Reflections on Leadership
Posted by David Green — August, 2015
There has been much written about leadership in organisational settings over the last 20+ years. Few writers actually say this, but I believe that leadership is about working effectively with human dynamics – things like trust, purpose, meaning, direction, morale, change, learning, energy, focus, connectivity. Its outcomes are high morale, organisational cohesion and congruence, openness and honesty, mutuality and support, positive attitudes, high levels of commitment and performance, and a strong awareness of others.
I suspect that the impetus for highlighting the importance of leadership in recent years has come from the growing impact of change and unpredictability – technological developments, particularly in computers and communications, and educational, globalisational, environmental, and social change. Shifts in power, influence and wealth are enormous and 'out of left field'. Everything is in motion, nothing is static, and maybe it never was. Perhaps it was just that our old paradigm for understanding the world was a static one; certainly, along with sweeping change has come a growing paradigm which sees the ‘real’ world as one in constant flux and tension, and at its most creative at ‘the edge of chaos’. Some writers see the extent of change and uncertainty in the world now as more significant than at any time over the last 500 years. In this context, there is an amplified need for more leadership in all our organisations and institutions. And in companies, change is also huge, unpredictable, and largely uncontrollable – all the meanings which underpin and hold together our worklives are constantly being challenged and reformed – questions like ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I good at?’, ‘Who can I trust?’ ‘What do I need to know?’, ‘Am I valued?’ have to be addressed, individually and collectively, all the time.
When we visit companies with good leadership, we notice that people speak well of themselves and each other, they ‘look out for’ each other, they solve problems quickly and together, they include each other ‘in the loop’ whenever it’s useful, they are frank and direct though with respect, and they have robust conflict which is resolved promptly. They face hard stuff together, and table issues and feelings, confident that the best will come of it. Productivity is high, and everyone is in the process of learning things (and making the necessary mistakes). They know their own and each others’ strengths and weaknesses, often give each other feedback, and resolve any issues which arise from doing that. And they both offer and accept leadership in different situations. They share values and a clear sense of purpose, and they regularly test these against their actions.
In doing leadership development in about 30 organisations over the last decade, involving several thousand people, there are several aspects to the effective exercise of leadership which stand out.
Here is a package of my thoughts about the essential nature of leadership, which may help us to be clear about what we have to focus on if we want to generate more of it in our organisations and other human systems.
Leadership has to be claimed
We can’t make others into leaders, nor can we nominate others to lead. Leadership is a set of actions for which we take responsibility. Telling others to lead is like telling people to ‘grow up’, or ‘stand up for themselves’, or ‘take responsibility’. It’s like independence – no-one else can make it happen for us. Similarly, waiting for others to fill a leadership vacuum is to give away our power over our own destiny, rather than claiming it. Others may not accept our offer, of course, but neither can they create our readiness to step forward, propose a course of action, show our commitment, or seek to inspire. But if we don’t put ourselves forward, neither our colleagues nor ourselves will know what leadership we may bring.
Leadership is a moving force
In workplaces, leadership can be found at any level, in any group or team, and in any of the people. In fact, in fluid systems, leadership will be given by various members at different times. We may give leadership in one context, or at one time, and followership at others. Good leadership can be demonstrated on the shop floor, in middle management, and in the executive. Of course, we hope that at senior levels, we will find both sound management judgement and leadership; the further up the food chain, the more people will be affected by our behaviour and our thinking. A key organisational issue in times of constant change is whether we can create the conditions for the emergence of leadership at all levels – senior managers alone cannot effect the capability we need. And, in a context where much of the literature on leadership focuses on CEO’s, it is sometimes helpful to change the word ‘leader’ to ‘leadership’.
Leadership is always in relationship
Human beings in isolation cannot engage in leadership. Relationships are the primary vehicle for the exercise of leadership; arguably, the quality of the relationship reflects the quality of leadership. When we think of it in these terms, it reminds us to give our attention to the ‘other’ and to the quality of our connection. When we seek to give leadership, we therefore have to attend to the impact on others, and the messages they take from our interactions. And so, it is often useful to think of leadership as a ‘real-time’ phenomenon.
Leadership means engagement
The moment we turn away from someone, we are no longer ‘in relationship’. Leaders welcome engagement – whether it’s a challenge, a question, or an opinion. Their non-verbals say so; they turn to the other person, listen, and respond. They don’t necessarily agree, but their response is honest, and as open as possible. They don’t use the contact to score points; their manner of engaging honours the other person. They ‘move towards the tension’, whether it’s a challenge, feedback, emotionality, or something which might be uncomfortable. The act of engaging maintains relationship.
Leadership is about what we aspire to and moving towards it
Leadership is always associated with direction – with a desirable future, with possibilities, with clarity of purpose and vision. As such, it is always about positives, in images, words, and feelings. It is thus not about problem-solving, fixes, or remediation. Leadership extends people’s sense of what is feasible, desirable, and valuable. It inevitably tends to draw us towards our best endeavours. And clear direction enables flexibility of action, while holding everyone in connection.
Personal qualities are integral to leadership
Some personal qualities seem to be essential to the exercise of leadership; others seem to be important in the experience of followers who would give their trust. These include:-
- Courage – to actually do what we know needs doing
- Integrity – standing by our words
- Congruence – behaviour, words, and non-verbals in alignment, and often shown in the process of revealing the ‘whole person’
- Trustworthiness – earning trust in the eyes of others
- Self-belief – a grounded confidence in ourselves
- Compassion – literally, the ability to ‘feel with’ others
- Self-awareness – knowing our own motives, strengths and weaknesses
- Boldness – presenting ourselves to take risks or innovate
- Humility – not self-effacement, but accepting one’s humanity, in the absence of hubris
- Robustness – being personally strong in persisting
- Learning-oriented – continuously pursuing development for self and others
Leadership embraces participation
Effective leaders don’t ‘sit above’ the system, in a detached pose. They know that they cannot not participate in the system, and that therefore the leadership issue is about the nature of that participation. Equally, good leaders constantly invite the participation of others. They welcome the fact that sharing power, sharing knowledge and sharing the lead can all potentially make the system stronger and smarter; but it does not require giving away their own power or responsibility.
Leadership is about the personal and the subjective
Accepting another’s leadership is a personal commitment, based on trust and respect. It doesn’t automatically happen because of a person’s formal position. And the dynamics of leadership are all about a world best understood as personal and subjective, rather than rational and objective. Commitment involves both the head and the heart, and connectivity is more a matter of emotions and risk-taking. Leaders understand that this domain is one which has to be worked with on its own terms – it is the world of patterns, and of realities which are personally and socially constructed.
Leadership enhances meaning and the spirit
These two aspects are among the most important intangibles at the centre of leadership. Human beings are continually concerned with finding meaning in virtually everything which occurs in their lives, a part of how we ‘make sense’ of things. We do this individually and with others with whom we share our lives. Leaders help others through this process, particularly at times of change, when our identity, our purpose, our work roles and values are in flux. In an organisational environment, leaders, rather than dictate the new meanings, will actively co-create them with colleagues – and because this is more meaningful, it usually leads to renewed commitment. Many writers also see good leadership, then, as concerned with the spirit, or the soul, that exists in every organisation.
Leadership involves dealing with projection
Projection is the mechanism whereby we locate qualities, which are actually within us, in others instead. We do this, for example, when we create heroes and villains, or celebrities. At their best, leaders can serve as the locus of our power and intelligence, in order to create direction, purpose and coherence. We have to also be alert to the capacity for people to give away these qualities to designated leaders, and disown them in themselves. When we do this, we make ourselves helpless, dependent and inert. Intelligent leaders understand the potential for projection, and actively discourage dependence in others.
Leadership is embodied
We commonly speak of certain qualities as being 'embodied' in particular people, and leadership can be spoken of in that way too. Our capacity to find and express our leadership is integrally linked to our connection to our physical selves – our postures, breathing, comfort in/with our bodies, voice, movement, gestures, spatial position. Our ability to find our leadership and to express it is integrally tied to our awareness of and connectivity with our tangible selves. Learning to pay attention to our bodies helps us to attend to our internal states, and in turn, our emotions, motives, and behavioural and thought patterns.
Leadership can be developed
I believe strongly that the leadership capacity in us can be developed. Because this is essentially about self-understanding, human skills and ‘subjective’ ways of thinking, it’s a long-term and slowly-built capacity. Understanding theory and acquiring knowledge is helpful, but the most important developments relate to our engagements with people – to connect, empathise, collect data, and communicate – and to self-awareness – to build an ever-expanding sense of self, that is, our history, our motives, our strengths and limitations, and our patterns, and to be always seeking to learn and understand more. When these aspects are combined, we see that effective leaders consciously and critically set out to model what they ask of others, and use a wide array of distinctly human abilities.
About DAVID GREEN
David has been developing leaders for over 30 years and a good chunk of that time he has used narrative techniques.
He specialises in running leadership programs that concentrate on team dynamics, building trust and learning how to say what you mean.