‘When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy.’ (Dave Barry)
We can think of leadership as the property of a structure, in which a person designated as a 'leader' holds particular responsibilities and has, at least in principle, the hierarchical authority needed to fulfil them. We can also think of leadership as an intrinsic property of an individual. In this sense, leadership is something that resides within and emanates from a person, something that she or he has and does. This is the realm of competency frameworks and of leader-development initiatives.
We can also think of leadership as the property of a group; for instance, a leadership team. In this idea, shared leadership is something exercised by a collective, where a diverse united group is, in potential, more than the sum of its parts. We can also think of leadership as a property of a dynamically-complex eco-system, in which acts of leadership emerge, sometimes unexpectedly and from unexpected places, and exert influence. This is the arena of dispersed and distributed leadership.
In organisations, I’m finding the latter perspective especially useful. When working with leadership teams, I invite participants to reflect on the eco-system (cf Gestalt: field) as a whole; for instance: 'Where is leadership-as-influence exercised, inside or outside of the organisation’s boundaries? What are the distinctive roles and responsibilities of different 'leadership' entities within the system? What are the relationships between them? What does each need from the others to be effective?'
I notice this invariably opens up far deeper, wider and richer conversations than those that focus on individual leaders alone, or leadership teams in isolation, as if they exist in a cultural-contextual vacuum. Some people find it useful to experiment with mapping their eco-system graphically, recognising that any depiction will reveal and, therefore, create opportunity to open up to healthy exploration and challenge, the way in which they construe their reality and leadership dynamics within it.
‘When the world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.’ (Malala Yousafzai)
It’s about influencing, convincing, persuading – often with or on behalf of vulnerable people or groups who may lack the power, opportunity or safety to do it alone or for themselves. It always focuses on change, typically hoping to create a shift in strategy, policy or practice. My earliest attempts at advocacy were in my early teens, campaigning against brutal mistreatment of animals in Spanish bull-fighting. In my later teens, I moved into human rights work to campaign vociferously against horrific political abuses and atrocities in El Salvador. In retrospect, I do wonder if my energetic beating of the drum achieved anything.
My approach was certainly driven by passion, confronting head-on what I saw as critically important ethical issues. I would argue my case forcefully, growing ever-more skilful at constructing a stance based on sound evidence and, I hoped, near water-tight rationale. I was galvanised in this conviction and activism by my new-found faith as a follower of Jesus, and by biblical injunctions to: ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’; ‘Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed.’
In later years, I became increasingly convinced by the need for a radical change in my approach. There are occasions on which direct polemic is needed, for instance: for sake of conscience, to take a clear and unambiguous public counter-stance on an issue, irrespective of whether it will win the day. In many cases, however, I’ve found that prayer, empathy and diplomacy are more effective and less likely to provoke a defensive response. Diplomacy doesn't mean compromise. It does, however, call for humble respect; to see and relate to the ‘other’ as human, with their own hopes, anxieties, interests, pressures and concerns.
John M. Lannon proposes 4 main strands to this approach: ‘Show empathy; Acknowledge opposing views; Maintain a moderate tone; Use humour where appropriate.’ To show empathy is to identify with the others’ feelings and to express genuine interest in their best interest. To acknowledge opposing views is, before arguing your own case, to show respect for the other by acknowledging any merits in their position. To maintain a moderate tone is to resist overstating your case and stay away from emotionally-loaded words. To use gentle humour can ease the tension in a situation, depending on the nature of the relationship.
Some of the most inspiring role models in my own advocacy work have been: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Bob Hunter, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Jasmin Philippines, Mike Gatehouse, Sister Isabel Montero, Andy Atkins, Rudi Weinzierl, Mike Wilson, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Ruth Cook. Their approaches have all broadly been characterised by what the founders of Greenpeace saw as as 5 core elements and stances in world-changing individuals and movements: ‘Plant a mind bomb; Put your body where your mouth is; Fear success; The revolution will not be organised; Let the power go.’
‘Sometimes a language does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don't like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying.’ (Kory Stamper)
I taught English recently at a Montessori school in Germany. I was struck by the amazing level of conversational English of some of the students, and asked how it was possible that they could understand and speak so confidently and fluently at such a young age. Almost all replied that they have learned spoken English via online computer games, where they interact informally and socially with other young people from all over the world. English, for them, isn’t just another foreign language. It’s a form of linguistic currency that enables international communication, relationships, learning and fun.
I find myself wondering what the impact will be over, say, 30 years of so many young people 'rubbing shoulders' with international English in this way. I won’t be around then to know the answer to the question, but I suspect that German, currently with 16 different ways to say, for instance, the English word ‘the’, will become simplified in common usage, so that speakers will start to use just one form of definite article in their own language too. We may also see conventions in other increasingly-international languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, influencing how other languages are used.
What do you think?
‘When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can turn into deadly projectiles.’ (Despair.com)
You’ve probably heard of change management. You’ve probably heard of change management teams too. You’ve probably heard of change plans, like project plans, sometimes expressed in Gannt charts with rows of scheduled tasks, mapped against proposed timeframes. You’re less likely, I would guess, to have heard of a transition plan. A transition plan deals with the human dimensions of change, the underlying psychological, emotional and relational issues that often prove critical to its success.
Whilst change can often be planned and prepared for by agreeing desired outcomes, then working backwards to identify the practical steps needed to achieve them (a bit like working out the mechanical structure of a car engine in order to build one), transitions don’t work like that. A change process may be complex, in that there may be many interlinked moving parts, yet is in principle manageable. A transition process is dynamically-complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.
This means that transitions can only be handled effectively by ongoing conversations with affected people. It calls for open and honest dialogue. It calls us to be invitational, curious and co-creative. It involves listening, hearing, being responsive and building trust. ‘If we were to do X…what would it mean for you?’ ‘Given what it would mean for you, what would you need?’ Well-led transitions will influence mood, climate, energy, engagement and agency: critical success factors in any change.
'The art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.' (Georg Cantor)
I spent the past couple of weeks working with the public sector in the UK, providing Action Learning facilitator training for a team of managers and professional mentors. The purpose of the initiative is to equip the mentors to offer Action Learning sets to registered managers of care homes. Action Learning will enable those managers to navigate complex challenges they face, whilst building on the existing skills portfolio of the mentoring team itself.
One of the challenges for mentors can be to make a shift from offering information or advice to mentees, which is often core to a mentoring role, to offering open questions in an Action Learning style instead. One participant, Mark, offered a useful insight to peers in his training group, to help make this psychological and practical transition from guidance to questions: ‘If I think of a solution and frame it as a question, it’s likely to come across as a suggestion.’
I found this very interesting because it signals the implicit, subconscious influence that our thinking, as facilitators or peers, can have on what we do and on the impact it can have. This could include, for instance: our beliefs about our role; how we believe we could add value to resolving an issue; what we believe a presenter could or should do etc. – even if we don’t say it out loud. This calls us to prepare ourselves mindfully before we step into a round.
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