Leadership activity –wanting to climb the triangle!
By Laura (Mole) Chapman
I’ve put off writing a blog on leadership for ages, yet it has been a subject of interest to me for over a decade now. I’ve read books, blogs, and journals… I’ve spoken to wise women and men: activists, academics, managers, entrepreneurs and friends. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s complicated!! The following is a handful of thoughts on a vast subject – not a definitive position.
Before the learning curve I thought I knew better… working with less understanding it is easy to be simplistic. My view was also a reaction to the abuse of power I had endured – essentially bad leadership. So I wanted to make it better, I wished for a type of leadership that would be good for the world; a strength that would address inequality and sustainability. Moral, ethical, inclusive, ecological, empowering…. That’s when things got difficult, because in theory leadership is that good activity and covers all of the above – and much more. I had been generous with my criticism- but largely I had been unable to be critical of the different ideas I came across!
Recently I have had a wonderful conversation in-the-car with a friend. She said she never could agree with people who thought leadership had a one-word answer: empathy, respect, involvement, love, full participation … All fell short of the complexity of the activity we were trying to explain. I suggested that it was like most complex ideas, if you focus on one thing you miss out on the many others that give meaning to a whole. Over simplification such as trying to grasp an essence falls short of a complex idea. I’m with David Simon [author of The Wire – Observer Ideas] on this. World issues are complex, interconnected and hard to grasp, one word solutions demonstrate lack of thought given the scale of understanding required explain them – let alone solve them. In my opinion, not only does leadership activity require us to be, do and feel all at once, but we also need to consider the present situation and the wider context before we launch into movement. The rather trite idea of changing the world one relationship at a time makes much more sense to me – possibly. As with so many activities requiring mastery, or craftsmanship, leadership activity requires a knowledge base of some depth to allow flexibility. There are so many elements to the whole making sense.
Leadership action may be understood as a personal intention to keep both individual and public perspectives within a conversation that routinely negotiates power. Therefore, there is a need to hold a flexible view of long-term direction – because all authors have not yet spoken in the storytelling(Senge, 2006). The term ‘sustainable leadership’, coined by Hargreaves (2005), views leadership activity that has a ‘moral imperative… [a]value of rich diversity over soulless standardization, the necessity of taking the long view, the wisdom of being prudent about conserving and renewing human and financial resources, the moral obligation to consider the effects of our improvement efforts…‘ (p.4). Sustainability is viewed as activity that ‘addresses the value and interdependence of all life as both a means and an end’ in which seven principles act interdependently as ‘a diet not a menu’ (p.22). Furthermore viewed thus,leadership activity is an ability to account for the positive impact of any named constituency (or marginalised group) within a shared space.
The idea many now agree with is that leadership is an activity that anyone can enjoy. It’s action that is not linked to a position within the triangular shape of an institution, but the capacity to join across them to hold power. Thus leadership activity is a way of living ones values with authenticity and humility, not a management ranking: leader at the top, and minions below! It’s the exercise of autonomy or agency, soulful or spiritual, a shared movement towards the interests of a greater good or the direction towards a North Star (remedy to a shared issue). I like the idea of leadership as a relational weave of purpose, a familial flat structure – a web of inclusion (Helgesen, The Web of Inclusion, 2005). Such a definition blends both skill and emotion (McGilchrist, 2012), particularly if you view activity as behaviours not the personal characteristics once associated to gender (Helgesen,1995).
The hardest thing I have found is keeping the triangle out of my head. Returning to the bad leadership I’ve experienced, I find myself wishing for the top, trying to get one over those who abuse their position. I catch myself, and redden, but too late, I’ve typically compared myself to them – the position on the triangle. Comparisons are among the many thoughts that are rarely respectful, and believing there is a hierarchy is in itself harmful to the relationships that potentially give us the strength and power to sustain positive change. Fighting for position really goes against the idea that we all have a role to play in making our world a better place. To this end the possibilities are endless, and the argument about any rectitude of the final outcome, or the name of different strategies, are superfluous to theaction in the here and now!
My leadership activity is to ensure those around me can feel empowered to make our world a better place; to know their contribution is as good as anyone else’s, that they only need do what they can, with what they have, and within the finite time we’re all given.
© Laura (Mole) Chapman 2016