Thoughts on leadership

April 10th, 2012

Everybody has a view on leadership. I’m wary of anyone who says they have figured out the 5 things that great leaders do or the 7 things that great leaders never do etc. The internet is full of these sorts of posts. It seems no matter what else we say, we humans like lists, and we like them even more when someone else does the work for us. I could easily spin off on a post about lists – maybe another day.

What I really want to share are a few great insights from Phelim McDermott’s talk On Death and Doing Nothing. You should read the whole thing. It’s about his thoughts on leadership from the perspective of an artistic director. Here’s what stood out.

“Keith Johnstone has a game where people say “let’s …” then everyone says “Yes Let’s” and everyone does it.

A: Let’s.. All jump on the spot”

Everyone: “Yes let’s..” and everyone does it.

People think it’s a game about agreeing and saying yes to everything with a cheery grin.

But it’s actually much more subtle than that. What you are supposed to do in the game is notice whether you really are saying yes congruently. If you can’t really say yes then you sit down and drop out. So you are noticing whether you can say yes to the suggestions. It’s as much about finding out what people can say yes to easily, as about mindlessly agreeing. If you continue playing this game what you discover are there are some things which make lots of people sit down fast. Some things that are suggested are really easy to gleefully agree to… other things…

Over time, what you discover is that those things that are satisfyingly easy to accept are sort of already happening within the group. They are latent as ideas… “Emergent.”

“Good ideas” that people have or “wacky” suggestions are not so easy to say yes to partly because you find yourself asking…

“Is that a good idea?” by then it’s too late and your out of the moment… Sit down.

This is a touchstone for good group creativity.. The ideas have emerged from a group mind or process. Someone naming this before your conscious mind is even aware of it is as satisfying as laying an egg. As enjoyable as a great film ending that feels right because a bit of you knew it all along.. but didn’t know it knew it yet.”

I love the way Phelim unpacks this seemingly simple game and what it can reveal if you stick with it long enough. This is something that Johnnie and I have been exploring too. The capacity to know when to stick with something or when to abandon it seems to me to be fundamental to leadership. Yet impossible to learn in any traditional sense – it’s a way of knowing that is emergent rather than predictable.

Phelim has more to say about the illusion of control too:

“We love the security of the illusion that someone is in control. Even more than the discomfort of a potentially more creative process. That’s how we want our leaders: ”Reassuringly blameable.”

Now that’s a different spin on leadership – ‘reassuringly blameable’ – and oh, so common. We seem to be riddled with the need to have someone to blame when things go wrong, or not as we expected more likely. I’ve been in this position a few times when facilitating groups where the need to be comfortable over-rides any need for emergence or discovery, and the absence of comfort is blamed on the facilitator, and not necessarily the topic being explored – which may be inherently uncomfortable and messy. Hence my reluctance to buy into the oft-quoted facilitator mantra of creating a ‘safe’ space for uncomfortable topics. Uncomfrtable is uncomfortable. Messy is messy. Unknown is unknown. No amount of massaging from me, or anyone else, including leaders, will change that.

“If your job as a leader is not to tell people what to do. What is it?

Well I think I would say it’s to model being comfortable with being uncomfortable. To be comfortable not knowing.

To model holding a space where we recognise how the world really is. Which is that it is all self organising and none of us is in control.

However we can notice what is happening, what season our creativity, or organisation, or our self is in and not fight it but wake up to the reality of it and ride it, be totally present to this life process so it can unfold.

To become what Harrison Owen calls a “wave rider”.

To recognise that none of us is in control.

As leaders we can create inviting environments in which people can connect to and be aware of their own impulses.. Awake enough to follow them. To notice that the leadership role could actually belong to anyone in the room at any time.”

Amen to that.

10 Comments so far

  1. Adrian Segar on April 10, 2012 12:48 pm

    Love all of this, Viv.

    One thought about safety. In my experience it’s possible to feel uncomfortable while still feeling safe. From the facilitation viewpoint, I can’t make anyone feel safe but I can work to provide a “safe-enough” environment for people to stay with their discomfort and perhaps get somewhere new as a result. So I don’t buy into safety as a mantra, but part of my focus is on providing just the right amount of it, a quantity that may change from moment to moment.

  2. Viv McWaters on April 10, 2012 4:52 pm

    Hi Adrian

    I think you are spot on about safety. Of course, none of us want to be in an unsafe (physical) space and if we mentally feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to bring our best thinking. My reaction against the facilitator ‘safe space’ mantra is making it so comfortable for people that they never feel the excitement and ideas that emerge from stepping outside of their usual safety zone.

  3. Rob Paterson on April 10, 2012 9:49 pm

    Hi Viv
    I wonder if you and Johnnie – my two fave people – might be missing something.

    I think we might agree that the world that is unfolding is very different from the world we know and grew up in and see as being normal – even if we don’t like it?

    I see us in a race – can we build enough of a beach head into the new in time for some of us to make it? A cross between Moses and the Children of Israel and Noah and the Ark. Both I think useful metaphors for today. Most people cannot see or will not see what confronts them. They want to stay in the matrix.

    I think that THE great role for leadership today is in dealing with this general sense of denial.

    I don’t think that waiting for it all to unfold is good enough.

    The uncertainty is that we do know the principles of the new but not the details or how best to get there.

    So what do you do? I am finding that one way is to do and so show. But even that demands that a person offer up a lot more energy – for entropy is massive.

    What is your advice for a more active leader?

  4. Viv McWaters on April 10, 2012 10:05 pm

    Hi Rob

    Thanks for your comments. I’m sure Johnnie and I are missing many thing – that’s why we keep talking 🙂 I certainly agree with you about dealing with the sense of denial. I’m not really sure I understand your question though. I don’t think I’m advocating waiting for things to unfold, rather that we recognise, and acknowledge the unknowable, and let go of the need to control. I’m not sure I have any answers about what a more active leader should do other than the improv principle of ‘do something’ and then adapt as more information becomes available. Cheers, Viv

  5. Rob Paterson on April 10, 2012 10:43 pm

    Yes – At KETC (TV station) we knew sort of that we could no longer be only a broadcaster and had to be a community engager. So that was the goal – but without the President making this the goal, all the people at the station would have remained stuck – for their skills and their position was in the old. So he had to be Moses and say I am taking you out of Egypt whether you want to or not.

    Then we ran a series of projects that embodied the new – starting with ones that were fun and low risk – where the people were exposed to DOING the new and starting to feel that this was not so bad by experience.

    As we scaled up with bigger projects, we brought in other stations – they too found out that this was not so bad after all.

    BUT then came the hard part – he had to change the official power lines to shape the station into the new. Now war is declared – for some will not go to the new and a painful compromise has been agreed to that I think drains energy.

    What I am trying to say is that the forces of entropy are very powerful. If you wish to get behind local food you will be attacked with the full light of the old system.

    I cannot get away from one part of the role of the leader being very Moses like or Noah like – being quite despotic when confronted with the vast power of the old that will do anything it can to stop you.

    Does this story help explain? I don’t mean that I am right – I merely offer the case study for what the new leader is up against

  6. Rob Paterson on April 11, 2012 12:37 am

    Thought more over the morning here – the question that is bubbling up is “What is leadership for?”

  7. Viv McWaters on April 11, 2012 6:21 pm

    Entropy is part of any system, yes? And redundancy. Yet a lot of management is focused on trying to avoid both. Maybe the role of leadership is to acknowledge these difficulties and stay the course? I guess what interests me about this is that there’s no answer – it’s just a deeper understanding. And then more questions. Maybe we should try and Canada/UK/Aus chat some time soon?

  8. Rob Paterson on April 11, 2012 8:09 pm

    Love that from “Confused in Canada”

  9. Paul McWaters on April 23, 2012 5:54 pm


    I guess so much of this discussion on leadership depends on the situation one finds themselves. I think the most important part of the leadership discussion is that flexibility in adapting to various leadership styles (even amongst a single situation) is critical.

    I think at times that we place far too much importance on being “LEADER” and forget that part of being the leader is being a part of the team. A critical part of effective leadership must certainly be about understanding the people you are working with and identifying the goals and expectations of the group or organisation.

  10. Viv McWaters on April 24, 2012 8:51 pm

    Hey Paul

    Good points. Which is exactly why I often look to the world of ensemble acting and the arts in general for clues about leadership. When everyone is trying to make others look good (a key principle in improvised theatre) the ego is less likely to take over, hence more distributed and shared leadership.

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