The Magic Hill: Avoiding the optical illusions of leadership

They told me it was caused by the fairies who lived under the road. I don’t know about you, but I for one don’t buy that explanation at all. I mean, everybody knows that fairies don’t live under roads. Caused by the fairies, indeed!

The locals call it The Magic Hill and it is tucked away in the picture-postcard countryside of Ireland, a short drive from the town of Dundalk. And believe me, it is magic of an extraordinary kind. First of all, trying to find the magic hill without assistance from local navigators is practically impossible and has even led to some sceptics proclaiming that the location is a myth, likely conjured from having consumed too much Guinness.

But they are wrong. It does exist, I have been there myself and I have the picture to prove it.

The magic lies in the hill itself. It is an innocuous enough looking hill, seemingly no different from the many before it and not distinguished in any remarkable manner from the many that follow. It lies silently in wait for the unsuspecting traveller, revealing its magic only to those who, having reached the summit, are willing to stop and apply the handbrake on the descent. Do that and you will experience the magic.

And what magic it is! For instead of rolling downhill, as dictated by the laws of physics, you will roll uphill instead. ‘Roll uphill?’ you say. ‘Impossible!’ And had I not experienced it myself, I would be the first to agree wholeheartedly with you. But there you have it. Just when you expect to begin rolling gently downhill, you start rolling uphill. It is a very strange experience and one created by an optical illusion that would have David Copperfield green with envy. I was told that the explanation (for those who don’t have it in them to take on the ‘real’ explanation of the fairies) is to be found in the slope of the banks surrounding the road on either side which combine to create the optical illusion. Armed with that information, the fairy explanation only seems to gain plausibility in my physics-challenged mind!

As we drove away, bemused by the experience of rolling uphill (only in Ireland, I said to myself), my thoughts turned to a possible lesson in this for those entrusted with leadership.

Optical illusions are not limited to the Irish countryside. Leaders often suffer such illusions themselves, believing that they are due to roll downhill when in fact they are rolling uphill. Leaders who become cut off from reliable feedback are prone to such illusions. Very often their perception of present reality differs markedly from that of their employees in general. Hearing both sides of the story can lead one to think that they come from different planets rather than inhabit the same building or factory. How does this happen and what can be done to avoid it?

Leaders who are insecure or feel themselves under siege will often surround themselves with those who are always quick to agree with them at every turn. Such behaviour might be motivated by fear or the desire to appease the leader’s ego, but both lead to the same result: a leader who begins to operate in a vacuum, divorced from reality and accustomed to hearing only ‘fair weather’ reports. This seldom happens overnight and is more often than not the result of accumulated years of this kind of behaviour. It often happens when leaders become too comfortable, situations become too predictable and a crusty resistance to change sets in. Or it can also happen when egos have grown out of all proportion and become insatiable in their need for affirmation and servitude. The real killer is the lack of awareness of this state of affairs; after all, what leader reading this will readily acknowledge the truth of this in their particular context? But show this to those with whom they work and there might well be instant recognition and consenting, albeit fugitive, nods of the head.

This fatal situation often arises when leaders fail to grasp the principle of synergy or the precept, the minds of many are better than the mind of one. They often come from the school that promotes the ‘lonely leader’ scenario, the leader out ahead of the pack, deciding what is best for those who follow. These industrial-age images of leadership are relics of the past and cannot fit into the ever-changing present and the unfolding future. Yet, frustratingly, they refuse to die and persist in spite of the evidence surrounding them, the magic hills that deceive and entrap the unsuspecting traveller. What is needed are new mindsets, new styles, new analogies and new stories of leadership – stories that can replace the old ones before it is too late. It is a tough ask and I’m not sure it is within the capacity of the majority of leaders to undertake such daring change. It requires an entirely new game plan and, even more importantly, a new belief that this is how the game needs to be played.

However, there are things that can be done to test whether or not this malaise exists and certainly there are things that can be done to initiate an alternative. The test is simple. Create an opportunity for some open discussion and listen, really listen, to what is said. To be truthful, this process is not as simple as it sounds but it is do-able. Care needs to be taken to provide the right environment for such a discussion and outside facilitation is often helpful. There are also tools that can be used to generate healthy and authentic dialogue, two of which are known as the ‘Soft Shoe Shuffle’ and ‘Concept Café’. What is then done with the information is as important as the information itself. The process that follows an excavation of this nature needs to be intentional and open. It is in the process that follows that the real work and sweat will start.

There is no formula or 21-easy-steps to navigate what follows. Each situation, each context, will differ, but trusting those present to find what will work and know how best to implement it, are the best navigation beacons one can hope for. There are basically three phases to such a journey: first, the real desire to test for authentic voices and generate open discussion; secondly, the deliberate creation of an environment for this to take place; and thirdly, a commitment to the process and the changes that will follow. It then becomes the stargate to deep change, buy-in, ownership, innovation and resilience – characteristics that any leader dreams of having in the DNA of the company or organisation they lead.

The stuff of fairies? Maybe not, but you’ll have to be willing to stop on the magic hill to find out which way you roll.

2 Responses to “The Magic Hill: Avoiding the optical illusions of leadership”

  1. Saffron April 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    I completely LOVE this post Keith. I definitely believe in fairies, but then again, I have Irish blood running through my veins… I shall definitely be off to the magic hill next time I am in the Emerald Isle.

  2. Keith Coats April 4, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks Saffron. It really does need to be on your travel agenda then! An altogether magical place and experience.

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