Leadership for Turbulent Times: the changing role of leaders

“. . . competition, we see now, is destructive. It would be better if everyone would work together as a system, with the aim for everybody to win. What we need is cooperation and transformation to a new style of management.” – W. Edwards Deming, 1993, “The New Economics”

One of the learning topics identified as a priority at both of my employers in recent years has been labeled “leadership.”  But what exactly does this mean?  How is “leading” different from “managing?”

For more than 20 years I have been involved in designing and leading various organizational change initiatives.  These have included large-scale efforts (U.S. Department of Labor) and smaller group approaches (public-private partnership withNew Jersey’s health care industry).  In every case, questions came up about the role of “leaders” and what the leaders of an organization can and should do to positively influence behaviors and outcomes in their workplaces.

Over the past ten years, I have been studying the field of complex systems, and especially, how learning from complex systems in nature can help us better understand human behavior, and foster more positive outcomes in organizations.  One of the leading business consultants, authors, and thinkers in the world on these topics is Margaret Wheatley.  Her book “Turning to One Another” builds on her groundbreaking earlier work “Leadership and the New Science,” and points to the use of dialogue as an invaluable tool in fostering positive change.

Following are two quotes from an email I received a while back.  The texts come from Meg Wheatley herself, and from one of her associates.  I hope you find them interesting and informative insofar as they reflect an approach to leading that may seem at first, quite different from your traditional views.

“…in this day and age, when problems are increasingly complex, and there simply are not simple answers, and there is no simple cause and effect any longer, I cannot imagine how stressful it is to be the leader and to pretend that you have the answer. And a life-affirming leader is one who knows how to rely on and use the intelligence that exists everywhere in the community, the company, or the school, or the organization. And so these leaders act as hosts, as stewards of other people’s creativity and other people’s intelligence. And when I say host, I mean a leader these days needs to be one who convenes people, who convenes diversity, who convenes all viewpoints in processes where our intelligence can come forth. So these kinds of leaders do not give us the answers, but they help gather us together so that together we can discover the answers.” Margaret Wheatley

What if the solutions for our future were hidden in our collective intelligence and wisdom? What if hosting conversations were the kind of leadership that allowed learning to take place? What would our societies be like if we based them on our collective awareness and the courage to exercise our understanding? These are my core questions and I trust we can give birth to a new way of working, leading, and being if we just go for it. Courage is to do what you’re afraid of and know in your heart what needs to be done now.  Toke Paludan Moller, Denmark, Co-creator of Interchange

In these quotes, we see a different kind of role for leaders.  It is not enough for a leader just to be a higher-level independent decision-maker and order-giver.  The emerging role of a successful leader is of one who recognizes the value of diverse ideas, and the innovation and business opportunity that can come from connecting more of the people in the organization to one another in meaningful conversation.

One of the most remarkable leaders I have ever met was Gordon R. Sullivan.  When I met Gordon, he was the four-star General, who was Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  It was after the first Gulf War.  The world was a dangerous and unstable place on many fronts.  I expected General Sullivan to say that he spent all his time responding to the various crises, major and minor, that were constantly flaring up all over the world.  In fact, his answer surprised me.  He said he spent more than half of his time “thinking about the future.”

Gordon Sullivan wrote the following in “America’s Army: Into the 21st Century”:

[we] understood that. . . the task was not simply to change; more than this, it was essential to manage change in order to minimize its disruptive effects. . . . The strategy was to allow change to become a powerful tool to be utilized, rather than a disruptive force to be accommodated. (pg. 1)  The lesson of [experiencing changes in the world] is the absolute requirement. . . to adapt. . .thinking carefully in response to change around [us] and to posture [ourselves] for the future. . . . Strategic vision is essential to any organization that seeks to adapt successfully to the requirements of the future.  (pg. 2)  The imperatives [for change] identify the lessons. . . for the present challenge of transformation.  First . . . is the imperative to recruit and retain quality [staff]. . . . A second imperative is. . .leader development programs- these programs create competent leaders. . . capable of creative, adaptive thinking. (pg. 20)  Three key considerations drive the Army leadership’s approach to managing change.  Foremost is the requirement of remaining focused on the [organization’s] core business. (pg. 31)  The rate at which changes are incorporated . . . is a second prime consideration guiding the thinking of the [organization’s] leadership.

As business thinkers and authors continue to evolve in response to new learning from the field of complexity science, several themes about leadership have emerged in the literature.  The list below represents my way of expressing these new common themes.  Instead of being the top order-givers, the new challenges for managers and leaders become:

  • first, understanding that they have been handed power, but that power does not really mean the same thing as control.  Many things managers and leaders want to control, can not BE controlled.  This has implications for things like “long-term strategic planning.”   Too much is unknown and unknowable (to paraphrase Dr. Deming); too much changes too fast and too unpredictably, to make “long term plans” realistic.
  • Understand that they DO still have a responsibility to themselves and to the organization.  This involves understanding, and acting based on the values and norms of the organization.
  • Understanding that the best chances for innovation and growth come from interconnecting more and more of the people in the organization.  This implies actions to eliminate barriers to communication and interaction.  This suggests that things like “department” and “job title” have less meaning then we have ascribed to them in the past, when it comes to people talking and working together.
  • Encouraging people to try new ideas.
  • Helping people let go of old ideas that either didn’t work as planned, or that no longer serve the organization’s needs
  • Encouraging people to learn, so they are best able to contribute to the dialogue that becomes the organization’s future.
  • Stop focusing on blame and guilt, for things over which people had no control in the first place.
  • Understand that every encounter with people is a chance to have a dialogue, a conversation that can shape the future.  There is the constant process of gesture and response, turn-taking, negotiation of agreed-upon meaning, and the decisions and actions that follow.

The ideas of business thinkers like Meg Wheatley and Gordon Sullivan point to a new perspective on the work of leaders in organizations.  While the new perspective may lead to a place that is seemingly more turbulent and less certain than the old perspective, our collective experience of the world in recent years confirms that the new context is real, and that our best hope for a successful future lies in talking, listening, and making better decisions together.  Leaders can communicate their vision, inter-connect people in dialogue, and work to influence the positive changes they seek.

NOTE: This post is an update of an article originally written in 2005.  Today, I’d add more about the need for adaptive skills- particularly the leadership ideas taught by Ron Heifetz, and by Dave Snowden.  For more on the ideas in this post, I recommend reading Deming’s book “The New Economics” and Wheatley’s “Finding Our Way.”

… Bruce Waltuck, M.A., CC&C

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