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New thought piece

May 30, 2008

I just put together a short thought piece on leadership for Catalyst, the magazine for Public Service Management in Wales. It will be published shortly in welsh as well as english and is linked to a session on narrative and leadership that I will be running for the Welsh Assembly next month up in Bangor. They are happy for me to share it here, so enjoy or not as the case may be

Leadership as coherence

I’ve met some really great leaders over the years and had the great good luck to work for a few. I’ve also seen some bad ones, and some made bad or worse by the system in which they worked. The one thing I do know was that the good ones adapted to the context in which they worked. They didn’t apply some magic recipe they had picked up from a popular management book and they didn’t speak in platitudes. Some of them were decisive decision makers, ruthless in execution. Others were enablers, allowing things to happen, not imposing but influencing the flow of events. No list of leadership competences, no best practice, no formula, no recipes. Just mature, intelligent people exercising judgement and understanding the context in which they were working. So no recipes but there are some general principles we can apply

    Leadership is about being effective, not being efficient

    The difference between the two words is important. Efficiency is about maximising productivity while minimising expense. Its something that organisations have to do as part of routine management, but can only safely execute in stable environments. Leadership is not about stability; it is about managing uncertainty through changing contexts. That means introducing a degree of inefficiency so that the system as a whole has the potential to evolve. Good leaders generally provide top cover for mavericks, listen to contrary opinions and maintain a degree or resilience in the system as a whole.

    The most valuable stories are lived, not told

    Not all great leaders are good communicators, fewer still are, or will ever be gifted story tellers. Ironically some of the worst leaders are only too good at telling stories and excel at communication. What really matters is the degree of coherence and integrity that is evident in the lived life of the leader as perceived by their employees and colleagues. I have heard more integrity in a badly told but obviously genuine story than in a super slick presentation. Teaching executives to abandon powerpoint and communicate by listening first and then demonstrating empathy beats any number of story telling courses or coaching sessions.

    From fail-safe design to safe-fail experiments

    The ability to avoid micro-management in other than extreme circumstances is a key to effective leadership. The world is complex in nature and picking the right option in advance can often be as much luck as judgement. Expecting that you, or people who report to you, can predict outcomes in measurable ways is not realistic. Trying to design long term policy initiatives on the assumption that the future is fully knowable, a dangerous mistake. Modern approaches to decision making focus on creating multiple, low risk , low cost, parallel safe-fail experiments. Those that result in beneficial results are amplified, those that are negative are abandoned. The experiments reveal the evolutionary possibilities of the system and allow us to move from a doomed attempt at anticipation, to creating a state of anticipatory awareness

Now the above is not a complete list, but it is a start to dispelling the myth of the great leader. If nothing else leaders generally come as teams, the good ones take people with them over the years who compliment their skills. Training leadership crews rather than leaders may be one way to build more resilience into organisations. Utilising the distributed cognitive capability of networks, or the wisdom of crowds, allows the leader to situate collective decision making. Recognising that decisions are rarely simple but instead may involve a complex mix of argument from evidence, analogy and even aesthetics is also important. Ultimately the role of the leader is to create sufficient coherence to allow progress to be made; to be seen as an enabler of good decision making, not always to be the decision maker.

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