There is no shortage of advice on how to lead. Most leadership lessons are designed for 2-D times when we are living in more than three dimensions.
I used to love reading about leadership. I thought leadership was the key to successful organizations during my studies, and I was partly right. What I got wrong was that I thought reading about and studying leadership would make a big difference to my abilities and of those I worked with. I was wrong on both counts.
My lessons from all I’ve gleaned from studying leadership is that it gives you confidence and very little guidance.
My best practical leadership lessons came from leading — being thrust into or choosing moments to lead. Reading and studying leadership might have helped me in refining a few skills here and there, but that’s it. Yet, this doesn’t make leadership literature useless for what it helped build in me was confidence. Being confident that I can lead, that I will make the best decision I can with what I have, and that I can persevere through times when I am unsuccessful.
Confidence might be the biggest piece to the leadership puzzle.
Why Studying Leadership Offers So Little That’s Practical
Knowing leadership jargon (think: “burning platform,” “pivot,” “KPIs“, and “empowerment“) makes you sound like a leader. In many organizations, sounding like a leader and having the correct title is enough to be called a leader. It doesn’t make you one.
Many aspiring leaders might think: The more I read (or watch or study or….), the better I will be at practicing leadership when called upon. I have doubts about that. Just look at the volumes of books on leadership at your book retailer of choice and you’ll see its popularity. Nearly every MBA program requires students to take a leadership course. Some MBA’s are devoted exclusively to leadership.
Where is it in our world? If so many thousand of graduates who are in organizations have leadership training, why are there so few examples of great leadership available to us? COVID-19 and its effects have exposed leadership failures across industries, government, and healthcare. Some of these were evident beforehand. Actual leadership is confused with leadership titles and roles. We often speak of leadership positions and roles, not leadership actions or responsibilities. This misses the practicalities of leadership. Our confusion between the study or performance of leadership and its practice is at the root of this.
All this talk about frameworks, models, and such help people to feel confident (which matters), but it provides little practical guidance. In times of crisis, I don’t know many effective leaders who go back to their books, seminar materials, podcast notes, or otherwise to take action and lead.
All the materials from won’t help you practically lead. It’s like reading books on empathy or design or performance: it’s the doing, not the knowing that matters. This is a praxis where we learn through doing and reflecting. Yes, training materials can help, but they aren’t at the core.
Leaders in 2023 and beyond are required to understand how to lead into the moment and into the emerging future.
The New Adaptive Leadership
Adaptive leadership is what’s called for not just changing times, but exponentially changing times. This is what Aneel Chima and Ron Gutman argue for. They call this 3-D Change because it deals with situations that exhibit the following traits:
It’s perpetual — occurring all the time in an ongoing way.
It’s pervasive — unfolding in multiple areas of life at once.
It’s exponential — accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.
The authors go on to say:
Three-dimensional (3-D) change is defining our emerging future and, as a consequence, effective leadership will be defined by the ability to navigate this new reality.
This speaks to issues tied to complexity and maybe polycrisis.
Our leadership lessons are predicated on the idea that we know where we’re going and how we’ll get there. It’s not often tied to Strategic Design, which helps us to see where things are, where they are going, and designing for ways to embark on a journey.
Chima and Gutman suggest the new adaptive leadership requires:
- Leader humility, authenticity, and openness.
- Promotion of psychological safety which is based on trust and the collective empowerment landscape for everyone working in organizations.
- Continuous learning. This involves evaluation, sensemaking, and taking pause regularly, consistently.
- A shared purpose and common values. These help to enhance focus, cohesion, and resilience.
Are we designing our organizations for this?
I’d argue no. Some leaders get this and practice it, but few organizations nurture it by design.
As we evolve through these complicated times a new language of leadership is likely to emerge. I was captured by this article and the implications it has for how we design organizations and support leaders within them that are fit for the purpose of the times we’re living in. This certainly fits with the work I’ve been doing with my clients and myself.
Image Credit: Toomas Tartes on Unsplash and Jon Flobrant on Unsplash