Three words that might help test the usefulness of leadership ideas?

Photo by Joe Mabel

In academia the question of ‘what is knowledge’ is vital.  The question manifests itself in different ways and at different times, but it is never far below the surface.  From astrophysics to anthropology the same issues are dealt with but in different ways according to the particular discipline and the knowledge community.  Three words crop up time and again they are: ‘generalisability’, ‘reproducibility’ and ‘validity’.  These three words form a universal ‘test’ to be applied to all knowledge in academia.  A test applied in different ways, with differing levels of ‘certainty’ according to the discipline.  For example, in mathematics a test of proof needs to be true in all circumstances irrespective of context, in social sciences knowledge can often be very context dependent. Never-the-less, the issue of ‘validity’, ‘generalisability’ and ‘reproducibility’ are considered seriously and prove a useful, but not unproblematic, way of testing out the quality of knowledge.The question for me is this: in the vastness of leadership literature what are the ‘tests’ that can highlight the sound practical ideas from the rest?  As with knowledge, these ‘tests’ need to be usable across the different approaches to leadership and leadership development.  Perhaps we could use these three words: ‘vision’, ‘courage’ and ‘conflict’.  I must give credit to Douglas for this idea; Douglas Board and I are in the midst of writing our book, The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge.  For me ‘vision’, ‘courage’ and ‘conflict’ highlight that we are all in an ongoing process of ‘rubbing-along’ together into a future that we can occasionally glimpse and sense, but continually have to adjust to.  Used intelligently and critically these words may provide us with a meaningful ‘test’ towards the vastness of leadership frameworks, models, stories and ideas as we make sense of them in the context of our own practice and experience.  It may also enable us to distinguish between the useful and the less useful literature on leadership that clutters the bookshelves.


6 thoughts on “Three words that might help test the usefulness of leadership ideas?

  1. A thoughtful piece Rob. I have sat in numerous meetings where the whole vision and mission thing gets all mixed up. Different personality types react differently to these words. With some it is easy to to spend time on the creative visioning stages, but for others it is a waste of time until getting to the pragmatics. Enjoy your posts – they always make me think!

  2. Thanks for your comments. In terms of a ‘test’ for ‘vision’, ‘courage’ and ‘conflict’ I was not thinking of any particular model. Instead these words (and further clarification etc) offer an agenda by which we can explore ideas, concepts and stories of leadership to see if they have value and merit in the real world where people have to work with difficult leadership challenges. This is an agenda that can be used by individuals or more usefully by groups as they encounter new ideas in the context of their own practice.
    I agree with you the word ‘vision’ is problematic without giving people licence to work with the ideas in ways which suit and help them. I was at an OD meeting yesterday when words of ‘vision’, ‘mission’, ‘goals’ etc were being bandied about with lots of certainty but with very little thoughts as to what people meant. This lead to lots of frustration and very little progress with several people walking off (all very awkward). Anyway, I think imagination as some group or social process is vital (as C Wright Mills explored back in the 1950 and 60s) before coming back to pragmatic questions as to what the organisation and individuals should practically do. As you say, issues of self-censorship and the closing opportunities are important pitfalls and sometimes the words we use can do more harm than good!

  3. Hi Rob. I enjoyed your piece and I am intrigued by what models we might start to use to ‘test’ for vision, courage and resilience. Is this possible do you think? Also, on the subject of the use of the word ‘vision’, I agree that there are some people who struggle with the ‘vastness’ of the word – and prefer to talk in terms of more grounded terms like objectives, goals and targets. Others might be more comfortable talking about dreams or aspirations. Whatever word people feel they can work with, the challenge is to ensure they do not limit or ‘self-censor’ what might be possible because of beliefs around language. I think it is important to help people go to the limits of ‘possibility’ in their mind (regardless of the word) before coming back to check what the gap is between that and their current reality.

  4. Sue, I agree, the word ‘vision’ is not without problems, particularly as you say in the evangelical way that it is banded about. I think at the heart of the problem is this sense of certainty, or ‘promised land’, that many people latch onto. This seems to down play the importance of uncertainty or emergence as we inch into the future. Perhaps it is more than that; it removes any legitimacy to consider anything that is not on the given route map. This is why I stress the importance of the words ‘intelligently’ and ‘critically’ both in how ‘vision’ is used and subsequently taken up in conversation thereafter. My self-imposed word limit hasn’t helped to make that point clear! To my mind, thought of in this way, the idea of ‘vision’ is still helpful.
    In the book we explore similar issues to those that you are working with, particularly with notions of paradox and complexity as we move into a known/unknown.

  5. Hi Rob. Nice piece. In spite of having used it frequently in the past (and still do, on occasion) I am, nowadays, troubled by the ‘vision’ word; perhaps more specifically, how it is used. Too often, it seems to me, it has become a shorthand for the evangelical style of leadership which implies that if you can only paint your vision compellingly enough, people will mobilise around it to carry it out. I’m increasingly interested in playing with the notion of ‘versions’ of the future. I find that this helps me BOTH work towards a future ‘we can occasionally glimpse’ AND also more explicitly acknowledges that any future is also conditional, negotiated, often contested – and best co-created between us through participative processes and practical actions.

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