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Rethinking Leadership

Rethinking Leadership

Leadership and Organizational Change Expert Jill Birch spoke at a Leadership Luncheon for the Canadian Society of Association Executives in Toronto yesterday, and shared some very thought-provoking ideas on how we can break out of the out-dated beliefs, language, and structures that often constrain effective leadership.

Birch began with an exploration of the history that informs our view of leadership, and  the stories we tell peopled by heroes from Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa to Barack Obama,  Jack Welch, and Steve Jobs. Tracing the incredible success of GE, whose fortunes grew from $12 billion to $280 billion under Welch’s leadership, she compared how much of their success was attributed to the wave of general economic growth and prosperity (and a team of 50,000 global employees) against the accolades that business and media showered solely upon Welch himself.  As Apples’ shares sank 300 points, much of Wall Street lamented, “if only Steve were alive,” but Birch pointed out that there is now more at play–the entrance into the market of a plethora of competitive products in price and functionality have become the ultimate game changer, and yet most of the blame has been put directly on Tim Cook’s doorstep.

Birch was not suggesting that the homage paid to Welch and Jobs is undue, but when they become the headlines and centre piece of corporate lore, we miss so much of what and how we experience leadership throughout an entire organization. She urges us to look at all the pieces and suggests processes that help align great ideas to take shape and be implemented. We need to rethink leadership and build a  more sustainable model to match the current complexity and sophistication of today’s  business marketplace.

A change in metaphor is required for today’s leader. Traditionally, leaders have been largely fixated with self-improvement  rather than being focused on the ever-evolving relationships that really are the heart  and the hard wiring of organizations.  Birch believes that leaders who continually hold up mirrors,  studying themselves ad nauseum, need to embrace a new metaphor by thinking of leadership as a window, from which they can move away from the “I-centric” North American view. The panorama and perspective served by looking through “windows” represents a shift in thinking that is being fueled by globalization and our 24/7 world. If, as a leader, someone knocks on your office door, it’s not an interruption but a gift–someone is about to share a piece of the puzzle with you, a view through their particular lens that provides context, and usually a completely different way to understand what’s happening and what can be done about it.  This is where leadership thrives.  The air is very thin at the top for hero-leaders and “it can kill you,” says Birch.

Technology, and specifically social media, is certainly a driver of this change in shaping this new leadership paradigm. From the Arab Spring to the “Occupied Movement,” we are learning the power of distributed leadership. It’s now up to us to rethink and up-date our own leadership approach to something more sustainable and something that can truly provide competitive advantage.  Birch’s answer is “Relational Leadership”–a concept that relies on the curation of a multiplicity of views to inform and enable keen analysis and judgement at every turn.  Currently, she is researching Relational Leadership processes while pursuing her PhD with Griffith University in Australia.  We  look forward to the book which is sure to follow. In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about Jill Birch please send us a note at [email protected]

By Kelly MacDonald, Partner and Senior Vice President, Speakers’ Spotlight