The other day I read a great paper by Chris Rodgers. The paper was written for the Centre for Progressive Leadership and was then submitted to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Management Commission on the future of management and leadership.
What I liked most was how the paper makes clear the difference between the dominant discourse about leadership/management in our society and alternative views.
As someone who has been trying to stand up for a somewhat alternative view – conscious business – for some time, I found this greatly steadying.
Just to summarise quickly, Chris’s view is that we are part of the conversations that surround us: when we say something, another person responds, and we respond in turn. What we say – and what we hear – depend on the context, and this context is constantly emerging as we speak.
Chris also points out that it is easy to forget we are immersed in this ‘system’. If we mentally step outside of it and start to talk about it as something we can mend or improve we may be deluding ourselves.
I took the title of the paper – “Taking organisational complexity seriously” – to mean that we need to ‘believe’ in complexity and all that goes with it. One of the things that comes with complexity is a need to give up the idea that we can control outcomes. Complexity comes with unpredictability.
Now that is very hard for many managers and leaders to hear, as I pointed out recently. We’re asking them to give up control.
And that is perhaps why this remains the dominant discourse about leadership in our society. Nearly everything is built on the very male idea of ‘power-over’, and this includes the idea that we ought to be able to fix or change a system, be it a business, or a society.
If this still seems unclear, please take the time to read Chris’s well reasoned and well referenced piece.
But there are three practical take-aways I would like to leave with you.
The first is that there are serious implications of not adopting this more ‘immersive’ approach to leadership.
As Chris points out – using the example of the Francis report into the Mid Staffs NHS scandal and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (and I’d add another: Leveson) – we end up blaming individuals, or disempowering them by demanding improved systems and processes to guide and control their every move.
But there’s a danger we do this every time something scandalous happens: we scapegoat people, and we demand better processes and procedures. And yet these scandals – banking, health, media, education etc – keep coming.
So maybe, instead, as Chris suggests, we should focus on the ‘dedication and commitment’ of the people that work in organisations and businesses and encourage them to use their natural (systems?) intelligence.
This is what I think conscious business is really about – it’s about putting people at the heart of business and trusting and allowing them to be their most creative, most innovative selves.
Secondly, Chris gives a great list of some of the implications for leadership practice. These include:
- helping managers ‘see’ better
- focusing on enabling, rather than directing or delegating
- acting – some would say stumbling – into the future, rather than planning
He suggests we need to move
- from controlling to contributing
- from certainty to curiosity
- from diagnosis to dialogue
- from colluding to confronting
and so on.
And mostly we need to recognise that leadership is not an activity for elites, nor should they get all the kudos or blame. It is something we all do, all the time. At least every time we enter a conversation consciously.
These are all things we believe in and are exploring in the conscious business community in the UK. I think we’re ‘positive deviants’, taking an alternative position outside the mainstream discourse, with the intent to improve things. So if, as Chris suggests, we can find ways to form coalitions with others who share similar views we may be able to make more progress, more quickly.
And finally, I’d just like to add something else that came to mind when I read Chris’ paper.
There’s a lot to do, and a probably a lot of resistance to come before these ideas are more widely adopted. In business we’re taught to find benefits, and build a case for things. So would it help to further explore some of the benefits of adopting this kind of approach?
That is tricky because benefits are usually promised, and then delivered in the future. They’re also usually defined by those who write the stories. For example, business people are heroes when their story is being written as a success. And they can be criminals when it is written as a failure.
So if we are to know we are making progress, we probably need to focus not on some distant ‘output’ but on something tangible, something that is here right here, right now.
I’d suggest the major benefit of the kind of approach that Chris proposes is being ‘in it’ – building the relationships, building the coalitions, being a member of a community of people who are trying to do something useful. Learning to get along, learning to stay in the conversation, and perhaps even having fun along the way.
Hopefully, that is also what it means to be involved in some way in conscious business – immersed in the process of ‘putting people at the heart of business’.