The power of four-dimensional leadership

Future of Work

Jacinda Ardern became the Prime Minister of New Zealand in 2017, the same year Donald Trump rose to power in the US. Ardern’s embodiment of a “politics of kindness” was so foreign from anything the world had seen before that “Be strong, and be kind” became her ultimate legacy. In contrast, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric afforded him a legacy as a brash, incompetent and fundamentally inhumane leader.

But, underneath all the theatrics, what really separated the two?

Ardern focused on being and relating, while Trump focused on doing.

Dr Alan Watkins’ model of 4D leadership is comprised of three dimensions: doing, being and relating. The fourth dimension refers to the degree of sophistication a leader has in being able to access all three dimensions simultaneously. Watkins posits that most of the problems that occur in business happen because we over-index on doing. When I reflect on the best leaders I’ve come across, they do seem to possess either a subconscious or conscious understanding that the 3 dimensions of being human–doing, being and relating–map directly onto the 3 dimensions of being a leader. The deep integration of the three is what makes a leader great. In contrast, incompetent leaders have collapsed into the “doing” dimension: they are significantly more focused on the external reality–the “it”–than the “I” or the “we”.

Why doing causes so many problems

Information, knowledge and expertise are functions of doing. Leaders who over-index on doing have spent time accumulating information and acquiring expertise through both theory and practice. This learnt expertise drives the majority of their decisions. But naturally, every leader has blind spots. They often jump into doing mode immediately and can miss vital interpersonal cues that will completely alter the outcome.

In contrast, wisdom and truth are functions of being. Decisions made from a place of wisdom almost always turn out to serve stakeholders better. Leaders who recognise the importance of the “being” and “relating” dimensions of leadership have often spent time broadening their worldview and deepening their understanding of both the self and the world around them. In practice, this means that rather than seeing a burning platform and immediately jumping into action mode, leaders trained in the art of being are able to step back, carefully consider the context, evaluate which part of the system is malfunctioning and then step into doing at the proper time.

As Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“We have a tendency to think in terms of doing and not in terms of being. We think that when we are not doing anything, we are wasting our time. But that is not true. Our time is first of all for us to be. To be what? To be alive, to be peaceful, to be joyful, to be loving. And that is what the world needs most.”
Towards an alternative model of leadership

Traditional leadership models reward leaders who prioritise profits over people, whose ultimate metric of success is based on a growth-at-all-costs mentality versus a desire for sustainable progress and who exert control rather than foster collaboration. In contrast, Watkins’ model of 4D leadership offers a more holistic view of leadership that creates space for team members to thrive alongside leaders, encourages the consideration of more integrated metrics of success and avoids leaving tatters of mental health in its wake.

The reason an alternative model of leadership is so critical at this point in time is because the downstream problems created by poor leadership are catastrophic. Imagine an egotistical leader who manages a 40,000 person company, or a dictatorial President who rules a nation of 300 million people. The negative compounding effects caused by that leader’s incompetence are profound: the leader’s direct reports are directly affected; the direct reports of the leader’s direct reports are indirectly affected and so on and so forth all the way down the peking order and supply chain. In contrast, if a leader is highly competent, emotionally mature and integrated, their potential to become a significant force for good in the world is uncapped.

When poor leadership is given the space to breathe, it suffocates everyone in its path.
When great leadership is given the space to breathe, it oxygenates ambition and progress.
Moving towards “being”

Have you ever asked yourself why it feels so true that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”? The reason is because culture is about being and relating, while strategy is about doing. If you’ve ever tried to fix culture by just introducing more L&D initiatives, you’ll know it doesn’t cut it.

This is a microcosmic manifestation of the fundamental problem with 21st century leadership: too many leaders focus on doing at the expense of being. If we want to have a chance at effectively tackling real-world complex problems, we must set our sights on something more profound than simply innovating pedagogy and content. We must aim to break this vicious cycle of legacy leadership and usher in a new era of holistic, intentional leadership that contains compassion at its core.

February 21, 2024