How to be an unconventional leader

Conventional leadership models can be dysfunctional and unsustainable. Learn how to unleash your team’s potential through the ‘Yes-and’ technique.

by Jerald Lam Updated 27 Apr 2019


Conventional leadership models have limited effectiveness and leave us uninspired. We have 3 Reactive Tendencies — Complying, Controlling and Protecting. Unconventional leadership focuses on Creating rather than Reacting. We focus on Relating, Achieving and Presencing instead. Practicing ‘Yes-And’ is a great way to get started.

Conventional leadership models have limited effectiveness and leave us uninspired

Becoming a leader can be daunting for some. It conjures all sorts of mixed emotions — especially when we feel inadequate in our technical knowledge or our people skills.

Others have no such misgivings. They rise to the challenge. After all, they’ve proven themselves on the field as soldiers before. They’ve spent more time in the trenches than others. They’ve even had the privilege of being in a war room with some of their predecessors.

Regardless, leaders run into walls when they try to lead their teams for the first time. It’s completely normal. I’ve messed up a lot as a leader in the past. I still mess up today. I mess up despite having great leaders and mentors around me. I mess up because I often take the easy way out when it comes to leading others. I take the more conventional routes to leadership.

There are 3 Reactive Tendencies I observed in myself as a conventional leader — Complying, Controlling and Protecting. The language for these tendencies come from the folks at The Leadership Circle, whom I’ve had the privilege of learning from. Note that I’ve made some adaptations based on my own leadership practice or journey. Let’s jump into the 3 Reactive Tendencies now.

Reactive Tendency #1 — Complying with others’ wishes or instructions thoughtlessly

This often happens when I feel the need to please others. Really, who wants to be an unpopular leader? The tendency here is to ‘move towards’ people instead of growing a backbone. As differing voices get louder, I find it impossible to keep up with everybody’s wishes (… and I start to feel a little passive-aggressive).

Everyone just wants to tell me what they want. What about me? Who’s speaking up on my behalf!?”

Reactive Tendency #2 — Controlling the work by micromanaging or taking over completely

This often happens when I feel pressure to deliver results. Who wants to lead the team to failure? The tendency here is to ‘move against’ people when they seem to be ineffective. As work gets more complex, I find it impossible to keep up with the volume (… and I start to feel resentful of others on the team).

Nobody seems to be able to do the job. Why are they even on the team? I have to do everything myself or force people to up their game. I have no time for this.

Reactive Tendency #3 — Protecting myself by questioning the desired outcome and/or the methodology

This often happens when I feel the need to protect myself. Who wants to be blamed for taking the wrong approach (or solving the wrong problem)? The tendency here is to ‘move away’ from people when the likelihood of failure is high. As time goes by, I find it impossible to justify the lack of momentum or results from my team, especially when other leaders are able to make things work with the same group of people (… and I start to feel the hopelessness of my situation).

They’re focusing on the wrong things and doing things the wrong way. All this work is not going to go anywhere. Our team is doomed to fail.

Complying, Controlling and Protecting are Reactive Tendencies we’ve picked up from the days of our youth. Each of them are driven by a type of fear. Complying comes from the fear of rejection. Controlling comes from the fear of failure. Protecting comes from the fear of being blindsided. These tendencies have worked for us to a certain degree before, but they are inadequate, uninspiring and frankly a little exhausting in the long-run. But what can we do about it?

Leaders need ‘Creative Competencies’ to replace their ‘Reactive Tendencies’

Instead of reacting to our fears, we must tap into our creative potential. This shouldn’t surprise us. We are created in the image of the Creator. All of us are uniquely made and have power to create. To clarify, creativity is not limited to certain mediums (e.g., art, music, poetry). We can exercise our creativity in many ways (e.g., excel spreadsheets, family life, social impact). In the context of leadership, there are 3 Creative Competencies we can explore as the antidote to our Reactive Tendencies — Relating, Achieving and Presencing. These are all unconventional as their essence goes against what’s intuitive to us.

Creative competencies include relating, presencing and achieving. Reactive tendencies include complying, protecting and controlling.

Creative Competency #1 — Relating with others by speaking up in a genuine and thoughtful way

When we comply and go into ‘people-pleasing’ mode, we operate from a mask. The relationships we have are not genuine. People don’t know who we really are as we’ve become automatons with no creative impetus. On the inside, we’ve stopped caring enough to give voice to what must be said.

Relating to people requires us to speak up in a thoughtful way. It’s unconventional if you’re used to staying silent. What you have to say may be important for people to hear. Speaking up allows people to hear your concerns. It gives them a better idea of where you might need more support or understanding. With a common understanding, you’ll be able to create more as a team.

Creative Competency #2 — Achieving with others by unleashing their potential instead of empowering or disempowering them

When we micromanage others or take over, we limit the team from unleashing their potential. What we can deliver is limited. People cannot contribute what they have to offer because we’ve become lean-mean machines that ‘leave dead bodies on the road to success’. On the inside, we’ve stopped seeing the bigger picture on what we can achieve as a team.

Achieving with people requires us to look for people’s inherent strengths. It’s unconventional if you’re used to getting things done on your own or by ordering people around. What your team has to offer may be the key to creating a much better solution or outcome. Unleashing people’s intelligence and energy also reduces the burden on you in the long-run. It’s more sustainable and you’ll be able to achieve more as a team.

Creative Competency #3 — Presencing with others by being present to divine inspiration, shifting contexts, and your inner being

When we criticise or distance ourselves, we relegate ourselves to the realm of concepts, not truth. What we know is in theory. People cannot get going because we are unwilling to see reality — the reality about a situation or about who we are being in a given moment. On the inside, we’ve stopped paying attention to the bigger picture or what’s happening inside of us.

Presencing is about being ‘present’ and ‘sensing’ the divine unfolding of truth. This is unconventional if you’re used to thinking in concepts and frameworks. When we zoom out, we see divine orchestration at work. We see shifting contexts that we can leverage on (or be constrained by). When we zoom in, we see how we are getting in the way by being too fearful or by being too self-centred. Seeing things as they are allows you to work with reality to create what wants to come forth.

With these Creative Competencies established, we can now explore our first steps to making these shifts.

Practicing ‘Yes-And’ is a good first step to Relating, Achieving and Presencing

‘Yes-And’ is a beautiful philosophy. Instead of shunning complexity, we embrace it and extend it. We find points of agreement as we converse with others (‘Yes’) and we build on it by adding our perspectives (‘And’). Starting out on this philosophy is harder than you think. It’s easier to say ‘Yes-But’ (or it’s easier to not say anything at all).

What ‘Yes-And’ sounds like: Yes I agree that … and I also think/feel that …

‘Yes-And’ stops us from Complying because ‘And’ forces us to add our own perspectives and points-of-view. ‘Yes-And’ stops us from Controlling and Protecting because ‘Yes’ forces us to ask people for their opinions (so we can say yes to something) and it forces us to really listen so we can find points of agreement. Personally, I find myself enjoying teams more with this ‘Yes-And’ philosophy. I find myself delighting in the hidden gems that appear when people are given space to contribute.

With ‘Yes-And’, we can shift to Relating, Achieving and Presencing with others. I have much more to say about each of these Tendencies and Competencies but this post has gotten too long for my liking. For now, I invite you to ‘Yes-And’ what you’ve read so far. Let’s bounce some thoughts on how we can be better leaders for the sake of our teams.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Jerald Lam

Jerald Lam

Transformation designer

I'm passionate about raising the quantity and quality of human-centred leaders, teams and organisations.

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