Rewilding leadership – 3 of 3

January 12, 2023

Wolfgang hasselmann FpmSLjo408E unsplash

I wanted to wait until after I gave a presentation on leadership to complete this series and that took place yesterday evening.  It was a mixed bag of speakers and you can find the uploaded videos here.  I made the point up front that far too many people talk and consult in the field with little or no experience.  Further, that two many researchers on leadership rely on interviews with leaders for their source data.  The lack of experience is a key one as there is a whole body of stuff it’s very difficult to codify even in response to the best interview techniques.  Retrospective coherence is a major issue and I only really believe what leaders say about what they do if it is backed up by ethnographic research with the people who they led.  A lot of leadership is learned by being around good leaders (and bad), making mistakes, picking up patterns, adapting and experimenting.  There is also a process of acquiring resilience, in a leadership role, especially in a small business then you have to grin and bear it a lot of the time and the knowledge that you can do that and come out the other side is really important. Building your own repository of learning stories is a key part of that and I shared a few in the presentation.

My main theme was that the various competencies that people associate with examples of good leadership outcomes have no causal relation with said practices.  The competencies are themselves emergent properties that arose as a result of the same actions that were created, co-evolving with them and with the half-remembered histories of other situations.  It follows from this that a large part of leadership development is creating the situations, in practice or in simulation, which give rise to both outcomes and competencies. It’s an easy ride just to list those competencies with a few metaphors and phrases in a presentation under the guise of making things practical; actually, you are making no difference at all you are allowing people to leave your presentation feeling comfortable.  That isn’t (sic) demonstrating ‘thought’ leadership.  New ways of thinking are going to be uncomfortable, you are going to have to learn some new language and dismiss that reality with the ‘academic’ tag.  In my experience people who do that frequently are just trying to excuse their own lack of understanding.  Complexity is part of our day-to-day lives, it’s the point I made in the Children’s Party Story (live version in this extended recording of a presentation) and simple heuristics.  One I use is: If the evidence supports conflicting hypotheses about what to do and you can’t resolve those conflicts in the time available for decision making then it’s complex.

But yes language is difficult and you can’t avoid it when something is getting started.  But when you get out of the early adopter phase of a new idea then people don’t really want to know how and why you do something they want to know what it will do for them.  That means you are explaining and implementing methods, tools and processes which are coherent with complexity theory but do not require any particular knowledge of said theory.  Given that is where we are I spent much of my time going through those practices.  I’ve been through a lot of those in these posts and linked to previous descriptions.  For the record, I’ll list them here but without any links – read the prior posts!

  • Learning journals for leadership development programmes and new joiner take on, creating micro-narrative and observational data in context but the general utility in understanding the role of leadership.
  • Presenting different perspectives engendering Oh they interpreted the material like this, but I did it differently, Why?  Don’t tell people they have to see things from different perspectives, put them in a position where they have little alternative but they work it out for themselves.
  • Using trios for distributed decision making – something I am going to expand on in future posts as we elaborate on the method but I gave some examples.  A lot of leadership is not about decision-making but about creating conditions under which other people can make better decisions.  That is also a big theme in the EU Field Guide.
  • Getting leaders to change, not by listing qualities, but by asking them a very simple question How would you get more stories/observations like these, fewer like those?  Lots of micro-nudges, but self-generated.  In the presentation, I explained our approach to 360º as an illustration of that.
  • Cross industry, walk the floor type exercise.  Again I gave examples but like everything else here it is about putting leaders and potential leaders in situations where they learn by doing, questioning and observing.

I also made the point about the ASHEN approach to mapping leadership capabilities and also the three As of Agency, Assemblage and Affordance as an alternative to mindset and mental models.  The point about both ASHEN and AAA typologies is that they describe the situation in a way that means we know how to address it.  Unlike more abstract worlds like Leadership of Management the use of which almost inevitably leads to generalisations.  So we can do a lot to instantiate quality in the various Artefacts we create in the company mainly processes and rules for process exceptions.  Skills we can train and they are the legitimate focus of that approach.  It’s the area where management skills are needed by leaders and so on.  But then we get to Heuristics and Experience where we can do some codification of the former, coupled with teaching stories but experience requires, well experience subject to my closing question below.  If you depend heavily on Natural Talent then retention is key, although processes like trans-general pairing can help considerably (an Entangled Trio variation so again I will pick up on that in a later post).  The same applies to AAA by seeing what can be changed and what should be changed (they are not always the same thing) which will allow leadership and management qualities to emerge, or manifest.

The key point is that training, and coaching are a part of solution; you need to do a lot more, but doing that is actually easier and uses less energy.

And a final point to get you thinking: shared peer-to-peer micro-narratives along with teaching stories can mitigate the lack of experience in a modern organisation with higher rates of turnover that humans evolved for, or for which we practised in recent times.

The banner picture is cropped from an original by Javier Allegue Barros and the photo of a bee (work out for yourself why I used it) is by Wolfgang Hasselmann both on Unsplash

Stay tuned for the next installment of our blog series!

Rewilding leadership – 2 of 3

Rewilding leadership – 1 of 3

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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