The practice of leadership has many important facets and nuances. Strategic formation and implementation is often regarded as the ‘most important of all leadership responsibilities’ and it certainly is important. Strategy almost always forms a core part of the curriculum in any leadership development programme. Leaders have come to both understand, and appreciate the need for sound strategy. They have become familiar with the models and tools associated with strategy; it is a subject that feels like ‘leadership work’ and is something that can be measured. Leaders tend to like that combination.
However, doing the work of leadership does not necessarily equate to being a leader. When it comes to leadership, the ‘doing’ and ‘being’ agendas are very different. Over the years there has been a growing understanding and awareness of what leadership is and isn’t – and how to go about the development of leaders. I have a mentor and friend who, well into his retirement years, took on and completed his PhD in leadership – with a specific focus on education. I have learnt a great deal from him through stimulating conversations facilitated by ‘coffee meetings’ as well as many hours of travelling together through our mutual work on some joint projects. The core of his thesis was to review the evolving process that has characterised leadership education.
Leadership theory initially led directly to leadership practice. There was theory that was required – theory that itself has evolved over the decades, and then there was leadership practice. I once attended a Salzburg Seminar session titled: ‘Linking the Theory and Practice of Leadership’. In attendance were both leadership practitioners as well as leadership academics. It was a source of personal bemusement that the two groupings mixed as easily as oil and water! Whenever the practitioners were speaking of their problems and challenges, the theorists would mutter something along the lines of, “Well if you only paid attention to what we say and write you would not be experiencing those problems”. Of course when it came the turn of the theorists to share their insights and opinions, the practitioners in the room would roll their eyes and retort, “Come and spend just one day in my office and let’s see how your theories stack-up!”
When the link in leadership was simply between theory and practice, the emphasis on leadership as something ‘you do’, as a skill-set to be mastered, held sway.
Later a third aspect to the ‘leadership cycle’ was added, that of evaluation. Theory leads to practice and practice in turn needs to be evaluated. This additional dimension introduced a plethora of evaluation tools, tools that today we simply take for granted. Evaluations became a standard part of ‘best practice’ and quickly became entrench as part of any corporate environment. This has been the dominant framework for a long time: theory – practice- evaluation.
However, in recent times there has emerged a fourth element or dimension to the leadership cycle and one that ‘closes’ the loop bringing us back full-circle to theory. The additional dimension is that of reflection: theory – practice – evaluation – reflection – theory…Reflection takes on many forms and descriptions. It can be seen as the habit of stepping back, or what Heifetz in his Adaptive Leadership model refers to as, ‘being on the balcony’. It can be seen as the pause, the space to think before taking action. Meg Wheatley describes the act of thinking as the thing that precedes all intelligent action or activity. Thinking and taking intentional time to think is not necessarily the same thing – certainly not in the corporate world where ‘taking time to think’ is not understood and seldom practiced.
This ‘new’ element to the leadership cycle has introduced another dimension to the leadership discussion – that of, ‘being’. An understanding that the leadership agenda is no longer merely about ‘doing’ but it is also about the character ethic. It is an understanding that you ‘lead out of who you are’ and that whilst skill-sets are important, they are no longer the definitive element in leadership development and practice. Much of this remains unfamiliar to those in leadership or at least, if is known, it remains viewed with suspicion and a fair degree of scepticism. I do have some sympathy for this take on the subject given how poorly this ‘new agenda’ is often positioned and presented. Hard-nosed and cynical leaders have little time and less patience for some of the extremely poor attempts and efforts to raise their awareness in this area. It is often reduced to the ‘motivational’ agenda and left to external speakers and consultants who are viewed as anything from ‘entertainment’ (motivational speakers) to an ‘unnecessary evil’ (consultants).
Reflection requires practical tools and clear articulation as to the ‘why’ ‘what and ‘how’ if it is to gain traction within our corporate organisations. In a global context of increasing complexity, connectedness and volatility, finding time to think is not only challenging but is a necessity. No longer will a focus on efficient operational expertize and an over-reliance on experience be enough. Leaders will need to step back, step out of and consider the disruptive influences, connect the dots and see the big picture. They will have to become comfortable with asking good questions and being able to harness the wisdom and perspective of the many. They will be required to rethink and revisit many of the formula and methodologies that have brought success in the past – an unlearning process that is often as traumatic as it is difficult. They will need to think like futurists.
As we hurtle headlong into this future, leaders will be required to demonstrate a new mind-set and model a new behaviour in what will essentially be a ‘new world of work’. Turbulence will be the new operating norm and in this regard Peter Drucker’s words sound a clear warning: “It is not the turbulence that is the problem but rather it is the use of yesterday’s logic in the turbulence that is the problem”.
When those responsible for leadership education and leadership development programmes (LDPs) understand the need for reflection as both part of leadership theory and practice, I suspect that many of these programmes will come to look very different. There will be a greater emphasis on self-awareness and an unpacking of what it means to ‘lead out of who you are’. Time will be made for reflection and pauses will become more commonplace. It will change some of the work expected and done; it will alter the metrics – the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we measure; it will both look and feel different. I recently wrote a blog voicing my frustration at the insistence of a leading South African business school that insists on me grading a reflective paper I set the LDP participants in the course I an invited to teach. How does one grade a reflection paper? Certainly there can (and should) be comment of effort, approach and engagement with the tough and demanding work that is reflection…but a grade? There needs to be the encouragement to see this essential discipline as part of a leadership practice that will eventuate in it becoming a leadership habit but, ascribing a grade to it, is just too simplistic and is entirely the wrong thinking. But try telling this to those ensconced within the business schools’ ivory towers!
Someone has to lead this new charge to reshape our approach and thinking on leadership. The reality is that it will come from different sources from a variety of settings. Embracing it and adopting it into your context will be the work of leadership. It will be culturally nuanced as much as it will be driven by personalities. It will look different from place to place and will need to be used differently from setting to setting. However, the ability to reflect, at both an individual level as well as at a corporate level, will be an essential survival tool to 21st Century leadership and living.
A good place to start might be with your executive or management team. What would a reflective habit look like in the mix of your agenda?
I know of a CEO of an engineering firm who, at my suggestion, introduced a time of silence to ‘bookend’ his executive agenda. Initially greeted with real scepticism by his team, this practice has grown to become an essential part of their executive meeting with telling results. You might need to be bold. In fact, you will need to be bold, given the prevailing conditions. You also will need to be willing to try some things that may not work. However, as with getting physically fit, it will take time, perseverance, discipline and effort. But, as with getting fit, it will become easier with time and the benefits will be felt and seen by all.
You want to be ‘future fit’? Well then I would suggest you incorporate reflection as a discipline towards that goal. I don’t think you will regret doing so.