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.


  1. Good Post! You have highlighted some of the important issues in todays leadership roles. On this topic you might be interested to listen to a podcast of Vineet Nayar, where he talks about leadership roles, types of employees and few unique concepts which they have started within their organisations for employee development.

  2. Thanks for the comment and for the link. I enjoyed the interview with Vineet Nayar and appreciated his refreshing perspective, particularly about feedback, transparency and collaboration. His "zone of influence" is similar to what we call in our program one's "sphere of influence."

    I have always found it interesting that in the U.S. Democracy is virtue, except in the workplace. He seems to be making it a value in the workplace as well. We base our leadership education on that value. And like him not just because it is right but it is good business to do so.

    Thanks again for your comment.