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Reflections on Leadership

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Reflections on Leadership

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James Woodeson

Coach, Supervisor & Programmes

Having the privilege of working alongside different individuals and teams, in a variety of industries and locations, enables us to experience similarities and differences on the topic of leadership.

It’s an area of our work which is ever present.  For those in leadership positions trying to figure out how to do it well, simply searching for books on Leadership on Amazon, will yield you over 100,000 results.  A lot of these will provide competing perspectives on what good looks like!

With so many perspectives on what leadership is or should be, we are observing a collective “stuck” or frustration with the status quo. This is from both positions of leader and follower.

We notice a tension and paradox which exists in the in-between. By this, we mean the false dichotomy between (currently) fashionable decentralised and self organising structures and (perceived but re-emerging) old fashioned hierarchies.

At two organisations we work with, a recent CEO change has led to a 180 degree shift in approach because it seems that “performance’ and “responsibility” are no longer taboo.

We offer the following reflections on why this might be and some suggestions on how to break the impasse. Something we have fun with our clients on!

Leadership has long been a topic of fascination for individuals seeking guidance and inspiration. However, the relationship between leaders and their followers is often complex and fraught with disappointment.

Romanticism encourages us to see leaders as infallible and heroic figures.  Just take a look at popular (especially Western) culture and these figures of “great leaders” are rife!  Even the Hero’s Journey, which does involve the odd crisis, inevitably ends in success or victory.

The risk here is elevating leaders to a god-like status, imbuing them with qualities of perfection and immortality. Put bluntly, it’s wishful thinking.  This idealisation ultimately sets us up for disappointment, as no human can live up to such unrealistic expectations.

Indeed, we have lost count of the number of times followers are saying to their leaders “tell us your vision!”, in a seemingly helpless position of needing this inspiration to unlock themselves and unleash their own potential.  Forgetting their agency and power at the same time – whilst also demanding to be empowered!  What a catch-22 for the modern-day leader.

We see many situations like this and it has created cultures of “questioning our culture”.  A collective “stuck” and wish for something better.  If only our leaders could create it.

By contrast, an approach rooted in pragmatism (whilst less sexy!) recognises that leaders are fallible and imperfect beings who will inevitably make mistakes and disappoint us.  Adopting this approach means we emphasise the importance of accepting the limitations of our leaders and embracing the human condition, including the flaws and imperfections of those in positions of power.

By doing so, we can avoid the pitfalls of romanticism and approach leadership with a pragmatic and realistic outlook.  Dare we say this would also be a more compassionate approach towards those who have the apparent privilege and curse of their powerful position.

With a client recently, who were seemingly open to spend time and money on yet another “purpose statement”, we offered them the rather succinct… “happy customers and happy shareholders” which, whilst blindingly obvious the fundamental reality for any business, is too far from the BS-bingo so often preferred these days.  The key word for us is “and”.  This simple word is what can help leaders and teams priorities and engage in the inevitable trade-offs required for performance.

Romanticism offers a tempting view of leadership, but it is ultimately an idealistic and unrealistic fantasy.  Yet, it seems we will not tire of our desire to hear the latest “vision statement” or “north star”.  It’s highly appealing!  We can surrender to the greater wisdom of others and tag on for the journey.  It’s almost as if performance has become a dirty word.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, recognizes the limitations of leadership and encourages us to accept the inevitability of disappointment. By embracing a pragmatic outlook, we can approach leadership with a more realistic perspective and better prepare ourselves for the challenges and shortcomings that come with it.  From here, we might also be more willing as a follower to reflect on “What can I do to make a difference?” and “How is my performance contributing to this (or not)?” etc.

We are not proposing that one is better than the other.  If that had crossed your mind, that is a romantic notion in and of itself (ironic, huh?!).  As both exist in our cultures, by rejecting one we risk antagonising those who consciously or unconsciously long for the opposite.  This in itself could create resistance, stress or other unintended consequences.  It just doesn’t seem realistic to say “I’m going to disappoint you anyway, so come along for the exciting ride!”.  How can leaders be authentic (another romantic buzz word!) and realistic (a pragmatic and not very buzzy word)?

We encourage and advocate for dialogue amongst leaders and followers about these topics.

For example:

  • What sort of leadership are you expecting?
  • What sort of leadership would work in our current situation?
  • How can we each lead from our position?
  • What is good followership?
  • What can we achieve together that we cannot apart?
  • What would “performance” mean for each of us?  For us collectively?

It’s quite normal for our clients to seek the solution, fix or the best approach or the right answer (and we’re not romantic coaches believing we can realistically offer this).  Sometimes, we even hear that leadership is someone else’s responsibility.  So often, leaders are missing the difference between effective leadership and management.

Embracing the reality of organisations as complex adaptive systems that are constantly changing and evolving, enables us to recognise that leadership is not a static position or set of traits, but rather a dynamic, relational process that emerges from the interactions between people and their environment.

From this perspective, leaders become agents of change who must navigate the complex and unpredictable nature of organisational systems. From this perspective, we encourage clients to deeply consider the importance of self-organising processes, emergent properties, and the need for leaders to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.

In essence, we see an effective leader as mastering the creation of a safe-enough-container for anxiety and excitement.  This will be strong enough to withstand the paradoxical (and inevitable) deep forces of arousal and/or disgust towards projects, initiatives and change.  Let’s not be romantic about this… it’s not always easy!

Effective leadership requires a deep understanding of the complex dynamics of organisational systems and the ability to facilitate adaptive responses to changing circumstances.

Put simply, leaders would (at the very least) equal-weight their focus on tasks with relationships.  Yet, this is often very difficult (and potentially very rewarding), especially for transitional leaders stepping into this ambiguity for the first time.

We also notice how it is taxing for those in particularly scientific roles (e.g. Tech and Pharma) where the essence of the work is highly pragmatic/scientific and yet the leadership is often perceived as needing to be romanticised (at least by various consultants!).  Is it any wonder that this grates with natural values and preferences?  We could also state the opposite of those in highly creative roles and having to be more commercially or business focussed.  There isn’t one, fixed answer to this.

With this in mind, we can see that traditional views of leadership, which focus on individual leaders and their traits, do not adequately capture the complexity of leadership in modern organisations.

We need to focus on the social and cultural dynamics of leadership, whilst not discarding the fact that the dominant paradigm of the “great leader” has been with us for a long time and is used extensively in the public realm (especially in politics, the media and the arts).  Yet, swinging to an alternative of “leaderless” organisations or societies is an equal and opposite fantasy.  There is no perfect solution to this, which is what makes it complex, frustrating, rewarding and more.

Leadership is a collective process, shaped by the interactions between leaders, followers, and the wider organisational culture.  Leaders must be attuned to the emotions and unconscious dynamics that shape these interactions if they are to be effective.  Understanding themselves is a key starting point of this.

With that in mind, it’s helpful to recognise that pragmatism and romanticism are two sides of a coin.  They both exist, they both have value and through a critical consideration of the situation in which a leader finds themselves, they can co-create the balance with their followers and stakeholders in mind.

Be pragmatic with your romanticism and romantic with your pragmatism.

Imagine how our organisations and societies could be if this was integrated into our cultures.  Gosh, it’s hard to let go of these romantic endings!

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