Leaders and Leadership

I have been in a dialogue the last few days with some colleagues in an online forum.  We are attempting to come to some consensus about what common principles we hold such that we could form a virtual global consulting consortium which would enable us to use each other as resources, knowing that we shared a number of key values and principles about the meaning and purpose of our work. 

As you can imagine, this is not a simple exercise. We have all the same issues that I see in my consulting work with organizations.  Some things we agree on, some things we might agree on but are using language in ways that are substantively different enough that we can’t be sure we mean the same thing, and some things we just don’t agree about.  That’s fine, but it does raise the question of just how much we need to be aligned in order to be able to work together. 

For example, today we were discussing Leadership (yes, with a capital “L”) One colleague proposed that our shared mission should include “Transforming Leadership”.  Sounds good as a lofty goal, but after reflection I could not agree to it.  I wrote in my comments that 

“I am not so sure that I am in for transforming leadership, but I am certainly in for helping leaders to transform themselves. My thinking on this proceeds from Complex Adaptive Systems as much as anything else. I don't think you can go directly after Transforming Leadership as long as it is locked into a highly structured existing set of systems elements. It's like trying to change Culture. By the time you call it Culture it's too late to change it. You have to paddle upstream to discern the elements that created the Culture and work on them; over time the Culture, as an output of the system, will begin to shift.”

And so it is with Leadership in my view. By the time you're calling it "Leadership" it's very late in the game. What we think of as Leadership has been shaped by all the other elements of modern (mostly American) corporate structures and behaviors. If we want Leadership to change we have to get back in our kayaks and paddle up to where the elements that have created the kinds of leaders we have today are formed, and work on those. And (and this is central to my consulting philosophy and practice) we have to engage the people who are identified as leaders in a deep inquiry about how their own ego systems have been built up over their career as a product of our faulty ideas about leadership, and get them ready to drop those structures and change along with the system as it shifts. 

This is an area of great energy and passion for me currently. I don't believe that we can apply fixes to our structures without a willingness and strong guidance for personal reflection and inquiry about how we have unconsciously aligned ourselves with the systems that we came up in. Churchill said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." This is equally true of other structures such as our organizations and corporate behaviors. If we want to “transform leadership”, then we are going to have to transform leaders, one at a time if necessary.