I'm still struggling with my sense of unease about the notion of leadership as competence - something like management that can be identified, distilled, analysed, abstracted, codified and replicated.
Perhaps leadership isn't primarily something that lies within the individual - that's potential. It's an expression of an inspirational dynamic that sometimes takes place between people, rather than first and foremost a description of the intrinsic attributes or behaviours of a particular person or people per se.
It emerges, sometimes unexpectedly, when people interact with one another in a specific relational and cultural environment. It's a mysterious dynamic that sparks and sustains desire, movement and transformation. In this sense, leadership is essentially a social and contextual phenomenon, not an individual abstract one.
I wonder if this dynamic between people, emerging in the creative space generated through relating and relationship, implying connection and synergy at some deep interpersonal level, is also a dynamic inhabited and energised by the leading and liberating presence of the Spirit. It's about leading between and leading within.
Yes, some people do display observable behavioural characteristics commonly associated with 'good leadership' - characteristics that can be described in a practical competency framework - but I still have the sense there's a profound dimension to leadership that is so much more than that.
I'm interested in how different people use the word 'talent'. Some appear to mean special individuals with excpetional capabilities, capabilities that would prove successful in virtually any environment. Some seem to mean the distinctive gifts or capabilities that each person has developed or is endowed with.
I'm curious about the former definition because it begs interesting questions about what constitutes 'successful' and what the relationship is between talent and environment.
For instance, it's possible to imagine a very capable person with exceptional expertise who nevertheless has an unhelpful attitude, dubious ethical character or feels no engagement with or commitment to the team or organisation and its goals. It's equally possible to imagine a person who is very capable and successful in one environment but fails to succeed in a different environment.
So, when we consider questions of talent, I believe it's also useful to consider wider questions of attitude, character, engagement and fit.
Philosophically and practically, I find myself quite conflicted over the leadership competencies agenda.
On the one hand, we use a capability framework at an INGO where I work for assessment and development purposes and, on the whole, it provides a useful touchstone for these purposes. It was derived from observations globally of what seems to make people successful within the organisation's cultural environment (although I’m not sure what criteria were used to denote ‘success’). It provides a basis for awareness raising, focused conversation, critical reflection, practical action (e.g. developing new insights or ways of doing things). So, pragmatically-speaking, it does prove a useful tool.
On the other hand, there’s something about analysing leadership competencies that can feel reductionist. I think that’s where my underlying discomfort lies. I’m reminded of a philosophy lecturer during my theological studies who introduced the idea of a beautiful rose. "A poet tries to capture and express the rose’s beauty in colourful, creative language. It’s about its intangible qualities – beauty, essence, spirit, impact." Perhaps, by analogy, we might experience this phenomenon in leaders as personality, character, charisma, X factor.
What’s interesting for me is that ‘beauty’ isn’t just about the rose – it’s about how I perceive, experience and respond to it. It’s not just what I see, it’s what I attribute to it, what I feel and do as a result. By analogy, I wonder if what I regard as ‘good leadership’ in a particular time and context is really the result of a complex combination of personal qualities emerging and interacting in a specific social/political/cultural environment. It’s influenced by what I notice (and don’t), what I attribute success to (and don’t), what happens when the leader interacts with people’s history, culture, values, expectations etc.
This may explain why different leadership qualities prove successful in different contexts. I’ve had personal experience of this. For example, I once led a highly successful youth group in the North of England. I tried applying the same leadership style and approach with a youth group in the South and it was a terrible failure. I’ve also noticed how in the same situation, different people respond to the same leader’s leadership differently. One person is inspired where another feels disengaged. As with the rose, there’s some kind of dynamic interplay between stimulus and responder.
This makes me wonder which, if any, leadership qualities are universal and which, if any, are contingent on context.
Staying with the rose analogy, the scientist dissects the rose in order to understand and explain it. This form of inquiry can explain the rose at a basic structural level but it won’t explain why people buy roses for their partners. I guess, for me, defining competencies can feel more scientific than poetic. There’s something about the dissecting that risks missing or even diminishing the quality of the whole.
I’m reminded of Nevin’s seminal work on Gestalt consulting: "The whole is more than the sum of the parts, as the arrangement of configuration of the parts is what gives an object its unique quality. In the case of singling out a tree in a park, the object is perceived almost immediately as a tree even if our attention is drawn to some parts more than to others. Studying only isolated, single parts of the tree (trunk, roots, branches, leaves etc) does not allow one to experience that which we call ‘tree’."
I've been prompted to consider two other issues which are related to the above. Firstly, whether it’s more meaningful to speak of leadership qualities and management competencies than leadership competencies. I'm not sure, but 'quality' somehow holds for me that sense of mystery that lies beyond transferable capability.
Secondly, whether we should inquire into what factors are making the difference in a specific real time and context rather than focusing on distilling and codifying generic leadership qualities or capabilities ‘out of context’. In other words, should we pay more (or equal) attention to evaluating leadership on the basis of what is achieved, what its effects are, which values are safeguarded etc. rather than the simple (in theory, if not in practice) qualities or capabilities the leader displays? It’s a difficult one. What results do we attribute to the leader and what do we attribute to other causal or contributing factors?
I’m reminded, by analogy, of the difference between Investors in People and Best Companies. Investors in People evaluates inputs (e.g. specific processes and practices) with the assumption that prescribed inputs (‘good practice’) will lead to desired outputs. By contrast, Best Companies evaluates whether desired outputs (staff engagement) have been achieved in a specific organisation and inquires into what has contributed to those results (e.g. confidence in leadership during tough economic times).
This poses interesting questions and challenges for leadership (as distinct from management skills) development: whether it’s possible and, if so, what we are trying to develop and how best to go about developing it.
The approach we’ve used in the INGO has focused mainly on developing cultural aspiration, holding ‘leadership conversations’ (getting leaders together to chat about what’s real and important for them and seeing what emerges), inviting stakeholder feedback, participating in executive coaching and action learning. I would love to hear how others are approaching leadership development and to draw on their ideas and learning too.
One final thing occurs to me. I've noticed how many leadership characteristics could be regarded and framed as essentially self-balancing. For example, visionary yet realistic; flexible yet robust; inspiring yet listening; humble yet assertive; courageous yet empathetic; strategic yet grounded. I can draw these ‘polarities’ as spokes on a wheel with 'person' at the hub and 'context' at the rim. There's something about what mode or quality influences change in a specific environment. I'm going to give more thought to that.
‘There’s value in raising awareness, but the real question is what a person or team chooses to do with that awareness.’ I made this comment to a colleague today who works in team development using various psychometric tools.
I’ve noticed implicit assumptions among some practitioners using such tools (e.g. MBTI or MVPI), as if enabling team members to understand more about themselves and each other will of itself lead to improved relationships and effective working. I don’t doubt the value of psychometrics when used well but I do want to add other dimensions to the awareness-raising equation. My sense is that fundamental and sustainable development in an individual or team only really occurs when the A of Awareness is matched by the corresponding A of Attitude and A of Action.
It’s quite feasible, for instance, that in some team environments and cultures, greater awareness will simply lead to greater competitive advantage at an interpersonal level (‘now that I know this about you, I can use it against you to my advantage’). The issue of Attitude is, therefore, really points to deeper issues of underlying beliefs, values and intention. How can we encourage and build humanistic values in individuals and teams so that they will use what they learn ethically and to mutual rather than selfish advantage?
It’s also quite feasible that team members will learn new things about themselves and others but fail to act differently on the basis of that awareness in their day-to-day interactions. It’s like the biblical notion of a person looking in a mirror then walking away only to forget what he or she looks like. The issue of Action, therefore, is really about securing commitment to new behaviour and making it stick. How can we ensure that what will feel alien for people at first will become second nature over time?
So there is the challenge. To approach psychometrics in teambuilding with a wider perspective in view and to broaden our practice to (a) inquire into values and (b) ensure implementation.
Operating at the leading edge, forging forward into the exciting unknown can be a thrilling experience, a real opportunity for learning, development and discovery. At the same time it is the place of greatest risk, the place of greatest potential cost if we get it wrong. That’s the mark of courageous leadership – taking the risk, seizing the opportunity, stepping outside of our comfort zones to discover what’s possible, ready to bleed if our best efforts fail.
I was amused by a colleague yesterday who spoke of this phenomenon as ‘living at the bleeding edge’. We’re involved in a team leading an international NGO through a potentially radical strategy and change process. I can feel my own excitement and anxiety, the opportunity to contribute something that could really add value and yet, at the same time, nagging fears about whether I’ll prove good enough, whether the outcomes will achieve what we’re hoping for.
It’s at this point where I’m reminded most of my profound need for God’s grace, to give me courage to step into the unknown, to inspire with wisdom, to become more than I thought possible, to brace myself against my worst fears and to trust him if all else fails. I’m learning by this experience that the courageous leader is not the one who lacks fear but the one who overcomes fear by doing what’s right in spite of that fear. May God help me to be that leader.
I had a brief conversation with my 9 year old daughter as I was leaving the house this morning. ‘How come you’ve got sausages in your packed lunch?’ I asked. ‘I have them on special occasions’, she replied. ‘So what’s so special about today?’ I asked, now intrigued. ‘I’m having sausages!’ she replied, without flinching. I did laugh. I love the way that children don’t feel bound and constrained by the logic and patterns of thinking that we as adults allow ourselves to become tied up by. There’s a freedom and playfulness that allows new perspectives, insights and ideas to emerge.
I became conscious of how quickly I move from a free flow of ideas to judging and evaluating them, discarding any that don’t fit with my preconceived notions and expectations of how things are or should be. I limit myself by the boundaries of my own imagination, stifling creativity and paradoxical insight without even knowing it. I’m reminded profoundly of the biblical challenge, ‘unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. It’s about seeing the invisible, hearing the unspoken word, discovering a way where there is no way.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.