Challenge of Leadership in the 21st Century: What’s Needed Now?

In an exploration with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (one of my alma maters) about an upcoming series of leadership workshops, the team there asked me some evocative questions, worthy of sharing on the Shape Shift blog. The previous blog post explored the question of what guidelines or, in their words, rules, would I share with leaders today. Another of their questions was: Why does the area of leadership fascinate you? Why indeed?

Leadership and leadership development has had my attention for as long as I can remember. It currently has my attention because the way I was trained, or more accurately indoctrinated, into leadership (as is the case with many of the leaders I meet and work with, even younger leaders) is much different than the leadership skills needed to navigate the complexity of today’s world.

I came into leadership positions at a young age; at a time when leaders were believed to have the answers, were expected to solve problems and fix situations that popped up. This was a time when letters were written on stationary and mailed, when fax machines (which are now almost obsolete) were just new and the idea that everyone would have a computer (much less mobile devices that process as much and more than computers) was a farfetched notion. A very different world, a very different worldview.

The world has grown far more complex, social media has a strong influence and our environments and situations are demanding greater collaboration and collaborative decision making because no one person has the solution.  We need to unlearn and relearn our habitual leadership skills and strategies to be responsive and still make decisions and take actions that move initiatives forward.  We can only unlearn what is habitual by becoming aware of what is right in front of us that we cannot see, because so much of our worldview – as much as 80% – is unconscious.  This is why Jerry Nagel and I are in the exploration of the transformative power of worldview awareness.

This is a balancing act, working with dynamic tensions of collaboration and collaborative leadership – also something we are learning our way into.  Many leaders are uncertain about how to navigate this 21st Century world with skill and ease, how to draw out the collective intelligence or wisdom needed to find our way forward. In partnership with amazing colleagues, I have been using patterns and practices that help leaders make sense of the world, invite our own ‘not knowing’ while engaging the wisdom and collective intelligence of people most impacted by or having the most influence over the particular issues or challenges at hand.

These are the solutions that have staying power.  This is what this new series of programs at Saint Mary’s – but also offerings in other venues in other cities – offers: insights into navigating the 21st Century, particularly as leaders of any age feel a responsibility for the significant challenges of our times.

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Dynamic Leadership Arising out of Chaordic Confidence

When interactively teaching the Chaordic Path and inviting people to reflect on what highly chaotic or highly controlled environments look like and how people act and react in those environments, it is common for participants to address the down side of each of these – with quite a bit of energy and zeal.  Then, at some point, someone will make a comment about the benefit of being in that kind of environment.  For chaos they will often say something about creativity, for control they will often say something about predictability – the upside of each of these dynamic forces.

Then the key question we ask is, “What is the difference between control and order?” It always causes a pause as people reflect on what is different between these two. They speak about guidance rather than rigid rules, the opportunity for individuals to bring discretion to decision making within a framework, greater responsiveness, common understanding or collective clarity as hallmarks of the force of order.  The space for an individual to bring everything they have to their role with enough clarity to know the scope of their authority, leadership and responsibility.    When people don’t have clarity they ask for structure – it is a default. Clarity might mean structure and it might not – it might simply mean clarity which could be achieved through conversation or other means before creating structure which might not even bring more clarity.

There is a time and place for each of these forces (chaos, order and control) depending on context and whether the focus is on process, structure or human dynamics.  Trying to address human dynamics issues through structure often increases the human dynamics issues.  Yet clear structure and process is essential to many manufacturing processes.  When getting on a plane, you want to know that the environment is controlled with good structure, process and procedure in order to get to your destination safely. And, if your house is burning down, you don’t want the firefighters standing around making collective decisions about what to do next – you want clear direct leadership, even as the firefighters have no idea of the chaos they are facing.

Knowing what state an organization, group or team is in can illuminate the leadership strategy that is most helpful to the task at hand.  Sometimes the leadership being called for is to help people stay in the chaos a little longer rather than ease the pain, frustration or discomfort of being there, until clarity and the natural order begins to emerge.  If things feel too habituated, stuck or stale, it might be exactly the time to introduce a bit of chaos through a well placed question, a suggestion to shake things up a bit or the introduction of a new initiative.  In environments where control is pervasive, the opportunity might be to imagine how to care for the human dynamics or the relational field in a way that people can navigate with and through regulations, policies and procedures that were intended for clarity and consistency but have overreached into what we commonly call “red tape” or “jumping through the hoops”.

 

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There is an upside and a downside to each of these experiences as represented by the infinity loop in the above diagram and inspired by Polarity Mapping. If we only focus on one or the other we either have an enamoured (upside) or jaded (downside) view of that particular force that then makes us less likely to be able to exercise the dynamic leadership that grows chaordic confidence. It is the interplay or movement through each of the polarities and an understanding of what is in each of the upsides and downsides that enables us to discern wise action.  I certainly have a bias – that the place we are being asked to play and lead to address complex and entrenched problems is in the chaordic path.  It is the skills AoH has been designed to foster and grow and it is an invitation into new patterns and practices of leadership.  Being aware of the upside and the downside of each pattern enables a more complete picture with a greater variety of choices and options available to all.