The art of not seeking in leadership

by Christian Kurmann

As people go through life, they are surrounded by social mirrors that constantly compare them to others — academically and economically.


They build their security on the comparisons, robbing themselves of their true identity.  Many leaders feel that they are unsuccessful by external standards, so they are unhappy of heart.  They focus too much on impressing others and positioning themselves to climb the career ladder, rather than looking inward to measure their success both as a human and a leader. Leaders too often seek for more influence, more power and more position.  But continuous seeking implies that leaders are never connected within themselves, being out of touch with their surroundings and lacking orientation. Making organisations more innovative, responsive and responsible requires focusing on a number of leadership, power and influence issues.

Power is the basic energy that is needed to initiate and sustain action.  It is the opportunity to build, create and nudge history in a different direction.  To put it plainly, power is a relationship between people in which one person can get another person to do something that they would not otherwise have done.  Leaders can therefore use power to bring about the particular outcomes they desire.

Power is attractive because it confers the ability to influence decisions, about who gets what resources, what goals are pursued, what philosophy the organisation adopts, what actions are taken, who succeeds and who fails.  Power also gives a sense of control over outcomes, and may in fact convey such enhanced control.  Particularly as decision issues become more complex and outcomes become more uncertain, power becomes more attractive as a tool for reducing uncertainty within the company.

An important question is why do leaders want or need to be ambitious? Why do people feel that they need to succeed at all cost to be somebody? Leaders are preoccupied with power.


The important questions, however, are: 

Through what means do they go to gain it?
To what extent do they exercise it? 


Power and the ability to use it are essential to effective leadership. Strategic leaders who are uncomfortable with either the presence of great power in others or its use by themselves are probably going to fail their organisations at some point. The critical issue is why the leader seeks power and how it is used.  

Some see power as a tool to enhance their ability to facilitate the work of their organisations and groups. Others value power for its own sake, and exercise power for the personal satisfaction it brings. There can be good and bad in both cases. However, the leader who uses power in the service of his organisation is using power in the most constructive sense. The leader who seeks power for his own sake and for personal satisfaction will compromise his ethical position, risk his organisation's effectiveness, and perhaps even jeopardize the long-term viability of the organisation. Self-serving leaders are not as effective because their employees only obey them, not follow them. They succeed in many areas because they present a good image to their seniors – but at the expense of their workers.

An important question is whether leaders can afford NOT to seek? Good leaders are made and not born.  If you have the desire and willpower, you can become an effective leader. Good leadership entails developing through a never-ending process of self-study, education and training. If leaders want to inspire their workers into higher levels of teamwork, there are certain things they need to BE, DO and KNOW. Good leaders continuously need to work and study to improve their leadership skills.


It is followers, not leaders, who determine if a leader is successful. If employees do not trust their leader, they will also be uninspired. To be successful, leaders have to convince their followers, and not themselves or their superiors, that they are worthy of being followed.


Leaders must remember that their specific position as a manager, supervisor, etc. doesn’t give them the authority to accomplish certain tasks and objectives, as this power doesn’t make a ‘leader’. It merely makes a ‘boss’. True leadership differs in that it makes the followers WANT to achieve higher goals, rather than simply ordering people around. People want to be guided by leaders they respect and who have a clear sense of direction. This involves being ethical at all times. Good leadership is having an honourable character and providing selfless service to your organisation. In your employees' eyes, your leadership is everything you do that effects the organisation's objectives and their well-being.

As our lives are continuously bombarded with technology, we tend to become distracted very easily.  Our focusing abilities have decreased, but our need to think clearly and make complex decisions, has not. Therefore leaders need to train themselves to be fully present at all times. This new tendency in modern leadership is Mindful Leadership, characterised by an empty mind and a stilling of the persistent chatter around us. 

Leaders need to realise that an immediate action isn’t always required, even though they are provoked. They should rather perceive the needs of their employees and respond without exaggerating emotional content or possible intent. Leaders should be non-judgemental at all times. This doesn’t mean that they are surrendering their better judgement; rather that they make wiser judgements about what is really important. A mindful leader creates an emotional space where employees aren’t worried about being manipulated or controlled.

Leaders need to learn to manage their distractions by integrating their heads with their hearts.  Being mindful requires transformation. Being still and operating in the moment helps leaders to step out of their conditioned and learned behaviours. Mindfulness enables us to cultivate our intrinsic qualities of focus, awareness and compassion. This creates working environments built on trust and safety, where individuals have respect for each other’s cultures, styles, unique contributions and skills.

How do leaders find the perfect balance between their ambition and contentment? Most of them never do, because they are forced to be in a dissatisfied society both inside and outside of the organisation. Sometimes it seems that the most ambitious people rarely succeed at the things contented people succeed at. Ambition and contentment can both be in our lives, but they cannot share the same space. All people are born with the ability to be thankful. However, it is easy to be thankful for the things that please us. How do we count our blessings for things that irritate us? Mindful Leadership is about exploring and expanding our gratitude towards all of life’s challenges. 

Leaders have intrinsic capacities that can be trained to make them more resilient, compassionate, stronger and flexible. Through dedication and application, you can transform yourself, your organisation and your community. Contentment is not the opposite of ambition.  It does not mean surrendering to the status quo. Rather, it is gratitude and appreciation that rejuvenates the desire and will to do more and inspire others to follow. In that sense, contentment is never an end point.

Christian Kurmann