• Shayne Leslie

When Leadership is a Rain Dance

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Holding yourself hostage to outdated definitions

There are many people in leadership positions who hold themselves hostage to outdated definitions of leadership. Changes in society continue to redefine our role and duty as leaders… year by year, and even month by month.

Paul Porteous, Adjunct Associate Professor and Director of Leadership Development and International Programs for the Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra, presented a lecture on social leadership last week, which I attended.

It was illuminating to hear his perspective of leadership from a social policy perspective, and my recent experiences with boards of registered clubs who are majority older, white men.

Leadership and learning, and missing conversations

Leadership and learning go together, he said. We’re constantly learning how to lead, and the worse thing we can do for our communities is get stuck. Stuck with ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ and ‘I’m not going anywhere’ mantras.

Current leadership thought is that its purpose is to bring different perspectives together, diagnosing the differences, then have the missing conversations.

The missing conversations exist in the yawning gap between decision makers - board and management - and their staff and customers, and the broader community.

These missing conversations will help build the environment the community needs and expects. Not the environment the leader wants to create based on their personal bias and cultural view.

Leadership is not about winning

Porteous said that people in leadership positions often think leadership is about winning. Winning the vote to remain on the board, winning the argument around the board table and getting your agenda in motion, or winning one over the CEO and 'keeping them in their place'.

This focus on winning takes the focus away from the real work of leaders; learning, working with different perspectives, and building community. Even at the risk at losing.

Leadership requires action and activity

Attending seminars on leadership, photos with cheques in the local newspaper, and reading the board papers without action and activity is a Leadership Rain Dance. Rain Dances make us feel good; we feel like we’re influencing events.

There is little empirical evidence that Rain Dances create rain.

Leadership without learning, without different perspectives challenging the boardroom table-talk, and without having conversations with people who are different to you and I is part of the Leadership Rain Dance.

We do what feels good, while ignoring the real work we should be doing.

Are you participating in a Leadership Rain Dance?

You could be participating in a Leadership Rain Dance if you’re doing any of these examples:

  • Conducting an employee engagement or customer survey, then ignoring the results and doing what you were going to do anyway, or justifying poor results as the actions of a small, angry minority group

Instead: As hard as feedback is to accept when it jars with our sense of the world, it is incumbent on leaders to seek out clarification, and take small steps everyday to build community.

  • Using the 'they say' principal of decision making, or confusing fact with your personal biases

Instead: Use a scientific approach to gathering information and research, expand your perspective by listening to and reading different views, recognise your biases as limitations and challenge them.

  • Using the ‘I don’t play politics’ tag line for avoiding involvement or staying silent in situations which need your leadership diagnosis and engagement

Instead: Speak up, even when it might mean you could lose. I don't play politics is a cop out when you've put your hand up to be on a board or senior management team in which persuasion and negotiation are part of the everyday.

  • Not really reading your board papers then asking dumb questions… and I am sorry but, yes, there is such a thing as a dumb question in the boardroom when you haven’t done your homework

Instead: Read your board papers, make notes of things you don't understand, ask questions privately if you can, and fill the gaps in your knowledge through learning.

  • Not reading your board papers, and accepting all the entitlements

Instead: Read your board papers, or don't accept the beverages, meal, conference tickets, etc.

  • Funding management and staff to attend leadership programs, but not holding yourself to the same expectations of change for leadership programs you attend.

Instead: Attending learning and applying learning are two separate things. Applying the learning is harder, so take small steps everyday to make a real impact in the work that you do.

The leadership question we must ask

Porteous said the leadership question is not what’s in it for me or my fellows? The question is; how does it build the community?

Not MY community – the whole community, including people who don’t look like me, or think like me, or believe in the same things as me.

Taking Action to Avoid the Leadership Rain Dance

Management Consultant, John Spence said to find your lowest performing board member, manager or employee, and realise that these are the people who set the standard for acceptable leadership for your entire organisation.

The organisation that will thrive in the future is not the organisation with the oldest, whitest, male-st board and executive management at the helm.

It will be the board and management that has re-framed leadership as

  • building community,

  • learning from each other’s story,

  • acknowledging competing values while focussing on the work and outcomes,

  • discovering new ways to do old things, and

  • networking to create new synergies.

I am also asking you to consider activating the next generation of leaders through board succession planning. Ask me to speak to your board with a short 20-minute presentation.

Shayne Leslie | 0412 241 773 Australia | shayne@integratedgovernance.com.au

#leadership #boardsuccession #CEO