Leadership Old and New
Leadership has traditionally been treated as a property of the person and as an appointed role of authority in an organizational hierarchy. As I’ve written elsewhere, this can lead to confounding managerial work with leadership action. The former involves planning, organizing, and directing enterprise operations on a tactical and strategic level. This is important work. It generates, hones, and sustains systems of predictable performance. It is a vital part of good governance.
Leadership, on the other hand, is action that clarifies focus in moments of confusion, revitalizes effort in times of fatigue and doubt, and asserts timely intervention when hesitation threatens to stall forward movement. It need not be the storied stuff of Churchill or the exemplary moral leadership that led Johnson & Johnson out of the Tylenol scare years ago. It may consist in simply noticing, calling out, and prompting reflection upon the slowed, troubled, or discouraging state of performance.
This act of noticing, done in a thoughtful, nonjudgmental manner, may be enough to disarm the aggressive-defensive emotions that arise from prolonged frustration and block adaptive development. That done, those who prompt this reflective shift in attitude and focus, may then defer to another’s effort to reopen appraisal and perspective-taking, and still another’s role in sparking a fresh approach to solution-focused thinking. These are aligned acts of emergent leadership asserted by multiple members of a group.
Perhaps you’ve seen this occur spontaneously in your career, a group whose “chemistry” seemed to catalyze such leadership. We can immediately feel the power of such experiences. We may also be able to cite numerous examples of groups where the dynamics that promote such claiming and granting of leadership just weren’t present. When we ask why, we might be tempted to attribute the deficit to the dominance of one person or the quality of the organizational culture.
The truth usually is much more complex. Seldom can one line of causal attribution explain great or disappointing performance. The point of view I would like to offer in this short article suggests that our stubborn attachment to an outdated notion of leadership as a property of the individual is at the heart of much of the frustration that paralyzes a group in these critical moments. It undermines the potential for acts of emergent leadership that could be so helpful. Let me explain.
Leadership as Co-constructed Action
Whereas good management breeds stability, good leadership constructively disrupts stability gone stale. We want and need both, but we don't always convey a balanced appreciation for both. When we implicitly define leadership as the prerogative of those with positional authority, we usually stifle rather than encourage the timely and constructive disruption of stale stability. Legacy norms, attitudes, and patterns of action, which were co-constructed, make deference a priority. Yes, even those oppressed by old norms do co-construct them.
Leadership as co-constructed action means that those who assert leadership (“claiming”) and those who collaboratively affirm and follow it (“granting”), play reciprocal roles in reinforcing the prevailing (hierarchical) power structure. Therefore, it's not enough for management to declare that subordinates are empowered to assert leadership. Such granting from “on high” may just reinforce the current power structure. At some point, management must assign responsibility for a different kind of co-construction.
One criterion for evaluating whether a new norm of reliance on emergent leadership has taken hold is observing that a free-flowing claiming and granting of leadership has begun manifesting among peers and colleagues. The paradoxical outcome of perpetuating what management seeks to change (i.e., reliance on hierarchical power) is overcome by an intelligent and disciplined approach to boundaries. Management has the authority and power to charge groups of subordinates with the task of accomplishing enterprise goals through action learning projects.
This delegated authority and responsibility is a pragmatic approach to enlisting the help of the next levels down in experimenting with a more dynamic (distributed) approach to leadership. It works best when management gives them this charge as well as developmental resources and facilitative support: 1) to help them interpret and own the charge (boundary management); 2) to differentiate emergent leadership and what it should look like in the course of their action learning projects; and 3) to help participants discover and develop their potentials to lead, individually and collectively.
Results: What to Expect
Time-limited programs in action learning are a proven modality for helping early-career and developing leaders obtain a realistic sense of their potential and their development needs. A key feature of this approach is its practical relevance. Learning and development is tethered to a real-world context – organizational culture, business imperatives, role-specific accountabilities, and a constellation of stakeholder relationships. We learn from our stumbles, frustrations, and successes, and by working through difficulties along the way.
Left to their own devices, participants in this kind of group experience face a reality about which we often joke: “Be careful what you wish for.” They will need professional support to help them form goals that address both the managerial and leadership dimensions of the challenges they undertake. The answers must be their own, but they need a proper balance of challenge and encouragement to learn individually and collectively from their experience.
Generally speaking, an action bias runs rampant in the world of business – it always has, and it’s only intensified in recent years. This makes it more difficult to pause and reflect upon their experience, their felt struggles and learnings, and their inclinations to act and interact. They must convene for the purpose of suspending their action bias periodically in order to gain insight and consider alternative ways of approaching their work and organizational life.
We cannot here and now address the details of program design, e.g., how to select and scope action learning projects, the roles of management and participants, not to mention HRD professionals. That requires further situation-specific discussion. Suffice it to say, that boundary management is critical, as is the quality of support resources to those in the program. Both of these design features help participants individually and collectively maximize their learning and results.
As usual, we hope you found this article a helpful stimulus for considering your own development interests and those of others whom you may be in a position to support and encourage. We are happy to discuss your questions. You can reach the author by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.