Rethinking leadership

Conventionally, we tend to think of leaders as those who are in positions of formal authority – and that leadership is a quality that is ‘possessed’ by these individuals. The association of leadership with the individual feeds into deeply held ideas about what makes a ‘good’ leader; words like ‘strength’, ‘charisma’, ‘persuasion’ are typically used.

Yet, if we step back, we can see this is a rather narrow idea of leadership which, although dominant, can and should be challenged. Professor Joseph Raelin of Northeastern University, whose research explores how organisations might become ‘leaderful’, suggests an alternative view of leadership as ‘practice’. Instead of a set of traits held by an individual, Raelin (2016) argues that leadership “emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experiences”, through the activity of the group, their social interactions, reflections and responses to each other.

When we view leadership as emerging from ‘collective meaning making’, rather than an individual leader’s actions, we can begin to think about how organisations might generate what Raelin calls ‘collaborative agency’ – the collective capacity to create positive change.

From distributed leadership to collaborative agency

Certainly, there has been widespread recognition that if organisations are to be resilient and adapt to rapid change, they need to shift away from hierarchical models of leadership – where decision-making is controlled by the few – to ‘flatter’, distributed structures, where interconnected teams have the autonomy to change and innovate. Yet, these models often still maintain a distinction between ‘leaders’, who set the direction, and ‘followers’, who are invited to participate in carrying out the direction.

Raelin argues that if we want to create a ‘leaderful organisation’, we need to activate collaborative agency. He lays out four key leadership activities which are not tied to an individual leader, but rather form the ‘practice’ of leadership in the organisation:

  • Scanning: Seeking out resources and information which may contribute to solving a problem.
  • Signaling: Mobilizing action by coordinating the attention of others to a particular problem or action.
  • Weaving: Creating connections between individuals and groups, and between disperse activities and ideas, to build trust and a sense of coherence.
  • Stabilizing: Providing feedback and thinking evaluatively, to encourage continuous learning.

Importantly, as Raelin cautions, this form of leadership-as-practice does not often come naturally – particularly where our cultural and organisational norms tend towards hierarchy. To lay the foundations for collaborative agency, Raelin recommends three key ‘relational’ actions:

  • Inviting: Ensuring that the opportunity to contribute is open to all.
  • Unleashing: Encouraging active participation without fear of censure.
  • Reflecting: Thinking critically about the past, present and future, questioning assumptions and deeply held beliefs.

Growth through dialogue

As the actions outlined above suggest, at the core of developing collaborative agency is dialogue – within an organisation or a team, individuals listen to one another, reflect on different perspectives, and are open to being changed by this process. This reflects a social-constructivist view of learning: human development requires both interaction and reflection.

When we facilitate this kind of meaningful, open-ended dialogue, we create the conditions for growth and change, not only for the individual, but for the organisation. We move from seeing leadership as a quality held by a few, to something that can be practised by all.

Reference

Raelin, J. A. (2016). Imagine there are no leaders: Reframing leadership as collaborative agency. Leadership, 12(2), 131–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715014558076

Leading through uncertainty

In times of disruption, leaders can help us focus on what matters most.

Even the best laid plans…

Conventional models of leadership tend to emphasise the importance of ‘vision’ – the leader looks ahead, sets the direction and makes the plan for how to get there. It is a highly rational model, which is usually conceptualised as a linear process, moving through the stages of setting objectives, planning, implementing and evaluating success.

Yet, as we have all experienced in 2020, disruption and volatility can lay waste to even the most detailed strategic plan. As we’ve seen in the case of AirBnB, even organisations who thrive on ‘disruption’ can be disrupted themselves by the unpredictability of global events. Where once we talked in the abstract about the ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, we are now experiencing it in a very real way with the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are leaders to do when the strategic plan goes out the window? How can we best lead others through times of great upheaval and uncertainty?

 Holding to what matters

We have seen how the experience of uncertainty can disrupt ‘business as usual’, and cause us to re-evaluate what is actually important to us – as organisations, communities and individuals.

In a piece for the Harvard Business Review, organisational expert Gianpiero Petriglieri challenges the over-emphasis on vision in leadership models, pointing to its irrelevance in crisis situations. Instead, he argues, the key role of the leader needs to shift to one of ‘holding’ – that is, ‘containing’ and ‘interpreting’ uncertain events, which creates space for others to focus on what matters most.

It is human nature that in a crisis, we tend towards panic, anxiety, and even anger. When leaders prioritise ‘holding’, they reduce the cognitive and emotional impact of uncertainty. Ironically, by narrowing the vision of the organisation for a period of time, they give permission for people to focus on the present.

Making space for growth

While it can be instinctive for leaders to act (and react) in response to events, it can sometimes be more powerful to limit ‘top-down’ actions, and instead make space for individuals to adapt and grow.

Tracing the psychological basis of the idea of ‘holding’, Petriglieri cites the work of David Winnicott on the conditions for healthy growth and flourishing in children. Winnicott’s research found that when parents created space for emerging independence – being present but not imposing, responsive but not reactive – they nurtured children with a strong sense of agency and self awareness.

Indeed, we know that the same is true in organisational contexts – autonomy and agency are essential in building capacity as well as in fostering intrinsic motivation. When leaders create the conditions for individuals to make and reflect on decisions, they not only feel a sense of control over their work which is central to resilience, but they also develop their capacity to problem-solve in the face of challenging situations.

From surviving to thriving?

While the recent pandemic may be considered an ‘extraordinary’ event, it has exposed the inherent fragility of a world that is increasingly interconnected – uncertainty, it would seem, is the only certainty.

To navigate this world, we will need leaders who can not only look to the future, but also be with us in the present. By acknowledging uncertainty, re-focusing our attention on what matters, and ‘holding’ space for growth, we just might emerge from this crisis more resilient, adaptive and creative.

 

 

Leading the way in a pandemic

Leading a complex organisation is difficult enough in ‘ordinary’ circumstances, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up all kinds of new challenges for leaders, at a time when everyone is looking to them for answers. How might leaders create a ‘point of certainty’ in uncertain times?

Predictably unpredictable

It’s no exaggeration to say that the current pandemic has caused unprecedented levels of disruption to our ways of working and living – to say nothing of the enormous human and economic toll. The lack of a roadmap makes this crisis particularly challenging – governments, organisations and communities are responding day-to-day, working with limited information which is always changing.

This unpredictability can be particularly uncomfortable for leaders who are used to working to a strategic plan; as the Harvard Business Review points out, such crises have historically been ‘make or break’ moments for leaders.

So what can we learn – from research and from example – about the key elements of successful leadership in a crisis?

Calm

Perhaps the most challenging task facing leaders is to project calm in the face of chaos and uncertainty. In a crisis, communities look to leaders for guidance and reassurance, and while a leader may not be able to provide all the answers, it is crucial to provide a sense of direction and resolve.

This ‘direction-giving’ is a common element in leadership communication theory; however, as Suze Wilson notes in The Conversation, leaders cannot rely solely on this approach if they want to successfully lead communities through upheaval.

Clarity

Citing Ronald Heifetz’s work on leadership in the midst of uncertainty, Wilson notes that a clear message from leaders becomes even more important during crisis situations. She gives the example of Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic, and particularly her use of a simple and transparent decision-making framework.

By clearly communicating the possible scenarios and actions the government would take in those circumstances, she provided citizens with clarity as to what might lie ahead, as well as an understanding of why particular decisions would be made. This transparency enhances trust and a sense of certainty, despite the constantly evolving circumstances.

Compassion

While it may seem obvious, the expression of empathy and compassion is particularly important during a crisis; yet, as Wilson points out, many leaders struggle to do this effectively, perhaps feeling that it may undermine the projection of strength and reassurance.

However, as we see with Ardern, when a leader articulates and acknowledges the fear and anxiety of the broader community, this can enhance a sense of psychological safety. Ardern also acted directly to address this anxiety, creating an open forum to speak directly to citizens and answer their questions. By recognising emotional responses, leaders can speak directly to them, and provide reassurance that they understand the lived experiences of those in their community.

Communication in a crisis

As we all live through the pandemic, it has become evident that calm, clear and compassionate communication from leaders is more important than ever. We can draw on these lessons from successful crisis leadership to better understand how we might lead our communities through this crisis with both strength and empathy.