Most leadership programmes focus on building the capacity of the leaders to lead, a deficit approach, if you like. It seems to make sense – if there is weak leadership, help the leaders to get better. And yet, leadership is the result of the processes, structures and relationships in an organization. The individual leader’s qualities are only one factor only among many.
Managing leadership from a systemic perspective, a new paper from the Centre for Progressive Leadership (Tate 2013) says
…a manager’s leadership activity is not pursued by individuals acting alone, confidently, trusted, and free of restraint or political interference. Leadership is foremost a social activity, an empathic as much as a cognitive pursuit, one conducted through relationships. Moreover, leadership wholly depends on interacting not just with colleagues and other people, but also with organizational things.
This post pulls out some bits I enjoyed best from this stimulating paper. It is 37 pages long and well worth the effort, but to save you the trouble, here are some key ideas.
Tate uses the metaphor of a fishtank to understand leadership: the fish are not going to perform well, if the fishtank is dirty and badly run.
He reminds us of Kurt Lewin’s equation:
Behaviour is a function of personality and environment (1936).
Stepping back from the system to look at it at arm’s length, it is difficult not to agree with the claim
If aggregated performance improvement is to receive greater attention, then HR’s contribution requires greater consideration of the wider system’s dynamic behaviour and performance.
Tate 2013, p3
This is, in effect, a design issue. We know from the work of Systems Dynamics Thinkers that system design (intentional or not) influences the outcomes you end up with. Tate cites the Pareto Principle (aka the 80:20 rule) to suggest that performance is 20 heroic ability and 80 environment. And why not?
So the top, ‘super-leaders’ should focus on cleaning the fishtank, filtering out obstacles and detritus in the environment that prevent the fish from going about their fish business.
Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power, but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led.
Mary Parker Follett (1924) in Tate 2013
I would say this is particularly true in places like where I work – it is a research organization and people are all fiercely clever (the place bristles with PhDs), tremendously experienced, and amazingly committed (this is research for development, at the helping people end of the spectrum)
But who is to say what the problems in the environment are?
We do not see the world as it is, but as we are.
says Maturana (ibid p25)
Leaders need to be open to the alternative realities of their staff. What is an obvious problem to me may not even be on your radar screen. There is no right answer but a system of interlinked problems which are different depending who is seeing them. I mentioned this in my 20×21 talk and said, “The most we can do with this kind of problematic, messy situation is not solve it but nudge it along to a better place.”. Now I have a term for this. Clumsy Solutions. Cool.
‘Clumsy solutions’ defy elegant, linear and scientific solutions and choices between well-understood alternatives. Instead they artfully and pragmatically combine a range of interpretations, opposing beliefs and value sets about how problems with a social element are best solved.
Tate 2013, p16
This is why diversity is needed in teams. Else, where do you find your opposing beliefs and value sets? It also suggests that hierarchical leadership is not the most effective way to deal with messy and wicked problems. Distributed leadership may work best. If you want to read more about how to make distributed leadership work, read the paper!