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Re-Thinking Leadership: The Mirror and The Window

Re-Thinking Leadership: The Mirror and The Window

Is a leader a position, or is a leader a person? Jill Birch, CEO of the Canadian Art Foundation and the Publisher of Canadian Art magazine, answers this question―and many more― in her engrossing, customized presentations that are focused on building leadership capacity to drive the competitive advantage. An accomplished and experienced facilitator and consultant in leadership development for senior executives, Jill also speaks to team development, change management, business development strategies, and more. Jill recently kicked off the 2015 Engaging Associations Forum to great acclaim by presenting her topic, New Thinking on the Old Challenge of Sustainable Leadership. Her article below, Re-Thinking Leadership: The Mirror and the Window, encapsulates many of the points she made at the forum.

What is leadership to you? Does it come in the form of a celebrity person like Donald Trump or Richard Branson? Is it by virtue of position, like “CEO” or “VP” – those who have been accorded status and authority because of where they sit in the organizational chart? Is it based on results where people have exceeded targets and therefore have earned the “status” of being a leader? Or…is leadership an everyday relational process occurring among and between people and teams as they share ideas, information and experience in our ever-changing world?

These four ways of understanding leadership, through person, position, results and process are ways we have typically tried to define and understand leadership. What’s new in this mix is a growing body of knowledge that suggests the most overlooked, undervalued, and least understood of these four views of leadership is process.

One of the major factors blocking our view of process is our fixation on the hero leader. All you have to do is look at the approaching Canadian and U.S. elections to see these individuals in a slugfest, upholding our continued fixation on individual heroes who not only can “do it all” – but can “save us all”. The world continues to place superhero capes on President Obama, Prime Minister Harper and their opposition leaders, hoping they will save their nations from poverty, guns or falling off a “fiscal cliff”. Do we really believe that one person can possibly achieve these feats?

If only things were that simple. On top of our preoccupation with this singular view of leadership, we are faced with the fact that significant global trends have outstripped our outdated ways of conceptualizing leadership. The Institute for the Future cites the specter of complexity, a re-think of innovation and the fusing of business and technology as a few of the game-changers and driving forces impacting these changing views of leadership. As we continue to swim, (or drown, depending on your perspective) in data, the capacity to anticipate the effects and integrate these trends into every day work is emerging as a significant leadership attribute. Germane to this discussion, The Institute also found that a new paradigm of leadership is emerging as a result of these major forces. These trends are re-defining leadership, underscoring that a more relational and contextual understanding is required.

What these trends and issues help us appreciate is that each one of us holds but one piece of the puzzle that can provide unique insight on problem-solving and decision-making. The need for formal leaders to pull all of these pieces together is, therefore, another crucial capability of this new leadership. A recent McKinsey article reinforced this with the finding that in the heat of competition, the primary issue will be how companies implement (think process!).

Our challenge is that we have traditionally thought of leadership and developed leaders by holding a mirror up to individual performance. We monitor this by creating competencies that require conformed behaviour, measure those behaviours with psychometric tools, and inculcate behaviours through performance discussions, coaching and mentoring. With this enforcement, we have inadvertently created a $65+ billion industry that has a strong self-interest in maintaining this mirror driven approach.

These forms of leadership development tend to further embed individualistic driven behaviours that consolidate power, build the height and girth of silos and see the definitions of organizational realities resting within one person—“the leader”. It often sees the leader dominating conversations (and therefore the thinking) not just in crucial strategic meetings but in the everyday ebb and flow of business. These dominant voices often stultify the many multiple voices and perspectives within organizations, silencing them in favour of “alignment”.

The fallout from this type of individualized behaviour is that organizations miss out on learning about major pieces of the puzzle held by those who may not be in positions of “authority”. Of further concern is that these kinds of organizations run on the culture of fear, producing leaky accountability, and are victims of slower and lack luster decision making. If your organization is showing any of these age-old “tells”, you too, may fall along the wayside like so many others, yet another casualty of looking-glass leadership.

As I continue to delve deeper into my research, it is clear that we need a new leadership paradigm. We need to behave differently. We need relational leadership.

We need to smash the mirror and open up the windows of opportunity that becomes possible when we embody a much more relational and process driven way to think about leadership. We need to see “out there” as much as “in here”.

The relational perspective sees that social reality lies in context of relationships not individuals—it takes as primary the “nexus” of these relations. It views the organization as an elaborate relational network of changing persons, moving together in space and time, in a complex interplay of effects between individual organizational members and the systems into which they enter. It is in this way that organizations change, grow and build agility. They work of the formal leader moves from controller to that of unifier, translator and curator. These behaviours serve as processes that facilitate and co-ordinate people’s language and actions in relation to each other at all levels and to the ever-changing larger socio-economic environment.

At the heart of relational leadership are processes that build:

  1. An understanding of multiple realities;
  2. Meaning-making;
  3. Facilitating;
  4. Organizing and co-ordinating, and;
  5. Decision making.

What this behaviour points to is another need, which is to re-think the relationship between “leaders and followers”. The new perspective puts the old adage on its head that leaders need followers to lead and followers need leaders to follow. In the past, we often saw the appointed formal leaders as someone who dominated conversation and strategic thinking. In this new context, the formal leader is one voice among many in a larger coordinated social process. Now, the focus is to build understanding drawing out common interests and passions—not differences. These leaders share responsibility with others in the construction of mutual understanding. The effects of this behaviour are profound: when we are firing on all cylinders in these four process driven behaviours, our decision-making capabilities are profoundly enhanced.

So what can you do to become a more relational and process conscious leader? One of the most powerful things is to better understand and practice critical reflexivity. Reflexivity presents an opportunity for us to surface and question our deepest assumptions. It causes an unsettling of how we perceive our actions, our situations and ourselves. Being reflexive helps build self-awareness, expose blind spots and enhances the ability to both see all of the pieces of the puzzle and to more fully engage those with whom you work. It means asking yourself:

  • Who am I and what kind of person do I want to be?
  • How do I relate to others and to the world around me?
  • How do I critically question past actions and future possibilities using self-conscious and ethical action?

As you begin to practice critical reflexivity look for watchwords in moments when you realize you are “struck”, “uncomfortable”, “fearful”, “joyous” or “stuck”. Think about the way conversations evolve in meetings—is everyone participating and listening or are people simply trying to make their point? Today, it is not enough to know what leaders “do”—we must focus on processes—these influential acts of organizing contribute to rethinking our interactions and relationships. In this way, leadership evolves into a philosophy, a way of being and embodying a more holistic view. These processes promote values and interests and create a new vista, smashing the prison of the mirror and opening the window of opportunity for meaningful, innovative and sustained competitive advantage.



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