Leadership – what an unhelpful idea (?)

Lhip MarI supervise a student who is researching leadership. At our recent meeting he presented his latest review of literature: theories, writers, frameworks, competencies, gurus and the like. The more articulate he was, both in what he had written and in conversation, the more impoverishing it seemed. I will explain: the work of this student was excellent, my criticism is aimed at how we (practitioners, scholars, anyone interested in the subject) talk about the subject. And by impoverishing, I mean how those frameworks, theories, inventories rarely pay attention to the rich, hard to fathom, conflicting and textured activities as we go about leading. So, here are some ideas.

What if we were not to talk about leadership? Instead we could pay attention to the network of relationships we are all part of. If I am in a leadership role and want to effect some sort of change what might I do? For those immediately around me it might help to get to know them, what makes them tick and what irritates them. For those in other departments or organisations the question might be the kind of gestures (policies, strategies, and speeches) might that be helpful to allow them to interpret what is on my mind. All quite traditional leadership fare and I could go on.

But each of us is being affected by those around us, none of us has a completely free hand (except those who live on an island whose population is one). We are being constrained and enabled by those explicit and, more often, implicit expectations of those around us. Sometimes it will be our boss and she will make her expectations very clear. Others are subtle, they may be political and deep seated cultural factors. Others, we may never fully know about.  By this I mean events that occurred years or decades ago that have affected the culture and whose myth is still taken up in local decision making. Also, of acquaintances of acquaintances that have influenced those around us. Very quickly our field of vision disappears. The task we are hoping to achieve might also be unclear and throw up new dilemmas and all within a shifting context.

For the newbie these might only be made obvious in making mistakes, of walking into glass walls before finding the handle to the door. These are all issues of power as we act in a network of relations.

The picture I am painting is of something that is not fully knowable, but at least we can come to understand it in some useful tentative way. We might enquire, be reflexive about our practice, talk with others, try to make sense of events, disrupt things and see what happens and so on. And from this our knowledge develops as does our practice and we become more expert. And this affects the knowledge and practice of those around us too.

To do this what might we have to attune ourselves to?  Well the following springs to mind: the emotions of ourselves and those around us; how people relate to each other; feelings of doubt and hope; imagination of what might be achieved or lost; how people relate to logic and so on. These are fuzzy, no discreet SMART objectives here. Some relate to the present, others to how people imagine the future and create these in the context of the past. They relate to individuals that can form patterns of behaviours in groups.

All of what I have described is uncertain, explorative, emergent, contextual and requires all of our senses and wit. So where does the bold overly assertive explanations of leadership come in? I think there is a problem, particularly those recipes that dull the senses with overly confident theories of success, or siren calls of certainty. There is better news for those that sparkle our interest to be enquiring and reflexive.

So here is an idea. Let us talk and write about those textured patterns of relations that we are part of, particularly as we are endeavouring to bring about some improvement. Let us do so with enough humility to enable the reader to imagine herself in that picture in a way that she can relate to the challenges that she faces on a day to day basis. In doing so we might pay attention to acts of following and leading; in other words the networks of being human.

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