In a new LinkedIn Group associated with the Centre for Progressive Leadership, members were recently invited to answer the following question:
"What are your top five 'must haves' if we are to see progress in the field of leadership?"
In response to this, and echoing my recent paper for the Centre entitled Taking Organisational Complexity Seriously, it seems to me that meaningful progress depends on the willingness and ability of managers to:
- understand and engage more insightfully with the complex social reality of organizational life;
- avoid the lure of simplistic, “if you do this, you’ll get that” prescriptions; and, in the words of Ralph Stacey,
- accept that "Managing and leading are exercises in the courage to go on participating creatively despite not knowing."
At present, there is a wide gap between the established ways in which people understand and talk about organizational leadership, and the current reality of what leaders actually do in practice. Rather than prescribing some idealized future state based on prescriptive 'must haves', therefore, I thought I would respond to the question by offering five ‘already haves’. That is, five ways (amongst others) in which people's experienced reality of organizational life and leaders' actual behaviours already run counter to the ways in which these are supposed to operate according to conventional management 'wisdom' and common discourse.
These five 'already haves' are reproduced below.
- ‘Talk’, in the broadest sense of the word, is the means through which organization and leadership are enacted. This means that, for leaders in particular, talk is not a precursor to action. Talk is action.
- The characteristic patterning of people's thoughts and actions, which we think of as organizational culture, is an emergent property of the complex social process of their everyday interactions. Leaders are powerful participants in this ongoing sense-making-cum-action-taking process. But they are not designers and builders of it.
- Performance ‘outcomes’ similarly emerge from the organization-wide interplay of these same, ‘local’ (i.e. one-to-one and small-group) interactions. Within this, leaders provide “vision” through their own day-to-day conversations with others - by helping them to ‘see better’ in terms of the ways in which they make sense of emerging events and take action. That is, vision is more about insight than far sight.
- Power and politics are natural dynamics of organisational performance and leadership practice in all contexts. That is, all interactions reflect differing, and potentially competing, interpretations, interests, ideologies, identities, and intentions. This means that the very essence of leadership is about acting politically (and ethically) in one’s moment-by-moment interactions - i.e. seeking to surface and deal ethically with these differences, in ways that one judges to be organisationally enhancing.
- Coalition formation is a natural dynamic of human interaction. This process occurs continuously and spontaneously, as people make sense of, and act into, emerging events. Coalitions form – with or without the relevant formal leaders’ involvement - to initiate, support, or frustrate change. This means that the only choices open to those in formal leadership positions – from CEO to first-line supervisor - are if and how they should engage with this ongoing coalitional activity.
In all of this, as intimated by Stacey, leaders can act with intent but can neither predict nor control what will ultimately emerge.