Blog > Thoughts on leadership

April 10, 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.

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