Leadership and conversation – being assertively humble

Leadership isn’t a science.  There is little by way of hard fact and formulae.  It seems odd then that the tone of much of the leadership literature is deterministic, implying that this or that is the right way forward. cover

Experience has taught me that it is messy; success, failure, puzzlement are all ingredients in the leadership soup.  So why doesn’t the way we talk about leadership reflect this?  Perhaps it just won’t sell.  Perhaps people who buy such books are looking for reassurance when faced dilemmas that are scary for them and those around them.  This may be partially true, but it is not the whole storey.  For me there is something about being assertively humble in facing the future.  This means paying close attention to the interplay between a person and those around them, of being reflective and thougthful as we all inch forward into the future.  And not pretending to have the answers.

It also raises the question of how we should write and talk about leadership.  In our book, Leading Mindfully, Pete Burden and I engage in a conversation; one that took place over several months.   We don’t offer solutions but we try to make sense of leadership dilemmas that we see around us and have experienced as well as how others have thought about such issues too.  Conversation seems a more authentic way to talk about the success, failure, puzzlement of leadership.  In doing so we hope to make connections that the reader can identify with that might be useful to their practice, not as a promise, but as a humble offering to make sense of the challenges ahead.

Problems and opportunities of researching trust

It is odd how things develop, they sit in the back of the mind and niggle away. A few months ago, I went to a leadership conference.  There was a presentation by someone researching trust in organisations.  It left me feeling disappointed and saddened that we remove so much of the humanity in the way that we research such an important human relationship.  

I wrote a posting for another blog likening the antics of Big Bang Theory’s rather awkward Sheldon Cooper with that of how we research trust, click here.  Since then I have obtained research funding from the Roffey Park Institute to look into the subject.  I am carrying out the research with a friend of mine Alison Donaldson. We are now a few months in and well under way interviewing people, reviewing the literature and shaping some ideas that we will be road testing with with organisational development experts after summer .  As part of our approach we have set up a blog to share emerging thoughts and ideas.  You might like to have a look, if so, click here. If you want to get involved, get in touch

Personal perspectives on developing management and leadership

I run the MA in Management and Leadership at the University of Chichester in the UK.  Here is a personal perspective as to why I believe that working whilst studying is a good idea, particularly when it comes to management and leadership.  It was in 2003 I started my masters, I had a senior role in a large organisation and was intrigued (and still am) as to how decisions are made in organisations and why so many of them seem irrational.  During my masters I developed an understanding for all those things I had found mysterious, or at least shrouded in mystery by the ‘experts’.  Soon I was able to talk confidently on their level.  This included subjects such as finance, HR, governance, strategy, innovation.  There were some subjects totally new to me such as complexity that changed the way I saw the world and how organisations worked.  With more understanding and confidence I was starting to have a greater impact.  Soon after I started I became part of the corporate planning team representing my directorate and people started to see me in a different light.  From this I led a number of strategic projects and later went on to work with a Government department on the formation and implementation of a national healthcare initiative.  All of this would not have happened if I had not taken those first steps and enrolled on my master’s course.  At the time my family was young, the demands of the job were high and fitting it all in was a challenge, but it was a hugely enjoyable challenge.  I prioritized what mattered and was more efficient at what I did. It seems odd to me not to study whilst you work, after all how else do you become experienced in the ideas you are learning about without putting them into practice; seeing what works and why.

After my masters I went on to do my doctorate, again whilst working.   And now my career has moved on to being an academic.  But an academic with a difference, one that strongly feels that management and leadership can only progress if it has a foot in both camps – that of practice and study.

MOOCs and their role in developing practical wisdom at work

I’m a senior lecturer at a small university on the south coast of the UK. Like many people I’ve been thinking about the future of higher education and the impact of technology, particularly MOOCs and other online learning approaches. I should add that I teach in a business school and am interested in strategy, organisational behaviour and management learning. And this frames my thoughts. I can see the point in MOOCs and their potential in spreading knowledge (both academic and technical), particularly to those groups that have been excluded in the past. But I’m wondering how it will help with the problems that I see. These include:

  • At the interpersonal level how people learn the practical skills and wisdom of working in organisations such as: influencing, negotiating, seeing things from the perspective of others, being challenging and supportive of colleagues (and accepting likewise in return), being thoughtful and reflexive of experience, or just how to get things done.
  • At the organisational level how decisions are made and how we can make better ones; how ethical practice is developed and sustained; and how organisations can be a force for good in society, rather than division.

These were some of the topics of a recent seminar I went to funded by the ESRC. What kind of knowledge are we talking about? To my mind it is the emotional labour of organisational life: empathy, emotional awareness, trust, sensitivity, political astuteness, knack or savviness. In other words the kind of abilities that Aristotle put under the heading of Phronesis. When I meet managers, at whatever stage of their career, these are the issues that are troubling them. I have just finished running an action learning based post-graduate leadership programme. All of the delegates were highly accomplished in their technical areas but most felt the need to develop their leadership and ability to get things done. Reflections on the programme included: ‘I’ve developed a different type of confidence’; ‘it has been the conversations that have made the difference for me’; ‘it has really empowered me’, ‘I’ve learnt how to go about things’. Returning to my question above, I’m intrigued as to how MOOCs and other online approaches to personal development and knowledge can tackle issues that people face in their organisational lives. I’m sure there is an important role – I just want to understand their potential.

Conscious Business parts 1 and 2

Originally posted on Conscious-Business.org.uk:

A little over a year ago Rob Warwick and I, with great encouragement from Bob MacKenzie at AMED (the Association for Management Education and Development), started the process of writing two special editions of the journal eO&P (Organisations and People) on Conscious Business.

The first edition was published in 2013. It includes six diverse pieces around the topic of awareness from Dick Davies, Jack Hubbard, Paul Levy, Alison Donaldson, J Kim Wright and Patrick Crawford. We explained our caution about the way that Conscious Business might be reduced to formulaic frameworks and schema that play down the attention that we give to everyday practices and how people relate to each other.

The second edition is out now. Building on the first edition, the second leads into a discussion of purpose, practice and community.  We focus on purpose, including the reasons why we should bother with Conscious Business…

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Lessons from literature: opportunities for leadership development

EAPI have just finished the first draft of an article for a conference in the summer.  And I’m rather pleased.   That said it will need a lot of polishing before it is ready to see the light of day.  I have become fascinated in how literature can be used in leadership development.  The literature I have drawn on is an eclectic mix from Greek mythology, Victorian melodrama to Shakespeare. All too often case studies in management literature seem dull and flat. We do not share in the characters’ success or plight. Instead we are presented with facts and asked to make judgements without appreciating the connected themes of relationships, power and history behind the participants. It draws us to ask the question ‘why on earth would they do …?’

In literature we travel with the participants and share their risks, doubts and ambiguity as they take their next steps. We are therefore not prompted towards ‘clever’ solutions but instead we share a sense of their dilemmas. The point I’m illustrating is that instead of focusing on the separation between the subject (the reader) and the object (the participants in the case study) there is a temporal process of becoming engaged with the character’s story.   Literature can therefore be used as a catalyst to develop our own narratives of connected events over a period of time.  It provides insights into our own development in the context of our wider social story that we are part of. This is a useful addition to action learning and leadership development. I also argue that this way of engaging with our own stories can make a contribution to management knowledge, providing more realistic accounts that we can emotionally and logically relate to.

Exploring conscious business practice – Reflections

Last month Pete Burden and I were the guest editors of AMED’s Winter2013WSjournal eOrganisations and People on the subject of conscious business.  The editorial can be read here.

In this post I would like to reflect on a conversation I had with a good friend of mine.  If you read the editorial Pete and I are making the case that we should look beyond frameworks and schema to provide us with conscious, sustainable and more thoughtful business, business that is mindful of its impact today and years to come.  Many of these CSR and Corporate Responsibility frameworks have delivered many benefits over the years, but to rely on them is a contradiction.  In other words, to do so risks diminishing rather than enhancing consciousness by focusing on future abstract goals and polices at the expense of present day-to-day interactions and reconciling often troubling and contradictory pressures.   The point is that labelling a term ‘conscious business’ is a double edge sword: on the one hand it focuses a light on the issue and gives it a legitimacy; but on the other, it fixes the subject in some idealised state where it is difficult to talk about the challenges in the context of daily lives.

Returning to the conversation I had with my friend, I was struck by her feedback ‘… and what is conscious business?’.  It strikes me that how ever hard we try to divert attention from clear abstract definitions towards the hurly-burly, where definition emerges from action, we are drawn back to the siren calls of clarity.

This dilemma reminds me of the work of Raymond Williams; although better known for being a Marxist Sociologist, it is his reflexive thought that I’m drawn to (Williams, 1977).  He points to the tendency of description and analysis habitually being expressed in the past tense and the difficultly this causes in seeing the on-going human activity as anything but a fixed object.  He says: ‘the strongest barrier to the recognition of human … activity is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products’ (Ibid, p128).  He then points to the tendency of engaging with these static forms as a means of currency in communication, particularly when he notes: ‘Analysis is then centred on relations between these produced … formations and experiences … so that now only explicit forms exist, and the living presence is always, by definition, receding’.

Williams explains the implications for reducing the fluidness of experience into static forms, they miss the: ‘… complexities, the experienced tensions, shifts, and uncertainties, the intricate forms of unevenness and confusion’ (Williams, 1977, p. 129).  If Williams points to what is lost in forming and working with abstractions in the present, he also illustrates the implications this has on the possibilities that are yet to come when he states:  ‘And from the abstractions formed in their turn by this act of debarring – the “human imagination”, the “human psyche”, the “unconscious” – new and displaced forms of social analysis and categorization, …are more or less rapidly developed”(Ibid, p13).

I find this a useful way of thinking about the interaction between frameworks and lived experience and my friend’s quest for some certainty.  I am not drawing an absolutist choice between one thing and another (frameworks versus ‘lived experience’) but the paradoxical interaction between the two and how important it is to be aware (or even conscious) of the vital interaction between them.

Reference:  Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.