Archive for April, 2010

The Myth of “Personality Clashes”

When people step out of a conflict because of a so-called “personality clash”, chances are they are letting both themselves and the other person down.

“Personality clash” is a tempting label, but it is often lazy one.  More, it can actually sustain a conflict, by seeing it as “too difficult”.

Personality clash can also be a subtle way of demonising another.

However, with some more detailed awareness, this  seemingly intractable problem can actually be worked with productively rather than avoided through the typical generalisations and blanket statements. For example, what do they do or say? What gestures do they make? Be specific about one situation that stands out.  Go over what was said and how it was done.

Chances are there is a communication style difference that is escalating the Continue reading ‘The Myth of “Personality Clashes”’


Reflexive Leadership – Shifting Balances

As a provider of leadership and management training, with endorsements from  Train to Gain, I believe it is important to lay out what I mean by leadership development.  There is a big buzz about “leadership” following Iraq, the financial crisis and even climate change issues.

There are at least two forces challenging notions of leadership that are facing us today.  They include:

  1. The dissatisfaction with current models of political and organisational power that have led us into the calamities listed above.
  2. A matter of definition – one that remains, perhaps necessarily, mercurial and oblique.

The first of these two issues is a matter of some debate and energy, particularly in current think tanks.  Matthew Taylor of the RSA is adamant about challenging the current and outdated models of “leadership by deference.”  One of the challenges here is that to step beyond a culture of deference requires an extra degree of self-responsibility.  This is an interesting challenge and one that can be explored on his blog here.

Elements of Reflexive Leadership

The second one, of definition, is the main purpose of this entry.  It is also one that will be forever changing, so it is with a degree of predicted obsolescence that I attempt to name what I mean by leadership, or specifically, Reflexive Leadership.  It includes the following elements:

  • Awareness
  • Reflection
  • Creativity
  • Knowledge
  • Access to resources
  • Vision, and
  • Accountability

Reflexive leadership is based on the increasing awareness of the value of self-reflection in practice – whether it be as a therapist, student or business person. This practice is commonly seen in Kolb’s learning cycle and occurs when attempting to learn any new skill or conquer arising challenges.  The value of reflection has long been acknowledged, but in time-poor environments, it is often the first thing to go.

However, this can be a costly mistake in the long run.  As pointed out by David Allen, this thinking time. named “knowledge work” is often THE work that needs to be done.  Take yourself – as a skilled practitioner in whatever field you have chosen.  Let us say, something arises that is challenging your performance or objective.  Nine times out of ten it is not your lack of skill or know-how that is the problem, the problem is based on either one of two elements:

  1. It is relational.  Something is affecting you, your colleagues or your clients and is having an impact.  Chances are it is not directly related to the current content of your delivery or objective.  These matters may seem to be unprofessional distractions, but we ignore them at our peril.  Clearing such matters up can unblock many obstacles and put your delivery back on track.  If this is something that cannot be done by you, an acknowledgement of this as a genuine support need can go a long way to increasing your team’s performance.
  2. There is something outside of your awareness that is affecting the issue.  Take for example you are exploring diversity with your team for the day – and have hired a building that looks like a courthouse to do so.  It may happen that some of the people have not had good experience with the law, or may just feel intimidated by the setting.  Without realising why, you notice some of the people involved are closed or even irritated.  As people from minorities often experience oppression directly or indirectly from such institutions, the venue may be having an unitended impact on the day.  This is not to say that one shouldn’t use courthouses or avoid symbols of contention, rather an awareness of them needs to be brought in – and in fact, when done well, can make for transformational discoveries.

Addressing either of these two elements takes reflection and thinking time.  Building time in before and after to reflect on choices can go a long way in supporting solid leadership.

In any situation, it may also just be that the communication loop is not connected and that somewhere something is not coherent.  This may be between:

  • your intention and your message;
  • your message delivery and it’s perception;
  • or perhaps in missed feedback from your recipients.

Again, being a reflexive leader will help identify these shortcomings and address them.

Reflexive Leadership isn’t just confined to reflection and thinking time.  It also demands a more immediate sense of “response-ability.”  That is, good leaders are able to respond to unavoidable and unpredictable challenges.  While this ability can be improved through reflection, it also requires creativity, support and knowledge.  Moreover, it is not essential that these are present in a single person – a designated “Leader” by one title or another.  On the contrary, a good team will have multiple resources of these elements. Good leadership recognises where they are available and utilises them.

Another crucial ingredient of good reflexive leadership is vision.  Having a view for the bigger picture is crucial in knowing which of the resources is worth utilising at any point, given the circumstances.  Awareness of such goals and objectives provides good leadership in any context.

Finally, what really stands out in leadership is accountability.  Not shying away from this element is in fact one of the inspiring elements that draw people to one choice over another.   Developing an organsiation is about getting others to trust it – to invest in it.  Without accountability, leadership is trivial and unsustainable.  It is a lack of accountability that has created the disturbances in our financial system that we are experiencing today.

Leadership as “Role”

Above and beyond these elements of leadership, is recognising its shifting nature and that leadership is a role rather than an individual’s title.  This means that anyone in a team or organisation may exhibit leadership qualities.  For example, a receptionist may have insights gathered from interacting with customers that lead to important organisational change.

Optimum leadership is necessarily fluid and a shared responsibility that is not confined to the designated few, but available to all.  Such a concept may seem challenging to many organisational structures.  However, that is not the intention, organised structures create opportunities for fantastic achievements.  Rather, it seeks to promote a way of thinking that maximises the potential of a group rather than limiting it to the thinking of a few – this can be done while maintaining agreed structures and avenues of communication.  Importantly, recognising the mutable nature of leadership will support us in understanding how best to step into its role.

Using Reflexive leadership will help us find our leaders in the shifting balances of power and information that constantly challenge organisations today. By finding ways to respect both agency and community, groups and individuals, reflexive leadership will help us come to terms with the current challenges of leadership.

Hedgehogs, Fortune Tellers and Leadership

We love to know the future.  We are drawn to people who have the answers when we don’t.  After all, we make decisions based on assumptions about the future, so it makes sense that we find comfort in those that seem to know the answers.  Take these questions:

Has the housing market bottomed out yet? How low will the pound go? Is it going to be sunny in the Caribbean this easter?

Although reassuring, “expert advice” is not necessarily what we look for in a leader.  Qualities of leadership often include boldness, confidence and certainty.  As Tetlock points out – people who acknowledge their limitations (Foxes) find less public support than those who proclaim knowledge of a “truth” (even when it is unrealistic to do so – Hedgehogs). And so it is that Hedgehogs are more likely to get votes.

However, is this  leadership strategy good for us? In his new book Obliquity, John Kay points out that these “truths” are mostly at odds with actual world events.  And, unfortunately, actions made by people with these qualities can be disastrous:

It is hard to overstate the damage that has recently been done by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. RSA Journal – Spring 2010

His examples include Iraq and the financial fiasco,  and even Gordon Brown’s focus on “defined and quantifiable objectives.”  While there are arguably rational justifications for the choices that led to these events, it is rare that such experts correctly predict the future.  That is not to say we cannot gather useful information when investing in decisions – whether they be buying a house or going to war.  We would be foolish not to gather outside information… However things do not go according to plan!

Is this our leader’s fault? Is it the fault of the systems that we employ?  Or is it just life? As Rumsfeld famously said of Iraq – “S*** HAPPENS”.  Unfortunately, this is true.  What is more, this implicit understanding between us all – that we can never be absolutely sure of anything – allows us to easily forgive and forget.

Yet this should not prevent us from developing our understanding of good leadership.  Kay promotes skepticism and humility in the face of both the future and our capacity to make decisions as healthy practices.  Unfortunately, we all get bored with lengthy debates about pros and cons and such skepticism isn’t enough.  However, more than that, Kay suggests leadership is about keeping track of high level objectives and practicing what I would call Reflexive Leadership – that is, the ability to learn and adapt as things change and new information comes to light.  Being proficient in reflexive leadership means being able to face unknown territory with confidence.

Confidence is also one of the more conventional qualities of leadership.  That is, regardless of what is said, people who appear more confident inspire trust and more importantly, following.  Those that have confidence to face the unknown will inspire those around them.  What is more, those that have skills, systems and strategies in place to adapt and manage change succesfully will lead us into the future.

As I suggested in the beginning leadership is not about being an expert, nor is it about being a fortune-teller: Leadership is being able to see the bigger picture and to navigate and adjust to the constant flux of variations we encounter.  Good leadership consists, not of being able to proclaim the future, but to recognise and respond to it as it arises in the present.   The qualities of adaptability and creativity combined with a perspective of higher goals will cultivate the confidence and integrity that we typically look for in a leader.

Crucial to both adaptability and vision is communication, but that is another blog…