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Meg Wheatley on Innovative Leadership

This month’s Gifted Leaders e-Newsletter features an interview with Meg Wheatley, an expert on innovative leadership, in strategy+business, issue 65, winter 2011.

Highlights from the Article

It’s getting hard to remember what it felt like to manage reflectively – to take time to think together with colleagues and to learn from experience. With our frantic pace, we’re screaming past one another (and more easily provoked and angered by each other), so we’re losing the one resource, community, that gets humans through hard times.

Community – people working together and knowing that others are there to support them – is a critically important but largely invisible resource. Every organization needs leaders who can help people regain their capacity, energy, and desire to contribute. And this is only accomplished when people work together in community, not in isolation. But community is hard to find in most organizations. Not only do many leaders deny that this capacity is important, but they’re actually destroying it through their current management approaches.

In most companies, we do not have (and probably won’t have for the foreseeable future) the money to fund the work that we have to do. Leaders have two choices. One, they can tap the invisible resource of people who become self-motivated when invited to engage together. This approach has well-documented results in higher productivity, innovation, and motivation, but it requires a shift from a fear-based approach to a belief in the capacity of most people to contribute, to be creative, and to be motivated internally. Alternatively, they can continue to slash and burn, tightening controls, and using coercive methods to enforce the cuts. This destroys capacity, yet it is the more common approach these days.

Leaders are afraid that they don’t know how to solve the problems they face. The old models of command and control – budgeting, strategy setting, forecasting, incentives, evaluations – are not effective in a changing, volatile environment. Nothing is working as it should. Too many leaders fail to realize that the old ways, their mental maps, aren’t giving them the information they need. But instead of acknowledging that, they push on more frantically, desperate to have the old ways work.

This leads to a terrible cycle, a death spiral. When human beings work from fear and panic, we lose nearly all of our best reasoning capacities. We can’t see patterns, think about the future, or make moral judgments. People in fear look for someone to blame; so leaders blame their staff, and staff blame their leaders. A climate of blame leads to self-protective behaviors. People take fewer risks; creativity and participation disappear. New rules and regulations appear, with unintended but predictable consequences: more staff disengagement, more wasted time, more chaos.

When you’re lost in the wilderness, the only way to survive is to admit that you’re lost – and to stop looking for signs that might confirm that you know where you are. Your old ways of doing things won’t get you out of this situation. Once you realize this, you can look clearly around you, and seek information that will help you rethink what to do. You don’t have to change the situation you’re in; you have to change your mind about it.

For any situation where the old maps are failing, you need to call together everyone who might have information that’s needed to construct a new map. This includes people at all levels of the system – anyone who plays a role that’s relevant. Especially as you face increasingly complex problems that have no easy answers, you need to be brave enough to seek out perspectives from all parts of the system. It takes a lot of courage for a leader to say, “Our problems were caused by complex interactions. I don’t know what to do, but I know we can figure it out together.”

Most of us know from our own experience what kind of leadership works best. When people of many ages, in many cultures, were asked to talk about a leader they were happy to follow and what made that leader memorable several factors, such as integrity, a sense of humor, and a clear direction and vision, often come up. But the most common characteristic of good, memorable leaders is that they create the conditions for people to be encouraged, challenged, and supported, to become stronger and more capable as they do their work. The descriptions are always the same: “The leader thought about me and trusted me (just as I trusted him or her). He or she believed that I was capable and supported and encouraged me to stretch and excel; the leader was not focused on making himself or herself look good.”

There’s only one type of leadership that people respond to positively. If we want people to contribute; if we want them to get smarter as they solve each problem or go through each crisis; if we want to develop our organizations to be responsive, smart, and enduring, then we have to change the way we lead. We cannot continue to lead from fear and control. People will step up to today’s challenges only if they are led with encouragement and support, and trusted to contribute.

Read the article here.

The Gifted Perspective

We agree with Meg Wheatley’s assertion that we are at a turning point with respect to leadership. “Either we continue to descend into incompetence and failing solutions or we realize where we are and see new ways of thinking and acting,” she says.

We often see leaders trying to do more of what doesn’t work hoping that things will change. Why is this?! We need a radical shift in our leadership paradigm: away from the various forms of paternalistic and heroic leadership that are so familiar to us. We need Gifted Leadership.

Gifted Leadership means becoming the kind of leader whose first responsibility is not to command others, but to ensure that they feel invited and welcome so they can participate in making something happen that none of them could do alone. And it also involves becoming adept in productive conversational processes that include all relevant stakeholders in figuring out problems and solutions.

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