Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What is distinct about Leadership?

As a leadership educator I am in a lot of conversations on leadership, both in person and online. I continue to be quite surprised that in spite of a lot of attention being paid to the concept of leadership by academics, professionals, and in the media, its meaning continues to be rather ambiguous and amorphous. From these conversations, the vast majority of people believe leadership to be needed in this world, and worth developing. Yet, very few seem to agree on what leadership is. Surprisingly, many believe that work to define it will undermine effective practice of it.

As a leadership educator, I am convinced that to more effectively develop leadership capacity, we must make our understanding of it more explicit. My intention here is to offer some thoughts on leadership to spark conversation on what is distinctive about leadership, and what is worth developing.

People seem to use the term leadership to represent a dimension of intentional social activity that fulfills individual and collective “reasons to be.” In many conversations, I notice that leadership is often used alongside, or interchangeably with other important activities in which people engage on a day to day basis to fulfill our aspirations as human beings--parenting, teaching, governing, counseling, managing, to name a few. Many people seem to talk about managing as leadership, governing as leadership, educating as leadership. To use the term leadership interchangeably with these other activities runs the risk of obscuring what is unique and special to that particular activity. For example, parenting is a very sacred, worthy, and complex process. If we are to include leadership as part of parenting, then I think it should be adding something distinctive to it. Otherwise, why employ the term leadership?

So what is distinctive about leadership, which when it gets added to other human activities, it brings added value and does not displace the uniqueness and complexity of these various activities? It occurs to me that incorporating leadership into existing human activities, such as parenting, managing, organizing, etc., should be that which fortifies or enhances it in some way. In other words, leadership is not a separate activity but an added value activity--a way of perceiving and attending to the larger process in which the specific activity is embedded, and from which the activity receives added benefits. Bringing leadership to such things as parenting and managing is analogous to creating optimal conditions for growing food--building up the nutrient quality of the soil, planting the proper varietal for a particular climate, making sure physical layout of the garden ensures sunlight and wind protection. The unique processes involved in the growth of the plant or tree are all present but food production and its nutritious value is fortified by the optimal conditions present.

I am curious to know what you think of this idea that leadership does not occupy the same logical category of other human activities such as parenting, managing and teaching. What about the idea that leadership is about fortifying these activities? And what do you think of the idea that leadership adds value by focusing on creating optimal conditions for these activities, which in turn enhances the results of these activities. Do you have examples of this way of making meaning of leadership? And lastly, if we are to view leadership in this way, what do you think should be developed in people?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Re-imagining Leadership

This past week I participated in two conferences, one on human resources, HR West, and the other on social media technology's potential role in cultivating wisdom, Wisdom 2.0. In some ways they could not have been more different, and in other ways they were remarkably similar. It is the similarities that interest me. Here are four similarities that stand out.

1. Both conferences provided generative and stimulating conversations and connections with people who care deeply about their work and life.
2. Both encouraged a sincere and perhaps renewed focus on people, relationships and connections as central activities in social enterprises.
3. Both encouraged us to use social media technologies to facilitate and amplified these relationships and connections through social media technologies.
4. And both referenced leadership in predominately conventional terms--leadership is what individual leaders do in positions or roles of authority.

Numbers 1- 3 were the really enlivening parts of both conferences, number 4 was the disappointing part. Actually, I expected a retro view of leadership at the HR conference, but I did not expect it at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. Social media technology is the ultimate exemplar of how living systems work. So I thought those in the social media world would have a systems or networked view of leadership. Business enterprises, social change organizations, communities, and teams are all instances of living systems, in which information and meaning and intelligence emerge from energy/matter distributed through networks of interactivity and connection. From this perspective relationships, coherence and emergence are the “stuff” of the living world.

Assuming leadership is a dimension of social life, which I do--the intrinsic movement toward intentional change, then I would think it would get the same conceptualization by social media technophiles that they give to other facets of social life like intelligence or wisdom. If it did, then leadership would be conceived as what emerges from the interactions, relationships, connections, and creativity of the network itself, not the ideas, authority, or behaviors on any one person in it.

With this in mind, two questions follow. What is the role of the manager or designated leader? And how do you develop leadership capacity?

Whether the CEO or the first line supervisor, managers create the conditions for leadership to occur in the system or network. They do this through promoting interaction, relationships, shared meaning, creativity, and emergence among all stakeholders.

And one develops leadership capacity by encouraging and providing the resources for people to expand consciousness and develop personhood. This both contributes to, and is informed by, the collaborative work mentioned above.

Oh and by the way this is very old news. A relational, networked and systems view of life has been a feature of human consciousness for most of our existence and central to most societies throughout the globe, such as First Nation peoples, Asian and African civilizations, and medieval Europe, as well as countercultural groups existing in the margins of the West. It is the trance of modernity and the industrial era, which makes it seem to many people that this stuff is new. Certainly, its expression in today’s technology is. But today’s neuroscience, complexity and chaos science, and other scientific theories which highlights reality as interconnected are but footnotes to the accumulative wisdom and knowledge of many peoples in many eras. It is nice to have corroborated but it is not a necessary condition to put it into practice.

Sorry if this feels like a rant, but the work to re-imagine what leadership is a not as far along as I thought last week. Love to hear your thoughts.