Most of the leadership mythology we subscribe to was created in the 20th century world of fossil fuels and mechanistic, production-oriented businesses. In the 21st century, that world is dying. We can see before us a new world, one of ideas, knowledge and innovation, but we’re not quite there yet. It’s still emerging. And as a result, we’re kind of in between things.
Stepping into the new world is a slow process. And it’s messy. In the old era, leadership was about efficiency and uniformity, and the best way to achieve that was highly structured, top-down leadership. But in a world where everything is changing, top-down can no longer work. Or as Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer put it in their book, Leading from the Emerging Future, “Our inherited leadership vocabulary is no longer fit to meet the challenges of our time.”
On some level, we all sense the need for a new leadership vocabulary. But first, we must break free of the lies that keep us from re-examining just what a leader is and should be.
Lie 1: Leaders are Either Heroes or Scapegoats
It’s difficult not to romanticise the heroics of leaders of spectacularly successful companies. They had a gloriously ambitious vision (or several visions in the case of Elon Musk) and they made it a reality. They were tested and persevered through extreme adversity and yet, they prevailed.
But even the best leaders are also human (thank god) and as such, they’re also (sometimes deeply) flawed. And if and when they ultimately fail, they will become a scapegoat. They couldn’t cut it. They weren’t strong enough. You’re good or you’re bad. You’re in or you’re out. A winner or a loser. It’s personal. And frankly, childish.
The problem with the leader as the be-all-end-all hero-visionary-superstar is that it assumes the people who work for those leaders are feckless followers who are in need of someone to tell them what to do and how to do it. In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge wrote, “At its heart, the traditional view of leadership is based on assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change, deficits which can only be remedied by a few great leaders.”
This is not the way to create an organization that can adapt and thrive in uncertain times. It is the way though, to create employees who are cynical, or worse, unwilling to take risk and responsibility at work.
It’s a great way to get stuck.
Unstuck Leaders are mortal. Get over this hero thing.
Lie 2: Leaders Create Organizational Order
We believe that leaders should set the goals for a company and then implement policies and procedures to accomplish those goals. Company standards, regulations, workflows, performance metrics, etc. are all designed as top-down mechanisms of control. We believe that leaders are the best qualified to arrive at optimal solutions for all our problems.
The real world just doesn’t work that way. There are multiple informal systems in place in any organization that actually get the work done. Floor employees and supervisors have their own hacks and methodologies that senior management has no knowledge of. There are also informal networks of communication, favor trading and resource sharing and competing all happening under senior management’s radar. Employees often ignore organizational charts and regulations. They self-organize in spite of them. They break the rules. They create workarounds. And, they get shit done.
To try to impose order on these complex adaptive behaviors would be madness. And ill-advised to boot. Creative solutions arise out of tension, not order. When rules are enforced with an iron fist, innovation dies. Weak leaders create a false sense of security out of order and it gets them stuck.
Unstuck Leaders understand that informal systems are forming without them. They learn to understand them and then enable the teams and employees within them to do their thing. Notice that I didn’t say “harness” them. That’s not what this is about. The challenge of the Unstuck Leader is to not take control, but rather enable.
Is the thought of that making you a little nauseous? That. Right there. Is why Unstuck Leaders are so rare.
Lie 3: Leaders Provide Certainty in Times of Uncertainty
Most of us are not fans of uncertainty. Not a lot of people would say, “Yes please, bring me a whopping helping of I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen!”.
That’s why, during times of uncertainty, we like nothing more than a strong leader to take charge. We like it even more if said leader can also reassure us that he or she will stop the change, put an end to uncertainty and restore the past as it was. Even better, we’d like to be assured that things aren’t really that complicated, that they are in fact simple and the old ways of doing things will continue to work once we just get past this one little blip.
This type of denial is what’s known in Systems Leadership Theory as “absencing”.
Rather than bravely stepping into the future, we cling to the past. We shut ourselves off from what is emerging. We turn our backs on those being affected by the change and ultimately, we turn our backs on ourselves. We’re left incapable of responding and creating and innovating. When we live in an absencing cycle, we’re betraying ourselves. It’s the ultimate self-own.
Scharmer and Kaufer believe this pattern of reaching into the past creates stuckness by limiting the organization to a single ideology (one way), an “us vs. them” mentality (othering) and perhaps most troublingly, a single will (fanaticism).
You only need look to the current state of American politics to see absencing in practice. The irony of absencing is that it can look like strong leadership, but it is in fact, an abdication of leadership. When we’re certain, we don’t seek out uncomfortable facts and data. We don’t seek out opposing views. And we’re left unprepared to face the challenges of the rapidly changing world we’re attempting to deny.
The Unstuck Leader understands that leadership is about accepting uncertainty and ambiguity and learning to thrive despite them. An Unstuck Leader’s job is to give employees certainty within the uncertainty. And that doesn’t mean telling them lies, nice stories or giving them false confidence and reassurance. It means giving them the only kind of certainty that matters. The certainty of co-created values, purpose, mission and vision. And it means showing them how to grow those things within themselves as well as within the organization.
Ultimately, Unstuck Leadership is about prioritizing truth over comfort. And that’s why we have to let go of the lies. It’s time to step out of the old, and into what’s emerging. And yeah, that's not always easy...
Hi there! This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Unstuck Leader: Getting unstuck. Staying unstuck. If you’d like to learn the five steps to eliminating the patterns of belief and behavior that are holding you back, sign-up for my email newsletter (green box at top right of your screen on desktop, or under this post on mobile), and you’ll be the first to know when the book is published.