Take a Ride on the Wild Side of Leadership

Not long ago my friend Mark Holmgren posted a blog titled Becoming a Learning Organization (Part One) that got me thinking about what it takes to provide leadership to a learning organization. As Mark points out in his post, learning organizations are more likely to address complex issues and challenges effectively. To be clear, the term “learning organization” does not refer to a specific size, configuration, purpose, or structure of a group. It can refer to a multinational corporation, public agency, small social sector or nonprofit organization, and even a project team. All of these can be learning organizations. The core idea is that it is an entity that has developed the capacity to learn, change, learn some more, and then change some more to respond effectively to its environment. Mark does a great job of explaining how this happens.

Some organizations learn and change only as much as their leaders learn and change. These groups tend to have autocratic leaders that are clearly in charge and who have the first and final say in everything. Autocratic leaders are no accident. They often arise because the organization has bought into some version of the “great man theory” of leadership. Though the “great man” theory was first challenged over 150 years ago, it remains a common approach to leadership among organizations of all kinds. British rocker Bonnie Tyler asked us “Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?” in her popular 1980’s hit that seemed to give voice to our need for “great men” to lead the way. However, “great men” rarely support the creation of a learning organization because it means they have to release power and control and admit they might not be so great at all. To be fair, when I began my own leadership journey, this was the first approach I learned and I have had to systematically unlearn it in order to more effectively provide leadership to organizations and groups addressing complex issues.

The decision to lead an organization that values group learning and develops the capacity to change is also a decision to move to the wild side of leadership. Part of the appeal of “great man” leadership approaches has to be that the leader’s grasp on power and control means predictability – at least for the leader. To lead a learning organization often means a willingness to embrace and endure the chaos that usually comes with complexity.

This difference can be illustrated using the metaphor of dance.[i] The “great man” approach is like being the leader of a line dance, in which the leader stands at the front of a group of people, usually all standing in straight rows, who are all facing her or him and mimicking the steps of the leader. In this situation only the leader knows what step is coming next and she/he usually executes it flawlessly while members of the group may make missteps and stumbles as they try to keep up. As a result, the leader almost always appears to be much more competent at the dance than the followers, thereby proving her/his worthiness to be the leader. Leading a learning organization, though, is more like being the lead in a ballroom dance, such as the waltz or fox trot, which moves around the floor among many other pairs of dancers. In this situation, the leader cannot see where all the other couples are or what figures (steps) they are performing nor can the leader know when another couple will abruptly cut into their line of dance. Floor craft, the art of moving gracefully about the ballroom without crashing into another couple, becomes a primary skill that ballroom couples need to learn and hone to maximize their dancing experience. In such ballroom dance, the leader often depends upon the follower to see what she/he cannot see and relinquishes control as the lead to become the follower in order to perform certain figures.

What does it take to lead a learning organization? To be certain, there are many competencies one needs to effectively lead any organization (or to lead on the ballroom dance floor) yet there are three I believe are core competencies for leading a learning organization.

The first, sharing, is the ability to step aside from the leadership role to allow others to step up to lead. Sharing asks a leader to lay down their authority, right, position, and maybe even their title, as a leader to create space for others to emerge with their own ideas, insights, authority, and leadership. Sharing means no one in the organization or group is seen as incapable of making a contribution. Sharing also asks leaders to trust that others are as committed to the organization as they are and want the same good to be accomplished, whether that is in the form of profit or mission achievement. Recently I was reminded of the power of sharing when a friend assumed a new position in a medical school that put her in charge of the clinics. The clinics had been suffering for some time with a lack of patients and none of the directors, doctors, or nurses seemed to know why or have a solution. My friend decided it was time to talk to the front desk personnel. What she learned was that the front desk personnel were aware of the problem, had creative ideas for incentivizing patients to keep appointments, and were quick to make the suggestion, even willing to adjust their own hours, to keep the clinic open in the evenings to accommodate patients’ work schedules. Most importantly, she also learned that the front desk personnel were intentionally dissuading patients from coming to the clinic on certain days when it was being supervised by a particular doctor they did not trust to provide good care. When leaders are not willing to step aside to let others step up (share), the organization cannot grow and change to meet the present challenges.

The second, reflection, is the ability to take in information (both new and old), turn off one’s “filters” (assumptions, judgments, critiques) about it, and to consider it again to glean the fresh understanding and insights it offers. Reflection is the antidote to the “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before” syndrome that afflicts so many organizations and groups. This ability, however, means nothing if a leader is not willing to consider information, whether new or old, with clear eyes and clean filters. In the case of my friend’s medical school, however, there was no information to reflect upon until someone was willing to seek it out. Sadly, you and I both know from experience that having information is no guarantee that it is going to change anything. The universe of file cabinets is populated with needs assessments, for example, that have provided reams of information on communities which have not really contributed to our understanding of the community because there has been too little reflection on the meaning of the information. Reflection is a powerful tool for any leader of a learning organization, and yet it is a tool that must be intentionally picked up and used.

The third, in my short list of competencies for leaders of learning organizations, is adaptability. Adaptability is quite simply, as the word itself suggests, the ability to adapt or change. Adaptability requires a bit of courage on the part of leaders because it often results in the disruption of systems, interruption of plans, and the introduction of chaos as the organization is pushed into change. Adaptive leaders are, therefore, courageous leaders who are willing to experiment by letting their organization or group members experiment with the ideas that emerge from the learning process. It is adaptability that can make the ride pretty wild for leaders, as well as their organizations. Other leaders in my friend’s medical school were not too sure about trying some of the ideas offered by the front desk staff. To their credit, they agreed to test some of the ideas. The experiment is still too new to know for certain how it will work but one thing is clear: if they were not willing to experiment, nothing would change and the learning would be lost.

It is more comfortable to be a “great man” leader who has control, power, and predictability but it is not always as much fun as stepping over to the wild side of leading a truly great learning organization. Let’s get wild, okay?

Be greater, do good, every day,

T.W.K.

[i] If you would like to learn more about dance as a leadership metaphor, join me on Sunday, November 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM (Pacific) in San Diego, CA at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Global Conference where I’ll be co-leading the workshop “Teaching Collaborative Leadership in Complex Environments with Ballroom Dance.” For more information about the conference, visit http://www.ila-net.org/.

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