A lesson in leadership

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ChalkboardAn organisation's leadership is just as much a form of capital as money in the bank, says Richard Little; not just the top team but future leadership capacity and leadership that emerges everywhere, leadership that is the best expression of an organisation's culture and values: mobilising and inspiring talent and energy and bringing them in concert to execution.

At a critical world disjuncture, when the very legitimacy of business and its goals is at issue, leadership development has never been more important. It is the key that unlocks all other possibilities, for individuals and for the organisations of which they are members. At its best, it is at once a journey inwards and a journey outwards – inwards to the individual's source of resolve and moral grasp, outwards to action, collaboration and pluralism. Both journeys start in the space that Donald Schon called 'reflection-in-action'.

In practice, the best leadership development programmes start with the exploration and articulation of the organisation's real values and culture. Those values are manifest, for better or worse, in the actions and utterances of its members, especially in those that we call 'acts of leadership'. By catching acts of leadership red-handed, we can use them to find, in microcosm, everything we need to develop leadership capacity.

The act of leadership

It is a lot easier to develop the capacity for mindful action than it is to develop whatever disputed pattern of qualities and habits amount to a leader. Everyone acts all the time – someone might intervene to cut short an unnecessary debate, offer support to a marginalised colleague or they may challenge a malicious remark or an unethical practice. We just as often fail to act, lacking courage in the moment, fearing that we are wrong or simply not recognising the opportunity. By studying the need for leadership, in the absence of qualifying action, we can learn as much as we can from its commission. We make no assumptions about what is or is not leadership but invite people to consider action from several perspectives: to test its efficacy, its legitimacy, the way in which it instantiates the desired values of the organisation.

Photo of Richard Little"Leadership capacity emerges in action and that action – the act of leadership - must be at the heart of practical leadership development."

When someone does act in the common interest, their legitimacy rests on a unique and unreproduceable combination of situational conditions and individual characteristics. They may be the person with the right knowledge, or be the person who happened to have the presence of mind, or they may make the suggestion that seems most plausible and constructive at the time. Captured and studied, acts of leadership become the laboratory specimens which, when dissected, set us off on the journey, inwards to the roots of our authority, outwards to the organisational task, the greater good.

Actions in the leadership lab are no less valuable specimens for their being small, it may be in the accumulation of many small actions that the capacity for leadership emerges. Certainly, for this method, the occasional blockbuster is useful, but the process of dissection is the same for actions great or small.

Creating images of leadership

During a leadership programme, participants are encouraged to focus on acts of leadership as they emerge in practical projects. Projects may be current workplace tasks, specially designed simulations or undertakings remote from the shopfloor (in our practice we create joint corporate/NGO projects). Facilitators are careful not to offer leadership beyond what is necessary to frame the development process: their interference might defuse the tension that triggers acts of leadership amongst participants. Their job is to collect specimens and guide reflection and dialogue about them. As programmes proceed, glimpses of leadership start to coalesce into images and models; participants begin to trust themselves and their natural authority.

By working with the evidence of leadership and making no prescriptions about what leadership should be, this method builds capacities for leadership that are unique to the individuals concerned and that reflect the special circumstances of their organisation. It is a method that starts and finishes with Schon's phrase, that relies on no other authority than is acceptable right there and then and that, ultimately, it is about developing organisations that are ready for the challenges of sustainability and a new business paradigm: critically reflexive, full of energy, initiative and innovation – organisations that have grown out of dysfunctional hierarchies and learned that leadership is everywhere and is nothing to do with domination, everything to do with enabling collaboration.

Richard Little is a senior consultant at training and development company Impact.

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