Action Wheel Leadership
A Leadership Essay
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by Bob Terry
Leadership in a Shifting World
I have asked thousands of leaders to define leadership. Rarely is there much agreement about what the term, leadership, means. Go to a leadership seminar, read a leadership essay, or go to the leadership shelves of a bookstore and look for agreement. None there either. The concept of leadership is fragmented with hundreds of definitions and explicit and implicit action strategies and skills.
To test this, ask your colleagues to define leadership. Some will say leaders are born; others will say leaders are made. A few will claim it is a calling that grabs you and quickens action. Many will equate leadership with the leader, focusing on a person. Others stress the relationship between leaders and followers. Most equate leadership with the head of some group or organization. Others think leadership is potentially everywhere.
Some will press for results; others equate that with management and will focus on engagement of the spirit of the followers.
Power rarely comes up. If it does, some identify the need for both coercion and non-coercion.
The other side says leadership is only noncoercive: bosses pick employees, followers pick leaders. You can discipline and fire an employee; you cannot fire a follower.
Vision often comes up as part of leadership. For others vision does not ask what is really going on and needs to be contextualized by framing. Vision versus framing is a relatively new debate in leadership essays and literature on leadership. Given all the scandals in business organizations, the ethics question arises.
Is leadership intrinsically ethical or can leadership be both ethical and unethical? The Hitler question always comes up. And a new issue pops up more frequently now. Is leadership secular or spiritual?
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Leadership in Context
- How do we answer these questions? Suppose leadership differs by context. As our world shifts, leadership shifts.
- Consider these scenarios:
- Someone comes into your office with a problem. You have addressed this kind of situation many times. You give advice, the questioner is helped, and the problem is solved.
- You get feedback that an offhand comment you made in the hallway yesterday has alienated several employees and they are mobilizing to confront you.
- A technological breakthrough is announced that threatens one of your product lines. You did not see it coming.
- A tornado hits a plant and destroys part of your building. You have never experienced that before. You have no clue what to do.
- An angry employee sneaks into the workplace with a gun and shoots three people, killing two of them. You are nearby and rush into the hall. You are shot at and the bullet misses. You dive for cover. Other employees improvise and finally capture the shooter.
- It is fair to say that leadership differs dramatically depending on what kinds of challenges the world throws at us.
- As the world becomes more turbulent and our ability to tell what is going on with certainty decreases, we go through four stages (see figure):
- Stable and fixable
Complex with discernable patterns
Chaotic with no sure outcome
Terrifying, challenging with hope and courage
- Too often positional leaders live only in the first—stable and fixable—world. They look for an expert or manager to fix the problem, hire the person, support the fix, and then move on to another problem. Is leadership modeled? Not much. Expertise supplants leadership. In the more complex second world, management takes over from leadership. People focus on setting up and overseeing human systems: supervision and performance reviews, conflict management, team building, labor management issues, and so on. Management is more complex than expertise, yet both maintain a fix-it mentality. Expertise focuses more on the mechanical problems; management more on the people issues. In the more unpredictable and challenging third and fourth worlds, stock solutions and standard operating procedures become deeply inappropriate.
- Leaders need to improvise, confront paradox, and wrestle with deep questions of identity and meaning.
- What is involved in building leadership in an organization? How can we help people keep their bearings in all four worlds, from the stable to the terrifying? Over the years I have learned to understand the connections between personal, professional, and organizational (P-P-O) realities. Know yourself, your role and your organization. That never ends.
- Were you ever taught to leave your personal issues at home and not bring them to work? I was. It was wrong. P-P-O realities are deeply connected and cannot be easily separated.
- Leadership Question: What is Really Going On?
- Effective leadership requires answering a deep question that is the core of this leadership essay: "What is really going on personally, professionally and organizationally?" Leadership, whether done by an expert, manager, or executive is grounded in the wisdom of knowing what is really happening, which often means moving beyond fixing and managing. An authentic leader probes, improvises, and learns from mistakes.
- If the diagnosis is bad, the results of actions will backfire, often with unanticipated results. Have you ever faced this problem? You have a deep sense that your colleagues are not communicating well. So you frame the issue as breakdown of communication. What is the solution? Team building hits the radar screen. So you spend thousands of dollars to take everyone to an event and walk the high ropes and go through all the other team-building games. The members return. Little has changed.
- I have learned over the years that breakdown of communication is not what is really going on. The team members all know English and can talk easily. So what is the issue? Power. It is not that they cannot talk; they do not want to. Not talking is a way of holding power. Who is in charge? Is it worth talking to someone I do not respect or think is important? Team building rarely focuses on power. Behind power is lack of alignment on direction or mission. So focusing on processes when lack of alignment is the issue is a waste of time and money.
- How about this issue? Hidden agendas are palpable in the room. There is no agreement on direction. What is really going on? To focus on direction or mission will not address the issue. What is happening is a fight over values and what is crucial for P-P-O realities.
- Meaning, not mission, must be addressed. The issue may even require going back to the past and facing historical baggage.
- My point in this leadership essay: leadership asks the tough question—"what is really going on?" Answering this question authentically requires a lifelong commitment to learn.
- Learning to Lead
- What are the profound teachers? Mistakes, shadows, cynicism, and fools. No mistakes; no learning. Just don't make the same mistake twice. Pass on the wisdom from the mistake to peers and others.
- Shadows, explored by Carl Jung, point to that aspect of P-P-O realities that we fear or do not wish to address. Yet they are real and haunt us. Sometimes our own insecurities box us in. Sometimes it is a wife, husband or children who are a pain. Sometimes we can't abide our peers, boss or organization. If you stop and pay attention to things you usually avoid thinking about, you can learn a lot.
- Working with both business and government, I learned that both harbor cynicism about the other. I have discovered that people are cynical about things that are important to them. So let the cynicism emerge. It will help clarify values priorities. Get more in touch with the cynicism in your organization rather than ignore and suppress it.
- And then a fool shows up or you become a fool. According to The Corporate Fool by David Firth and Alan Leigh, the fool does the undoable, thinks the unthinkable, says the unsayable, and drives your sensible organization mad with creative folly. Often fools are rejected. Instead, thank them for the courage it takes to open closed doors and windows. Fools are great teachers. Thank you for allowing me to share this leadership essay. ~Bob Terry
- This leadership essay by Bob Terry, author of Authentic Leadership: Courage In Action, was first published in the Drucker Foundation's Leader to Leader Journal.
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