October 10, 2012
Absolutely, undoubtedly, unequivocally, yes! Such a leader is a vanguard leader. We were recently in conversation with a CEO who wondered aloud if there is a place for someone like him; someone who, in my estimation, expresses how he feels, lets other know how they impact on him, curiously seeks feedback on his own performance (with a view to acting on it) and strives to do what needs to be done in a way that is aligned with a personal value system orientated to fairness, meaningful work and concern for the well-being of others. This man is, in my view, in the vanguard of how a CEO should be. (He’s also a real person!) I can understand why he might occasionally doubt himself because he likely looks around at other people called “CEO” and doesn’t see himself mirrored back. The times, however, they are a-changing.
Lots is written about the kind of leaders we require for the 21st century. I have no desire to replicate what is out there, however what I see in this man who “wears his heart on his sleeve” is an amalgam of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership and I believe it is worth setting these out. I believe the three are essential in order to surmount the challenges with which the current age presents us. The terrain the modern leader needs to navigate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). How can we best develop ourselves as leaders to navigate this well, so that we leave our workplaces, the people within them and the world in a better place than when we found it?
Responsible leadership, to my mind, is about being responsive to what is around you; thinking about the wider system. As Christopher Avery sets out, being responsible goes further than being accountable. Being accountable, as Christopher says, is backward-looking, in that we can account for our actions. Being responsible is forward-looking, in that we seek to take account of a wider system. When we read about responsible leadership or corporate responsibility, we think of triple bottom lines or sustainability: how will our actions affect others now and into the future? In other words, we are responding to an assessment of the bigger picture; what ripples will our actions (and non-actions) create. This is vital if we intend to bequeath a planet worth inhabiting for future generations. While I’m a little loathe to throw morals into the mix, I’d say that a responsible leader is one who would align themselves with a “Do no harm” kind of morality into their work. Extending this, a responsible, vanguard leader is a systems steward. A vanguard leader understands that a truly effective business will come about when the organisation (the system) is healthy. Sick cultures enact sick behaviours. The systems steward will be responsible for ensuring that there are healthy policies and procedures, a healthy flow of information, a healthy openness to innovation, healthy relationships, a healthy culture of learning, development and continuous improvement. Being responsible for the hygiene of the wider system will ensure longevity and ‘good growth’.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being responsible. It is absolutely about being a systems thinker; taking action when the wider system is taken into account and stewarding their business towards health.
Authentic leadership, for me, is bringing your whole self to work. As Bill George and others say in Discovering your Authentic Leadership, you need to be who you are, not emulate someone else. Authentic leaders know who they are because they are on a lifetime journey of self-discovery. Discovering our authentic leadership requires a commitment to discovering who we are.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being authentic. It is absolutely about knowing who we are, letting people know who we are and not simply being the angry, unhappy guy or gal who gets s**t done.
Congruent leadership is based on personal values, beliefs and principles. Congruent leaders also place a high value on building and maintaining good relationships with others. Congruent leaders are guided by a higher purpose. They become conscious of the value systems out of which they operate and work to align these with their words and their actions. Such folks are also open to discovering their blind spots, areas where their values, actions and words are not aligned, and to making the appropriate adjustments so that they can operate in a principled manner.
Being a vanguard leader is absolutely about being congruent. It is absolutely being aware of our values and principles, communicating those and behaving in ways which are aligned with them.
Vanguard leadership is the confluence of responsible leadership, authentic leadership and congruent leadership. This is the promised land. We are on the way, but in our wider society we are not there yet. Some leaders, like that CEO I mentioned, are well on the way, however. For folks like this, it can be a little isolating.
When we look around and find ourselves a little alone, how can we sustain ourselves?
If we are in the vanguard, we are at the forefront of a movement. As I said, the times, they are a-changing and I confidently predict that 100 years from now, this kind of leader will be ubiquitous. If, in our current era, however, we are striking out into new territory, this means we may have times when we doubt ourselves, feel isolated or wonder if we are deluding ourselves. If you are a leader who enacts responsibility, authenticity and congruence in your working life, what would be useful in order to sustain yourself if there are relatively few living and breathing models of vanguard leadership? In the world we have inherited from the Industrial Age, we are conditioned to look for gaps, rather than strengths. That conditioning starts early on at school. The workplaces we enter reinforce this deficit mentality through the performance management systems we apply to ourselves and others. Even if we don’t want to focus our energies on what is dysfunctional, we are seemingly compelled to look at what’s not working, rather than what is. If we unconsciously take this approach with ourselves, especially when we look around and find few people like us, it can dent our confidence. We can begin to assume we are less capable and less effective than we actually are. We may distrust or disbelieve positive feedback or fail to see the positive impact we have on others and the wider system. We can also devalue ourselves; finding ourselves attributing less value to the qualities inherent in a vanguard leader than to those qualities in what we might believe a “real CEO” to possess. This seems quite natural to me, given our conditioning. We need to develop a self consciousness in order to remain strong.
As Daniel Goleman writes in “The New Leaders” (2002), emphasis on our gaps often arouses the right prefrontal cortex of our brains. This gives rise to feelings of anxiety and defensiveness which typically demotivate and interrupt self-directed learning and the likelihood of change and development. The effect of this is that the very qualities that identify a vanguard leader get lost in the process.
So it is essential that if we are in the vanguard, we develop a strong self-companion Role. One of my favourite expressions comes from a friend in Scotland. If I was doing something silly, she’d joke, “Have a word with yourself.” Even though she was teasing me, she probably has no idea how useful I have found this advice over the years. From a Role Theory perspective, developing a good self-companion means just that, having an intimate relationship with ourselves; being able to have a conversation with the aspect of ourselves that says, “Keep going, you’re on the right track. Others don’t get it yet, but you are really onto something here.” Now, once again, I’m loathe to bring morals into the conversation, but I think it’s important to place a caveat on this. I’m pretty sure Hitler and Stalin had a similar Role within them. An truly effective self-companion, however, will not urge us to barbarity. Bear in mind, we are a complex system of inter-related and inter-connected Roles. The self-companion will be the one that interacts with the rest of us and spurs us on. By the “rest of us”, I mean the other roles I saw present in that CEO I mentioned at the beginning of this article: strongly orientated to thinking bigger, strongly orientated to the well-being of others, strongly orientated to leaving a legacy of health, roles I can hardly imagine Hitler or Stalin possessing in any great measure. I’m fascinated by those two despots and how they did what they did, but in all the documentaries I’ve watched, I’ve never observed anything remotely like humility, openness to feedback or care for humanity in their Role systems.
We can consciously warm ourselves up to the thinking, feeling and behaving necessary to fully integrate a strong sense of self-worth. If this Role is embryonic in us, we need to be quite conscious of growing it, much the same way we needed to be conscious of learning to drive until it became second nature. We had to actively think, “Clutch, gear, release clutch while depressing accelerator…..” Similarly, we may have to be awake to growing the habit of being a good self-companion. What self-talk or affirmation would be useful to build ourselves up? What emotional state would be most useful to warm up to? Think of a time when you were full of self-confidence; how can you transfer some of that goodness to your current situation?
“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose words and actions show that he knows where he is going.”
It is just as vital to find peers. In your head, heart and gut, you know you are doing right by yourself and others, but sometimes we also need to see ourselves mirrored by our peers. If you are at the forefront, you are, by definition, ahead of the pack. In one sense, you are peerless. Not entirely, though. There are others out there. We need to apply ourselves to finding these folk. When we do something that seems a little different or we feel that we don’t quite measure up to what a “real CEO” is, we need to find others who are similarly “weird”. Seek out others who are supportive, encouraging, caring and interested.
Referencing Goleman again, study after study has demonstrated that positive groups make positive change. Senior executives reported feeling that many people around them had an investment in them staying the same, not growing and developing. Finding a trusted peer group of other vanguard leaders, whether that is through a local Vistage group that is resonant with our desire to cultivate new leadership styles or a virtual peer group of leaders interested in being responsible, authentic and congruent, will keep us on track and reduce the isolation of being a little “weird”. A peer group is a powerful motivator.
Any thoughts on this? Comments, insights and conversation most welcome.
April 29, 2012
Bizarrely, if you went into most school classrooms in the industrialised world, you would still hear teachers say or imply, “Sit down, stop talking, do your own work.” I say bizarrely, because this notion that we will excel in our lives only if we do what we’re told, mind our own business and draw solely on our own thoughts, ideas and knowledge just seems unnatural. It has come from the old days when schools were set up as places to train youngsters for a life of isolating wage slavery. Our education systems were designed, in other words, as mirrors of adult workplaces and apart from reading, writing and arithmetic, the key lesson was “fit in or f**k off”; if you want to get ahead, play the teacher’s game, learn what THEY want you to so you can pass their tests (usually information about stuff, rather than insight about self, life and the world) and don’t challenge authority, i.e. get used to working within rigid and nonsensical hierarchies. I may be generalising, of course; I had the odd teacher at school who encouraged me to actually think, make meaning of what I was learning and formulate my own opinions, but broadly speaking, most of my school lessons were dull as dishwater. I even had one history teacher whose lessons consisted of getting one of the students to write 10 words on the blackboard (yes, it was black, not white) which we then, silently and working on our own, had to find the definitions of in our history books and when we had done, we could just sit and do whatever we liked. That was his idea of teaching history. No word of a lie, that was what my history class was like day in and day out. He never questioned us on what meaning we had made of “The Gettysburg Address” or “appeasement”. He never chaired debates that made us think and question, he never gripped us with stories of life in First World War trenches, he never inspired us to find connections between the Protestant Revolution and the modern world, to my mind, he never actually taught anything of real use to me. However, the school system seemed more than happy with his performance because we all managed to get reasonable scores on the tests he would set us, and year after year, there he was, back in his classroom faced with another group of students. Oddly, his were probably the best lessons to prepare us for the mindless busy work that is expected of people in many businesses.
How much of this sort of thing still goes on in workplaces? Mindless, silo-ed busy work that seems unconnected to anything bigger or meaningful. What’s the alternative? Systems thinking shines some light, I believe. Systems display certain characteristics which are applicable to business. Businesses, after all, are systems. As Deming has said, “A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system”. Businesses are not machines, despite what many manager behaviours would have you believe. They are self-organising, living, breathing, dynamic; not a bunch of separate and isolated parts that can be relied on to do their best in isolation. Albert Low in “Zen and Creative Management” stated, “A company is a multidimensional system capable of growth, expansion, and self-regulation. It is, therefore, not a thing but a set of interacting forces. Any theory of organisation must be capable of reflecting a company’s many facets, its dynamism, and its basic orderliness.”
Deming also said, “A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. …A system must be managed. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organisation.” So what is required of leaders in the modern age if they are not to be the controllers? The clue is there in Deming’s quote: when he says the system must be managed, the role of the modern manager is not about rigid plans and KPIs, it’s about nurturing cooperation, fostering connection between all the myriad and diverse elements in the system. The other bit about having an aim is another clue. The manager who wishes to unleash the full potential of their business will ensure that there is a clear line of sight to the purpose of the business. People will know WHY the business is in existence and will feel connected to achieving that purpose. Furthermore, the manager will be less concerned with an individual’s results and more about the value they add to the whole. Hard to KPI that one, though, so it’s left in the too-hard basket.
Systems are naturally self-organising; I do not have to plan and strategise my digestive system to do what it is already organised to do. I also do not have to push or control my digestive system to do its job because it is already set up in a way that leads it to do what it is naturally organised to do. Workplaces, because they are systems, will also self-organise when released of mechanistic and unnatural constraints. In fact, all systems either self-organise or die. If constraints are placed around a system which restrict its natural self-organising tendencies, it will be lifeless. How can leaders expect people to engage in their work if their workplace is dull, lifeless and overly-controlled? Businesses and the people that work within them are not machines, nor parts of machines, that can be shoved into action by external forces, much as Henry Ford would have liked to believe that. It is part of a leader’s role to put the conditions in place which do not hinder the natural self-organising tendencies of the systems in which they operate. What does this actually mean?
This means fostering a culture orientated around values. That means they are not just put in a nice frame and hung in some dusty corner of the building; they are the lifeblood of how people do things at work. They are values which people can tap into and make real meaning of. It is therefore absolutely essential that those who manage the business relate work conversations to the values and that they live them whole-heartedly.
This means fostering a culture of real learning. When a system is open to new information, energy or resources, it will inevitably shift. Being open to learning keeps the system dynamic and vibrant. It will continually re-organise itself, incorporating the new learning. Leaders need to focus their efforts on establishing ways of doing things which help the organisation respond to change by learning and renewing itself. A strong and vigorous system will have a strong orientation to learning and a business that does not open itself to new learning will have a much shortened life-span.
This means fostering conversation and connection. If my history teacher had done this, I might have made more meaning of the things I was reading in my history book. It is counterintuitive in today’s world that you would expressly ask someone NOT to collaborate, NOT to share ideas, NOT to talk. We know enough about how systems operate that it is crazy to let fragmenting silo mentalities reign. Please, do NOT sit still, do NOT stop talking, do NOT do your own work.
This means assisting the business to maintain a coherent sense of identity. Strong businesses are the ones that have a strong sense of identity. The ones that last and navigate more successfully through troubled waters are the ones with a stable value core and the capacity to live their values congruently. Identity is maintained and strengthened at the level of values and purpose, not at the level of tasks. Once again, real leverage is not where old-style managers would have you think (better planning and tighter control) but within the deeper recesses of the system: values and beliefs.
As always, comments that build onto what I’ve written are welcome. I’m always keen to hear from other minds and to expand on the thoughts I set down.
March 13, 2012
About a month ago, I noticed on Twitter that fellow blogger, Todd Nielsen, was inviting guest bloggers from around the world for an International Leadership Blogathon that he was running in March. Each day, he would post an article from a different blogger on his own blog site. I duly contacted him and asked if he would be interested in a theme I was pondering and was delighted when he said yes.
I had read an article in my local paper that seemed to link employee salary expectations with retention and engagement. The article made little sense to me, so I had to re-read it. It seemed simple enough, but there was something missing for me. It had me considering how we need to take a bigger picture of recruitment and engagement at work, and to stop focusing purely on monetary reward. The article I wrote was published as part of Todd’s Leadership Blogathon and is called “Leaders Hold the Power to Engage”.
As always I welcome contributions and invite you build on what I write with your own experiences and comments.
August 16, 2011
Reading the London #riotcleanup Twitter stream last week was fascinating. Taken in isolation and looked at one-dimensionally, one might consider a community that mobilises itself to clean up after riots to be a positive phenomenon. The range of views on the Twitter feed does not bear this out however. Some views extend to calling these folks vigilantes, another even suggests the riotcleanup is the closest thing the UK has seen to popular fascism for decades.
Similarly, opinion was spread as the riots were in full swing. Even the use of the word “riot” is loaded. I noted some people calling them protests, West Indian writer Darcus Howe called them an insurrection. So who is right? Are citizens defending their streets community-minded activists or are they vigilantes? Are the people on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester and other English cities rioters or protesters?
Might I be bold enough to suggest that all these people were all these things? What we have ourselves stuck in is an old-fashioned, out-dated mode of thinking. The issues which set off the disturbances are as complex and numerous as there were people and life experiences who have been caught up in them; similarly, the responses required are complex and multifarious. We, the human race, will not progress while we hold on to an anachronistic way of viewing our highly complex and interconnected lives. The time has well and truly come to stretch ourselves and to view our lives, our relationships, our workplaces, our communities, the world through a new lens: the cosmos as an interconnected system and not as a machine. Not only to view them as systems, but to treat them as systems, to become more conscious that what we do impacts on other element of the system. Cause and effect no longer suffices.
Take Gross Domestic Product. We have so successfully parceled off our world into individual little bundles to the extent that growth in GDP is still held up as a good thing and a rise in the FTSE or Dow Jones is delivered as positive news. Hence, through this mechanistic lens, the Exxon Valdez disaster and the recent earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand were ‘good’ things because of the GDP growth that they engender. As a recent article in the Guardian attests, “Gross Domestic Product is a poor measure of economic performance and the pursuit of GDP is the prime cause of climate change and environmental destruction”. We cannot solve complex 21st Century problems with mechanistic, 19th Century small thinking.
I suppose another comment from the Twitter feed gets closer to what I’m talking about: “It is possible to condemn the riots and simultaneously try to understand why they happened in the first place.” See? Thinking a bit bigger.
What is happening on the streets of my homeland is not unconnected to the global financial crisis and turbulence on the financial markets, to the disturbances on the streets of Santiago, Chile, to the talent ‘brain drain’ from New Zealand to Australia, to environmental degradation, to the mendacity of the press, politicians and police recently uncovered in the News International scandal, to famine in the Horn of Africa, to oppression in Syria, to growing disparities between rich and poor. To me, all of these point to failed leadership, mechanistic thinking, un-consciousness and egocentricity.
- Washington DC has recently been the stage for the farce that was debt negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans and we are now witnessing the epilogue, with each side blaming the other for the subsequent downgrade from S&P and financial turbulence. Ego and point scoring above creative problem-solving: small thinking.
- UK politicians are caught up in trying to apportion blame for the recent disturbances and meting out punishment, rather than exploring the breakdown of the social contract that they point to. Double standards and abuse of power: small thinking.
- A long time investor in the stock markets comments, “I’ve survived 4 recessions and have not changed my investment strategy, it’s always worked for me, so this decline in the world economy isn’t worrying me. It’ll be back to business-as-usual in no time.” Hiding your head in the sand: small thinking.
What we require are leaders who transcend party politics, who transcend traditional schools of economics, who transcend national pride. We require leaders who transcend the old-style “I’m right, you’re wrong” paradigm of thinking. In our workplaces, we require leaders who transcend management theories and personality clashes. It is time to put our efforts into sociatry (healing of the socius); this implies inclusiveness and greater consciousness of self and others, in other words, bigger thinking—systems thinking. Trying the same-old, same-old when it is clearly no longer working is NOT leadership for the 21st century.
The astonishing thing is that humanity already has the tools available to generate this paradigm shift. Two of the human technologies I use in my work with Quantum Shift, sociometry and sociodrama, for example, have the potential to catalyse the changes I’m talking about. These radical tools, which are inherently strengths-based and creative, assist people to grow greater spontaneity in their lives, thereby opening windows and doors of opportunity, hope and possibility. There are, of course, other transformational tools at our disposal, but it requires the courage to let go of the devil we know and to venture into the unknown.
We don’t yet know what the new paradigm will look like, all we know is that it won’t look like it does now or like it used to. We therefore require people with the courage to make those steps into the unknown. We require leaders who do not know all the answers, and are willing to be authentic with us…who are willing to say, “I don’t know where we are headed, but let’s work it out together.”
Business-as-usual is gone. Forever.
November 18, 2010
August 5, 2010
>A great educator, Caleb Gattegno, once said that the only thing anyone can ever teach is awareness. This is handy if you are in the business of developing leaders, as it seems to be the number one thing that is mentioned in discussions about growing leadership capabilities. In this very interesting post (http://blogs.hbr.org/video/2010/08/the-crucial-skill-for-tomorrow.html) from the Harvard Business Review, Professor Bill George suggests that leadership is more about self-knowledge than skills. He goes on to say that it comes from an exploration and understanding of one’s life story and asking oneself, “What is my purpose in leading?”
So if the prime target for leader development is self-awareness, how can this happen? Many of us in these educated times would say that we have good self-awareness. However, we can only know what we know. What about the stuff we don’t know about ourselves? ….and what about the stuff we don’t know that we don’t know? For some leaders, these ‘unknowns’ lead to a self-imposed career ceiling, although it is unconsciously self-imposed. To develop greater awareness, we need to have the courage to find the things that we DON’T know about ourselves. This can free us to change and grow, and thus open up further career opportunities.
For example, there will be the leader who struggles to delegate. An overly-controlling or micro-managing style will likely not open up opportunities at the top of the organisational ladder. We can think that this kind of leader needs to enhance their coaching and mentoring skills, and perhaps their communication skills. But as Bill George says, it’s not about developing skills. What about those folks who go on coaching courses or communication courses, but still can’t put the skills into action? It’s most likely that the remedy is not to add more skills, but to uncover more about the person. There could be something in their life history which has given rise to the need to be in control. Awareness development will drill down to the question which the person may never have considered. It could be something like, “What is your greatest fear about delegating to others?”
I am continually delighted when I’m working with people, and I ask a question about themselves which elicits an immediate “I don’t know”. I sometimes joke “I know you don’t know, that’s why I’m asking the question.” It can be useful to encourage ourselves, when we get to an “I don’t know” about ourselves to pause and really consider the answer. Having really gone inside and searched for the answer, if we still don’t know, then ask “Well, who WOULD know?” Feedback from others can be a essential part of this self-awareness journey. I like to think that growing self-awareness is best done with others. It’s a strange human paradox that we have to learn things on our own, but that we best learn when in the company of others.