficient to drive the necessary moral impact and/or influence.

In scientific terms, a masterful ‘being’ holds three facets:

  • A seeking to increase competence, understanding, or skill in ways that promote attainment of challenging and valued goals over the long term,
  • A relishing of challenge and willingness to display ignorance in order to acquire skills, knowledge, or experience,
  • An orientation toward growth and development of any capacity over time through focus and sustained effort.

In other words, if knowledge can be considered as the full utilization of information and data related to the potential of one’s ideas, intuitions, habits, skills and commitments, mastery can be considered as the transcendence of and with that information. Mastery embodies enlightenment and calls for being ‘one’ with the multiple realities and finding joy along the way.

What do I mean?

Imagine yourself a gardener, attending a garden. The act of gardening amongst many flowers and plants requires both an understanding of what each one needs at a technical level and consistent practice of nurturing. It is a generative piece of work and equally hard to pursue. When you are a gardener, you plan, you design, you plant. You seed, you water, you provide light. You struggle, you make mistakes, you change the tactics knowing that the results will be worthwhile. And in doing so, you enjoy the journey.

Recognize between the attended garden and the gardener, there is transcendence happening moment by moment. The gardener transmutes not only their knowledge and skills; s/he also forms and reforms intention depending on reality one is presented with.

Indeed, the best piece of art forms when the gardener becomes united with the garden. That’s when the gardener wakes up one day and realizes the garden has become beautiful as a reflection of who they have become…

The path to mastery in leadership is the same… In that, while you are designing and working towards an end result with and through others, the process transforms who you are. The leader plans, divides, delegates work, coaches, connects and guides progress. At the same time, the leader is challenged to remain true to self and to the vision s/he intends to drive while developing self through their reflection of others. The leader changes shape, color and quality by day and finds out eventually that the work itself has grown (consciously and unconsciously) on the mind, body and heart. Then, one day the leader finds people are drawn to them without any effort.

This kind of mastery requires endurance, dedicated time and continuous effort. It takes hundreds and thousands of repetitions, trial and errors. In his research on what Dr. K. Anders Ericsson says it takes “10,000 hours” to develop this sort of expertise.

Yet, hours alone are not enough as the development of mastery also demands the right kind of focus. A focused mind is a hard one to achieve. Mental focus – psychologically speaking – requires going with the flow, living in presence and taking mindful intervals for reflection. Being able to say a present ‘no’, avoiding the myth of multi-tasking, valuing process, measuring results is key.

In my mind, feedback is the most perfect tool for leaders to stay connected and focused. As feedback makes it possible for us to benchmark our progress and make the necessary adjustments to improve for the better, I find it immensely helpful in increasing focus and concentration. I do think this is why we witness many leaders – only after halfway maturing into their journey – panic and quickly take up a coach. Once one realizes the connection between feedback and ability to grow productivity through increased focus, one wants to discover a safe and reliable harbor to project back their progress.

Recognize people at the level of mastery don’t compete with others anymore, instead, they care to provide an inspirational state of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ for others. They are often light-years ahead of the crowd and without much effort end up setting the context for the future.

Through our research with Stanford University’s CCARE, we have been able to validate this is how mastery serves as a tool for rejuvenation. Inside the environments, where leaders exercise mastery, they become a true source of light in many aspects and through their continued transcendence, the inspiration for growth and learning becomes a way of living.

On the contrary, where mastery is lacking, we find mediocracy takes over.

Mediocracy, for those unfamiliar, can be defined as having only a modest commitment to contemporary values and practices of a broader community and it is shown to have a strong negative impact on productivity and trust. For example, in this study, based on a national survey of senior managers in city governments with populations over 50,000, it is reported that in about 41% of jurisdictions most managers have only a mediocre commitment to public practices.

Why don’t we care more about mastery?

There are a number of reasons why we don’t care about mastery.

At an individual level, our incapacity for hosting various emotions, our pull for perfectionism and success projection tend to get in the way of our adaptability and learning.

Research has long linked feelings of shame and guilt to perfectionism, which is often demonstrated in behaviors considered as maladaptive. For example, when asked in a meeting on a topic one doesn’t have an answer for, a shame-free leader may say “I don’t have an answer for this right now; let’s find out together.” Instead, a shame-prone leader may not say anything or worse, make up an answer and think “I don’t have an answer, I am stupid!”

At an organizational level, there are also a number of reasons. For one, we don’t understand mastery motivation formation as a psychological force and how it stimulates an individual to attempt and learn independently in a focused and consistent manner.

The work that has been made most popular around this is with the awareness of Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets – she began studying children and looking at how they responded to challenges in learning. What she found, in a nutshell, is that when oriented toward mastery instead of simply good performance, children relished a challenge and drew value from having to expend effort. But when oriented toward simply performing well children who met a challenge and felt they weren’t performing up to par simply gave up and decided they were not good at that domain of learning.

In leadership, this orientation toward mastery as the grace of taking on the challenge is a huge part of creativity and handling risks and failures that come with tackling big goals.  Mastery makes it possible for us to take joy in the work we must do, even when we think we are really not good at it yet!

Similarly, we lack an understanding of the development of brain architecture inside organizations, which really provides the foundation for not only our learning and behavior, also for our wellbeing. We need to not only comprehend the architecture of brain construction through an ongoing process of exposure, but we also need to grow an understanding of adult learning patterns and how it differs from that of a child. As the interaction and experiences shape our developing brain, our cognitive, emotional, social capacities as well as the environments we become exposed to become a part of our development. Therefore, we need to reconsider our learning and development methods.

Our promotion philosophies are another factor impacting our progression towards mastery. The system often assumes when a person has been “taught” how to do something or through the competence they have worked with, they must have become ready for an expanded role or responsibility. For this, we decide to take people from their individual roles and promote them straight into leadership, completely overlooking steps necessary to truly grow somebody ready.

To make it more explicit, consider, for example, how when we start a job, we first become able, meaning we can follow a task to an end. Then, we start to perform a family of tasks over time, growing capability. As our intuition develops, we become truly competent. When we are competent, we grow the capacity to do more and find space available for us to help others. This is when we become an actual contributor to the broader team. That’s at minimum three steps already… Then, when we become a contributor, others start seeking us for ideas, opinions and we become able to see multitudes across teams/divisions. Doing so, we start adding differentiated value to the whole of our team(s) by connecting the dots or connecting individuals across. From here, and only if we care equally about growing our own personal insight, we become an influencer over time and ready to lead others.

In my experience, only a few organizations consider such developmental path to impact and to influence before promoting people into leadership roles.

How do we develop mastery? 

Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. This requires us to let go of our ego, let go of previous learnings and grow humility to pursue new ways of projecting light. The one thing masters always say increase with their gain of knowledge and transcendence is the reality of how little they know and how little they have control over. Think about that!

Real mastery requires us to become lifelong learners and coaches, facilitators for someone’s journey.

Organizations learn when individuals love the process. The better we focus on the process and stay connected to reality, the better we develop consistent and effective patterns. It is too tempting to cut the branch that’s not blossoming to make the garden look perfect and that’s where most of us fail – we become fixated on the end goal.

Real mastery lies in knowing the right pattern to use in a given situation and adjust our way of nurturing as necessary.

Organizations learn when individuals develop habits. Breakthroughs come not through a single attempt, rather through repetitive patterns of connections. An expert in art, science, music or anything really is rarely viewed as an expert because s/he can deliver a conceptual end; masters are that because they have a habit of attainment.

Real mastery requires us to become aware of the latent power and grow trust in our collective ability to overcome hurdles.

Because our environments are not “caught up” at the moment to the extent and depth of these attributes, we will need to be both leader and a follower of our individual and collective transformational journeys at the same time for some time.

Our self-journeys will lead toward individual transcendence, which will ignite and/or contribute to an organizational transformation in time.

Now, imagine you are a gardener and go look at your team one more time with your glasses of mastery…


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