In 2018 i carried out research into Leadership using double sided graffiti walls: on one side, in full view, people illustrated and tagged what ‘leadership’ meant to them. On the back, out of sight, their remit was to deface leadership, to add the contextual layers that would negate what was written on the front.
There were few surprises: the images used to describe leadership were ones of growth (trees, flowers) and height (rockets, starts, sunlight), whilst those used to deface it were generally abortive, destructive, or negative (skulls, knives, guns). Similarly, words on the front were typically positive, and conformed to each other in large part (enabling, empowering, empathic, respectful), whilst those that defaced it on the back were emotionally negative (selfish, exclusive club).
It’s easy to imagine that when we consider ‘how we learn leadership’, we should focus on those things on the front. But to do so is to ignore half the meaning. Because ‘Leadership’ is both sides of the boards: it’s both the aspiration and the experience, the intent and the reality. Few leaders set out to be bad, and yet much leadership is badly experienced, and that negative experience must surely be part of the learning journey.
If we are a leader, there are two stories told about us: the leader that we wish to be, and the leader that we are experienced as. And there will inevitably be a rift between them. We are, after all, all human, and hence all flawed.
Perhaps the journey into leadership is hence best taken through experience itself, coupled with reflective practice.
I’m writing about it today because i feel tired: somewhat exhausted as i try to rationalise or reflect upon the social conflict and injustice we see around us. The desire for change is not enough: we have to be willing to pay the price for it. Perhaps it’s the same for any type of development as a leader: we have to create space to invest, even space to pay a price.
In the title i used three out of what could have been a long list of words: fear, silence, and constraint. And the image is of someone walking down a path, through the mud. It’s an image i redraw often to illustrate what learning is really about: following a path across a landscape, but the mud that you pick up on your boots is your own. It differs from mine. We can cross the same landscape, but our feet land in different places. Again; this clumsy metaphor is about the diverse experience of learning and leadership.
Any journey we make to develop leadership must allow an individual to lay down their own steps and gather the mud on their boots as they do so.
But what of those three words?
Fear is about the fear we feel from exclusion, loss, challenge, identity, change. Fear underpins much of the constraint we experience from good people in good Organisations. I don’t mean the type of fear you get walking down a dark alleyway in a bad part of town: rather this is the fear that comes from uncertainty, self doubt, loss of power or status, loss of prestige or reputation, lost of your voice.
Silence is something i have become increasingly interested in: the ways that our voice can be silent, or silenced, and the structural ways in which we steal power, through language, through control, through social consequence.
Constraint is not a barrier erected by a rioting crowd but rather the lethargy of action implemented by the many, who are willing to wait, delay, or dilute, the change. Good people who may feel fear or be silenced.
Our journey into leadership must take steps through this: both from our own experience, but also to learn about, to hear, the silenced voices of others.