Lower Case Leadership

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by David Shechtman

I was talking to a new CEO client about her organization. The goal was to understand the current makeup of the leadership team, important aspects of the culture, and key initiatives that were underway.

At one point she talked about Agile Leadership as being something that they’d worked on. I asked how it was going, and she said something to the effect of “pretty good, though they’ve tried to make it ‘small-a’ agility.” I told her to tell me more about that idea and approach. She told me that capital-a agility seemed academic and rigid, and that people often spent more time trying to conform to its processes than understanding what it meant to them and the organization.

I remarked that it sounded as though the capital-a approach was more “style over substance.” She agreed. I asked her then to tell me more about the modified thinking. She talked about the need for people in the organization to understand the principles behind the idea of agility and to then apply the meaning to their own situation and find ways of benefitting from agility concepts. Perhaps the application of these principles would mean thoughtfulness and awareness; perhaps it would mean new vocabulary for teammates; and perhaps it would mean a process change. But there was no prescriptive formula that would or even could apply to everyone.

I smiled and said, “Sounds like you want people to think for themselves.” She smiled back and nodded. Then she added the following, “Also, some of my leaders don’t have great working relationships with their people, and some new idea isn’t going to change that.”

. . .

Although I didn’t even know it at the time, this new CEO client had essentially articulated my position on individual and organizational leadership. I’ve long held — even before I could adequately explain it — that most ideas, movements, and programs are useful, but only insofar as they help a leader know what to do next. They are helpful when they are practical. Said a different way, a person could have vast knowledge of dozens of different types of luxury cars, how they’re engineered, how they perform, and how much they cost. But, on Monday morning, this person needs to drive to work and requires keys to a working vehicle with gas in the tank. That car could be a brand new Bentley or that car could be a 2005 Honda Civic. The point is, this person needs transportation.

In the world of individual and organizational leadership, people are bombarded with one breakthrough idea after another. There’s no shortage of researchers, authors, and talking-head presenters who reveal, often in dramatic terms, the next-big-thing or the secret-to-success that someone famous is doing. There’s an overwhelming of brilliant concepts.

Most organizational leaders I meet, however, don’t have strong opinions about the various schools of thought in the world of leadership development. It’s not that they don’t care about this marketplace of ideas; rather, they care much more about meeting their key goals and objectives than the particular label or title of the approach that gets them there.

I think many organizational leaders go through the following experience with fad leadership movements:

  • They express a challenge about their situation.
  • They receive funding for a leadership training program.
  • They enroll themselves and their key people in expensive, time-consuming training and coaching sessions.
  • They learn an entirely new vocabulary and commit to memory a series of complicated process steps.
  • They experience sometimes-meaningful-but-usually-minor-and-temporary improvements.

They move on to the next fad idea.

Question: What’s wrong with this picture?

Answer: This approach tends to teach leaders about external concepts that may or may not apply to their current situation.

So, what’s wrong with good concepts? Nothing, except the fact that new information plays a remarkably small role in behavior change and decision making. And while there are countless studies that support this assertion, I prefer to encourage people to search the self-help category on Amazon. How many books are there? If only reading a book or two would change people’s lives…

I don’t consider this a cynical assessment of people. I consider it a sober conclusion drawn from academic study, personal observation, and common sense. There’s nothing wrong with fresh ideas and new approaches, just know that most new fad leadership movements are great for thought leaders and only so-so for organizational leaders.

. . .

The larger issue, therefore, is identifying what works. What changes make good ideas work? What are worthwhile investments of time from a leadership perspective?

It turns out that there’s an entire field of study emerging about this very topic. It’s a field that looks at what approaches work and what approaches don’t across a variety of dimension of human life.

This field is called restorative practices, and it concludes that the health of a system is directly tied to its quality of social connections. If a person wants to improve a situation, the place to start is in improving the relationships between key people in the system. By improving relationships, people restore connections.

So, what ultimately works in leadership development? Restorative leadership works. When leaders develop meaningful connections in key relationships, everything gets better and new ideas have a chance of gaining traction.

A leader’s success is mainly determined by the quality of her social connections in her organization.

If a leader has poor connections with her people, no external concept or practice is going to drive positive change unless those connections are first improved. Business leaders often like to repeat the axiom: “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” which means that local conditions trump great ideas. The primary local condition that dictates all learning, growth, and development in organizations is quality of relationships.

Here is a list of restorative leadership practices that, when applied in the right situations, improve social connections.

  1. Form dialogue circles for decision making, problem solving, and process improvement/innovation.
  2. Set high expectations for people and provide meaningful support.
  3. Practice humble inquiry when addressing conflict, struggle, and mistakes.

Before attempting any of these practices, make sure to understand what they mean and how to deploy them.

. . .

So, let’s commit to the following shifts:

  • Let’s practice leadership rather than Leadership.
  • Let’s recognize that our connections with others determine our success as individuals.
  • Let’s remember that good ideas are only good if they help us know what to do next.

Capital-letter movements are less meaningful than lower-case skills. And developing strong connections with others is the most meaningful skill a leader can develop.