Many popular texts on leadership advocate obsessive focus as the way to achieve a desired outcome (see, for example, a recent best-seller entitled The One Thing). Whilst such blinkered commitment to goal achievement often delivers the desired goal, it also leaves behind a trail of destruction (failed relationships, destroyed careers of colleagues, etc. – think of Steve Jobs). On the other hand, the maintenance of perspective, whilst harmonising relationships runs the risk of dilly-dallying while the proverbial Rome burns (think of Neville Chamberlain in Britain from 1937-1940). The complexity of leadership, and the increasing complexity of the contexts in which leadership must manifest, requires the seemingly impossible ability of those in formal positions of leadership to manage the paradox of keeping perspective whilst driving unrelenting focus on desired outcomes. In each of the social contexts in which a leader’s life is lived (work, home, community, civil society, etc.) managing this paradox is an essential requirement for broad-based life success. In his book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that it is our fear of death (and subsequent oblivion) that leads to us adopting one of various culturally assumed ‘solutions’ to the problem of death. The most popular one assumed by leaders is that of gaining sufficient fame (through wealth, power, invention, empire, etc.) as a means to achieve immortality – to be imprinted in the annals of human history and thus to ‘live on’ forever in the memory of humankind.
As mentioned, we live in multiple social realities and tuning out of one (or more) in order to obsessively focus on another, can be construed as a form of abdication of responsibility (which is not an attribute of good leadership!). So how do we ‘keep perspective’ and appropriately tune-in and tune-out of the particular social realities in which our lives are lived? My approach to this is to view leadership as a ‘collective achievement’. In my opinion, the challenges faced by families, organisations, countries, etc., are far too complex to be addressed by a single person. However, to approach leadership as a ‘collective responsibility’ requires strong intangible capital: social capital (such as trust), morale capital (such as commitment and resilience) and conceptual capital (such as creativity and experientially-acquired knowledge). All of these forms of capital are relationship-based: you get free access to these resources if relationships are strong and you get none of these resources when relationships are poor. This has significant implications for many of our social institutions, from the family to schools/universities and workplaces, as our capacity to build and sustain strong relationships is a life-time challenge.
A few relational/communicative practices have emerged from my (and others’) research over the past few years that appear to underpin the approach to leadership as a collective responsibility and, thus, to the building of strong stakeholder relationships. The most important of these, in my opinion, are that of the ‘intellectual humility’ of team members; and the ability of team members to exhibit ‘intelligent caring’.
The practice of being intellectually humble contradicts the defensive position taken by many in highly competitive workplaces that their knowledge is flawless. If this is the case and they ‘know everything’, there is nothing to learn. If there is nothing to learn, and the ‘team’ is located in a rapidly changing operational environment, then the practice of intellectual humility assumes that a form of collective delusion is operating. Rather, it assumes that in such an environment everyone’s knowledge (including that of the leader!) is imperfect and an appropriate solution can only be found through the collective confession of imperfection of knowing, and the adoption of collaborative learning practices.
The practice of intelligent caring (colloquially known as ‘tough love’) manifests as a form of confrontation that is underpinned by caring (or love) for those who are retarding the collective progress towards solutions to problems. When confronting such individuals/groups, the opening point is that this intervention is being enacted as a form caring about the impact that the incalcitrant behaviour is having upon the personal interests of these individuals/groups, and upon the collective performance. It is emphasised that if those intervening did not care, they would not spend the time and energy on the confrontation. It is because they care, that they are prepared to undertake the difficult and inconvenient role of confrontation.
As is evident above, social realities are political in nature (they are created and transformed by personal/group interests, values, interpretations, etc.) and thus are relational in nature. Sustaining constructive collective performance thus depends heavily upon the depth and integrity of communicative practices (as the two examples above demonstrate). Furthermore, the more constructive and appropriate the communication, the stronger and more resilient the relationships. Given the superficiality of workplace communicative practices, in general, and the relative absence of the intangible resources (trust, etc.) upon which leadership as a collective achievement depends, it is not surprising that leadership continues to be perceived and practiced as an individual responsibility in many current settings.