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Cognitive leadership skills


Published: 13 Apr 2018 Updated: 15 Dec 2022 Update History

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What happens to people in finance when they learn to channel their cognitive skills in leadership? You end up with what John Knights calls ‘transpersonal leaders’

Whether your goal is to be the chief executive of a major corporation, the chief financial officer of an entrepreneurial business or you are happy to let your career emerge, every chartered accountant can benefit from becoming a better leader. We are all born with certain innate abilities, the combination of which is personal to us, but we can build on our strengths and improve weaker areas by learning to take control of rewiring our own brains.

That might sound mind blowing, but rewiring of our neural circuits happens every minute of every day. It’s just that much of the time we are not in control of it. We tend to react to our environment and our experiences rather than pro-actively helping our neural cell structures reconfigure in a way that is most positive for our lives and our future.

For example, when we learn to swim, play tennis or learn a foreign language we receive instruction, trying to reach our potential. We rewire our brains all the time.

The same cannot be said of leadership. Most leadership training is limited to business skills and strategic leadership with the emphasis on what we need to do rather than how we need to do it. Often when I ask people what the greatest thing was about a previous leadership course they attended, they will say networking – which is very important but is not the main purpose of the training.

In addition, the requirements to become a very good (let alone excellent) leader in the 21st century have fundamentally changed over the past 20 years. Traditionally, self-confidence, assertiveness, influence and achievement came to mind when we thought of leadership characteristics. These are still important, but unless the individual has developed the right behaviours and has appropriate core values to go along with them, their characteristics easily become arrogance, aggression, manipulation, ruthlessness and obsession with control.

In the past, leaders could get away with these regressive characteristics. Although they are still seen today, tomorrow’s followers will resist them more strongly. Various studies show that millennials and generation Z demonstrate “fairness, ethical behaviour and ability to make a difference” ahead of career opportunity as such, so are not motivated to put up with the bad behaviour of such leaders.

As business leaders ourselves who have worked with chief executives for close to two decades, we have developed a leadership journey. Leaders develop at three levels, which are neither linear nor sequential and may develop in parallel.

The three levels

The first level, which we refer to as the ‘launch’, is development using our rational brain, which includes learning business skills and processes and strategic leadership. We call this the first level because it is the easiest for anyone with a reasonable IQ to learn, and we have been taught to think rationally all our lives, so we have had lots of practice. It is basically what we learn at business school or during training to become an accountant.

And while this is an essential step in becoming a good leader, by itself it is not sufficient. We refer to this stage using the acronym REAL – rational, ego-based, as usual leadership – as individuals are still leading based on their default instincts and individual ambitions.

The second level, ‘intermediate’, is about increasing our awareness – especially awareness of our emotions and the emotions of others. Increasing our awareness allows us to be more comfortable with who we are. In turn, this enables us to demonstrate more empathy and to be more considerate of others. In essence it helps us behave in a way that will engage others, help them to stay or become motivated and as a result improve performance. Using the acronym REAL again, we refer to the completion of this intermediate level as robust emotionally aware leadership.

The intermediate level is not easy. For example, as an engineer it took me years to develop my empathy to a reasonable level. It required me not only to listen attentively, but also to understand what was behind people’s views and keep an open mind to genuine change. I had to learn to let people know I was listening and understood them, which our research has shown is the most common developmental need of leaders. We each have our own individual development needs so for you it might be the need to develop your initiative, how you help to develop the people around you, controlling your emotions, focusing more on achievement or being inspirational. Whatever they are, you will need to learn how to make those behavioural changes.

The third level, referred to as ‘advanced’, requires us to bring our values to full consciousness so that everything we do is ethical, and we manage our ego so that we are in the service of others rather than just ourselves. As a leader of an organisation, this means working for the benefit of all its stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, the community, the planet and so on. Using REAL again, these leaders are radical, ethical, authentic leaders. This requires, among other values, courage, humility and integrity.

For some, the intermediate level is the most difficult to achieve, but it is essential because without learning the right behaviours there is no chance that values can turn into action. We have noted that many leaders who are both intellectual and have good basic values are let down by their poor behaviours. I recall the CEO of a major insurance company who was very keen to run a leadership programme for his senior staff and wanted it to result in a better attitude towards customers and the community. But when he spoke to the HR director it was as if he was speaking to a servant.

The advanced journey of bringing our values to full consciousness also requires a concerted effort. It is so easy to just get on with the day job and make decisions that are focused on short-term commercial benefits. We need to develop the courage and resilience to check every decision against whether it upholds our personal core values. Of course, as imperfect humans we never reach the final destination of this leadership journey. But as long as we know the direction we can always work on improving ourselves. We call these leaders ‘transpersonal leaders’ who operate beyond their ego, continue personal development and are radical, ethical and authentic, while emotionally intelligent and caring.

To help you operate as a transpersonal leader, we suggest everyone develops a personal touchstone with which to check both core values and transpersonal qualities to ensure you are making the right transpersonal decisions. In the example ('Example Touchstone'), I have included what I consider to be important core values.

So what values will you have in your personal touchstone? Prepare your own and then try consulting it when you next have a difficult decision to make.

Example touchstone

Example touchstone
About the author

John Knights, chairman, LeaderShape Global and lead author of 'Leading Beyond the Ego'

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  • Update History
    13 Apr 2018 (12: 00 AM BST)
    First published
    15 Dec 2022 (12: 00 AM GMT)
    Page updated with Further reading section, adding further resources on transpersonal leadership and developing your leadership values. These new articles provide fresh insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2018 has not undergone any review or updates.