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.
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
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.
February 17, 2012
I’ve devoted a number of my posts to the topic of leader development. In this post, I’d like to say more about what I mean by leader development because my thinking doesn’t come from a view that leaders are solely those at the top of organisations. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, when I talk about leaders and leadership, I’m not simply thinking about businesses that organise themselves around hierarchies, far from it. The thing about leader development is that it is people development. My belief is that the new age we are currently on the cusp of will be dominated less and less by hierarchies and more by relationships and collaboration and this calls us to develop ourselves accordingly. This new construct is still forming, but many businesses are feeling the power that comes from interconnectedness; a kind of people power that hierarchical organisations would only dream of, if they could just let go of an Industrial Age paradigm about human groups.
In recent months, there has been a fair amount of analysis of the so-called “leaderless” movements of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements around the world. The Occupy movements seem to be dissolving both in number and in our consciousness. Much of what I have read seems to indicate that their breakups rest on the fact that they lacked coherent leadership and their failure to clearly articulate their demands. In a lot of ways, there is some truth to this. However, one thing I see in these movements is seeds of a new kind of community in which leaderless actually means leader-full. We are just flexing our muscles.
I was pleased to attend a workshop by Etienne Wenger some years ago, in which he set out his thinking around Communities of Practice. He defines Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” His model is applied in the area of social learning, however I would say his thinking is applicable much wider to include social and organisational change. For Wenger, learning is central to human identity and he sees its primary focus as social participation. His model shows that a CoP will have three elements that bind them together: domain, community and practice. Domain is a shared area of interest, i.e. this is not just a loose network of people who like each other. They have a common purpose, e.g. software developers or wine enthusiasts. Community emerges from the active participation of every member of the CoP; sharing of information, offering help and building relationships. There are no tourists in a CoP, there is active engagement. The practice is the set of capabilities or skills the members enact that indicates they are fully fledged members of the CoP. Over time, members develop a shared repertoire of tools, knowledge, language and strategies that indicate they not only have a common interest, but they actually do something in common, e.g. they take turns to hold wine tastings or they work together on developing new iPhone apps.
How is this related to leadership?
Our current understanding of what leadership means is still largely drawn from conventions of how organisations have been structured in our recent history. This makes sense; if we have some ways of behaving that are driven by our beliefs, until our beliefs shift, our behaviours will pretty much remain static. Organisations are only just coming to glimpse the kind of structures that are much more fit for purpose, Communities of Practice being just one. We have a very long inheritance of organisational structure from our industrial and military past and for a long period in our history, this suited the needs of an industrial society. Organising human endeavour with a leader at the top and a rigid hierarchy below has meant that we tend to think of leaders only as those with leadership title or those at the so-called “top”. Leaders make decisions, leaders are accountable, leaders lead while others follow. This structure naturally lends itself to a command and control way of thinking and behaving and in the days of the early industrial revolution, this suited the needs of businesses. The tasks involved in driving a successful business were best organised with the head telling the rest of the body what to do and how to do it. We didn’t need huge amounts of creativity and autonomy to reside in the lower structures; all they needed to do was what they were told because the higher-ups had the end goals in their sights. Similarly, militaries need that command and control structure in order to carry out their role effectively. We couldn’t have foot soldiers deciding how they wanted to go about their job, otherwise we wouldn’t have the kind of strength and order a fighting force needs; it needs to be single-minded, not multi-minded. So, in essence, form followed function.
Even in the early days of Christianity, orthodoxy took hold and dispensed with the more liberal, personal forms of spirituality. For example, Gnosticism, a movement based on personal religious experience and transcendence arrived at by internal, intuitive means, was vilified as blasphemous and dangerous, and the Church, with the Pope as its head, became the final arbiter for all matters moral, social and spiritual. With the leader in place, there was no need for individuals to ponder about their morality; as long as they did what the priest/bishop/Pope told them to do, they would have happy and ordered lives, with the added bonus of a similarly joyous afterlife. No need to question, no need to work it out for yourself. The Protestant Reformation injected a new brand of thinking into the mix, with believers thinking that they could perhaps have a direct line to God, rather than through the mediator-priest. Even so, the predominant social structures in place at the time meant that eventually, most Protestant churches eventually defaulted to some form of leadership hierarchy, and those that didn’t were considered fringe movements.
In the same manner of form following function, industrial/military societies have organised their education systems to provide adequate preparedness to enter a largely hierarchical workforce. No real need to teach critical thinking skills, no real need to provide opportunities for meaningful personal growth, as long as you could read, write and add up. Of course, I’m generalising, but on the whole, industrial/military societies provided, and to a shockingly great extent, still provide sausage factory schooling. Because these three influences (the industrial, the military and the social/spiritual) were so pervasive, it makes complete sense that they were so instrumental in setting up a worldview that still largely holds sway today.
The world is rapidly changing however.
In a recent TEDx talk, former UK Liberal Democrat Party leader Paddy Ashdown sets out some interesting, if not particularly new, ideas about a new world power structure emerging. While his talk focusses more on global governance and international power shifts, some of the points he makes are salient and relevant to all kinds of leadership and organisation. If we consider that leadership and power are inextricably linked, we can look to the Occupy movements as some indication of where we might be headed. Power, in the sense of potency to act, is becoming more diffuse, whether governments like it or not. In response there will naturally be reaction, but I believe the tide is surely turning. While the Occupy movements may not have catalysed immediate changes to global financial or economic systems, I believe they signal a new kind of active involvement in society and growing desire for power to be spread more widely.
Ashdown suggests that we are coming back to an age where global governance is carried out via treaties. He quotes Lord Palmerston saying, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This is ringing true in the world of business. The BizDojo in Auckland, New Zealand is but one example of professional people coming together in a pragmatic way to share expertise, collaborate on one-off projects and create a fresh new business community. These knowledge workers know that rigid vertical hierarchies are not the best way to organise themselves. The strength comes from the power of their networks. To quote Ashdown again, “In the modern age where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.”
So what does this have to do with leadership then?
Remember I said that our traditional notions of leadership have come from the hierarchical ways we have organised ourselves. If our power structures are shifting, so will leadership. While the Occupy movements have been called leaderless by most commentators in the media, I’m not so sure. Leaderless if we look at the movements through old lenses, true; there was nobody at the “top” because there was no top. I think this new social construct will call upon us to shift our ideas as to what a leader is. In a previous blog, I suggested, for example, that a customer service employee who connects with a dissatisfied customer, preventing them from going to your competitor, is exercising just as much leadership as the person with CEO on their door. Leader development is people development and people development is leader development.
Power is certainly spreading out to the people. With more diffuse power, we will all be called upon to exercise leadership. Strong and effective Communities of Practice consist of people with a wide repertoire of personal characteristics and capabilities that in the old days, might have sat with a privileged few. Everyone exercises some form of leadership, however the new paradigm of leadership is not about managing hierarchies, but about influencing, collaborating and relating.
Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and The Spider, paints a potent picture of decentralised organisations. Decentralised systems, they say, “have no clear leader, no hierarchy and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others.” However, I contend, they do exercise influence. This points to a key leadership capability that we all require more of as the old makes way for the new. People at work will not only require some kind of professional skill set or technical expertise, but they will also need a well developed set of personal capabilities, those which we term “emotional intelligence”. This is not limited to freelancers or small business owners, but to anyone working in the Knowledge Economy. I believe that many businesses will see the benefits of reorganising with a more diffuse power base that unlocks the leadership and creativity of more of those who work within them.
In this article in December’s Harvard Business Review, Gary Hamel poses the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve high levels of coordination without without a supervisory superstructure?” I think he’s on to something. With highly developed leader capabilities all over organisations, leadership (the practice) will emerge from the interactions and relationships between leaders (the people). Again, I’m intending leaders to be those with authority and accountability. It then behoves organisations and individuals to devote themselves to sound capability development of the kind I hinted at earlier. These would include developing greater empathy, greater abilities to listen, greater abilities to collaborate, greater abilities to problem-solve with others, greater abilities to self-manage and, of course, greater self-awareness. As Paddy Ashdown says, the most important bit about the structure then becomes your docking points-your connections with others; not your hierarchy.
Finally, I think it’s important to recap a point I have made in previous articles, that is, that a new paradigm of organisations will not simply do away with the old. The new construct will include and transcend the current one, so we will still find that some organisations work best with a hierarchical structure or a command-and-control style of leadership. However, they will be best applied when they fit the purpose of the organisation. I suspect, for example, that local emergency management structures will require a command-and-control style of leadership in crisis situations. I, for one, would prefer that a highly efficient response team deals with a natural disaster or fire to one that organises itself on the basis of peer consultation.
I have set out just a few of my thoughts and reflections in this article and, as always, am keen to read what you can add and build onto what I have written. I’m no expert, and I suspect there isn’t one anyway. We are in immersed in the unknown right now and the New Normal will come about from all of our contributions.
September 12, 2011
If you have ever been for an eye test, you will know that the optician will have you look through a contraption with lots of lenses, and then proceed to add and take away lenses until your vision can see the letters on the chart precisely. They will spend time experimenting with the lenses and asking you to say which of two is clearer: “better number one? or number two?…..number three clearer and smaller? or number four?” By the time they are finished, they are able to say whether you need new glasses or whether the lenses you have been using are still optimal. Because shifts in our eyes occur in such minute increments, it’s not until I have a chance to see the world through a new set of lenses that I know if I’ve actually been seeing what is in front of me or if it’s been a good-enough approximation. I know that when I first walked out of the optician’s office at the age of 16 with my first pair of glasses and saw the world as it actually was, I was overjoyed to be able to see clearly and I was able to respond to my world quite differently. I could no longer, then, imagine the world looked as I used to think it did.
The time has come for us to check whether the way we view our workplaces and organisations is still current or if we need to upgrade our lenses. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been viewing organisations, and indeed, our whole world, as a machine. This seems reasonable, as the Industrial Revolution was about mechanisation after all, so for its time, a mechanistic view of the world was a leap in our thinking. We have now advanced well into the Knowledge Age, however, and it is time to update our lenses to take account of new knowledge and new research around Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), as well as our actual experiences which point to ‘mechanism’ being an inadequate world view. Looking at our organisations (and the world) purely as machines has outlived its usefulness. However, we have got so used to seeing the world through these old lenses that it is hard to see it otherwise. This is no excuse to do nothing, though; it is simply learned ignorance. When it became clear that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were right and that the sun was, in fact, the centre of the solar system, only the foolish and the stubborn could continue to believe and operate otherwise.
Research and experience are now proving that the old cause-and-effect, mechanistic paradigm of organisations is not entirely accurate nor adequate and that our workplaces are actually organic, dynamic, ever-evolving complex systems.
A new leadership paradigm, however, will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Paradigm shifts do not simply dispense with the old to make way for the new; they include, incorporate and transcend. The new leadership paradigm will take account of and include the mechanistic, command-and-control perspective, while incorporating new discoveries into how complex adaptive systems actually operate. There will still be times when a mechanistic leadership view holds true. This perspective takes the line that if I tell someone what to do and they do it, then the outcomes will be as I have planned and as I predict. If all the parts of the machine work as they are supposed to and as previously agreed upon, the machine will function smoothly and efficiently. Exhaustive policies and procedures, highly detailed strategic plans, lengthy job descriptions and KPI’s; all of these are artefacts of the Industrial Age. And during times of natural disaster, say, I want civil defence organisations to respond quickly and efficiently, so command-and-control will probably be incredibly beneficial. Similarly, when operating a public transport network, I want my local authority to emphasise order, reliability and consistency over experimentation and autonomy: in contexts such as these, there will be commonly agreed outcomes and end-goals will not be competing, so it seems sensible for an organisation and the people within it to operate with clockwork regularity. The important point is that running like clockwork will only be desired in specific contexts.
For many, many contexts in the Knowledge Age, however, the machine analogy is not so useful.
Leadership in the Knowledge Age is not about trying to simplify the complex so that it fits into an old world view; it is about developing the capability to manage (and manage ourselves) in the complex. We now know enough about CAS that it behoves us and our leaders to adapt to this new understanding. Complexity Leadership Theory tells us that the behaviour of a CAS emerges from the interactions between all its elements, i.e. the people. While management can put plans and hierarchies in place, how optimally an organisation operates will be a function of connectivity, creativity, flexibility and experimentation. When this is the case, the most sustainable leadership strategy is learning. By learning, I mean deep learning; not simply knowledge about. The imperative is for leaders to make a real quantum shift and to transform themselves so that their attitudes and behaviours are meaningfully and authentically changed. The things to learn are:
- Flexibility, adaptability and spontaneity-There must be greater ease and comfort in being in the messiness of the ‘unknown’. Solving complex problems requires divergent and creative thinking; many of our current challenges cannot be met in a linear paradigm. This means that leaders must look inward and grow themselves as people. These are not capabilities you can fake. It takes courage and grit and a willingness to look at your own inner workings.
- Experimentation and reflection-There will be less ‘telling people what to do’ and more openness to innovation and reflection upon what happens when something novel is applied. This means constantly being in a state of readiness to challenge the status quo and to challenge others to do the same. This means being un-attached to old ways of operating. This also means looking at what gets created in the system when something new is tried. An intelligent approach to experimentation underscores reflection, otherwise how can knowledge and information flows, connectivity and authority be tweaked and adjusted as you make your way to optimal outcomes?
- Systems thinking-When it’s less about ‘telling’ and more about ‘influencing’, it is vital to be able to see your wider system, its interconnectedness and its emergent dynamic. Old-style hierarchies do not solely dictate how we get people to do things any more. Being a systems thinker is also not just about being able to see the big picture. It’s about being able to see both the big picture and the finer details. A systems thinker will ‘helicopter’ in and out as needs and context demand, and then synthesise the data from both of these in the quest for answers.
- Creativity-I throw my support behind Dr. Mark Batey’s assertion that creativity is humankind’s ultimate resource. It is the arch-substance. In this YouTube interview, he advocates a more conscious approach to developing and nurturing creativity, leaving space for intelligent failure.
So, to conclude, dear readers, it’s time for an “I” test.
- How comfortable am I with ambiguity and the unknown?
- Am I capable of being both a military commander and an orchestra conductor? How would I know when the context requires each of these?
- When I meet a challenge, what do I assume and how far do I go to ‘unpeel layers of the onion skin’ to find patterns, interconnectedness and hidden meaning?
- What do I actively do to cultivate creativity: my own and others’?
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.