Imperfect Leadership – The Map

Last week i shared some early work around a new programme exploring ‘The Moral Leader’ – essentially this work considers ourselves as imperfect leaders within imperfect systems, and asks how we make the decisions that we make, and how we stay true to the people we are accountable to – ourselves, others, and organisations.

I concluded the week sharing the four parts of this journey – ‘The Map’, exploring our moral landscape, and how it forms, ‘The Compass’, considering the tools we use to find our direction, ‘The Community’, which considers our relationship with others, and whether those relationships always make us ‘better’, and ‘The Journey’, which explores how we lead, and when we get lost.

Today i want to start building out the narrative structure of this: in my previous ‘Quiet Leadership’ work, i formed two key questions around each chapter, and i will start with the same approach here.

If you’ve ever hiked on a windy day, you will know the challenge with the map: as you unfold it’s creases, the wind catches it, and you try to fold it back into a compact structure that will show your narrow space of operation. Every time you unfold it to the big picture, you do battle with the wind. That’s kind of what we are exploring here: what is the biggest picture, and what is the nature of the wind that whips and catches the map.

When we consider ‘The Map’, we are asking ourselves about our moral landscape, the landscape within which we make our decisions. The kinds of questions that we may ask here include:

  1. How do you know what the ‘right’ thing to do is?
  2. Who draws the map of what is right and wrong? Is there more than one map?
  3. When do we get things wrong?
  4. Does our sense of right and wrong evolve over time?
  5. Is it ever right to do wrong?
  6. To whom are we accountable for our actions?
  7. Is what is ‘right’ for you to do always ‘right’ for me to do?
  8. Can you always do right, or is it inevitable to get lost?

The essence of this work is reflective practice: to consider ourselves as imperfect leaders within imperfect systems, but leaders nonetheless who strive to do better.

This requires us to understand the moral nature of leadership, and the complexities of the map that we follow.

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Self and System: Imperfect Leadership

How do we lead in complex and dynamic environments? Environments and contexts where the ‘right’ way forward is not always clear, or where there is apparently no right way at all. What guides our actions, and can we ever be ‘right’ in how we treat people all the time?

It’s possible to be an effective leader, but can we always be a ‘good’ one?

Yesterday i shared a new piece of work around ‘The Moral Leader’: today i am revisiting that, with a view to refining and finding my language.

There are some key elements of leadership that i want to explore in this new body of work: what guides our sense of right and wrong, how do we calibrate it against both the system and the actions of others, are there ever absolute boundaries of right and wrong, and what fixed points if any can we use to guide or shape our decisions and actions?

I am developing this work for a programme that i am running at the end of the year, which will follow the same format of enquiry and social collaboration as the Quiet Leadership work.

The central premise is set up as ‘navigating the imperfections of self and system’, to incorporate that neither systems, nor ourselves within them, alone, will give us ‘good’.

I’m still very uncertain about the name of this work: the working title is ‘The Moral Leader’, but that may be too constrictive.

‘The Imperfect Leader’ may be more accurate, because it reflects how we cannot be accountable and true to many different contexts at once.

Or possibly ‘Conflicted Leadership’, because a theme of this work is that we are drawn in, and accountable in, different directions.

My current thinking about structure is revised as follows:

The Map – to explore the landscape of our decision making – our moral landscape – to consider who drew that map – and whether we ever get lost.

The Compass – to ask what tools help us to find our direction – and to consider if we trust that compass – does it give an absolute direction, or a relative one. And is ‘true north’ the same for all of us?

The Community – what is our relationship with the people we make this journey with, and how do they act upon us – what is the power of consensus and opposition – do we make each other better?

The Journey – to consider how we make the journey of leadership – how do we set course – what pace do we travel at – how mindful are we of our location.

I will continue to iterate this work as i finalise a design for a prototype programme.

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The Moral Leader

Some people act with an utter clarity, certain in the virtue and right of their efforts. I am happy for them. Because i am imperfect.

What if the correct path is not always clear?

What if we have to do things that we do not totally agree with or, worse, what if the correct path is not at all clear?

To whom are we accountable for our actions, and what should we do when we have multiple masters?

We should always do the right thing, but what if ‘right’ is contextual, disputed, or unclear?

It’s easy to say that Leaders do the right thing, but in complex social contexts, in dynamic organisational systems, and as part of multiple structures of accountability, the right path may be the most convoluted of all.

I have started early design work for a programme i am running at the end of the year on ‘The Moral Leader’, exploring our imperfect selves within imperfect systems.

So far i have created five parts to the journey:

  1. To ask ‘WHAT IS MORALITY’, and whether it has a relationship to leadership. Is it a precondition, or a discretionary effort, is it universal, or local, is it implicit or explicit, and how do we know what shape it comes in?
  2. To consider the nature of our ACCOUNTABILITY – into legal systems, social systems, and organisational processes and controls.
  3. To consider the nature of the AMBIGUITY we face: when it is unclear what is needed or to whom we are accountable, when we are accountable to multiple and conflicting truths, and when historic norms occlude current clarity.
  4. To consider the nature of CULTURE – when the ‘norm’ of today becomes morality, when we conflate consensus with morality, and when change challenges morality.
  5. To consider the GRACE of our imperfect selves – the context of our action and the absolutes, the pragmatic necessities of leadership, and our edges and limits of authentic action.

This will change, but will form the foundation of the prototype.

I will follow the structure of the Quiet Leadership work, with the programme delivered as a structured enquiry through conversations and guided reflection.

This is not a work with an answer, but perhaps a chance to develop our navigation skills.

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Doing What Is Right

Crossing my timelines this week have been some aphorisms about ‘doing what is right’. It’s a little like putting the horse before the cart.

‘Right’ is not an absolute value: it’s not like gravity, or a brick. It’s more relative or subjective than we may think. And it’s often judged in retrospect. Even when you can ‘weigh’ or ‘measure’ it, the metric that we use may, itself, be an abstraction.

So, sure, leaders may seek to do ‘what is right’, but to discover what that is may involve diagnosis, reflection, and a recognition that any action we take will sit within a context, both implicit and conscious.

Perhaps leadership is less about ‘doing what is right’, and more about the humility to recognise that we are always imperfect in our actions (even if virtuous in our intent) – and that perhaps what is more important is our ability to understand impact, and reflect on our action, within the broader context and journey.

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Innovation: Synthesis and Elemental

This is the latest in a series of fragmentary pieces as i build vocabulary and ideas around Innovation. As such it is not intended as complete work, but rather the pieces which may inform later (and possibly complete!) work. Part of #WorkingOutLoud is to give yourself the space and opportunity to reiterate, evolve, and simply share incomplete ideas. Sometimes these ideas concern something new, that you know you are unsure about, but sometimes it is something you feel you know, but wish to know better. In that spirit, this work on ‘Innovation’ is unpacking some of my current view, and seeking a new one.

If you have been following this particular series, you will spot some familiar ideas in this piece, albeit phrased in a new way: in the piece on ‘Realms of Innovation’ i first shared the idea that the things we know may ‘occlude’ the innovation we seek.

In this piece i make that occlusion more tangible, literally surrounding the idea with the circle of the jigsaw. Essentially this view means that we ‘construct’ those walls around ourself, and are hence blinded by them.

I’m playing with two other ideas here: synthesis and elemental. I am considering the extent to which ‘innovation’ is typically seen as ‘answers’ or complete structures, whilst there may be a component part of it to consider – not complete ideas, but fragments and foundations.

In that sense we may want to consider ‘what’ we are seeking, or discovering, in our innovation efforts. Are we seeking answers, or elements?

This is clumsy language at this stage: ‘synthesis’ may be a mechanism of innovation, but here i am viewing it as a constraint as well. Our desire for completion, for patterns that we recognise, and for things that are seen as ‘valuable today’ may occlude our ability to hold a loose space of ideas.

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Innovation at the Edges

Not everything happens at the centre, in those spaces that we know well, control fully, and feel comfortable within.

Innovation may happen in the friction, through the cracks, at the edges.

Synthesis, connection, discovery: application, iteration, evolution. The fracturing of the old. These things may happen through exposure to difference, through fortuitous chance, or by careful hypothesis and design. Sometimes we are changed by desire, and sometime by happenstance.

There is a perpetual tension between the known, the disruptive, and the transformative. Systems are built upon the known: systems may react to the disruptive (or even encourage it), but systems are fractured by transformation as an act of wilful destruction. So to some extent the ability of an Organisation to be innovative may be determined by it’s appetite for self harm – how willing or able it is to deconstruct aspects of it’s own existing structure and power.

At a broad level, we may wish to consider the relationship between ‘system’ and ‘innovation’, and the mechanisms and location of difference and disturbance.

If we believe that innovation will happen from the centre, through process, then we need robust structure to manage it. If we believe that it will happen at the edges, through friction, then we need robust opportunity to identify and nurture it.

That may be an over simplification, but we could address it through a different lens: to ask whether innovation is something we cause, or discover? Is our challenge to create the conditions, or to create the sensory array?

Consider the frictions within your own Organisational system: the intersections of belief, with power, of culture and stories, or spaces and knowledge, of ideas and certainty, of communities and technology.

The heat is generated at the edges, not the centre.

In my last book, ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’, i expanded on the idea that what we need is Individual Agency at scale – the ability for anyone to find space, power, and story, and to be heard. An Organisation with strength in depth. So less heroic leadership, more humble. And less monumental systems so much as sensory arrays. Indeed in that work i suggested we move away from the Domain based structure, to a more Socially Dynamic one – one where people are connected in more fluid (and highly interconnected and mixed structures), and where power is more divorced from role and position. 

This work forms part of a current series of posts that are exploring aspect of innovation: it is not shared as a framework, but rather as a continuous process of #WorkingOutLoud.

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Social Leadership Daily

I’ve created a new ‘Social Leadership Daily’ newsletter to provide a semi structured exploration of leadership in the context of the Social Age.

It’s based on the idea of ‘60 seconds a day’: to answer a question, carry out a reflection, or take action.

In that sense, it’s an almost naive premise: how can you change anything in 60 seconds a day?

But in that simplicity lies the answer: you can change almost nothing, except possibly yourself.

This work is an experiment: it follows on from my 2017 publication, ‘Social Leadership: My 1st 100 Days’, but instead of being a book, it’s a newsletter, and requires almost no effort to engage with.

Here on the blog i share my work exploring the broad context of the Social Age: it’s highly iterative, illustrated, and diverse. Sometimes long form writing, and often, i realise, confused!

If you are interested in a more developmental slant on Social Leadership specifically, you can sign up for Social Leadership Daily here.

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Reiterating Realms of Innovation

Reworking the ideas from earlier this week, this framework illustration adapts the ‘Realms and Filters’ that i shared yesterday. Instead of showing them in two rings, i am representing them on one plane.

This work is really just conceptual right now: incomplete, and i am feeling no real need to complete it. It’s an early way to juggle a number of disparate ideas in my head.

There is the notion of ‘frames’ of understanding: the idea that what we know, our intact mental landscape, both optimises us, and limits us – hence the idea that one aspect of innovation is to fracture the frames.

There is the idea of occlusion: that what we know may actively hinder us understanding or conceptualising the new – trapped by existing knowledge.

There is the idea of the unknowable – which i have iterated here to be that which we cannot discover through existing tools or methods – so not unknowable at all, but unknowable to us until or unless we fracture something else.

Somehow this will tie back into the other work shared earlier in the week: which considers three perspectives on ‘how’ we innovate. I have not attempted yet to reconcile the two pieces into one view.

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#WorkingOutLoud – Realms and Filters of Innovation

Building out from the work i shared yesterday, this piece starts to consider further aspects of Innovation: ‘Realms’ and ‘Filters’.

The outer ring illustrates four Realms: the ‘Known’, the ‘Mistaken’, the ‘Unknown’ and the ‘Unknowable’.

The inner ring illustrates three Filters: that which is ‘Variable’, that which is ‘Occluded’, and that which is ‘Contextual’.

Our starting point is typically the Known: either we are seeking to move away from it, our using it as the lever or foundation for the new. So an existing process is known, and we seek to innovate something new.

The ‘Mistaken’ is related to the known, in that it represents things that we believe to be true, but which we are in fact mistaken about. This is why the outer ring has four element: one could argue that is is in fact three elements, any of which we could be mistaken about!

The mistaken is typically masked as the known, and is hence the place of foundations and assumptions, probably a source of failure.

I’ve used a typical dichotomy of ‘Unknown’ and ‘Unknowable’ as the base: one view here is that the unknown is that which we have not yet discovered, and the unknown is that which we cannot ever discover.

But i would refute that and instead paint the picture that the ‘unknown’ is beyond our knowledge, but discoverable within our existing suite of methodologies, communities, and technology, whilst the ‘unknowable’ will only be discoverable if we invent new tools and approaches. So in my perspective there is no such thing as the unknowable, but rather those things that we do not yet know how to find or prove.

The inner ring represents filters, or confounding or contextualising factors: some things may be occluded by our existing knowledge, so they are not simply out of reach, but they are hidden by what is within reach. Others are variable: so we may know them, but they may suddenly change, possibly for reasons we do not understand. We may believe them to be static because they have simply not changed for a while, like a volcano that lies dormant. And some things are contextual: so we can know them in one context, but whilst the thing itself does not change, it is only valid or known within one specific context.

Both this work, and the work shared yesterday, both look at perspectives on Innovation: both are early conceptions, and both will themselves evolve, shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud.

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#WorkingOutLoud – Perspectives on #Innovation

Some early stage thinking here around three perspectives on innovation: this is an abstraction really, but a way to look through three different lenses, to consider where, and how, we innovate. In some ways it may also allow us to consider constraint: if we are culturally, or behaviourally, more likely to focus on one of these, to the detriment of the opportunity of the others.

The three sections illustrate the three lenses, broadly as follows:

[1] INNOVATION within system boundaries – this is about optimisation and adaptation within overarching structures. So e.g. looking at systems, processes, hierarchy to achieve known ends, but faster/cheaper/better. This type of innovation typically happens within dominant structures of power, and mechanisms of control: regulatory frameworks, formal leadership structures, controlled finances etc. This type of innovation is perhaps more about optimisation than revolution. And this type of innovation may be constrained by the conception of the challenge: known thinking in known spaces.

[2] The second lens considers the EVOLUTION or importation of system mechanisms – so this is about technologies, methodologies, and imported cultural tropes. For example: adopting AGILE approaches is the adoption of an externally innovated methodology, or buying in a technology solution which is about licensing of external IP. This is the ‘buy your way’ approach to adaptation, often incremental. There are significant advantages to this, in that it requires little internal imagination, and also the ‘procurement’ approach may bypass cultural inhibitions around new ideas – e.g a technology is less likely to provoke immune responses than an idea that i did not have myself. The notion of cultural tropes is that we try to evolve by adopting the furniture, or behaviours, that exist elsewhere (‘we want an Amazon culture’), but without doing the hard and cultural thinking that goes behind it (e.g. power and control do not adapt).

[3] The RE-CONTEXTUALISATION of outputs is a shift to an ‘outside in’ perspective – instead of worrying about what lies within System Boundaries [1], or the mechanisms of effect [2], we instead consider outputs in terms of productivity or effectiveness. Under this approach to innovation, we may be prepared to tolerate messiness: diversity of thinking and action as we move away from consistency and conformity, towards individual agency and localised expertise. Conceptually this is more a view of the Organisation as a startup – output led, rather than the Organisation as an entity that needs to adapt.

This work links back to earlier work on ‘Frames’ and ‘Scripts’: that our understanding is held within a container that we have learned, and that we behave in efficient, yet wilfully constrained, ways, that optimise us within the existing frame.

This is early stage work that will iterate fast, shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud.

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