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What do onions have to do with leadership? It is a metaphor that can help you understand yourself, the leader you are, and the leader you wish to become. Think of the qualities and characteristics of an onion. The main characteristics of the onion are its layers, strong and undeniable aroma, and striking taste that enhances the flavor of other foods. In most cases, the onion is commonly used to spice up the main course.

The Layered Self

Like an onion, there are "layers" of the self. The layers, in the form of your disposition, values, and resultant leadership "skin," give shape and substance to you as a leader. Each layer can and must be clearly understood before you can "transform" your leadership character.

A journey of self-understanding begins at the inner layers, and then moves outward to the layer of observable leader behaviors. Your leader behaviors rest on the often less visible and less examined inner layers of self, which are formed through the self's evolutionary interaction with your life's events. The development and expansion of your leadership character will come from understanding each important layer.

The Leadership Onion

The self consists of multiple layers, from complex inner layers to more simple outer layers. The layers of importance are: (1) the core unconscious self, (2) the dispositional layer, (3) the values layer, (4) the persona, and (5) the leadership skin. Figure 1.1 depicts the multilayered self within the metaphor of the leadership onion.

The dispositional layer is divided into wired and acquired preferences. The values layer is made up of various programmed and developed values. The values and dispositional layers combine to form a values/dispositional layer, a persona, which also shapes your leadership behavior over time. The persona is the self you want to present to others, while the leadership skin is the outward behavior others can observe. More definition and specificity about these layers will be added in subsequent pages. At this point, however, familiarize yourself with the names and sequence of the layers, and then read on.

Figure 1.1Figure 1.1 The leadership onion.

For example, your value base--what you believe, what you perceive as valuable, what business you are in as a human being--is central to your approach to leadership. The vision you hold for yourself and others stems from the important values layer you bring to the "moments of management." The values layer is your unique essence, which gives form to your "leader" self. This layer is not only form giving, but because it is between other layers, it also gives strength and substance to the layers above and below it. Your values layer is independently linked to your dispositional layer--another dimension of the leadership onion.

Peeling the Onion

Besides its multiple layers, a second characteristic of an onion is the unique aroma it releases when its core is exposed. Anyone who cuts into an onion knows the discomfort to eyes and nose. There can be a similar discomfort when peeling back the layers of self.

Kierkegaard, the Scandinavian philosopher, wrote that life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.14 The process of peeling the onion requires you to constantly grow through introspection and reflection. Peeling the onion requires a loving tolerance for who you are and who you are not. It requires a humble acceptance of your strengths and, more important for growth, a patient acknowledgment of your weaknesses.

A loving tolerance of self implies a creative tension in life. It is a condition of pleasurable tension in which you are moving toward something better, while also cherishing the past. Peeling the onion fosters the duality of being and becoming. It requires a change in thought and action, while building on what is.

Peeling the onion implies that you are accountable for your own development. You must assume responsibility for your own experiences and must possess the courage to recognize both your glorious functionality and the adaptive potential of your dysfunction. Peeling the onion requires you to have the courage to intentionally move away from your existing comfort zones, confront your not-so-successful self, and, in reflective tolerance, face the harsh realities of self-change.

The Challenge of Discomfort

Often, discomfort comes from loss of control or predictability. When you use unfamiliar behaviors, you dislike the feeling of incapacity, never mind the less-than-perfect results. As an experiment, write your full name on a piece of paper. Now, using your other hand, write your full name again. How did you feel during this experience? What was your reaction? Did you like the results of your efforts with the alternate hand? Did you feel as powerful the second time you wrote your name as the first time? Most people report that they would not want to do this too often. People typically respond by saying they feel like a child in school, waiting for the teacher to correct their efforts. Some say they don't like their efforts with the opposite hand and need more time to practice.

We asked you to try this exercise because it effectively demonstrates the mental work that must be done to change an outward behavior. It allows you to touch the mental aspects you and others may bring to a behavioral change. Change is not only based in practicality and logic, but in personal emotion, security, and self-concept. Peeling the onion requires that you become more comfortable in creating the self that you want to become.

Attaining comfort and effectiveness with infrequently used behaviors is an anticipated outcome of this book. You must understand why you depend on certain patterns of behavior and why you avoid others that you could use to become a more effective leader. This journey will require courage and persistence. It will take courage to make mistakes, and to feel and be vulnerable as you lead others. It will take persistence to reinvent yourself in the presence of others' judgments.

Flavoring the Stew

Unless you are in the habit of making a meal out of a platter of onion rings, you most likely use onions to spice up or add flavor to other foods. Usually, you use moderate-to-small amounts of onions in your meals. So it is with leadership. Leadership in organizations is not the main course. The main course of organizational life is the organization's purpose and those who accomplish that purpose. Leadership ultimately provides a service, much as the onion does to the stew. Leadership "allows" the way for the main body of people to accomplish the purpose.

Most of us find that eating onions by themselves is difficult. A serious problem with most books on the topic of leadership is the separation of the analysis of leader behaviors from the analysis of followership. Those books are all onions and no stew! There can be no leadership without "followership," and that is why, in this book, you will always find a discussion of leader behaviors in light of follower needs. You will also find an in-depth discussion regarding followers' perceptions of leaders with specific points of view or dispositions. The chapters in this book are focused more on the examination of leadership than they are on followership. But do not, for one instant, think that leadership is the whole stew.

A noteworthy, telltale sign of the off-kilter, monarch-like emphasis on today's corporate leadership is found in an examination of executive salaries. New York Federal Reserve Bank President William McDonough cites a recent study showing that during the past 20 years, the average CEO's compensation has grown from 42 times that of the average production worker to more than 400 times as much. That translates to an average CEO salary of $10 million a year versus $25,467 for the average worker.15 In fact, you may be chagrined to note that executives get millions just to retire.16 Someone must think the leader is the whole stew.

Too many individuals believe that to lead means to take charge, provide the energy, motivate, be responsible for, and control, rather than to attribute meaning to an already energetic, motives-driven workforce that seeks satisfaction through their work and enriched responsibility. Not enough potential or existing leaders see themselves in the service of those who follow. The mind-set of a servant-leader means others' needs must come before yours. It means serving their hopes and dreams.

It is as if many business leaders see only themselves and act as if the organization is an extension of their own self-purpose. Events and people become the instruments of their desires, reality, and being, instead of promoting common purpose and common values that lead to a meaningful reality for them and others.

The Michelangelo View

Many executives lack a highly developed perspective of leadership. Their egocentricity puts them, alone, in the center and they are compelled to show the way. When Michelangelo talked about the creation of the "David" and many other sculptures, he was fond of saying that the figure was already there. All he did was uncover it by knowing what to chip away. This is what we mean by a highly developed leadership perspective. You are uncovering, visioning, and verbalizing what is already present in others.

You can only do this by using yourself as a source of learning. Understanding what is in your heart allows you to understand what is in the hearts and minds of others. It is the perspective of wholeness--which starts with self-knowledge--that allows a leader to envision beyond self and uncover what is in others.

Most people can behave in ways that will make them much more effective as leaders. They are capable of growing by using a wider range of behaviors than they are currently using. Growth is about doing the "self" work necessary to become a better leader. You can benefit by discovering and applying certain less used aspects of yourself to become more effective. To grow is to change your realities and, therefore, yourself. To grow, you must connect to those lost parts of yourself that extend your range of humanness to help and serve yourself and others. You must examine how you now behave as a leader and understand what future behaviors might be possible within you.

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