Tripping Over Leadership

CEOs’ Tripping Over ‘Leadership’

There is a huge opportunity for success and for us to contribute back into society and business through developing our awareness of nominalisations.

Nominalisations are when we talk about a verb, process or an action as if it is a noun, as if it is an object or a ‘thing’. For example, ‘relationship’. In reality relationship is not something that you can hold, touch, see or a thing you have. Instead we relate as a process.

There are many nominalisations in society, business, and our individual lives that can and do trip us up! I refer to not knowing of the effects of nominalisations on our society, success and in ourselves as a ‘blind spot’. Blind spots are the parts of our ‘maps of the world’ and the ‘map of ourselves’ that we don’t know about yet!

Even at the lofty top of CEO and Leadership, people have blind spots and are still falling over the trip-wire of nominalisations. This time it is the term leadership.

To share some insight, I have gained permission from three of the leaders I am currently coaching, to share their ‘first’ definitions of leadership. Two of these CEOs’ are in Australia and one in the USA. To set the scene, these conversational extracts are from our first session meetings. All three of these leaders are leading over five thousand employees.

Client One – Bob

Coach: So, Bob thanks for giving me such an in-depth outline of the organisation and the people you lead. So I can identify a benchmark of where we are, would you mind sharing your definition or understanding of ‘leadership’?

Bob: Sure, leadership is being the light at the top of the hill, not the lantern… the light…

Coach: Okay, thanks, how does someone know when you are applying your leadership skills Bob?

Bob: It’s bright, very bright…

Client Two – Craig

Coach: Craig, so as I can identify a benchmark of where we are in the leadership coaching process, would you mind sharing your definition or understanding of leadership?

Craig:…(long pause) of course not, do you know how your nails grow?

Coach: Not consciously Craig, no!

Craig: That is how leadership is, if you are born with it, you just have it, if you are not, you don’t, and it’s that simple! Believe me I know!

Client Three – Matthew

Coach: Matthew, just so I can get a grip on your being and doing of leadership, would you mind sharing with me your definition of leadership?
Matthew: Leadership does not exist…

Coach: Great!

Matthew: Leadership is simply management with more POWER!

Coach: Oh… let’s start then shall we?

Talk about tripping over nominalisations! People have fallen so hard from what they held in their believing; that leadership was immeasurable, a thing, that they could happily give their questionable definitions and that would be enough.

During the continuing coaching, we explored what leading could also be. This was the catalyst for their ‘getting back up’ as they were starting to see through the nominalisations of leadership, and that as processes of leading, they are visible to their staff/ stakeholders! Now they were breaking through their blind spot.

From the perspective of any ability, there are governing principles and contextual rules that enable one to develop competency and mastery in a given area. Can you imagine trying to effectively lead thousands or even five people through accepting nominalisations as guides?

When people come for leadership coaching, they know that they are curious about leadership and leadership coaching, but are often unsure why! In reality, what they want is to get asked the questions and receive the feedback that they do not get from within their organisation because of their power position.

There is often mist surrounding their understanding and application of leadership. This most often turns out to be because of… you guessed it, nominalisations. In general though, they come to discover the being and doing of effective leadership. To actualise their fullest potentials, and at some level, they know that their own staff are feeding them many nominalisations, and they want to be able to effectively challenge these.

Blind spots are blind spots, we cannot know what we do not know, this is one of the most valuable contributions coaching can provide in coaching leaders; the opportunity to develop greater awareness. Of course, there are many perspectives on what leadership is. Some of the more useful distinctions floating about name it in single words, such as “leadership is relationship” or “leadership is vision”.

Although these may be useful, it is in experience, leaders and future leaders benefit from realising that leadership doesn’t exist as a thing. Leadership is many processes that can be witnessed and measured. Not unlike to the early scientists who were bamboozled by the opinion that ‘heat’ was a thing.

It only took them 200 years to realise that heat is a process of a thermodynamic phenomenon. Let’s not wait that long this time to see through such potentially inhibiting nominalisations as leadership, relationship, communication etc.

In aid of this I have set out a simple perspective of leading. Pulled it together from reading, research and application in a coaching context, which leaders say is helping them up off the floor, past their blind spots and back pioneering toward their visions.

The vehicle that delivers effective leadership has four definite wheels. As with most vehicles, if a functional wheel or two is missing you are not going to get far. This is also true for leading.

Four Wheels of Leading (Leadership)

1. Leadership is RELATING, the process of relating to others. What are the processes of relating? How do you relate in mutually worthwhile ways? Where in your life could you benefit from realising the nominalisation of relationship?

2. Leadership is INFLUENCING, the process of evoking hearts and inspiring minds of others to follow you. What are the processes of influencing? What form of influencing are you most comfortable with? Is there more than one type of influence? How would trying alternative types of influence help you succeed as a leader?

3. Leadership is DEVELOPING OTHERS, increasing the extent of your influence. How do you develop others? Are you developing others? In general most people perform from a ‘what’s in it for me’ frame of mind. If you want to develop leadership, you need to develop followers. Do you care enough to want to develop others?

4. Leadership is FOLLOWING, shown in being able to follow those whom you have empowered to lead. Following others takes a strong sense of self-identity, to follow others that are now the leaders and experts in a role. Following is serving the ‘whole’. Who are you following? Are you ready to serve?
Leading is several processes, verbs like a loop of a wheel going round, one supporting the other (fig 1)

Finally, a Leader has to walk his or her talk. As we can now see, often overlooked, leaders must first get their talk right so as they can get their walk right.


What can you do to make a difference in your life, the life of another or to help society become more aware of the nominalisations that they are assuming as real?

What other nominalisations exist in the world of our language that trip us up?

To your de-nominalising success!

Joseph W. Scott Managing partner @ TheCoachingRoom Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia.

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