Let’s talk leadership

Language is constitutive, ie, how we talk about things shape our reality. In this connection, a scan of the literature on leadership today, reveal that it continues to be talked about as a person’s status or as a set of personality traits. In my view, these concepts create and reinforces hierarchical cultures; and, perpetuates the phenomena of personality cults.

This is why I am excited to see alternative perspectives on leadership gaining prominence – in particular, the notion that ‘leading’ is more about the effective coordination of communal sense-making, and, in this context, inviting people to collaborative action. This type of leadership requires a different set of competencies, including the ability to foster inclusive, participative, purposeful, ethical processes for decision-making and action.

The following are some practical ideas for exercising relational leadership.

a) Co-mission rather than tell or direct;

b) Value diversity and difference;

c) Value commonality and community;

d) Engender an appreciative culture.

a. Co-missioning

Collaborative practice begins when people ask: who else should be involved in a decision or initiative, and to make a determined effort to co-work with them. Who are the relevant and affected parties in this situation or endeavour? Who needs to be involved to create the most coordinated and corporately owned initiatives?

This change in grammar can create inter-dependence, collaboration and cooperation in human systems, as opposed to the ‘command and control’ ways of organising we are all familar with.

A dramatic way of reinforcing the change is to have ‘public’ conversations. Most organisations are good at having ‘meetings’, but these are essentially private conversations. The inclusive nature of public conversations with as many people as possible present has the potential to be transformational!

Of course, it may not be practical to include all those who have a stake in every decision. In this case, we could simply adopt a ‘relational orientation’ by inviting discussion from the point of view of those affected but not present. This is a key skill in relational leadership, ie, the ability to call on, and coordinate different and diverse voices in a meaningful and coherent way.

b. Valuing Diversity and Difference

In any human grouping, there is difference, diversity and multiplicity. In fact, it is our differences that make each of us unique and individual. On the one hand, we believe in celebrating diversity. In practice, however, many organisations continues to organise its people into a unified whole, in the believe that this will help achieve its organisational goals. In most cases, unity is mistaken for uniformity.

The world is full of examples where institutional power is [ab]used by people on the higher echelons of a hierarchy to subjugate differing views and perspectives, and to enforce a unitary (particular) perspective. I believe that this form of leadership is becoming passé. Organisational purposes are more likely to be realised when differences are valued.

Valuing begins with listening. Everyone knows that listening is important. However, how we listen is important.

Healthy and productive relationships comes from “valuing listening” not “adversarial listening”.

Adversarial listening

In a competitive environment (let’s face it, there is the competitor in all of us!) listening can be inadvertently adversarial. We listen in order to debate. We debate in order to get what we want. What is it we don’t like? What’s the problem? Why won’t your ideas work?

Valuing listening

A valuing approach to listening is an orientation towards looking out for what makes positive contributions. How is the offering helpful, creative, and significant? In this way the positive contribution can be woven into the final decisions – what is problematic can be left behind. In doing so, people will feel heard and valued.

Real open listening is the ability to be firm about what you believe, while being profoundly open to others.

c. Valuing commonality and community

While valuing diversity is important, it is equally important to seek out commonalities. What are our common aspirations, goals, values? By focusing on commonalities otherwise divided factions can come together.

One way to do this is to set up (self organising) communities of practice that bring people together because they are passionate about a common issue/s. This is an effective technique for learning, as well as encouraging and mobilising people. It is a practical way of affirming ‘shared’ leadership.

“Whole systems thinking”, that is, getting as many people in a room together to think and talk through critical issues can have transformational effects. This is a great way to build fruitful and purposeful community. It is labour and time intensive but the prize is significant – coherence of purpose, and a sense of community.

d. Engendering an Appreciative spirit or culture

Our day-to-day reality is constructed through communication, particularly through our use of language.

Marketers and PR people apart, it is interesting to see how many organisations have refined ways of describing themselves in ‘deficit’ terms, using words like “dysfunctional”, “sick”, “schizophrenic”, “cancerous”, “damaged”, etc.

To make matters worse, many management tools are based on the assumption that organisations are ‘problems to be solved’ (trouble-shooting, problem-solving, gap analysis, re-engineering, etc). Such approaches have produced people who are extremely articulate in defining what is wrong with their organisations. This, in turn, leads to a blame culture. This is undesirable in two ways. When we blame others we typically alienate them. Those who play the ‘blame game’ develop a misleading sense of superiority and the result is antagonism, hurt, even spite within the organisation.

Relational leaders are those who transform their organisations by valuing others. They create change by bringing out the best in people, and by co-creating action for the future, that compels, inspires and uplift.

Doing this well requires developing an ‘appreciative’ spirit. Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that explores and creates life-enhancing possibilities through constructive and collaborative conversations. It requires us to move out of deficit language into an appreciation of what works well – with the belief that you get more of what you pay attention to. It is about seeking the best of “what is” in order to provide a collaborative way for imagining “what might be” in these turbulent times.

Relational leadership is not a by word for good leadership. This very much depends on the leader’s view of what counts as legitimate use of power. In this connection, I have found Cardona’s paper (The Leadership and Organization Development Journal vol 21, No 4, 2000, pages 201-206) extremely helpful. He points out that there are at least three forms of leadership within the relational discourse, viz, transactional leadership, transformational leadership and transcendental leadership.

In transactional relationship, the leader is concerned with the results of the relationship. In this context, relationships are a means to an end. The means of influence open to transactional leaders are rewards and punishments depending on outcome or performance. The stereotype of a good transactional leader is that s/he is a good negotiator, authoritarian or even aggressive so that they obtain the maximum benefit from the economic influence relationship that they have created.

In transformational leadership, the leader too uses relationships to achieve results but is also concerned with aligning the follower’s interest with those of the organisation. Transformational leaders focus on creating an attractive vision and good work conditions for employees. A key competency is the ability to communicate and sell an attractive vision. Transformational leadership is a subtler, more seductive form of transactional leadership. Such leaders know who they are, what they want, why they want it and how to communicate what they want to others in order to gain their cooperation and support.

The transcendental leader, however, while also interested in results, and in aligning the motivations of employees with those of the organisation, is mainly concerned with the people themselves and tries to contribute to their needs and development. S/he does this with integrity and is not averse to sacrificing themselves in the service of others, even at the expense of their own interests.


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