Seeking Human Kindness
Seeking Human Kindness
ILA Fellow Richard Bolden discusses his work leading an independent evaluation of Bristol Golden Key, a collaborative partnership project designed to transform services for people with multiple complex needs such as homelessness and substance misuse. His research reveals how seven key aspects of the program helped to facilitate systems change.

by Richard Bolden

Share:

Bristol Golden Key

For the past eight years I led the independent evaluation of a collaborative partnership project designed to transform the design and provision of services for people with Severe and multiple disadvantage (SMD — also described as “multiple complex needs”) in the city of Bristol in the UK. Golden Key is one of 12 initiatives across England that received money from the National Lottery Community Fund under the Fulfilling Lives program to mobilize beneficial systems change to improve experiences and outcomes for people with a combination of complex needs (see video below for more about the challenges of complex needs and the approach taken by Golden Key).

The research was informed by “realist evaluation” principles, whereby we sought to understand the mechanisms through which interventions produce outcomes within particular contexts (Pawson & Tilley, 1997). As appropriate for evaluating complex interventions (Skivington et al., 2021), we captured multiple perspectives, experiences, and outcomes over time through a combination of methodologies underpinned by a theory of change. Whilst a diverse range of findings, recommendations, and conclusions have been reported, in this article I focus on how seven key aspects of the program helped to facilitate systems change.

Severe and Multiple Disadvantage

Severe and multiple disadvantage (SMD) refers to people who experience combined problems of homelessness, substance misuse, and criminal offending, often alongside mental health issues. In England, an estimated 58,000 people per year face all three of these, with a further 164,000 experiencing two, and 364,000 one, bringing the total to over half a million (Bramley et al., 2015). Such individuals are amongst the most vulnerable and isolated in our communities — susceptible to increased risks of morbidity and mortality (Aldridge et al., 2018; Waugh et al., 2018), poverty, discrimination, and social and economic exclusion (Bramley et al., 2019).

Funding and provision of services and support are typically framed around key institutions and sectors — such as health, social services, housing, police, probation, and drug and alcohol services — yet the complexity of the lives of people experiencing SMD means that they often end up falling through the gaps between services or getting caught in the “revolving door” of crisis and crime.

To better respond to the needs of such individuals, whilst also addressing the root causes of SMD — often linked to a history of adverse childhood trauma and earlier failures of the education, criminal justice, and/or health and social care to provide timely and appropriate support — requires an approach informed by complexity theory that recentres the design, delivery, and funding of services around the unique needs of individuals rather than the convenience of organizations, policy makers, and commissioners. As Fisher (2015) argues:

“The tragic paradox of severe and multiple disadvantage is […] a classic example of the ‘inverse care law,’ which states that the greater a person’s needs, the less likely they will be to receive support […] this problem exists because the support system is wholly unsuited to people facing severe and multiple disadvantage” (p. 4).

Seven Enablers of System Change

System change refers to “an intentional process designed to alter the status quo by shifting the function or structure of an identified system with purposeful interventions” (Abercrombie et al., 2015). It involves deliberately trialing new ways of working in order to activate patterns of beneficial change within complex systems (Fouracre et al., 2022).

A review of evaluation insights, alongside learning from the team leading the initiative, revealed seven key enablers of systems change within Golden Key that might be used by people developing or running systems change activities for SMD and other complex social issues, as illustrated in Table 1.

Enabler

Example

1. Person centred services and support

A pilot of the Housing First approach prioritized the allocation of safe and stable accommodation before attempting to address other client needs.

2. Collaboration and partnership working

The appointment of an independent chair to facilitate quarterly Partnership Board meetings ensured equitable engagement of partners and resolution of any conflicts that emerged.

3. Diversity of perspectives and experience

The Independent Futures group, comprising members with lived experience of SMD, ensured representation of client voice in key decision-making forums.

4. Relationships

The Service Coordinator role enabled the development of long-term, trusting relationships between clients and service providers.

5. Whole system approach

The Creative Solutions Board drew together professionals from across services to review and take action on cases that had become “stuck.”

6. People support and empowerment

The Action Experiment approach encouraged frontline staff to innovate and experiment with novel approaches/interventions.

7. Learning and reflection

Reflective Practice was built into work schedules to ensure that staff had time for structured learning and support.

At the heart of this approach is (re)designing services around the needs of service users. This is facilitated by collaboration and partnership working, embracing a diversity of perspectives and experience (including the voice of lived experience), investing in relationship building, taking a whole system approach, supporting and empowering frontline staff, and developing a culture of learning and reflection.

This work shows the importance of compassionate and collective “systems leadership” (Ghate et al., 2013), where individuals and groups at all levels are inspired, empowered, and enabled to innovate and adapt in order to address complex, “wicked” problems (Head, 2022). The resources outlined below show practical examples of where and how concepts of systems change can help mobilize grassroots leadership to address major social issues. A special issue of the journal Housing, Care and Support will be published later this year, which will include further insights from Golden Key and the Fulfilling Lives project.

We’d love to hear your experiences of doing similar work in other contexts! Visit my profile page to get in touch.

Resources

References

Abercrombie, R., Harries, E. and Wharton, R. (2015). Systems Change: A Guide to What It Is and How to Do It. Lankelly Chase Foundation. https://lankellychase.org.uk/publication/systems-change-a-guide-to-what-it-is-and-how-to-do-it/

Aldridge, R., Story, A., Hwang, S., Nordentoft, M., Luchenski, S., Hartwell, E., Tweed, E.J, Lewer, D., Ktikireddi, S.V. and Hayward, A. (2018). Morbidity and Mortality in Homeless Individuals, Prisoners, Sex Workers and Individuals With Substance Use Disorders in High Income Countries: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, The Lancet, 391, 241-50. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)31869-X/fulltext

Bolden, R., Isaac, B., Pawson, C. and Gasper, R. (2022). Systems Change for Multiple Complex Needs: A Practical Tool. UWE, Bristol on behalf of Golden Key Bristol. https://www.goldenkeybristol.org.uk/s/GK-Systems-Change-practical-tool-FINAL.pdf

Bramley, G., Fitzpatrick, S., Edwards, J., Ford, D., Johnsen, S., Sosenko, F. & Watkins, D. (2015). Hard Edges: Mapping Severe and Multiple Disadvantage in England. Lankelly Chase Foundation. https://lankellychase.org.uk/publication/hard-edges/

Bramley, G., Fitzpatrick, S., Wood, J., Sosenko, F., Blenkinsopp, J., Littlewood, M., Frew, C., Bashar, T., McIntyre, J. and Johnsen, S. (2019). Hard Edges Scotland. Lankelly Chase Foundation. https://lankellychase.org.uk/publication/hard-edges-scotland/

Fisher, G. (2015). The Complexity of Severe and Multiple Disadvantage. Lankelly Chase Foundation. https://lankellychase.org.uk/news/the-complexity-of-severe-and-multiple-disadvantage/

Fouracre, B., Fisher, J., Bolden, R., Coombs, B., Isaac, B. and Pawson, C. (2022). An Emergent Process for Activating System Change: Insights From Golden Key Bristol, Housing, Care and Support, forthcoming.

Ghate D., Lewis J., & Welbourn D. (2013). Systems Leadership: Exceptional Leadership for Exceptional Times – A Synthesis Report. Virtual Staff College. https://www.leadershipcentre.org.uk/systemsleadership/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/VSC_Synthesis_exec_complete.pdf

Head, B. W. (2022). Wicked Problems in Public Policy: Understanding and Responding to Complex Challenges. Palgrave Macmillan.

Ospina, S.M., Foldy, E.G., Fairhurst, G.T., & Jackson, B. (2020). Collective Dimensions of Leadership: Connecting Theory and Method, Human Relations, 73(4): 441-463. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726719899714

Pawson, R. & Tilley, N. (1997). Realistic Evaluation. Sage.

Skivington, K. et al., (2021). A New Framework for Developing and Evaluating Complex Interventions: Update of Medical Research Council Guidance, BMJ, 374(4), n2061. https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2061

Waugh, A., Clarke, A., Knowles, J., & Rowley, D. (2018). Health and Homelessness in Scotland. The Scottish Government. https://www.gov.scot/publications/health-homelessness-scotland/

West, M. (2021). Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care. Swirling Leaf Press.

headshot of Richard Bolden

Dr. Richard Bolden has been Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England (UWE) since 2013. Prior to this he worked at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School for over a decade and has also worked as an independent consultant, research psychologist and in software development in the UK and overseas.

His research explores the interface between individual and collective approaches to leadership and leadership development in a range of sectors, including higher education, healthcare and public services. He has published widely on topics including distributed, shared and systems leadership; leadership paradoxes and complexity; cross-cultural leadership; and leadership and change. He is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership.

Richard has secured funded research and evaluation projects for organisations including the NHS Leadership Academy, Public Health England, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Singapore Civil Service College and Bristol Golden Key and regularly engages with external organisations. 

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

How do you teach followership to business students? Dr. Kerri Cissna takes us through seven improv exercises she uses to teach followership and its impact on improving an organization’s bottom line.

by Kerri Cissna

Share:

The book Yes, And (Leonard & Yorton, 2015) describes how improvisational comedy can be used in a business setting for team development and leadership by “following the follower.”  There are seven elements of improv introduced by this text, which have become foundational for me in teaching followership to business students. In this blog, I share activities that I use to teach followership through improv and some of the student responses.  These techniques align with my course objectives to build creative confidence, generate many possible solutions to complex business problems, iterate and pivot, and collaborate and co-create.

1. One Word Story: Have students create a story together, one word/phrase at a time, starting with, “Once upon a time…” Options for subsequent rounds to have students create the story in groups, have them write the story out (without talking), and/or give them a topic for the story (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 42).

The first element of improvisation requires a “yes, and…” mindset so that all ideas are considered and built upon rather than being shot down (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). This type of open-mindedness is also important for design thinking and creative problem solving in business and educational settings (Kelley & Kelley, 2014). A culture of yes is not the same thing as “saying yes to everything.” Instead, it is a recognition that the best ideas come from an environment that generates multiple ways to approach something (known as divergent thinking). If the seemingly “bad” ideas are shot down right away, people start to filter themselves and withhold. A yes culture is collaborative, inventive, inclusive, and safe for members to express differences in opinions and ideas. By having students create a story together one word/phrase at a time, they realize that all ideas are valid and that a dialogue is more powerful than a monologue when it comes to generating new ideas. They also begin to recognize the importance of trusting their teammates to set them up for success, and they learn to recover from perceived failure when things don’t go as planned. 

2. There’s No “I” in Team: Have students converse in dyads without using the word “I.” (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 58)

The second element of improv is to introduce the concept of ensemble rather than team (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). There are no star players in an ensemble, and every voice matters in the creation of an improv activity. Improv teaches followership by changing expectations so that everyone takes turns leading and following. For this improv activity, students find it difficult to speak without using the word “I” because they are so accustomed to focusing on their own contributions to a team, rather than the co-creation of an ensemble. The students who embrace improv have commented that it feels like “we are all on equal footing” or “we are all valued for our contributions.” 

3. You’ve Got a Friend in Me: Have students write ideas (silently) for what the next Pixar film should be about. Next, have students share their ideas with a few of their classmates. Finally, have them create the next Pixar movie together as a group and share the storyline with the entire class.

The concept of co-creation is the third element in improvisation, which can easily be applied to followership (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). A leader alone is limited to their own ideas, but in followership, an ensemble can approach a situation from a lot of different angles. This improv activity helps students recognize that collective ideas are far more creative and novel than anything they come up with on their own. Some groups take the best idea that was shared and then co-create an even better tale, while others combine all ideas to create something new. Through improv, it becomes obvious in a short amount of time that diversity of thought can lead to creativity and innovation through co-creation. 

4. Exposure: Students are asked to stare at each other for one minute and then stare at the wall (or count ceiling tiles) for the next minute (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 22).

Authenticity is the fourth essential element of improv (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). Students who thrive at improv will feel safe to bring their authentic self to the ensemble. This authenticity makes them more equipped to include others for co-creation and collaboration. This improv activity helps students move beyond self-consciousness towards authenticity because they are more comfortable when their attention is placed on a task rather than on what others think of them. 

5. Rube Goldberg: Have students work together using whatever materials they have to create a complicated gadget or contraption that performs a simple task.

Embracing failure is the fifth element of improv (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). The biggest threat to creativity is fear, especially a fear of failure. Improv requires students to reframe failure as feedback, so that they can learn lessons from mistakes and move on. The Rube Goldberg assignment teaches students what it is like to fail and reframe, but they also report having a lot of fun and making new friends along the way. 

6. Who Is The Leader?: Have students get into a circle with one person making sounds/gestures that all others follow. One student in the middle must guess who the leader is (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 189).

The sixth element of improv describes “following the follower” (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). This principle allows flexibility in structure so that anyone can assume leadership as long as their expertise aligns with the needs of the group. Success in improv never comes from hierarchy. Organizations who invest in these types of followership models are experiencing increased creativity and innovation, and research has shown that heterarchical structures can increase creativity when the expression of power actively shifts among team members according to their capabilities (Aime et al., 2014). This improv activity allows students to discuss the ways that leadership and followership can blend together, often making it difficult to guess who is really influencing the entire group.

7. The Bug List: Have students write (silently) for five minutes about their pet peeves or the things that bother them. Next, students stand up in front of the class for three minutes each to share the stories behind the things that “bug” them.

Deep listening is the final element of improv, which requires empathy from anyone who wants to create, communicate, lead, or manage effectively (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). Listening requires being present and engaged in the moment. The “bug list” gets students listening to each other, laughing together, and becoming comfortable with public speaking. This activity aligns with design thinking, as students listen to their peers and identify themes for their creative problem-solving endeavors. 

Conclusion

I have found the courage to teach followership by engaging students in cultivating a culture of yes through improvisational comedy. In order to succeed at improv, students must be fully present in the moment, which can be challenging in an age of constant distraction.  Together, improv helps us build a classroom environment where all ideas are welcome. Students take turns leading and following as we co-create stories, dialogue, and meaning as a group. The space feels psychologically safe to share whatever comes to mind and mistakes are easily reframed into lessons learned along the way. If you are interested in cultivating a culture of yes, or you want to teach followership through improvisational comedy, grab a copy of Yes, And (Leonard & Yorton, 2015), which describes a variety of use cases and has a list of improv activities readily available in the back of the book.

Improv Reflection Questions

The following are a list of questions that you can use at the end of improv sessions to unpack the learning and transfer the skills to real life:

  1. What is your reaction to this exercise?
  2. In what ways did this exercise challenge you?
  3. What is the value added from this exercise?
  4. How could this activity have been improved?
  5. What are the transferable lessons from this exercise to your team project(s)? 

This article was originally written for ILA’s PAUSE for Pedagogy column edited by Dan Jenkins and Lisa Endersby with Lyndee Phillips.  View all of the past PAUSE columns by logging into ILA’s members only portal. 

References

Aime, F., Humphrey, S., DeRue, D. S., & Paul, J. B. (2014). The Riddle of Heterarchy: Power Transitions in Cross-Functional Teams. Academy of Management Journal, 57(2), 327-352. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2011.0756

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2014). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. William Collins. 

Leonard, K., & Yorton, T. (2015). Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons From The Second City. HarperCollins.

Kerri Cissna

Kerri Cissna is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University where she teaches creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. She received her PhD in Global Leadership and Change from Pepperdine University, and her research explores the intersection of inclusive leadership, faith, and entrepreneurship.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

In this blog, Chellie Spiller explores the power and potential of listening not only to others but also to our past-future self in a way that can change the world.

by Professor Chellie Spiller, Fellow, International Leadership Association

Share:

The Secret Life of Leadership Rocks (Part 1) highlighted management expert Tom Peter’s advice that listening is a bedrock of leadership excellence (Dooley, 2018). In this blog, I explore the power and potential of listening not only to others but also to our past-future self in a way that can change the world.

Active listening to colleagues, customers, employees, competitors, workplace surveys, and even giving full consideration to 360-degree feedback forms part of a leader’s listening repertoire. Active listening involves paying attention to others, being in the present moment, minimizing the amount of internal chatter that is forming a response; avoiding judgment; responding appropriately, such as with compassion; reflecting; clarifying and asking open questions; and not jumping in to fix or to solve.

We are all familiar with meetings where it is hard to get a word in edgeway; people interrupt and talk over each other to feel heard. Aleut leader Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff (2012) describes the experience of such a meeting: “Oh my gosh,” he says, “we interrupt each other, we’re assertive, and we push ourselves into the talk and leave a lot of other people out.” He calls for a revival of the “art of honourable discourse” so the “true intelligence of the collective” can arise. A Talking Circle, where process and relationships are more important than goals and end outcomes, helps set the space and conditions for collective intelligence to emerge. In this process, each person speaks without interruption, and others give their unfiltered, undivided, unbiased attention to hear what is shared. Merculieff’s description of a Talking Circle resonates with the ancient Indigenous Māori process of wānanga, which cultivates the space for collective reflective inquiry where people gather with a shared intention to surface wisdom and deep insight. In wānanga, time orientation is towards a holistic “perpetual present” (Spiller et al., 2020). Leaders need to make time to practice this key competency and in doing so will cultivate deeper connections, trust, and insight in their teams.

Australian Indigenous scholar Michelle Evans (Spiller et al., 2021) emphasizes the importance of “truly listening … finding a generative space … finding a timeless place inside ourselves …” (p. 88), and she illuminates the evocative words of Aboriginal activist, educator, and artist Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann (2002) who describes dadirri, deep listening:

dadirri…It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us…It is something like what you call “contemplation”. When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening. (p. 1)

These ancient Indigenous processes point to a form of listening across time and space.

Today, we need this listening more than ever. We need to listen to our timeless self, our past and future self. This approach goes beyond the limiting notion of a “now” self. It embraces the idea of an intergenerational self who is a reflection of descendants and ancestors and thus part of a movement through time. Zen Master Tich Nhat Hanh (2021) describes an “interbeing” self who is interconnected to ancestors, future generations, and all of creation. He asks, “Can we hear the voices of previous generations, and of the next? Can we hear those voices in our own times that are not being heard? Can we hear the voices of other species, and of the Earth?” (p. 35). He encourages a philosophy of being grounded in the present moment and says, “once we touch reality deeply in the present moment, we touch the past, we touch the future, and we touch eternity” (p. 14).

Listening to our past-future self from a place of interbeing is to honestly and courageously face the situation we are in, the planet we are impacting in such a devastating way, and the plight of people worldwide.

Listening to our past-future self from a place of interbeing is to honestly and courageously face the situation we are in, the planet we are impacting in such a devastating way, and the plight of people worldwide. It is to sit with and pay attention to the emotions that listening might bring up, such as discomfort, grief, sadness, perhaps cynicism. Such listening also calls us to imagine possibilities and take action in the service of descendants — not just of humans but of all forms of life, where, in an Indigenous view, even rocks have a life force. We are called to listen to the mighty rock that supports us: Planet Earth.

As leaders, if we want to practice leadership that supports regenerative futures we need to listen within. I recently attended a gathering focused on the Inner Development Goals This globally oriented initiative has developed an open-source suite of skills and qualities of human inner growth to support the fulfilment of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The framework is organized across five categories: 1. Being – Relationship to Self; 2. Thinking – Cognitive Skills; 3. Relating – Caring for Others and the World; 4. Collaborating – Social Skills, and 5. Acting – Driving Change. One of the presenters, Phoebe Tickell, “a renegade scientist, systems thinker and social entrepreneur,” led participants through an activist imagination method modeled on an Indigenous seven-generation philosophy. We formed pairs, and Phoebe guided us through a journey of encountering our future descendants. The imagination exercise is dedicated to “building a movement of moral imagination: collective imagining to increase radical kinship with the human and more-than-human worlds, present, past and future” (Moral Imaginations).

Indigenous wisdom calls us to give the gift of listening not only to others but also to our past-future self, our interbeing self. Collectively, it has the potential to surface a deeper form of wisdom and inspired action that can change the world and, after all, isn’t that the higher purpose of leadership?

We cannot change the world if we’re not able to change our way of thinking, our consciousness. Collective change in our way of thinking and seeing things is crucial. Without it, we cannot expect the world to change. (Hanh, 2021, p. 12)

References

Dooley, R. (2018, June 6). What’s the One Word Business Guru Tom Peters Writes on His Hand Before Meetings? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerdooley/2018/06/06/tom-peters/?sh=2cb0172c6cca

Hanh, T. N. (2021). Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet. HarperOne

Marculieff, I. (2012, May 14). Going to the Heart of Sustainability: An Indigenous Wisdomkeeper’s Perspective with Ilarion Merculieff [Talk]. Kalliopeia Foundation at the David Brower Center. https://vimeo.com/44699395

Spiller, C., Maunganui Wolfgramm, R., Henry, E., & Pouwhare, R. (2020). Paradigm Warriors: Advancing a Radical Ecosystems View of Collective Leadership From an Indigenous Māori Perspective. Human Relations, 73(4), 516–543. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726719893753

Spiller, C., Evans, M., Schuyler, K. G., & Watson, L. W. (2021). What Silence Can Teach Us About Race and Leadership. Leadership, 17(1), 81–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020976003

Ungunmerr-Baumann, MR. (2002). Dadirri: Inner Deep Listening and Quiet Still Awareness. Printed by the author. http://www.dadirri.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Dadirri-Inner-Deep-Listening-M-R-Ungunmerr-Bauman-Refl1.pdf

Chelie Spiller

Chellie Spiller is a professor of leadership at the University of Waikato Management School, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research explores wayfinding, authentic leadership and how businesses can create sustainable wealth and wellbeing. Chellie is a co-author of a book on traditional Polynesian navigation Wayfinding Leadership: Groundbreaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders (2015) with Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and John Panoho. Wayfinding Leadership is a best-selling book for Huia Publishing. It was shortlisted for the Māori Book of the Year awards, 2016. Wayfinding Leadership is included in the list of 150 books by leading Māori authors assembled by the Royal Society of New Zealand to celebrate 150 years of Māori non-fiction publications. Wayfinding Leadership has catalysed a new approach to leadership development that is growing fast and programmes are currently being taught nationally and internationally. In 2013 her co-edited book with Donna Ladkin, Reflections on Authentic Leadership: Concepts, Coalescences and Clashes (Edward Elgar Press) was short-listed for an international leadership book award. Chellie’s latest book is Practical Wisdom, Leadership and Culture: Indigenous, Asian and Middle-Eastern Perspectives co-edited with Ali Intezari and Shih-Ying Yang. The stories from contributors around the world are illuminating and inspiring.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

As governments and organisations around the world seek to “build back better” from the Covid-19 pandemic, Richard Bolden stresses the importance of making time and space for recovery — where leaders and others can experience the care and compassion needed to help them heal from the physical and emotional exhaustion that permeates our workplaces and communities.

by Richard Bolden

Share:

It is now over two years since the arrival of Covid-19, which plunged much of the world into lockdown and caused immense social and economic disruption and loss. On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic and as of 22nd March 2022, there have been over 470 million recorded cases and 6.1 million Covid-related deaths worldwide (World Health Organization, n.d.).

As governments in London, Washington D.C., and elsewhere call to “build back better,” and numerous organizations follow suit, it is easy to become so focussed on the future that we forget what we’ve been through. Without doubt, now is a time of both opportunity and need, but levels of physical and emotional exhaustion are at an all-time high. A report published in March 2022 notes a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide since the outbreak of the pandemic (World Health Organization, 2022). The impacts of Covid, however, are not equally distributed. We are, of course, now painfully aware of the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of Black, Asian, Indigenous, and minority ethnic backgrounds, but the lasting effects on them and other populations are harder to discern (Tai et al., 2021). Research on staff who worked in intensive care units at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, shows a 40% likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — twice that of military veterans recently engaged in combat (Greenberg et al., 2021).

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with professionals from a range of contexts and have been struck by the levels of exhaustion reported. This is particularly prominent amongst people working in health and care — many of whom had to keep working through the pandemic, often on the Covid “frontline” facing considerable personal risk and witnessing unimaginable trauma. In a series of reflective sensemaking discussions I had with staff from the National Health Service in England in Spring/Summer 2021, people compared their experiences to “clinging to a lifeboat” following a shipwreck or “being thrown out of a perfectly good airplane without a parachute.” A veteran from the UK armed forces, now working as an NHS Manager, described the height of the pandemic as worse than anything he had witnessed during the Helmand province campaign in Afghanistan. Another participant, a Black female NHS administrator, described her experiences of working through the pandemic whilst her brother and three other family members passed away, summing up with the observation that “This year has been about so much more than work!”

The emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983) of “putting on a brave face” and telling others “we can get through this” is an additional burden that has been carried. As one NHS leader said:

One day feels everything is doom and gloom and you know you’ve got a huge burden to try to deal with… and then you are trying to be optimistic as the leader… the rest of the staff look to you and how you’re coping, which often has been a huge influence on how the rest of the team are feeling… so you often have to wear a full smile and you know, the false positive to say “you know we can get through this.” You know try and support each other, But you’re carrying that burden yourself and it can be feeling very isolating.

Pulled quote.

More recent discussions with staff from higher education institutions around the world paint a similar picture, albeit usually without the same degree of personal risk (Parkin et al., 2021). Nonetheless, people describe the immense turbulence and uncertainty of the past two years and the repeated need to adapt to changing circumstances and demands. Whilst some might question the accuracy of such accounts, it is worth noting that the PwC Global Crisis Survey 2021 ranks the higher education sector as the second hardest hit by the pandemic (just behind hospitality and leisure), with 83% of organisations reporting a “negative” or “significant negative” impact (PwC, 2021).

In a TED talk titled The Human Skills We Need in an Unpredictable World, recorded just six months before the outbreak of the pandemic, Margaret Heffernan (2019) contrasts resilience with robustness. Her argument is that sectors such as healthcare, law and order, and the supply of essential services such as food, water, and energy, need to focus not just on the ability to get back up after a set-back but on the ability not to break under pressure in the first place. In order to do this, she suggests, we must abandon our obsession with efficiency and focus instead on “preparedness, coalition-building, imagination, experiments, bravery” that underpin our “capacity for adaptation, variation and invention.”

This is precisely what many organizations are now doing — including the healthcare and higher education institutions mentioned earlier — but in the wake of the pandemic there is a further “R” that requires attention. The physical and emotional exhaustion that now permeates many workplaces and communities also requires a significant investment in recovery. I’m not talking here of the economic recovery stressed by politicians and business leaders (although that is undoubtedly important) but of the slow and challenging process of human healing. In order to achieve this, we need to move beyond a rhetoric of “compassion” to a genuine “ethic of care” that “reconnects experiences across the so-called work-life boundary” (Tomkins & Simpson, 2017).

Recognition of the pain and suffering that accompanies change is not new. Indeed, Heifetz and colleagues (2009) made precisely this point when outlining their theory of adaptive leadership, arguing that “Honoring the reality that adaptive processes will be accompanied by distress means having compassion for the pain that comes with deep change” (p. 29). West and colleagues (2017), writing on compassionate leadership in healthcare, conclude that “In order to nurture a culture of compassion, organisations require their leaders — as the carriers of culture — to embody compassion in their leadership” (p. 4). Yet, as Maak and colleagues (2021), reflecting on insights from the pandemic, argue “It cannot be overstated, how demanding it is for a leader to make space for human moments, and to be present for and attentive to those who suffer in a situation in which pressure on the leader is relentless” (p. 74).

At a time when we are still figuring out how best to move forward from the pandemic it is worth remembering the saying, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Kindness and compassion require a conscious choice — to look beyond our own preoccupations to consider the perspectives and experiences of others. The mobilization of groups and communities throughout the pandemic, as well as the near global solidarity and support shown for the Ukrainian population following the unprovoked attack by Russia, demonstrate our capacity for empathy and care. The question now remains how we can carry this forward. Then, and only then, will we have demonstrated our capacity to “build back better.”

Interested in learning more about this topic? On 12-13 July 2022, the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre will be hosting the 12th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference, with a theme of “Leading to Care – Foregrounding Health and Well-being in Leadership Development and Education.” Confirmed keynote speakers include Michael West and Leah Tomkins (mentioned above) as well as Tracie Jolliff. The event will be run online with no registration fee in order to enable wide attendance. The call for papers is now open. The deadline to submit is 1st April. Further details at https://lnkd.in/dJpE7Ekk.

References

Greenberg, N., Weston, D., Hall, C., Caulfield, T., Williamson, V., & Fong, K. (2021). Mental Health of Staff Working in Intensive Care During Covid-19. Occupational Medicine, 71(2), 62–67. https://doi.org/10.1093/occmed/kqaa220

Heffernan, M. (2019 July). The Human Skills We Need in an Unpredictable World [Video]. TEDSummit2019. https://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_the_human_skills_we_need_in_an_unpredictable_world

Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. University of California Press.

Maak, T., Pless, N. M., & Wohlgezogen, F. (2021). The Fault Lines of Leadership: Lessons From the Global Covid-19 Crisis. Journal of Change Management, 21(1), 66–86.

Parkin, D., Bolden, R., Watermeyer, R., & Outhart, K. (2021 December 16). Perspectives on Leadership in Global Higher Education – Reflections From the Roundtables. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/perspectives-leadership-global-higher-education-reflections-roundtables

PwC. (2021 March). Global Crisis Survey 2021: Building Resilience for the Future. https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/crisis/pwc-global-crisis-survey-2021.pdf

Tai, D.B.G., Sia, I.G., Doubeni, C.A., & Wieland, M.L. (2021, October 13). Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups in the United States: A 2021 Update. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-021-01170-w

Tomkins, L., & Simpson, P. (2017). An Ethic of Care: Reconnecting the Private and the Public. In D. Knights, & C. Mabey (Eds.), Leadership Matters: Finding Voice, Connection and Meaning in the 21st Century (pp. 89-101). Routledge.

West, M., Eckert, R., Collins, B., & Chowla, R. (2017). Caring to Change. The Kings Fund.

World Health Organization. (n.d.) WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard as of 5:27pm CET, 22 March 2022. https://covid19.who.int

World Health Organization. (2022, March 2). COVID-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide

headshot of Richard Bolden

Dr. Richard Bolden has been Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England (UWE) since 2013. Prior to this he worked at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School for over a decade and has also worked as an independent consultant, research psychologist and in software development in the UK and overseas.

His research explores the interface between individual and collective approaches to leadership and leadership development in a range of sectors, including higher education, healthcare and public services. He has published widely on topics including distributed, shared and systems leadership; leadership paradoxes and complexity; cross-cultural leadership; and leadership and change. He is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership.

Richard has secured funded research and evaluation projects for organisations including the NHS Leadership Academy, Public Health England, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Singapore Civil Service College and Bristol Golden Key and regularly engages with external organisations. 

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Blog
Blog
ILA Fellow Katherine Tyler Scott discusses the re-emergence of autocratic leadership around the world and its ties to societal anxiety before exploring Ukrainian President Zelensky's ability to use his voice to encapsulate the universal yearning of humanity to live free.

by Katherine Tyler Scott

Share:

It has been very difficult to focus on much of anything else as the world witnesses an ongoing, violent attack on the people of Ukraine, and we are shell shocked by a blatant violation of their sovereignty. These horrific and violent assaults originate in a delusional obsession with power, control, self-aggrandizement, and a complete disregard for the rule of law and denial of the will of the people. It is devastating and dispiriting to the desire for global unity and peace.

The daily ache in my heart comes from a deep and abiding value and belief in opposing injustice and oppression in any form, against anyone, anywhere. I find silence in such instances unacceptable.

Many people around the world filled the streets and exercised their voices in protest of the public murder of George Floyd. It was impossible to turn away and not see what was in plain sight, to deny how the long history of dehumanization had contributed to the knee of oppression. We are called now to do the same on behalf of humanity. In America, the value of freedom is etched on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, cited in the Declaration of Independence, codified in the United States Constitution, and sustained by civic engagement. Our diversity does not discount the universal desire for freedom. This basic right to which every human being is entitled is always at risk of attack. Events, unforeseen or planned, can create major disruption and insecurity alongside crippling levels of anxiety and fear — states of emotionality in which people are willing to trade their freedom for the quick fix.

Freedom is not rampant individualism and self-absorption; it is a combination and balance of self-interests and concerns for the wellbeing of others.

Freedom is not rampant individualism and self-absorption; it is a combination and balance of self-interests and concerns for the wellbeing of others. Freedom must be subject to certain constraints, hopefully to those that contribute to the common good and that respect the dignity and worth of all people. Constraints that ignore this and the larger good are thieves of life and liberty. When the purpose of imposing limits on freedom is the preservation of the power of a few to maintain the powerlessness of the many, corruption is the cost societies bear. Such power builds in a fog of fear and anxiety and becomes the enemy of civility, the enemy of love of neighbor, the enemy of the good.

The re-emergence of autocratic leadership around the world is the result of many issues, not the least of which is an epidemic of anxiety. Some of this can be explained by the assault of a once in a century virus; but much of this is a pre-existing condition. Regressive reactions to threats, perceived or real (e.g., population shifts, environmental degradation, economic disparity and loss) were a reality before Covid and its frightening mutations. We feel what family systems pioneer, Murray Bowen’s research at the National Institutes of Health found: Chronic anxiety in any system whether family, corporation, healthcare, government, or a society makes the system vulnerable to losing its capacity to cope with change. When there is an escalation of anxiety combined with a sense of being overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change, and we no longer have individuals or institutions available that would traditionally absorb or bind the anxiety, society’s capacity to cope is greatly diminished.

The Ukrainian President and the country’s citizens have been subject to these same dynamics and forces of change yet have become an inspiring counter to a loss of the ability to cope. Why?

In large part, it is because of collective aspirations, shared core beliefs, a strong identity as a people, and an understanding of the desire to become a country where people can be free. These are powerful determinants of response, but all become more powerful when they are given voice. President Volodymyr Zelensky is that voice for his country and for millions around the world. In using it, he has galvanized people across the globe to remember what matters and what is required when civilization is under threat. A major mitigating factor to society’s chronic anxiety is the self-differentiated leader, and we are seeing it in Zelensky. He reminds us of the power of voice — one and many. We are seeing why words matter. His voice, his words, have encapsulated the universal yearning of humanity: to live, to live free, and in doing so, to have the opportunity to live a life of meaning — a life that matters and makes a difference.

As a daily witness to Zelensky’s courageous leadership, to his love of Country, and his fierce commitment to fight the forces of autocracy, I feel the heaviness in my heart slowly dissipating and becoming a steely determination to remain informed and vigilant, to speak out boldly on behalf of democracy, and to use my voice in multiple forms to protect and preserve the freedoms so many have fought and died for, and are still fighting and dying for, as you read these words. This includes recognizing the threat of autocratic and anti-democratic movements where ever you reside. Our voices matter in this global fight for freedom — they will make a difference.

Katherine Tyler Scott

Before beginning her tenure at KI ThoughtBridge, Katherine Tyler Scott founded and served as President of Trustee Leadership Development, Inc., a resource center for governance leaders and not-for-profit organizations. Katherine is a past chair of the ILA board and convener of the ILA Applied Leadership Global Learning Community. She previously directed the Lilly Endowment Leadership Education Program, a statewide leadership education initiative for professionals in youth service, and she also developed leadership programs and resources for the Community Leadership Association.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Blog
Blog
Chellie Spiller discusses the important role leaders have in cultivating and nourishing the vibe or mauri (life force, vital essence) of an organization and of tending to the wellbeing of people, communities, and economies.

by Professor Chellie Spiller, Fellow, International Leadership Association

Share:

The energy an organization exudes has been described by Ghoshal and Bartlett (1994, p. 94) as “the smell of a place” and shaping this smell is a critical responsibility of leaders. Think of the workplaces, stores, cafés, and restaurants you have been to that emanate a negative vibe, they can feel heavy, stressful, indifferent, cold, dispirited, and dysfunctional. Yet, many leaders overlook the importance of cultivating and nourishing the vibe of an organization.

From an indigenous Māori perspective, we pay attention to this vibe and recognize that nourishing different life-energies can revitalize relationships and is an important dimension of organizational thriving. In our worldview, we dwell within a “woven universe” (Marsden, 2003) and various energies ply the field of human experience. Such energies can be glossed as mauri (life force, vital essence), mana (empowerment, inherited and endowed authority), wairua (spirituality), hau (reciprocity), ihi (spark, magnetism), wana (to be thrilling, rousing), wehi (to ignite awe) and many more. If we disregard energy dimensions, in the context of organizations, the organization’s vitality can be degraded, unhealthy and even become toxic.

A key point for leaders is to nurture awareness of energies and to not let things get into a bad state, a negative vibe. One particular energy is mauri, which is described as an energy that “is immanent in all things, knitting and bonding them together” (Marsden, 2003, p. 47). From a Māori perspective, everything has its own vital mauri from rocks, trees, waterways, and creatures — all have their own unique life force and intrinsic worth. We have an abiding belief that when the mauri of all is healthy, we are healthy. The things we create and how we care for them also generate a mauri, a life force. If a facilitator runs a workshop in a particular state, they are creating a mauri. Or, if a leadership team is working on a strategy amidst hidden agendas, harmful intentions, or negligence about the wellbeing of people and ecologies, then that strategy will have and will produce negative mauri. If someone is going about their work in a bitter, cynical, or resentful way, putting out negative vibes day after day, that will eventually affect the overall mauri of the place. Clearing toxic and unhealthy energy is not uncommon in New Zealand in all manner of organizations. For example, after particularly difficult or concerning events, workspaces and land may be cleared. People may be called in a gathering to clear the air and release hurt, distress, and suffering. Such activities occur under the expert guidance of a tohunga (a recognized expert steeped in appropriate cultural authority).

An organization’s mauri can, therefore, be considered the sum of all its processes, treatment of people and the environment, its culture, the state of its physical spaces, and so forth. “An organisation may be proficient at generating a profit, but if the mauri is the price paid for that profit – then, in Māori terms, that organisation is not a success” (Spiller & Stockdale, 2013, p. 24). Whilst energies like mauri can be dismissed by some as nebulous and defy reductionist KPIs and indicators, peoples’ lived experience of the vibe of a place is palpable and can be nurtured in conscious ways by leaders:

When people in an organisation tune into it as a living form, treating it as an extension of themselves, they develop a deeper relational quality that is response-able, and they take responsibility for their part. They begin to see that their wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of all, including the ‘resources’ that make up the physical, spiritual, social and cultural dimensions of the organisation. The potential of this for modern organisations is significant. It is not just the leader responding, listening and feeling, but everyone in the organisation tuning in and being part of that vibe. They see how their activities, attitude and behaviour coalesce to imbue the organisation with its life force (Spiller et al., 2015, p. 96)

Whitehead (1978, p.3) said that “no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the system of the universe…” and Western conceptualizations appear to be moving from a mechanistic understanding of the universe towards a quantum resonance with Indigenous worldviews. Mechanistic worldviews have imprinted organizational forms and influenced leadership and managerial approaches around key tenets such as specialization that imposes divisions disconnected from context, hyper-individualization, and, oftentimes, a reductionist, rationalistic logic that permeates all decision making. A quantum understanding of the universe holds more promise of paying attention to the energy dimensions of life and for leadership. In particular, Rovelli’s (2020/2021) relational quantum theory emphasizes how properties are interpreted as things that come into interaction with something else. This is a move away from observation and observables to interactions. Thus, economy, psychology, biology, he says, are all about relations.

For many Indigenous peoples, our institutions have been modeled on a relational view of the universe whereby humans self-actualize in relationship to all of creation and the notion of “I belong therefore I am” rejects the Cartesian premise of “I think therefore I am” (Spiller et al., 2011). Organizations reflecting a relational worldview are conceived as complex, interconnected, and dynamic with cascading effects throughout the organizational ecosystem. They tend to the wellbeing of people, communities, and economies and seek to be mindful of tangible and intangible impacts. As we head deeper into 2022, perhaps it is timely to consider the vibe we are emanating in our endeavours in the field of leadership.

The ideas presented in this article are placed as an offering on the whāriki (mat) of the field of leadership in organizations to support enquiry into more humanistic, spiritual, and relational ways that attend to sources of wellbeing. Readers are encouraged to find their own ways of bringing new life to their organizations through careful consideration of context under the guidance and tutelage of appropriate mentors and elders. In my next ILA blog, I will be exploring the secret life of rocks, mauri stones, and considering implications for leadership.

References

Ghoshal, S., & Bartlett, C. (1994). Linking organizational context and managerial action: The dimensions of quality of management. Strategic Management Journal, 15(S2), 91-112. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.4250151007

Marsden, M. (2003). The woven universe: Selected writings of Rev. Māori Marsden. (Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, Ed.). Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden.

Rovelli, C. (2021). Helgoland: Making sense of the Quantum revolution (E. Segre& S. Carnell, Trans.). Riverhead Books. (Original work published 2020)

Spiller, C., Barclay-Kerr, H., & Panoho, J. (2015). Wayfinding leadership: Ground-breaking wisdom for developing leaders. Huia Publishers.

Spiller, C., & Stockdale, M. (2013). Managing and leading from a Māori perspective: Bringing new life and energy to organizations. In J. Neal (Ed.), Handbook for faith and spirituality in the workplace (pp.149-173). Springer Publishing Company.

Spiller, C., Erakovic, L., Henare, M., & Pio, E. (2011). Relational Well-Being and Wealth: Māori Businesses and an Ethic of Care. Journal of Business Ethics, 98(1), 153-169. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-010-0540-z

Whitehead, A. J. (1978). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology – Corrected Edition. The Free Press.

Chelie Spiller

Chellie Spiller is a professor of leadership at the University of Waikato Management School, Aotearoa New Zealand. Her research explores wayfinding, authentic leadership and how businesses can create sustainable wealth and wellbeing. Chellie is a co-author of a book on traditional Polynesian navigation Wayfinding Leadership: Groundbreaking Wisdom for Developing Leaders (2015) with Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and John Panoho. Wayfinding Leadership is a best-selling book for Huia Publishing. It was shortlisted for the Māori Book of the Year awards, 2016. Wayfinding Leadership is included in the list of 150 books by leading Māori authors assembled by the Royal Society of New Zealand to celebrate 150 years of Māori non-fiction publications. Wayfinding Leadership has catalysed a new approach to leadership development that is growing fast and programmes are currently being taught nationally and internationally. In 2013 her co-edited book with Donna Ladkin, Reflections on Authentic Leadership: Concepts, Coalescences and Clashes (Edward Elgar Press) was short-listed for an international leadership book award. Chellie’s latest book is Practical Wisdom, Leadership and Culture: Indigenous, Asian and Middle-Eastern Perspectives co-edited with Ali Intezari and Shih-Ying Yang. The stories from contributors around the world are illuminating and inspiring.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

The 2022 World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report reveals that global experts and leaders are worried. Key indicators like social cohesion and mental health have worsened under the pandemic. Erwin Schwella shares a leadership model that attempts to make sense of and deal with complex societal challenges such as these in analytical and active ways.

by Erwin Schwella

Share:

The Global Risks Report 2022, 17th Edition from the World Economic Forum reveals that respondent global experts and leaders consulted on global risks are not hopeful about the outlook for the world. Less than 16% are “optimistic” or “positive.” The vast majority, 84.2% is “concerned” or “worried.”

In contrast, just 11% hold the positive view that global recovery will accelerate. Social cohesion erosion, livelihood crises, and mental health deterioration are perceived to have worsened most under the pandemic.

The dominant expectation of the experts and leaders in the report is that the next three years will be characterized by consistent volatility and multiple surprises or fractured trajectories. This will separate relative winners and losers.

For the next five years, respondents again signal societal and environmental risks as the most concerning.

Over a 10-year horizon, the health of the planet dominates concerns. Environmental risks are perceived to be the five most critical long-term threats to the world as well as the most potentially damaging to people and planet. “Climate action failure,” “extreme weather,” “biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse,” were considered the top three global risks by severity over the next 10 years in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Perception Survey.

The Schwella leadership model is a systemic and mostly institutional leadership model. The model represents an attempt to make sense of and deal with complex societal challenges in analytical and active ways, where there is no leadership with easy answers.

The model was co-created and honed during many years of conversations with friends, students, and colleagues in classrooms, strategy and organizational development consultancy sessions, and globally for mentoring and coaching. The Leadership insights in twelve I’s, none of which, preferably, should be about me, intentionally credits all contributions.

This institutional model represents the context for the complementary twelve I’s leadership individual competency insights presented here.  This combination of institutional and individual perspectives on thinking and doing integrity leadership, may assist in sense-making in a very complex world.

Schwella Leadership Model

This model for leadership analysis and action is grounded in several C’s:

  • Context, challenging leadership to be context connected and relevant;
  • Challenges, requiring leadership to deal with problems with commitment and compassion;
  • Concepts, as necessary conditions for valid and reliable theory-based analysis;
  • Competencies as leadership knowledge, skills, and attitudes transforming ideas into implementation;
  • Capacity, as institutional capacity with a culture and dynamic of enabling analysis and impactful implementation;
  • Change, driving adaptive and technical change to lead and manage transitions and transformation sensitively and sensibly.

Based on these grounded C’s, are the H’s of leadership as leadership of the:

  • Head, as cognitive, intellectual, analytical, and mindful, competent, strategic leadership;
  • Heart, as compassionate and emotionally intelligent, learning leadership;
  • Hands, as active co-creative leadership designing and delivering innovative leadership implementation for impact.

Leadership requires co-constructive R’s as:

  • Roles, selected to serve the purpose, objectives, and team needs and effect implementation impact;
  • Responsibilities, serving with diligence and dedication;
  • Relationships, built and sustained compassionately to enhance team harmony, cohesion, and constructive unity of purpose.

Leaders must lead with the I’s of individual and institutional effectiveness and integrity. Through examples of exemplary leadership, teams do what leaders do rather than what they say.

Sensitivity and sensibility are required leadership S’s.

  • Sensitive, leadership is caring and compassionate leadership, based on empathy and social and emotional intelligence;
  • Sensible, leadership is data, information, knowledge, and wisdom-based leadership grounded in continuous learning.

Purpose-driven leadership leads change towards transitional and transformational T’s of leadership from challenging current realities towards desired futures.

The twelve complementary I’s, individual leadership competencies, are:

  1. having Insight;
  2. being Imaginative;
  3. being Intuitive;
  4. being Intelligent;
  5. being Inspirational;
  6. using Influence;
  7. driving Initiative;
  8. having Integrity;
  9. being Inclusive;
  10. reaching Implementation;
  11. effecting Impact;
  12. ongoing Improvement.

1. Insight requires conceptual and compassionate perspectives from leaders into leadership and real-world contexts, challenges, and actions.

These perspectives have to be relevant to the why, the what, and the how of leadership. Authentic leadership requires wider and deeper systematic and systemic insight instead of superficial, non-sustainable, quick-fix solutions.

Leadership with insight, inevitably becomes leadership with foresight.

2. Imaginative leadership is the powerful ability of, mostly, leadership of the head to create visionary images supporting desired futures from currently non-existing ideas, actions, processes, and products.

Exemplary leaders witness the impact of imaginative leadership, when stating:

  • “The power of imagination created the illusion that my vision went much farther than the naked eye could actually see.” – Nelson Mandela (Thomsett & Thomsett, 2015, p. 62).
  • “Imagination is more important that knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Albert Einstein (Viereck, 1929, p. 117).
  • “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18.

3. Intuitive leaders learn to trust their instincts and tap into their internal voice using sub-consciousness intuition as the cauterizing element for intellectual and rational leadership of the head.

Intuitive leaders immerse into a deeper consciousness of more dimensions of complexity. They reflect introspectively and consult externally. Intuition provides wisdom and emotionally intelligent checks and balances for unbridled enthusiasm and disconnected naivete. Intuition should be used consistently and compassionately by leaders.

4. Intelligent leadership, as emotional intelligence (EQ) complementing fluid and crystallized intelligence (IQ), is a value-adding leadership competency.

There is little consistent evidence that IQ correlates with better leadership. Evidence suggests EQ does. Competent leadership requires a balanced set of intelligences, including IQ and EQ, for optimal impact.

5. Inspirational leadership accedes that if leaders are not inspired by their purpose and actions, probably no-one else will be.

Inspiration co-creates enthusiasm. Leadership lethargy spawns lackluster responses. Inspiration is more about hard work and dedication than charisma. Inspiration is exponentially more than mere words and cheap talk. Inspiration is imbedded into empathy and valuable, value-driven co-creation. Inspirational leadership is highly significant for leadership with impact.

6. Influence is instrumental and substantive insights and inspiration that constructively impacts on the beliefs and behaviors of leaders, teams, and those served.

Influence manifests desirably in benevolent ways and undesirably in malevolent ways. The benevolent, desirable, constructive way is through trust, legitimacy, legality, and consensus-based unity of purpose. This impacts through legitimized and legalized authority.

The undesirable way is malevolent power and force, inevitably ending in destruction and disaster.

7. Initiative in leadership is a can-do attitude connected to a distinct and deliberate bias for action.

Leaders take initiative to innovatively impact on societal problems. Initiative leadership towards impactful innovation requires mindfulness, confidence, and courageous commitment. Initiative leadership analysis and action require leadership insight as foresight and appropriate intuitive analysis. Initiative is proactive, rather than reactive, and incorporates a propensity for taking reasonable risks rather than getting stuck in lethargy and analysis paralysis.

8. Integrity leadership is the basis of trust for, in, and by leadership.

Leadership with integrity co-creates harmony and consensus based on foundations of dignity and consistency and nurtured by the fountains of honesty and credibility. Integrity demands doing what is right even when no one is watching. Integrity, and the trust co-created by integrity for purpose-driven and compassionate leadership, have moral, material, and monetary value.

Leadership lacking integrity destroys trust, creates conflict, costs money, and is wasteful in moral and material terms. Leadership without integrity inevitably leads to corruption.  Corruption, in contrast to integrity, which is dignity, is deadly.

9. Inclusive leadership intentionally includes all stakeholders in the co-creation of shared vision and problem-solving implementation.

Crafting inclusive leadership involves mindsets of inclusion and inclusive techniques such as human-centered design thinking, appreciative inquiry, and learning leadership.

10. Implement is the ultimate action call for impact.

Without implementation, leadership is futile and of little consequence. Ineffective implementation confirms leadership and planning failure. Deficient implementation results from lack of insight into contextual challenges, weak conceptual understanding of the problems and opportunities, and insufficient thinking to co-create vision and solutions.  

Implementation fails if plans are unrealistic, overambitious, and outstrips individual competencies and institutional organizational capacity. Implementation requires initiative through programs and projects. Without projects, there is neither implementation nor impact.

11. Impact leadership co-creates successful and significant public value outcomes based on analysis and action.

Impact follows upon imaginative insight calibrated against intuition. Impact requires inspiring, influential, emotionally intelligent leadership. Impact occurs where leaders inspire integrity-based initiatives through inclusively shared vision and implementation. Impact uses learning leadership through reflective learning for continuous improvement towards impactful implementation.

12. Improve as learning leadership intrinsically connects to analytical and reflective iterative learning rounds.

Learning leadership is grounded onto a leadership-facilitated, reflective, and analytical knowledge process informed by systematic and systemic monitoring and evaluation for continuous performance improvement.

From a knowledge-seeking perspective, answers to four questions to inform change in rounds of iterative learning are required, being:

  • What happened? – answering this question provides a systematic, descriptive, qualitative, and quantitative assessment of performance and performance trends based on empirical evidence.
  • Why did this happen? – answering this question delivers a diagnostic analysis, based upon provisional explanations, of which actions are related to increasing or decreasing performance.
  • What can I/we learn from this? – answering this question results in improved individual learning-based competencies.
  • How can this learning be built back into the system for improved systemic quality and performance? – answering this question supports discoveries that enhance prognostic institutional capacity building for continuous performance improvement.

The institutional Schwella leadership model, mostly an institutional analysis model for transformational change, can usefully be combined with 12 I’s as individual competencies. This complements the C’s to S’s of the Schwella model. And then, leadership in 12 I’s is not about me.

The combined effort may also assist in analysis and action to contemplate and craft integrity-based socially innovative responses to the complex challenges faced by the world and mitigate the impact of global and personal risks of social cohesion erosion, livelihood crises, and mental health deterioration.

References

Thomsett, M.C. & Thomsett, L.R. (2015). A Speaker’s Treasury of Quotations: Maxims, Witticisms and Quips for Speeches and Presentations. McFarland, Inc.

Viereck, G.S. (1929, October 26). What Life Means to Einstein: An Interview by George Sylvester Viereck. The Saturday Evening Post, Start Page 17.

World Economic Forum. (2022). The Global Risks Report 2022, 17th Edition. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Global_Risks_Report_2022.pdf

Erwin Schwella

Erwin Schwella grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He obtained a PhD in Public Governance from Stellenbosch University and became an academic there in 1981. Realizing the real consequences of apartheid, he became an academic and activist critic.

During democratization in South Africa, he served to shape the future of democratic new South African governance institutions. He is an emeritus professor of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and in the Law School of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Since taking emeritus status from Stellenbosch, he learns about leadership as Dean: School of Social innovation and the Founding Servant Leader of the Centre for Good Governance in Africa at Hugenote Kollege in South Africa.

Erwin Schwella served as the Chair of the ILA Public Leadership Member Interest Group.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Blog
Blog
People in positions of power and influence, like Prime Minister Boris Johnson, tennis star Novak Djokovic, and Prince Andrew, seem to believe that they are free to operate above the rules. But the tide of public opinion is turning against these egregious displays of privilege and inequality. Dr. Richard Bolden uses these cases to shed light on the reciprocal and relational nature of leadership.

by Richard Bolden

19 January 2022

Share:

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 1920

Over the past few weeks, a series of stories have dominated news headlines around the world that, whilst in different contexts, bear a number of striking similarities.

The first of these concerns revelations about a string of parties hosted at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic. Whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson has consistently attempted to deflect allegations and blame, arguing that these were work events and that Covid restrictions were followed at all times, the public and indeed his own party have become increasingly frustrated by his unwillingness to apologize and take responsibility, and by his apparent disregard for the rules that he and colleagues had imposed across the country.

The second regards the ability of unvaccinated tennis star Novak Djokovic to enter Australia to play in the Australian Open. For Djokovic this would have enabled him not only to defend his title but also to potentially achieve the highest ever number of Grand Slam titles in men’s tennis. His Visa application, however, was contested on the basis of him breaching Australian Immigration rules around COVID vaccination status, as well as an error in the reporting of prior travel on his Visa form.

And the third relates to whether or not Prince Andrew will face trial for alleged illegal sexual activity. Needless to say, the Prince has consistently denied these allegations — publicly stating that he’d never met his accuser (despite photographic evidence to the contrary) and even taking part in a televised interview where he endorsed his position by stating that he was “unable to sweat” and was picking up his daughter from a pizza restaurant on the evening of one of the suggested incidents (despite no substantive evidence to support either claim).

Headlines on the BBC News website, at 11:00 on 14/01/2022

Despite their obvious differences, what each of these stories has in common is the sense that people in positions of power and influence believe that they are free to operate beyond the rules that govern the ways that others are expected to live their lives.

These stories have been widely reported, not just in mainstream media but also through the internet and on social media where each has fuelled a storm of opinion and memes. Despite their obvious differences, what each of these stories has in common is the sense that people in positions of power and influence believe that they are free to operate beyond the rules that govern the ways that others are expected to live their lives. Whilst these are just the latest in a long history of examples of privilege and inequality, what is notable this time is the turning tide of public opinion. Whilst there remain those that support and defend the protagonists, our collective willingness to forgive and forget is in rapid decline. In each case people are frustrated not just by the incidents themselves but by the lack of respect that the continued avoidance of accountability demonstrates. Trust has been broken and, whatever the outcome of any of these sagas, will be difficult to rebuild — not just for the individuals themselves but also the institutions they represent.

Together, these cases illustrate the reciprocal and relational nature of leadership. As Professor Joanne Ciulla argues: “Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good” (Ciulla, 1998, p. xv). In each of these examples the moral foundation of these individuals (and their institutions) has been brought into question, which erodes their credibility, authority, and ability to influence others.

Linked to this is the sense of one set of rules for them and another set of rules for the rest of us. A fundamental premise of the social identity approach is that leaders must demonstrate that “we’re in this together.” Professor Stephen Reicher and colleagues have spoken particularly about the need for identity-based leadership through the pandemic and highlighted the consequences of failing to do so (Jetten et al., 2020). The (post) pandemic situation is particularly pertinent in the cases of Boris Johnson and Novak Djokovic where the tough lockdown conditions and personal loss endured by populations in the UK and Australia make breaches of the regulations — and the apparently dismissive ways in which they have been responded to — particularly egregious.

These cases also highlight the complex, systemic nature of leadership and the need to focus attention on small details as well as broader patterns (French & Simpson, 2014). Whilst Boris Johnson, for example, may have weathered many a storm during his career, an overt breach of Covid regulations may well be enough to unseat him from his position in parliament (much as it has for others in the government). For Djokovic, a failure to complete his Visa application correctly has ended his ambitions to win the 2022 Australian Open. And whilst not wishing to defend his actions, differences between legal systems in the UK and USA may have contributed to Prince Andrew being indictable for alleged crimes in New York.

Overall, these stories demonstrate shifting social trends around our relationship with and deference towards people in positions of power and authority. Whilst I believe we are still far from a world of “post-heroic leadership,” our collective tolerance for people who appear arrogant or elitist appears to be waning. As leadership scholars, educators, and practitioners, however, we must also be careful not to be drawn in the polarizing vortex of opinion that such stories fuel. Whilst these particular examples may be playing out in public view — exposing the sordid intricacies for all to see — we must also remain alert for the stories that remain hidden from view. On the day that I am writing this article, for example, the journalist Carole Cadwalladr is appearing in the U.K. High Court to defend her decision to publish and share her account of the ways in which she believes Trump, Farage, Banks, and others used Facebook to spread misinformation to influence the outcome of Brexit vote. (For further details see her gofundme page and TED talk). Such cases are risky and expensive. Yet, unless people are willing to speak-up, we may find democracy slipping away.

I began this article with a quote from Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence, which highlighted the tensions and ambiguities within a world undergoing social and political change. There are many that would argue we are at a similar turning point in history — facing the combined challenges of COVID-19, climate change, and social inequality that call for a reappraisal of who “we” are, what “we” stand for and who “we” are willing to follow. In the words of Wharton, if we are not content with the answers that we find, then we have the capacity to redraw the boundaries within which we find ourselves.

“Who’s ‘they’? Why don’t you all get together and be ‘they’ yourselves?” Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 1920

References

Ciulla, J. B. (Ed.). (1998). Ethics: The Heart of Leadership. Quorum.

Jetten, J., Reicher, S., Haslam, S.A., & Crowys, T. (2020). Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19. Sage.

French, R., & Simpson, P. (2014). Attention, Cooperation, Purpose: An approach to working in groups using insights from Wilfred Bion. Routledge.

headshot of Richard Bolden

Dr. Richard Bolden has been Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership and Change Centre at Bristol Business School, University of the West of England (UWE) since 2013. Prior to this he worked at the Centre for Leadership Studies at the University of Exeter Business School for over a decade and has also worked as an independent consultant, research psychologist and in software development in the UK and overseas.

His research explores the interface between individual and collective approaches to leadership and leadership development in a range of sectors, including higher education, healthcare and public services. He has published widely on topics including distributed, shared and systems leadership; leadership paradoxes and complexity; cross-cultural leadership; and leadership and change. He is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership.

Richard has secured funded research and evaluation projects for organisations including the NHS Leadership Academy, Public Health England, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Singapore Civil Service College and Bristol Golden Key and regularly engages with external organisations. 

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

In the middle of COP26, Keith Grint asks: "How do we mobilize the population to take responsibility for the planet when their personal contribution might appear to them to be materially irrelevant?" And, what does this have to do with notions about leadership, followership, and systemic change?

by Keith Grint

Share:

I write this on the eve of COP26, when we hover over an environmental code red. I’m thinking about switching to an electric car, but they are very expensive. The British government seems uninterested in providing adequate public infrastructure for such vehicles and instead wants to open up another coal mine and keep looking for oil. The temptation to respond fatalistically is unremittingly powerful: If the climate is heading for catastrophe at such a rapid rate of knots, what can we, as individuals, do? After all, we in the UK are responsible for less than 2 percent of the global carbon emissions, and even if we cut that in half, it wouldn’t make much difference, given the significance of carbon emissions by China, India, and the USA. If those three economies continue to invest in coal, gas, and oil production and they, and the rest of the world, continue to support oil-based production and transport systems, then we appear to be doomed. Such a pessimistic response reminds me of scenes from Neville Shute’s 1957 novel, On the Beach. The post-apocalyptic story is set in Melbourne in 1963, after a nuclear war has destroyed everything in the Northern Hemisphere and radiation is slowly, and inevitably, moving south. Spoiler Alert: It ain’t a happy ending! However, the point about it is how most people acquiesce, even though a few resist to the end. Fortunately, we are not facing such a dastardly fate, but how do we mobilize the population to take responsibility for the planet when their personal contribution might appear to them to be materially irrelevant?

In his work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ (1942/2000) answer to the riddle of actions in the face of apparent absurdity is to consider actions as existential protests. Sisyphus defied the gods and was condemned to push a boulder uphill, watch it tumble back down, and repeat the process forever. This is the reality for many people. We, like Sisyphus, are condemned to ostensibly pointless actions. Only in the moment of realization that there is no resolution to this absurdity, do we accept our fate and accommodate ourselves to it, knowing that we are free and that the legitimate response is to revolt against the meaninglessness: “and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth — which is defiance…. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus, 1942/2000, p.111). Similarly, Primo Levi (1947/1987) describes the actions of a prisoner in Auschwitz, an ex-soldier called Steinlauf, who cleans his shoes every day, not because he must and not because doing it might save him, but because he wants to maintain his dignity in the face of terrifying absurdity.

Another part of the solution might be to rethink our approach to leadership and its fixation, ironically, with individuals. It’s ironic because we often feel that we, as individuals, can do so little but that our leaders, as individuals, are somehow endowed with attributions of power beyond our wildest collective imaginations. Once our presidents, prime ministers, and glorious leaders have taken up the cause, then we can relax because they will fix everything. Yet, most leaders are often surprised by how little influence they actually have and appear disappointed when there actually aren’t any “levers of power” to pull because power doesn’t work like a mechanical lever; power is the consequence of others’ action, not the cause of it. If you don’t believe that, try ordering your children to do something they don’t want to do, irrespective of your threats.

If we switch from considering leadership as concerned with larger-than-life characters and great achievements to imagining leadership as the consequence of followers’ achievements, we might reconsider the way individuals can be encouraged to make a difference.

If we switch from considering leadership as concerned with larger-than-life characters and great achievements to imagining leadership as the consequence of followers’ achievements, we might reconsider the way individuals can be encouraged to make a difference. Rather than leadership being restricted to the gods, it might instead be associated with the opposite. Arundhati Roy described her (1997) novel The God of Small Things, as “a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom” (as quoted in Barsamian, 2007). Here I want to suggest that leadership is better configured as The God of Small Things, an accretion of small practices that can facilitate systemic effects. In short, today’s Big Idea is that there isn’t one; there are only lots of small actions taken by followers that combine to make a difference. A society or an organization is not an oil tanker that goes where the captain steers it but a living and disparate organism, a network of people, materials, culture, and politics – and its direction and speed is thus a consequence of many small configurations, decisions, and acts. Or, as British Secretary of the Treasury William Lowndes (1652–1724) suggested, “Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves” (Stanhope & Stanhope, 1774, p.334). This has been liberally translated as “Take care of the small things and the big things will take care of themselves,” but the important thing here is to note the shift from individual heroes to multiple heroics. This doesn’t mean that leaders are irrelevant; their role is critical but limited and dependent upon the actions of subordinates. Another way of putting this is that the traditional focus of many leadership studies — the decision-making actions of individual leaders — is better configured as the consequence of “sense-making” activities by organizational members.

This implies two contradictory things. First, individual actions, like that of Greta Thunberg in 2018 sitting outside the Swedish Parliament calling for a “school strike for the climate,” have ramifications that could not have been foretold. In effect, individuals can make a significant difference through their singular actions that initially appear to have little chance of changing anything. But second, this does not mean that we can just leave it to Greta — now as a charismatic leader — to sort out the world while we (insignificant minions) continue to pollute the planet. Such a response to the arrival of a charismatic leader in the face of a crisis is exactly how Max Weber foresaw the potential shift to an “irresponsible” mass in post WW1 Germany. It also embodies that most disingenuous of actions in the face of a critical problem: looking the other way. As Edmund Burke didn’t say (but should have): “The only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good men [and women] to do nothing.” In effect, to disengage from social responsibility is to do nothing and that ensures the problem continues. There are, then, no “innocents” in this environment; there are just those proactively engaging in damage, those pro-actively trying to resist them, and those whose inactivity ensures damage continues. It has always been thus: Whether we are talking about antisemitism, racism, or misogyny, it is the “neutral” complicity of the many that allows bigotry to continue.

This is a critical assault upon the idea that leadership can be reduced to the personality and behavior of the individual leader and implies that we should recognize that organizational achievements are just that — achievements of the entire organization rather than merely the consequence of a single heroic leader. Yet, although it is collective leaders and collective followers that move the wheel of history along, it is often the formal or more Machiavellian individual leaders who claim the credit, leaving most people to sink unacknowledged by history, nameless but not pointless. George Eliot (1965, p.896) makes this poignantly clear at the end of her novel Middlemarch (1871/2) in her description of Dorothea:

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

So, why should I get rid of my gas-guzzling car when it will make so little difference to the world? Because (1) I don’t know what the ramifications on others might be, and if just a few others do the same, then collectively we might help a bit. (2) Because if I don’t, then I am, in effect, part of the problem not part of the solution — and we should resist where we can. (3a) Because I want to look my grandchildren in the eye and tell them that I actually care for their future. And (3b) because my grandchildren are very scary and very unforgiving….

References

Barsamian, D. (2007, July 16). Interview with Arundhati Roy. The Progressive Magazine. https://progressive.org/magazine/interview-arundhati-roy-Barsamian

Camus, A. (2000). The Myth of Sisyphus (J. O’Brien, Trans.). Penguin. (Original work published in 1942; Original Translation published in 1955).

Eliot, G. (1965) Middlemarch. Penguin. (Original work published in 1871/2).

Levi, P. (1987). If This Is a Man. Abacus. (Original work published in 1947)

Roy, A. (1997) The God of Small Things. Random House.

Shute, N. (1957) On the Beach. Heinemann.

Stanhope, P.D., & Stanhope, E. (1774). Letters Written by the Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to His Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq. Late Envoy-Extraordinary at the Court of Dresden: Together with Several Other Pieces on Various Subjects: In Four Volumes. Volume 2. Dodsley. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Letters_Written_By_The_Late_Right_Honour/eGZCAAAAcAAJ

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

The level of distrust between individuals and within organizations has become so corrosive it demands the attention of every leader. Katherine Tyler Scott discusses the three Cs of trust: competence, character, and compassion.

by Katherine Tyler Scott

Share:

Years ago, I gave a talk to a group of business leaders about what I perceived was a “crisis of trust” in the personal, institutional, and community realms of our lives. At the time I was hopeful that it was temporary; I now believe that we have entered into a state of chronic crisis with a level of distrust that has become so corrosive it demands the attention of every leader.

There is no one definition of trust. What we have intuitively known, and what much of research supports, is that trust is a complex form of social, political, and psychological factors seen in systems and relationships. Trust is cognitive, emotional, and behavioral, and understanding it fully is an integrative not a reductionistic process.

If someone asks if you trust them, your answer would likely not be an unqualified, “Yes.” Much would depend on your knowledge of and history with the individual, your own experiences with trust, and the circumstances in which the question was asked. Context matters.

Context

Today’s complex and rapid pace of change is like being in a perpetual state of transition. Speed and agility in responding to problems have become a necessity for coping with this age of anxiety and ambiguity. The great leadership challenge is balancing the need to be nimble and productive with the need to be reflective and thoughtful in decision-making.

The great leadership challenge is balancing the need to be nimble and productive with the need to be reflective and thoughtful in decision-making.

Massive change has affected the way we organize and structure our lives, the places in which we work and worship, the way we deploy human and financial resources, our view of leadership and management, and the way we engage in decision-making and share authority.

One of the leaders I worked with in a company undergoing a massive organizational restructuring process had just been promoted to a new position making her one of the highest-ranking women in the company. She knew of her tendency for high control and realized this would not fit the current reality of the company. Instead, she wisely recognized that her “strong need for control in the past needed to shift from exerting power to exercising influence.”

Like we say to clients in positions of power, the so-called “subordinates” in your organization frequently know as much or more than those who manage them! Those being led are motivated by meaning not just money, by values not only benefits. They respect the leader’s technical expertise, and they trust because of the leader’s adaptive skills. This newly promoted leader understood that developing organizational trust was a top priority that required the adaptive skill of influencing not controlling; of leading change, not just managing it; and of resolving conflict, not denying or avoiding it. More and more leaders, like her, are recognizing the limitations of the top/down style and experimenting with a circular, more egalitarian style.

My team frequently hears questions from clients that reflect genuine puzzlement, but what lurks behind them is a need for a quick answer and a short time to resolve it:  “How can we get our co-workers/employees to adopt and adapt to a different direction?”  “How can we launch this training initiative with minimal upheaval?”  “How can we get through reorganization without conflict, lower employee morale, and a loss of revenue?” None of these questions can be answered in sentences – they are adaptive challenges that require working with people in emotional states ranging from anger to joy! We understand the lure of technical fixes, but we also know that these questions speak to situations requiring leaders with self-awareness and adaptive skills.

Significant change does come with considerable ambiguity, anxiety, and ambivalence in individuals and organizations. This “Gap” in the change process is where people feel less trust, yet it is where the greatest need for trust exists. A Harvard Business Review  survey of 450 executives of 30 companies from around the world found that about half of the managers participating didn’t trust their leaders (Hurley, 2006).  

The trust needed to mobilize people to make changes takes time to develop, which is not a message most want to hear when undergoing the upheaval of change. Yet, this is the reality, and those who act as though they can skip over or through the process are at high risk of failing and in doing so cause a diminution of trust. In times of high anxiety, the urge for quick fixes increases. It is only the well differentiated leader who can lead others through disruption without sacrificing trust and their own integrity and that of the organization.

For a number of years Ki ThoughtBridge facilitated leadership and change management workshops at the Smith College Colloquium for women managers from the top tier of U.S. corporations.  When asked about the most significant change in their roles/responsibility the major one identified was having oversight and responsibility for teams composed of people from various divisions in the company over whom they had no direct or formal authority. They recognized that if the norm for conducting business was through participative management and self-directed work teams, the development of trust within and across those teams was essential to achieving success.

As the top/down model of leadership is being reformed into more of an egalitarian one, more and more responsibility and authority is being shared throughout organizations. This makes the ability to build and sustain trust even more important if leaders want organizational viability and sustainable results.

Leaders in every sector are beginning to understand the impact of trust on individual and collective success.

Benefits of Trust

There are several significant benefits of trust. Trust is desirable because it affects the perceptions, attitudes, and the performance of individuals and groups. High trust cultivates a culture of innovation, positive relationships, and interdependence that inspires cooperation for the greater good.

High trust organizations adapt more quickly and have an advantage of attracting and retaining talent, whether an employee or a board member. These entities are reliable and effective and have demonstrated internal and external legitimacy, compliance, and accountability.

One example of a high trust company is Southwest Airlines. Although the company recently experienced a weekend of flight cancellations and delays, it was the only U.S. airline to have won the “Triple Crown” award five years in a row for best statistics for on-time arrivals, fewest customer complaints, and the least misplaced luggage. Prior to the pandemic, they had been profitable for 47 straight years (Hoopfer, 2020) and in 2005 the company’s stock was worth more than all other major U.S. airlines combined. They have never had to lay off employees — even after 9/11 when they, like other airlines, had customers canceling flights out of fear. The difference was many of them told Southwest to keep the money because they felt the company had been so reliable and dependent. The airline’s employees volunteered to give money, and, in spite of the company’s limiting the amount of money they could have deducted from their pay, employees gave over $2 million dollars. 

The Three Characteristics of Trust

Even though there is not unanimity on a definition of trust, there are three characteristics that are essential to the development and maintenance of trust; all three must be present for high trust to exist.

Robert Bruce Shaw (1977), the author of The Balance of Trust, describes these three characteristics as results, integrity, and concern. Sociologists Roger Mayer, James Davis, and David Schoorman (1995) call them ability, benevolence, and integrity. David Lewis and Andrew Weigert (1985) describe them as three levels of trust: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. To move toward a more integrated model of trust the words I use are competence, character, and compassion.

Competence

 Competence is a combination of technical and adaptive capacities that enable individuals, groups, and systems to accomplish their purpose. It is a demonstrated ability to obtain results.

To earn trust in any organization means fulfilling your obligations and commitments. This is demonstrated competence. At the institutional level this means consistently accomplishing the mission and delivering tangible results. It is an ability to achieve (or exceed) established goals over time.

The measure of success varies, but the bottom line in competency-based trust is: When goals are met or exceeded trust increases. In order to gain trust, an individual or organization must be able to deliver on their commitment.

Competence includes the cognitive ability to evaluate trustworthiness and determine who and what can be trusted, to what extent, and in what circumstances. This is a component of the leadership capacity we describe as “reading reality truthfully in order to respond responsibly.” 

Competence relies on the use of intellect and reason in making judgments and decisions based on objective knowledge and reason. It isn’t that simple because individuals bring to organizations varying degrees of emotional baggage based on early life experiences and previous relationships with caretakers, authority figures, and peers. It’s important for a leader to discern the emotional filters in the system so they can make sure they promote clear and honest communication.

One very savvy executive told us that whenever she is placed in a new position, she takes time to talk to everyone with whom she will be working. She asks three questions during the meeting:

  1. What might I need to know about you that will facilitate our work?
  2. What do you need to know about me?
  3. What advice would you give me?

Such questions begin to establish the communication, relationship, and trust necessary to create a culture of trust. This executive was confident that she could establish trusting relationships because she had identified her own emotional filters and had done her inner work.

In the paper, “The Structure of Optimal Trust,” (Wick, et al., 1999) the authors offer Aristotle’s ethic of the “golden mean” as a way to think about a position of trust as non-extreme and to eliminate an either/or understanding of trust. One example of having too much trust in something or someone is Enron, a company whose unethical and illegal practices went unquestioned up to its demise. The consequences that followed for those who placed their trust in the company were catastrophic.  

An example of too little trust can be found in post- Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. When interviewing leaders in politics, government, philanthropy, economic development, and religion we observed that one of their greatest challenges was low trust. They had many familial groups with very tight boundaries and restricted membership and a long history of little communication between them. It was/is a tribal culture with bonding capital but little bridging capital. When the city began to rebuild it had to address the issue of trust.

Over time our accumulated experiences and stored emotional associations are transformed into perspectives that determine the propensity to trust. Managing the emotional elements of change are just as important as the content and cognitive functions. This is why adaptive skills are needed.

For most people trust is on a continuum from high trust to low trust. If too little trust exists, behaviors such as excessive control and micromanagement can strangle the creativity and innovation in people or the system. An environment of restriction and fear is developed in which opportunity for growth is not maximized. If there is excessive high trust, cognitive capacities can be dispensed with, and unquestioned behavior and assumptions can dominate judgment allowing unnecessary risks and reckless or illegal behavior.

If all cognitive content is removed from the emotional dimensions of trust, the results would be “blind faith.” 

Compassion

Compassion is an awareness of the connection to and interdependence with others and a belief that the best interests of the other should be considered. It involves a high level of empathy and the capacity to genuinely care for another person, group, or organization. It shows concern for the needs and interests of others. This sense of caring is not ego-driven or motivated primarily by profit but rather by the needs of another. It is benevolent behavior and a sense of mutuality and trust. Trust engenders trust; when we act as if we trust another person, they are more likely to return the trust. 

Compassion is based on genuine respect for others. It is this regard and emotional investment in people that enables them to reciprocate — not out of obligation but out of gratitude. The spirit of gratitude reinforces a spirit of generosity. The result is a culture of abundance and people willing to take risks that benefit a greater good.

Compassion is an emotional bond based on a belief in the moral character and/or goodwill of the other. The emotional investment made can be intense, and when a betrayal of trust occurs, the response is never just about the content, but also the damage to and/or loss of a relationship.

Character

The third element of trust is character, which is manifested in integrity, the consistency of action, and credibility born from congruence between values and actions. How an organization or an individual operates internally and externally reflects the degree of integrity a person or an institution possesses. Developing character comes from individual self-awareness and self-knowledge, clarity of core values and beliefs, and actions aligned with these. Trustworthy leaders believe in the inner life, and they tend to it. This is foundational to their capacity to “read reality truthfully.” They are very aware of their beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and perceptions, and are not prone to succumbing to the projections of others.

The individual or organization is conscious of the ways their values are manifest in day-to-day behavior and relationships. Gaining alignment between organizational mission, vision, values, and behavior is vital to creating and maintaining organizational trust. 

Edgar Schein says that the major function of leadership is the creation of culture. In my view, this responsibility is not the leader’s alone, but there is no denying the power and being of the leader on individuals and systems. The leader who has a discipline of inner work has confronted unacceptable aspects of themselves and will not project them onto others and/or onto the culture via attacking, blaming, scapegoating, and personalization of criticism. If they are out of touch with themselves, they cannot engender trust.

People bring differing beliefs about trust into their professional and voluntary work. It is the role of leadership to address these differences through clear vision and values that overarch everything. Leaders with character view trust as a way to increase their and the organization’s effectiveness but understand it is not a guarantor of success. When failure happens, they acknowledge and explain it, take responsibility for it, and work progressively to accomplish the goals, equipped with new insight. This builds trust.

Summary

In Soul at Work, Margaret Benefiel (2005) shares a number of examples of organizations in which purpose, culture, and identity transcend and enhance organizational performance and success. One of these organizations is Reell Precision Manufacturing Company whose first principle is “We are committed to do what is right even when it does not seem to be profitable, expedient, or conventional.”

Their top priority is the growth and development of their employees. The company trusts their co-workers to do their best by “freeing them to express the excellence that is within all of us.” The leaders of Reell understand that the company must be profitable but have consistently refused to sacrifice its principles for short-term profits.

Founded in 1970 by Dale Merrick, Lee Johnson, and Bob Wahlstedt, the company is committed to discerning the will of a higher power in its business decisions and publicly states that they “strive to make decisions consistent with God’s purpose for creation according to individual understanding.” Out of this belief has come a practice of decision-making based on respectful listening, patient waiting, and openness to learning. This is counter to the way most companies engage in decision-making. Studies show that half of the decisions made in American companies fail, and the leading reason for failed decision-making is premature commitments caused by impatience, lack of discernment, and unwillingness to slow down the process.

When Reell began it had very little capital. It now has over 225 employees and annual revenue of over $25 million. During several economic downturns in the 1970’s and at turn of this century it did not lay off any of its employees. The leaders and co-workers developed options that were consistent with their stated values.

Executive pay at Reell was limited to about 7-10 times that of the lowest-paid employee — a message that affirms the belief in the value of everyone’s contributions. It is one of the practices that keeps the company within the golden mean of trust.

In summary, these are the practices of high trust leadership:

  1. Adaptive leadership skills — the mobilization of people to engage in real work, management of group/system anxiety and ambiguity, the capacity to form cohesive community, and the ability to resolve conflict.
  2. Performance at a high level and the capacity to attain or exceed desired results.
  3. Genuine concern, care, and empathy for others.
  4. Alignment and congruence between values, beliefs, and actions.
  5. Honest, open, and direct communication.
  6. Engagement in inner work — self-awareness and insight, authentic and ethical actions, self management of anxiety and ambiguity.
  7. Shared leadership — dispersed power and authority at many levels.
  8. Respectful processes of listening and discernment.
  9. Capacity to learn — openness to learn from success and failure.
  10. Empowerment of others — ability to influence not control.
  11. Sense of abundance — propensity to give without expectation of reciprocity.
  12. Belief in the transcendent— a sense of faith in something larger than the self, an appreciation of the sacred.

The particular form that these three characteristics — competence, compassion, and character —  take will vary according to context, history, and culture, but striving to integrate and incorporate them will enable the development of the generations of trustworthy individuals and organizations.

Resources & References

Benefiel, M. (2005). Soul at Work, Seabury Books, Church Publishing Company.

Dirks, K.T., & Ferran, D.L. (2001). The Role of Trust in Organizational Setting. Organizational Science, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp.450-467.

Hoopfer, E. (2020, August 15). Southwest Airlines CEO discusses 47-year profitability streak, HQ employees working from home and more. Houston Business Journal. https://www.bizjournals.com/houston/news/2020/08/15/southwest-47-years-profitable-work-from-home.html

Hurley, R.F. (2006). The Decision to Trust. Harvard Business Review, September 2006. https://hbr.org/2006/09/the-decision-to-trust

Lewis, J.D., & Weigert, A. (1985). Trust as a Social Reality. Social Forces, Vol 63, No.4., pp. 967-985.

Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H., & Schoorman, F.D. (1995). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, No.3, pp.709-734.

McKnight, D.H., Commings, L.L., & Chervany, N.L. (1998). Initial Trust Formation is New Organizational Relationships. The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 23, No. 3., pp. 473-490.

Shaw, R.B. (1977). Trust in the Balance, Building Successful Organizations on Results, Integrity, and Concern. Jossey-Bass.

Wick, A.C., Berman, S.L., & Jones, T.M. (1999). The Structure of Optimal Trust: Moral and Strategic Implications. The Academy of  Management Review, Vol. 24, No.1., pp.99-116.

Katherine Tyler Scott

Before beginning her tenure at KI ThoughtBridge, Katherine Tyler Scott founded and served as President of Trustee Leadership Development, Inc., a resource center for governance leaders and not-for-profit organizations. Katherine is a past chair of the ILA board and convener of the ILA Applied Leadership Global Learning Community. She previously directed the Lilly Endowment Leadership Education Program, a statewide leadership education initiative for professionals in youth service, and she also developed leadership programs and resources for the Community Leadership Association.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Leadership is impossible without integrity, and integrity is inconceivable without trust. Erwin Schwella explores the interconnections between these concepts in his latest blog. He concludes, quite starkly that the flip side - leadership corruption - is deadly and kills.

by Erwin Schwella

Share:

Leadership is impossible without integrity, and integrity is inconceivable without trust.

A foundational point of departure for understanding and practicing leadership integrity is the oft-quoted idea that the integrity of people can be judged by how they treat those who can do nothing for them. This perspective provides insights into the relational power and influence dimensions of integrity.

Another frequently heard aphorism is that integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.

I contrast integrity with corruption and put forward that integrity is dignity while, in comparison, corruption is deadly.

Integrity founded on trust guides leadership to:

  • do unto others as those others want to be done unto by themselves,
  • do the right thing even when no one is watching,
  • treat others with dignity, and
  • deliver on trust in, of, and for leadership.

Integrity leadership based upon mutual trust positively impacts on the personal credibility, inter-relational and institutional legitimacy, and authoritative societal legality of compassionate and competent servant leadership.

Integrity is correctly and consistently perceived as and associated with ethics and morality in leadership. It also needs to be realized that integrity is significantly functionally and instrumentally valuable, over and above the fundamental moral value of integrity. This functionality can and should also be calculated and expressed in monetary value terms.

Integrity is dignity.

In contrast: Quite starkly, and directly, corruption is deadly and kills.

The absence of integrity, in moral and monetary terms, are disastrously and destructively expensive. Leadership without integrity destroys trust, legitimacy, and legality at exponential costs to all. Such lacks and lapses of integrity are inordinately expensive as they:

  • directly and indirectly increase transaction costs,
  • decrease efficiency,
  • and destroy effectiveness.

When thinking and action by leaders are isolated from the constructive impact of integrity, the brakes come on, impacting what Covey refers to as: “the speed of trust.”

The costs of the absence of integrity also discriminates with double jeopardy against the already poor and powerless, in favor of the rich and powerful. The rich and powerful corruptly get less of what would have been available with integrity, and the poor and powerless get even less of what little, if any is left.

The links between integrity and trust are amplified by leadership expert Gary Yukl. Yukl postulates that integrity in leadership requires trust in the honesty and consistency between the espoused values of leaders and leadership behavior. Leadership, with integrity, as consistency and honesty, is built upon trust and in turn builds trust through integrity.

Those who are required to trust leadership build their trust, to a significant extent, on the perception that they and their leaders share a value system, and that the leaders will consistently and with integrity adhere to these shared values in their thinking and actions. Integrity impacts positively on trust and trust requires reciprocal integrity.

Trust-based integrity leadership delivers personal, institutional, societal, and systemic purpose-driven and value-enhancing positive impacts

Trust-based integrity leadership delivers personal, institutional, societal, and systemic purpose-driven and value-enhancing positive impacts. These impacts have societal and systemic reach way beyond mere personal, professional, and organizational performance.

Where there is integrity and trust in leadership and by leadership this results in leadership impacts which are analogous to those described by The African Leadership Council’s Mombassa Declaration (Masire et al., 2004) . According to the Council, which was facilitated by Robert Rotberg:

“Good leaders globally guide governments of nation-states to perform effectively for their citizens. They deliver high security for the state and the person; a functioning rule of law; education; health; and a framework conducive to economic growth. They ensure effective arteries of commerce and enshrine personal and human freedoms. They empower civil society and protect the environmental commons. Crucially, good leaders also provide their citizens with a sense of belonging to a national enterprise of which everyone can be proud. They knit rather than unravel their nations and seek to be remembered for how they have bettered the real lives of the governed rather than the fortunes of the few.”

Where integrity and trust in leadership and by leadership is lacking, the results are analogous to those described by the council in the following way:

“Less benevolent, even malevolent, leaders deliver far less by way of performance. Under their stewardship, roads fall into disrepair, currencies depreciate and real prices inflate, health services weaken, life expectancies slump, people go hungry, schooling standards fall, civil society becomes more beleaguered, the quest for personal and national prosperity slows, crime rates accelerate, and overall security becomes more tenuous. Corruption grows. Funds flow out of the country into hidden bank accounts. Discrimination against minorities (and occasionally majorities) becomes prevalent. Civil wars begin.”

The benevolent effects of integrity and trust-based leadership, as ethical and moral leadership, as opposed to deficient integrity-based and trust-breaking leadership, as unethical and immoral leadership, also holds true for political, economic, and societal leadership.

The world currently faces many crises, of which the Covid-19 pandemic is but one. Indications are that there are many other looming crises linked to global political, economic, social, and ecological conditions. The nature of these crises, as well as their potential for socially innovative solutions

facilitated by integrity-based learning leadership can be perceived through the opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

These global crises, of which the Covid-19 crisis is evidence, and which is neither the last nor the only crisis that has to be dealt with by leaders globally, call for the reimagining of leadership. This reimagining of leadership must deal simultaneously with the challenges of the crises as well as reach out towards the envisioning and inspiring reimagining of leadership for socially innovative integrity-based learning leadership.

Failing to reimagine leadership as integrity and trust will result increasingly and globally in what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), in his book Leviathan (1651), describes as a: “War of all against all” (Bellum omnium contra omnes) where there is:

“…no place for industry,
because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently
no culture of the earth;
no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea;
no commodious building;
no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force;
no knowledge of the face of the earth;
no account of time;
no arts;
no letters;
no society;
and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and
the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Now is the season to reimagine leadership.

If integrity and trust-based leadership loses the season, Hobbesian apocalyptic outcomes result.

If integrity and trust-based leadership wins the season, the best of times may still emerge, bringing with it wisdom, belief, light, hope, and prospects, rather than going the other way.

It is a time to choose!

Reimagine leadership now, in terms of integrity and trust, and co-create the desired future through social innovation.

Or risk a scenario of co-created collapse where the few get less and less in the short-term through corruption, which is deadly — and kills!

References

Covey, S.M.R. (2006). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. Free Press.

Masire, K., Gowon, Y., Awori, M., Anyang’ Nyong’o, P., Balala, N., Chikaonda, M., Khalif Galaydh, A., Geingob, H., Jonah, J., & Kinana, A. (2004). Leadership in Africa: The Mombassa Declaration. African Leadership Council, facilitated by Robert I. Rotberg, Belfer Center, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/african-leadership-council

Yukl, G. (2012). Leadership in Organizations, 8th Edition. Pearson.

Erwin Schwella

Erwin Schwella grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He obtained a PhD in Public Governance from Stellenbosch University and became an academic there in 1981. Realizing the real consequences of apartheid, he became an academic and activist critic.

During democratization in South Africa, he served to shape the future of democratic new South African governance institutions. He is an emeritus professor of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and in the Law School of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Since taking emeritus status from Stellenbosch, he learns about leadership as Dean: School of Social innovation and the Founding Servant Leader of the Centre for Good Governance in Africa at Hugenote Kollege in South Africa.

Erwin Schwella served as the Chair of the ILA Public Leadership Member Interest Group.

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.

Keith Grint explores the collision of uncertainty, perceptions of leadership effectiveness, and decision-making in his latest ILA blog.

by Keith Grint

Share:

I once attended an Open University summer school here in the UK and one evening, on my way to the bar with a colleague, I walked past a notice board festooned with the details of optional evening meetings and courses for the “mature” students attending school that week. As we walked past, I hesitated at various notices and appeared to sign up only to change my mind and move to the next equally enticing offering. My colleague came up behind me, took the hand holding my pen and gently guided me to the middle of the board, where he made me put an “X” at the bottom of the notice in the middle: It was for “Decision-Making.”

Leadership is often associated with certainty; indeed, it is sometimes reduced to the decision-making process such that anything which smacks of uncertainty is categorized as weakness or a failure of leadership. And yet, when faced with wicked problems, we know that we cannot know what to do, we cannot be certain. One might argue that many of the processes, procedures, systems, charts, and the like are constructed not so much to enhance efficiency and effectiveness – to increase certainty – but actually the opposite. They are created to mask from others and ourselves the alarming truth that we don’t really know what to do. In effect, the material symbols of organizational life have as much to do with concealing our existential angst about uncertainty as they do with anything else. We see this in leadership writings, which often have titles with words like “Irrefutable” or “Essential” in them. We almost never have titles like Leadership: A Few Ideas That Might Work or You Know I’m Making This Stuff Up About Guaranteed Successful Leadership Strategies, but You Just Bought This Book so You’re Part of the Problem Aren’t You? Indeed, I’m reminded of a recent quiz that asks you to concentrate on the black dot on a brown horse for 15 seconds after which the horse will change color to match your mood. There are several different colors in the mood chart below the horse ranging from white, which denotes hunger, to red revealing anger and light green demonstrating stress, but the clue is the last color – the same as the horse – which just says “Gullible.”

Leadership is often associated with certainty; indeed, it is sometimes reduced to the decision-making process such that anything which smacks of uncertainty is categorized as weakness or a failure of leadership.

Keats, the poet, was a great proponent of what he called “negative capability,” that is, the ability to not make decisions and to be comfortable in the land of uncertainty and ambiguity. As Keats (1899) put it: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (p. 277). Or, as Brook et al. (2015) argue, when facing wicked problems, we may have to “unlearn” existing responses and accept that not knowing and non-action are perfectly legitimate and indeed necessary responses.

So often people insist that decision-making is a critical skill, especially in a crisis when people believe that “something must be done” or that “doing nothing is not an option.” An illustration that might best refute this “do something” refrain might be to imagine yourself leading a group on a treacherous mountain path where one wrong footstep could lead to disaster. As a fog suddenly descends to enshroud the group, you call a halt, and that generates high levels of anxiety. There might well be lots of voices demanding that you “show leadership” and “do something,” but perhaps the best course is to do nothing, to have everyone stand perfectly still until the fog lifts; that way, no one is in immediate danger from stepping off the path into the abyss. The call to inaction, to do nothing, is actually a decision. You have not manifestly failed by appearing to be incapable of making a decision. On the contrary, you have taken the decision to do nothing.

The abyss, of course, plays a significant role in Nietzsche’s (1886/2003) Beyond Good and Evil where he warns, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you” (p. 146). This is often associated with his nihilistic tendencies, but it can also be read as a warning about seeking out totality, searching for perfection, and the quixotic quest for certainty. Indeed, that quest has reflections of Just World Theory (Lerner and Montada, 1998), where “people get what they deserve.” In effect, this attributes consequences not to your intentions or actions but to a universal providence that ensures a natural equity: What goes around comes around. This leads to claims about decision-making that all too often blame the victim: Thus, for example, violence against women is blamed on the dress, actions, or attitudes of women, rather than on the actions of violent men or specific patriarchal cultures. This facilitates our own self-protection only in the sense that it (erroneously) implies that we will not be the subject of violence IF we comply with such social norms.

The contrary opinion suggests that what occurs in life is often also just random: Stuff happens. Or, as Jean-Paul Sartre (1944/1989) insisted, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762/1974) had it back to front: We are not born free and are everywhere in chains, as he says in the opening lines of The Social Contract, but rather we are condemned to be free because we are ultimately free agents and are responsible for all our decisions, even those made under constraints. By implication, therefore, leadership is not predicated on removing uncertainty because uncertainty is the sine qua non of leadership. Why would we need leadership if we all knew what to do? Might that be a clue to our continuing love for leaders whose confidence knows no bounds, even when their competence remains strictly limited?

Finally, we might take a lead from science and understand from Karl Popper that scientific advances do not occur when scientists prove something to be true because scientific truth is only ever contingent – the sun might not rise tomorrow, and a black swan might exist. Rather, if we search for error, we can make our findings more robust. Yet how often do we see published leadership articles that explain the aim, the length of time taken, and the expensive research methods adopted, only to discover that the results don’t support any hypothesis? Yet this is how most science operates – it seeks out uncertainty as a necessary condition for progress. Most interview panels, however, would not take kindly to any answers along the lines of, “Well, I’m not sure actually!” Imagine being interviewed for a leadership post with a first-class sports team and being asked whether you can get the team to the top of their league within two seasons. “‘I doubt it!” might be the truthful response, but it probably wouldn’t get you the job. We like to pretend we can control events with enough will power or positivity or charisma or authenticity or whatever else happens to be in vogue at the time. In short, we are all in on this charade of certainty because it helps us reduce our own anxiety about the uncertain reality we actually know exists. So dear reader, did my course on decision making help me? Well, I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.

References

Brook, C., Pedler, M., Abbott, C. and Burgoyne, J. (2015). On stopping doing those things that are not getting us to where we want to be: Unlearning, wicked problems and critical action learning. Human Relations 69(2), 369-389. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726715586243

Keats, J. (1899). The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats. Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

Lerner, M.J. and Montada, L. (1998). An Overview: Advances in Belief in a Just World Theory and Methods. In L. Montada& M.J. Lerner (Eds.), Responses to Victimizations and Belief in a Just World. Plenum.

Nietzsche, F. (1886/2003). Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin.

Rousseau, J.J. (1762/1974). The Social Contract. Penguin.

Sartre, J.P. (1944/1989). No Exit. Vintage International.

Headshot of Keith Grint

Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.  His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).

If you find these reflections to be of value in your work and life, please consider becoming part of ILA’s leadership community.