Thrive in a Hyper-Connected World
Leadership is shifting as we grapple with technology changes, shifting market realities, new business models, and unpredictable outside forces. Tom Goodell, in The Four Fields of Leadership: How People and Organizations Can Thrive in a Hyper-Connected World, studies various disparate fields and challenges existing models of leadership to provide a new framework for leadership thinking.
Tom has over three decades of experience as a leadership and organizational culture consultant. I reached out to him to talk about his work. I particularly enjoyed his focus on leadership starting with self, then relationship, team, and enterprise. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
How do you see leadership changing in the midst of the hyperconnected, digital world we are now in?
The old view of leadership was that leaders were in charge of everything and told people what to do. They might delegate duties among employees, but then they would just be delegating to someone else who would tell people what to do. That may work in a predictable world; you can say, ‘If we do this, then that will happen.’ And it works pretty well in a repeatable world, where you’re doing more or less the same things over and over again. In that kind of world most people work more or less independently of one another.
But over the last 30 years work has become much more collaborative, and teams, rather than individuals, have become the norm. That makes interpersonal relationships and team dynamics more important than they used to be. And teams can be geographically dispersed. All of this leads to vastly greater complexity than leaders had to contend with in the past.
In such a complex world, the role of a leader is not just to give direction, but to create an environment in which people cooperate and collectively fulfill the mission of the organization with far more autonomy and accountability than in the past. And that’s a systemically, fundamentally different kind of role; it’s a bigger and more complex role than the traditional view of a leader as the person who tells people what to do.
That’s what I believe is one of the biggest differences: the change from giving people prescriptions of what to do, to creating an environment in which individuals and teams continuously adapt to changing circumstances and figure out, both individually and collectively, what needs to be done.
What’s the Goodell definition of leadership?
The definition that I operate from is that leadership is any means by which two or more people develop the ability to cooperate and take collective action. Implicit in that – and very, very important to that definition – is the notion that leadership is not an attribute of an individual person; leadership emerges from the collective interactions and dynamics of many people working together.
You talk about the four fields of leadership. Why is understanding this model so helpful to those who aspire to be exceptional leaders?
The model enables leaders to accurately understand the problems and opportunities that arise in a complex hyperconnected world. And it gives them the tools to create the kind of environment I just described, where individuals and teams collaborate closely, innovate, and adapt to changing circumstances while staying focused on the mission of the company.
The four fields contain the Field of Self, the Interpersonal Field, the Field of Teams, and the Enterprise Field. First is the Field of Self, which is basically your presence: how you create a field around yourself that other people experience. The second field is the Interpersonal Field. That’s the field that arises from you interacting with another person. Two fields of ‘self’ come together and create an Interpersonal Field. An Interpersonal Field is richer, more complex, and capable of more than two Fields of Self alone. The third field is the Field of Teams. A Field of Teams arises when you have many fields of selves, and multiple Interpersonal Fields, and those come together collectively around a shared purpose. The Field of Teams is more complex, more subtle, more fragile, and capable of much, much more than all those fields of selves alone. Finally, the Enterprise Field is the field of all of the people, all of the relationships, and all of the teams within the enterprise, all interacting in a grand dance.
This model is so rich and valuable for leaders for a couple of reasons: it gives them a way of looking at whatever the challenge or opportunity is and understanding which field they need to be working in to address a particular challenge or opportunity. And it provides specific skills for leading and working in each field.
You say, “Everything starts in the Field of Self.” There are many components to working on yourself, but let’s start with self-awareness. Where do you begin to cultivate greater self-awareness?
Self-awareness always begins with self-reflection. But self-reflection is not just a cognitive exercise. It involves intentionally examining what I call your “inner state”—the confluence of your physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This is the ability to ask yourself, ‘What is happening in my body right now?’, ‘What is my emotional state?’, and ‘What am I thinking?’ It starts with your body because your body is your first responder to everything that happens around you. For example: someone brings bad news about a project. What does your body do? Perhaps your breathing gets shallow and your hands clench. Then out of that physical response, what happens to you emotionally? And how do your physical and emotional responses influence your thoughts? If you’re tense and angry, that’s going to drive certain thoughts, and all of that will drive behavior. That shaping of behavior is going to define your Field of Self. Maybe you start yelling at people and berating them—a behavior that commonly comes out of that kind of inner state. Is that a useful inner state for a leader? Typically, this behavior doesn’t produce optimal results, and the leader needs to find a way to manage that inner state differently, so that they create a different leadership presence.
So, ‘How do you cultivate self-awareness?’ You do centering practices, such as meditation, in which you develop a kind of detached awareness of your physical sensations, your emotions, and your thoughts. And you notice how they interact. Your body, emotions, and thoughts all influence one another. Intentional diaphragm breathing is another centering practice that calms your body and emotions and quiets your thoughts. Calming your body, settling your emotions, and quieting your thoughts moves you to a centered inner state.
When you’re centered you have heightened self-awareness, and when you have heightened self-awareness you have the ability to be centered. It’s a feedback loop. And here’s the wonderful, paradoxical truth about that: when you have sufficient self-awareness, you forget about yourself. You transcend yourself and become fully present and aware of others around you, and then you most accurately understand what they’re saying, what they need in the moment, and what the situations calls for from you as a leader.
What are some other ways we can work on the Field of Self?
A centering practice is one that brings you to awareness and gives you the ability to self-regulate. Meditation is one of the most powerful, well-developed, and well-understood practices for self-awareness and centering. And today, there’s a vast amount of scientific research and literature that supports it. In meditation, you sit without doing anything. You’re just completely present to yourself and you keep bringing your awareness back to your breath. Often, within a few seconds, the mind starts to wander. When you realize it’s wandered, you bring your attention back to your breath, and you keep repeating that. If you can calm your body, you will calm your emotions. If you can calm your body and emotions, you’ll have command of your thoughts.
I talk about three centering practices: one for the emotions; one for the body; and one for the intellect. Firstly, the centering practice of the physical mind is breath. To start this practice, you have to ask yourself the question: ‘Am I actually breathing with my diaphragm?’ Most adults today, by the time they get through adolescence, have forgotten the natural way to breathe. Your belly should move out when you breathe in, and your belly should move in when you breathe out.
In the emotional mind, I say the centering practice is acceptance. Ask yourself, ‘What do I need to accept for me to stop being so upset?’ Acceptance doesn’t mean approval or agreement. You must be able to say to yourself, ‘Oh, she said that, so I’m going to accept that she said that. I might not like what she said. I might not agree with what she said, but I’m going to accept that she said that. And now, from a place of acceptance, what possibilities arise for me?’
And finally, for the analytical mind, I say that silence is the best practice for centering. The analytical mind is the part of the mind that’s always got the story going, the chatter going. It’s when somebody else is talking and you’re thinking about what to say next, which actually prevents you from listening to them.
As we move out into the Interpersonal Field, you comment that we are not as separate as we may think. In fact, you say a relationship may be thought of as a superorganism. Talk about this and the implications for leaders.
It’s the old saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In nature, superorganisms are composed of multiple individuals, but the collective has an intelligence that is greater than that of the individuals alone. Insect hives, flocks of birds, and schools of fish are a few examples. Two people in an interpersonal relationship are capable of much more than they are separately. An interpersonal relationship is a kind of superorganism. But if the relationship isn’t strong and healthy, it can actually degrade their individual performance as well as their effectiveness together. And if they’re on a team together the health of their relationship can either enhance or degrade team performance.
I’ve often seen leaders engage underperforming teams in team building activities when the problems are really in the Interpersonal Field. Understanding the Interpersonal Field gives leaders concrete tools to zero-in on the actual root cause of problems, and tools to intervene and shift the problems, not just as one-off solutions, but as patterns. For example, when two people on a team are consistently not managing their promises to each other, instead of fixing that as a one-off with each promise, we change the relationship in a way that the problems go away. Basically, these are tools and capabilities that allow leaders to change patterns of problems rather than individual problems.
The Field of Teams. Your book goes into depth but let’s just touch on meetings. What makes a meeting successful and well run?
Teams are also superorganisms, larger and more complex than the superorganism of an interpersonal relationship. The more individuals there are in a meeting, the higher the risk of confusion and poor alignment. So, one of the things that’s really important for effective meetings is clarity. Leaders must be clear about the purpose of the meeting and about the kind of conversation people are in at any point in the meeting. Several types of conversations can occur during a meeting: a conversation for possibilities, a conversation for rolling out a new vision, a conversation for results where you’re going to make requests and get promises from people, and reflection conversations can all arise in meetings. Each of these has its own unique design and methods for having an effective conversation.
Since all four of these might arise in a meeting, you want to be clear at all times: ‘Which conversation are we in now?’ Then use the design and methods that support that type of conversation.
It’s also important to be clear about the decision-making process—who has the authority to make what decisions? A leader must make that clear. A leader must also be good at recognizing the field dynamics of the meeting while it’s happening; recognizing when tension arises between two individuals; recognizing when someone perhaps goes silent or becomes resentful. It’s important to notice what’s happening to the Fields of Self and the Interpersonal Fields, as well as the field of the entire team. At what point does the team get excited? At what point does the team get discouraged? Using the practices of centering and awareness to notice what’s happening in each of the fields, and using the tools of the four fields to regulate the dynamics of the fields, can make the difference between a meeting ending in confusion or unresolved conflict and ending with alignment and clarity about direction and next steps.
Comment on how this model has helped people. Would you share a story (anonymously) of how this model impacted someone’s style?
I had multiple wonderful experiences with this client, ‘John’. He was the CTO of a global manufacturing company. In many ways he was a strong leader with loyal followers, but he also had a temper that could get out of control. When he got angry, he would lose his ability to listen, he would dress people down in meetings, and his team would become demoralized. His direct reports were afraid of setting him off and avoided bringing bad news to him. To his credit, he didn’t like this aspect of himself and wanted to change it.
I taught him a breathing exercise and a meditation practice that he did every day, initially for 10 minutes. He’d been doing this for a few months when I came in for one of our coaching sessions. I said, ‘How’s that going?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, pretty well most days, but sometimes, boy, my mind’s just racing, and I just got all this stuff going on. You know, I’ll get up and I’ll walk around a little bit. I might get a cup of coffee and then come back.’ And I said, ‘Okay, so you’re not allowed to do that. When that happens, I want you to just stay present. Don’t get up. Don’t move. Just stay present to what happens in your inner state.’ And he kind of looked at me funny and said, ‘Well, okay.’
I came back two or three weeks later and saw him again. I said, ‘How’s that going?’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘You know, it was going well, and then I felt restless and I was about to get up, and I remembered what you said.’ Then he said, ‘I got so angry with you. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every ounce of me wanted to get up and move, to distract myself. But I didn’t. And then, at some point, it all went away, and I just sat there in a calm, open space that I’d never experienced before.’ In another session a couple of months later he said, ‘You know, I get up every morning, and I just make my coffee and my breakfast, and then I get going. The other day, I got up, and I noticed the sunrise for the first time, and I’ve never noticed how amazing that sunrise is. And it gave me a profound sense of gratitude.’
I was also working with his team, and one of the things I started hearing from them was that John was changing. There was no sudden point because meditation is a gradual practice. After several months, clients look back and go, ‘Oh, I’m different now. I don’t know when that happened, but I’m different now.’ John’s team kept saying to me, ‘You know, he’s different. We can talk to him. We can bring bad news to him and not be afraid.’
In the field leadership model, John’s work on his Field of Self enabled him stay calmer and more aware, observe situations more accurately, and make better choices. That enhanced his interpersonal relationships with his team members, peers, and his boss. And as the dynamics in his Field of Self and Interpersonal Fields improved, he became a better team leader as well.
At the same time, I saw that there were some relationships among team members that were not healthy. Trust between them was low and they frequently engaged in unproductive conflict. Those team members needed to do some work in their Fields of Self and their Interpersonal Fields. As they did, and as John became a more effective leader, the team got stronger and stronger. People started looking forward to team meetings instead of dreading them, and the meetings had more laughter, mutual support, and creativity.
From all of this work John emerged as a stronger and more effective leader and his team became recognized as one of the best in the company. Eventually the company put him through an Executive MBA program and moved him into business lines, where he led several of the largest divisions in the company.
I should also mention that the impact of this model goes beyond just work. People’s personal lives get better, they see changes in their relationships with their spouses, their kids, their friends; even their health often gets better. John spoke of developing a much closer relationship with his son in his son’s last year of high school, before leaving home for college.
When you are working with a team, what are some of the indicators that quickly show you whether you have a true leader at the helm or someone who is struggling?
I watch the dynamics of the four fields and how the leader guides them. Are people present, open, and connected with one another? Is there high trust? Is the purpose of the team clear and is everyone aligned? Does the team dynamic change when the leader is present? What does the leader do when conflict erupts?
An effective field leader will maintain their own center, and they will interact skillfully with individuals who get off center, helping them recover. The leader will know when to intervene and when to let things play out for a while. Do they accurately sense when the team is losing connection with the purpose of the meeting, or is going down a rabbit hole? And when those things happen, does the leader effectively bring the team back to clarity and focus?
Another dynamic I watch for is vulnerability. I ask, ‘Do team members respond with openness, transparency, and vulnerability with the leader? Is the leader open, transparent, and vulnerable with the team members? Does the leader exhibit caring?’ In all the wisdom traditions, we’re told that compassion is the most powerful force in the universe, and I happen to believe that’s true. You actually can create more profound and powerful change through compassion than through anything else you do.
Compassion does not mean that the leader tolerates poor behavior; it doesn’t mean that the leader allows underperformance to continue without being addressed; it doesn’t mean the leader doesn’t make hard decisions. It means that when they make hard decisions like removing a person from a team, firing a person, or laying them off, they do it with care, respect, openness, and transparency. When they do that, their decisions—even painful ones—ultimately strengthen individuals and teams so that they grow and learn from the experience rather than being diminished.
There’s a saying, ‘If you want to find high performance in an organization, follow the joy.’ You have to look at the team and ask: Does the team exhibit joy? Do they have fun? If they’re not having fun, if they don’t exhibit joy, I would say that the leader is not performing sufficiently as a leader. If we look back at the beginning of the interview, I talked about how this new definition of leadership fundamentally changes the role of the leader to being a person who creates the conditions under which people exhibit high performance, under which people thrive and exhibit joy and enthusiasm. That’s the role of a leader in a complex, hyperconnected world.
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For more information, see The Four Fields of Leadership: How People and Organizations Can Thrive in a Hyper-Connected World.
Image Credit: Mohammad Alizade