Leadership as a relational dynamic
Wright, N. (2013), 'Leadership as a Relational Dynamic', About Leaders, www.aboutleaders.com, 20 March.
Philosophically and practically, I find myself conflicted over the current preoccupation in leadership development circles with leadership competencies. On the one hand, I’ve seen and used competency frameworks for leadership assessment and development purposes and, on the whole, they did serve well as a useful touchstone for these purposes. They provided a helpful basis for awareness-raising, focused conversation, critical reflection and practical action. Pragmatically-speaking, they can be a useful tool.
On the other hand, there’s something about analysing leadership competencies that can feel reductionist. 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 or X factor.
The important point for me is that beauty isn’t just about some abstract objective quality of the rose – it’s about how I subjectively perceive, experience and respond to it. It’s not just what I see, it’s what I attribute to it, what it represents in my culture and 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 particular social, political and cultural environment.
It’s influenced by, for instance, what I as ‘led’ notice (and don’t), what I attribute success to (and don’t), what happens when a leader interacts with a particular people’s history, culture, values and expectations etc. This may explain why different leadership qualities prove successful in different contexts. For example, I once led a highly successful youth group in the North of England and yet when I tried applying the same leadership style and approach with a youth different group in the South of England, it was a terrible failure.
I’ve also noticed how in the same situation, different people respond to the same leader’s leadership differently. A leader may speak in a staff meeting, for instance, and one person is inspired whereas another person sitting next to her feels bored or disengaged. Each person experiences the leader subjectively. 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 relationship and context.
Staying with the rose analogy, a scientist may dissect a rose in order to understand and explain it. This form of inquiry can reveal important information about the rose at a basic biological and structural level but, at the same time, it will kill the rose as an entity and it certainly won’t explain why people buy roses for their partners. For me, defining competencies can feel more scientific than poetic. There’s something about dissecting and analysing the parts that risks missing or diminishing the quality of the whole.
I’m reminded of Edwin Nevis' 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’.’ (Organisational Consulting – A Gestalt Approach, 1987, p6).
I wonder therefore whether we would be better inquiring 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 happens, 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 of the leader him or herself?
Perhaps leadership isn't primarily something that lays 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. As a Christian, 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. The potential for a spiritual dynamic opens up a much wider conversation.
A friend, Alex, once commented: 'I wonder if leadership isn't always recognised at the time but is construed as leadership after the event, particularly by the follower more than the leader. As a follower, I am the only one who can legitimately apply the label leadership to what I experienced as a result of what you the leader did, how you were, what happened between us etc. If you the leader use the term leadership, all you can apply to it is a set of behaviours or competencies which may not have landed with me as leadership.'
A church minister speaks in a church meeting and evokes a positive response from those present that we may attribute to the minister's leadership qualities. If he or she spoke the same words in a very different context (e.g. in an environment hostile to Christian beliefs), it would evoke a different response. Does that mean the minister exercised leadership in the former environment but not in the latter, or is what we experience as 'leadership' actually the product of a social interaction within a specific social, cultural and political context?
It’s a difficult one. What results do we attribute to the leader and what do we attribute to other causal or contributing factors? It poses 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. Should it be as much about understanding and developing the kind of cultural environment that will lead to the outcomes we hope for as defining and developing the competence of individual leaders?