I find myself straddling the worlds of leadership and organisation research and practice, of academia and the day-to-day reality of leadership in organisations. My organisational clients and colleagues range on a spectrum from unquestioning certainty in their leadership through to imposter syndrome. It is a rare few that have the leadership rhythm of, ‘stepping in and stepping back’, about right.
Leadership operates on a razors edge between control and uncertainty, an uncomfortable place for most. Human nature is to eliminate uncertainty wherever possible, to get risk to zero before taking action. This is a real blind spot in contemporary organisations. US General Stanley McChrystal sees this as one of the biggest problems in the modern military, “leaders wanting to get uncertainty to zero before taking action” when so little of contemporary military work lends itself to that type of problem solving .
This dynamic plays out in all organisations. It can be observed in the micro-manager, the siloed team and the organisation striving to be more innovative but unable to get their innovation initiatives to pass the board’s risk return hurdles. For thirty years I have observed and been in the centre of these dynamics. From my first introduction to organisational life on the trading floor of the Sydney Futures Exchange, to my time on innovation teams at Vodafone and the not-for-profit social services organisation Life Without Barriers I have been struck by these strangely common and dysfunctional dynamics. So much so I’ve made it the focus of my professional life to understand and untangle these dynamics. To try and make the world of work, work, for myself and others.
An obvious place to start in the pursuit of understanding leadership and organisations is university, or at least it was and is for me. For twenty years now I’ve been researching and teaching in the domains of leadership and organisation. It has certainly brought rigour to my pursuit of knowledge but perhaps not answers in the way I may have initially hoped. To put it bluntly the science on leadership and leadership development is not settled. It has made some valuable contributions but is criticised for being overly reductionist and fragmented as a domain, with a huge number of theories generated but little work done to integrate and resolve often competing perspectives. The emerging theories that do account for more complex perspectives on leadership that some would argue are more useful in the complex reality of society and organisational life are criticised as less scientific. We see the dynamic of control and avoiding complexity playing out in academia too. (For a useful review of the academic fields of leadership and leadership development the work of David Day is a good place to start. )
It should not be surprising then that we see this dynamic playing out in practice too. Organisations turning to experts to provide simple answers to complex problems, outsourcing the uncomfortable work of leadership to consultants and other advisors. The leadership development industry is a half-trillion-dollar annual business packaging leadership theories for clients looking for simple tools to make them more effective, with the effectiveness of most development initiatives at best mixed . Which brings us back to where this article started with a rare few getting leadership about right.
What I have learned about leadership at university is that there is a lot to learn. That leadership is fundamentally about learning and that to do that well, being at the intersection of research and practice and being prepared to be a bit uncomfortable is about the right place to be. My latest research endeavours have me looking not only in the domains of leadership and organisation but also in the school of education with an ongoing interest in learning leadership and an emerging view on leadership as learning.
I’ve got much more to say on this and hope you will follow and respond to these posts as I keep them coming or please contact me if you’d like to engage with these ideas and my work further.