The Tensions of Leading in Communities

Leadership is a loaded word that conjures up up images of hard men making the hard calls. But it's time we redefined leadership as learning, according to the Leading in Communities workshop I recently attended. Stop being disillusioned about leadership. Stop telling yourself you're not a leader. And start learning from your everyday experiences - because that's where leadership happens.  

What did your upbringing teach you about leadership and leaders? Parents with raised fingers. Teachers telling you off. The loud kids deciding who's on their team.

I attended my first “leadership workshop” with an underlying sense of nervousness and uncertainty. I figured out early in my childhood that I was not a leader. Quiet, studious and sensible – that was my place in the classroom and the playground.

The Leading in Communities workshop, facilitated by Margy-Jean Malcolm from Inspiring Communities reframed leadership as learning – giving me the permission to experiment, learn and grow - rather prescribing a set of leadership behaviours to rote learn and practise.

I left feeling much lighter about the concept of leadership, so I hope this post might help you feel the same.

Polarities of Leadership

Let’s go back to that image of leaders as strong, powerful and decisive. Here in New Zealand, we think of the Richie McCaws, the John Keys, the Donald Trumps.

Men making decisions and getting shit done.

Men making decisions and getting shit done.

However, leadership is about more than just making the hard calls. The workshop introduced the idea of leadership polarities. In every moment, different tensions are pulling us in different directions.

 In exploring these polarities, I realised my natural tendency is to sit in the doing with, process focussed polarity. As somebody who grew up believing “I’m not a leader”, I’ve always felt uncomfortable making decisions for other people. For me, the workshop was about exploring what it looks like and feels like to be decisive and focussed on outcomes. Turns out, it feels fine as long as the context is right.

The workshop reminded me that leadership is contextual. What is appropriate in one situation might not be appropriate in another.

We covered this handy model of systems analysis:

·       Simple: Baking a cake

·       Complicated: Building a car

·       Complex: Raising a child

·       Chaotic: Dealing with a natural disaster.

Different kinds of leadership make sense in each of these scenarios. When dealing with chaos, we don’t need to sit around for two weeks co-creating our vision together. We need to clean the streets and fix the water supply – and fast!

In contrast, why sit back and let “the leaders” decide our organisation’s strategic direction for the next 5 years when our operating environment is complex and ever-evolving?

Learning through Metaphor

One of my favourite exercises of the day led to a bunch of inspiring stories and useful metaphors. We split into small groups and one person volunteered to share a challenge they were facing in their work.

First, the challenge-holder shared the facts about the challenge. They had to avoid their perceptions or judgements, which might colour the facts. Only once the listeners understood the facts could the challenge-holder then describe the patterns visible in this challenge over time.

All the while, the listeners were asking clarification questions to understand. As listeners, our job was then to share any metaphors or images that might express our view of what was happening.

We were surprised by the range and quality of the metaphors:

·       It reminds me of a builder/client relationship…

·       You’re a raft guide trying to steer your team through the rapids…

·       I’m thinking of the feijoa tree at my house that bore fruit only once we pruned some branches…

These metaphors allowed the challenge-holder to view the problem more objectively by removing the emotions and people from the situation. And when I bumped into her a few weeks later, she said: “Oh, I’ve been thinking about your feijoa tree…” Metaphors help us make sense of complexity, and evidently, they stick in our memories too.

Leadership as Learning

“If leadership is learning, what are you doing to learn deliberately?”

I wrote this quote for myself at the end of the workshop. It was the prompt for this post.

Our everyday life and work provide ample opportunity to learn and grow our leadership practice. But that won’t happen accidentally. This blog is my attempt to learn in public while in private I’m meeting with a leadership and communication coach to grow my understanding of my own biases and behavioural tendencies.

I encourage you to ask that question of yourself: “If leadership is learning, what are you doing to learn deliberately?”