Quiet Leadership Research: Humility

Throughout 2021 i am running multiple cohorts through the new Quiet Leadership journey, with an accompanying global research project. The work explores Leadership through the smallest of actions, and is set up as a guided and reflective journey, based around 8 ‘conversations with strangers’. Alongside this guided journey, i am asking all delegates to share their views across five surveys, related to each of the four aspects of Quiet Leadership we explore: ‘Humility’, ‘Kindness’, ‘Fairness’, and ‘Grace’. The fifth piece explores how they carry their reflection into practice. Today i am sharing an initial analysis of the ‘Humility’ research: this is just a first look at the data, not a full analysis, which will wait until i have a larger sample size next month.

At first look, there is a strong belief that humility is a strength in leadership, but beyond that we see variation in beliefs. Overall we see a lack of confidence in the language that people use to describe humility, which is typical of a subject that we are uncertain about. Respondents indicate that whilst humility is a strength, it is a difficult one to measure in others, but that overall we look for introspection, as well as a continuous sampling of feedback from others. There was a strong sense that humility is an active pursuit, that we must actively seek out other perspectives.

Below are a sample of the initial narrative ideas that we may read into ‘Humility’.

  • There is a strong belief that humility is a strength in leadership, but a weaker expectation that it makes a leader more effective.
  • There is a wariness or lack of confidence in the language that people use to describe humility, which is typical of what is used when we are hesitant about our understanding. Answers also tended towards the central, or non-comital spaces.
  • People indicate that they find it hard to determine if a leader is humble, or not: so we believe humility is a strength, but have some difficulty in recognising it in leaders. We tend to lack confidence in our understanding.
  • Key traits we associate with humility include: thinking about others and the impact of your actions, a desire to hear what others say about you and, indeed, seeking out that information actively.
  • There was a strong association between the words ‘Curiosity’ and ‘Humility’, expressed as the active searching to understand your impact in the system.
  • A lot of descriptive phrases included ‘self’: self reflection, self analysis, and the relationship of that ‘self’ to others. There is a dynamic nature to much of the language used.
  • People talk about being self aware and self reflective in a given space, in a given context: what is my power and impact in this environment. In that sense, ‘Humility’ is viewed as a dynamic and active process.

I will continue to #WorkOutLoud on this, sharing the preliminary assessment of the other aspects of Quiet Leadership, as well as the ongoing development of the work.

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Quiet Leadership: With Kindness

This week i am sharing extracts from the Quiet Leadership Guidebook as i write it: the book is based around 8 questions that you can use as a foundation for conversations with others. This section considers one of the questions, on Kindness. Shared here it is a little out of context, but this comes almost exactly half way through the journey into the ecosystem of Quiet Leadership: leadership through the smallest of actions, in every day.

This is your fourth question: how can you grow with Kindness in every day?

What i want you to explore here is somewhat practical in nature: can we grow with Kindness, or indeed SHOULD we seek to grow with Kindness, in every day?

If Kindness is something that we reserve for times when we have plenty, times of surplus, then it feels like a special occasion, not a culture or practice. But to be kind in every day may feel artificial, inauthentic, or even a burden: what about those days when you are exhausted, or have nothing to give?

I guess this will relate back to the ways that we are kind: through thoughts, words, and actions.

When you stand in a field, on the edge of the forest, within our ecosystem, you feel the wind against your skin, but it is rarely a constant force. Sometimes it blows hard, and at others it dies away to a whisper. Perhaps that is how we grow with Kindness: at times with a whisper, and at times with a shout.

Use your time in conversation to explore this: what ‘feels’ right, how would we know it is right, and how would we experience this in practice?

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Quiet Leadership: Where Are We Kindest?

Sharing another section from ‘The Quiet Leadership Guidebook’ as i develop this work: this piece is a rewrite of some previous work on the ways that Kindness may be unevenly distributed.

If we stand together, in the Board Room, and it floods, then all our feet get equally wet. The flood waters rise at a constant level. Kindness may not flood like that.

Ask yourself where you are kinder: is it to the people that you know, the people you like, or even to the people that you need?

It makes sense if the answer is, at least to some extent, a ‘yes’. Kindness is, after all, one of the Social Currencies, and these currencies are spent within our social structures.

It’s not that i am not kind to strangers, just rather that i am more likely to be kind to the people i know, because kindness is one of the forces that bind us together.

Where i am kind to strangers, it may not be evenly distributed either: i may tend to be more kind to people who are kind of like me. People who feel close by, or at the very least do not feel threatening or too different.

The notion that Kindness may not flow evenly around a system should not come as any surprise: whilst Organisations may talk about values like ‘fairness’ and ‘kindness’ as ones that should permeate every part of the Organisation evenly, in reality, very few things are evenly distributed.

We hear talk of echo chambers: an uneven distribution of new knowledge.

We talk about inequality and gender based inequity: an uneven distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity.

We talk about opportunity: but it is often more readily available to those who already have at least some of it.

Social systems are inherently unequal, because they are inherently divided into notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Even if not in conflict, we are connected in subsets of a whole. Forces such as Trust and Gratitude often flow within these same uneven structures too: indeed, forces of Trust may partly cause this unevenness.

An act of Quiet Leadership may therefore be to recognise the landscape: to recognise that even if we have got it right, in terms of our behaviours of kindness, to ask ourselves if we have the distribution correct.

Or are people caught in the shadows where no kindness falls?

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Quiet Leadership – Battered by the Storms

I am continuing work on the ‘Quiet Leadership Guidebook’ this week: the following is part of the section on Kindness.

Within Organisations, we are rarely touched by the weather itself: shielded by glass and air conditioning from the elements. Instead, we are battered by culture, by expectation, by convention, by ignorance, by complexity, by legacy, by opinion, and by our existing knowledge.

Earlier we considered our ‘intention’, our ‘action’, and our ‘impact’. Whilst they are related, then are not deterministic.

My intention affects my actions, and my actions cause impact. But my intention does not determine what that impact will be.

As we grow, as we find power and position, as we learn and change, to are subject to expectation, to peer pressure and review, to the views and opinions of others, as well as to our own evolving expectations of ourselves.

In general, it seems likely that we all wish to be kind, or at the very least, we wish to experience kindness in the actions of others.

A world where we had no expectation of, nor responsibility towards, kindness, would be a bleak one indeed.

And yet kindness is not the universal state: whilst we can spot bright lights in the landscape, they are not necessarily part of the everyday experience, not are they evenly distributed.

This is one of the themes that we will explore here: do we lack kindness overall, or, as we are battered by the wind and rain, does kindness become unevenly distributed, and only accessible to some.

To me, this seems most likely: only in rare instances do we deliberately set out to be unkind. But in many cases the experience of kindness is uneven.

Through this part of our journey into Quiet Leadership, we will consider why.

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Quiet Leadership: Every Day

This week i am #WorkingOutLoud to share extracts from an upcoming book on Quiet Leadership. This piece sits in the section on ‘Humility’, and asks why we take ‘the smallest of actions’.

Why bother to take small actions? If we cast a shadow, should we not simply build a stronger light?

Quiet Leadership may feel a bit like chipping away at a glacier with a toothpick: how can i possibly hope to influence or rebuild a culture, when i myself have so much work to do on myself?

How can one person possibly effect change, when we have already said that within an ecosystem approach, nobody alone can tend to the system as a whole?

I want to say that the answer to this is that whilst we cannot change one whole system, we can change one thing.

We can start with the smallest of… words. Words count. Words are powerful. Consider your use of words: how you use language, where you use words of condemnation or gratitude, vulnerability or fear. A single word can make a difference.

For example: i have been trying to avoid using the word ‘guys’ when i talk to my team. I always used to use this term, to encapsulate everyone, but since reading Caroline Criado Perez’s work on ’Invisible Women’, i have realised that my language took something away. My language degraded the ecosystem. Changing it may only have a tiny effect, but it matters. It’s not necessarily that my language alone polluted the system, but my language reinforced and perpetuated a dominant narrative that was invalid or outdated. So through my action (using the word) and inaction (failing to change myself or challenge others), i degraded the system. I cast a shadow.

Words are good, but what about the smallest of actions: from picking up litter, to washing a coffee cup, we make a difference. Perhaps the action you take is to reach out: to offer support, in kindness, to offer resource or challenge. Perhaps the action is to build, or deconstruct. Perhaps it is to explore or debate, in search of new ideas or stories.

Even if you do not use small words or actions, you can still change something vital by taking time to think differently in the smallest of ways: by thinking differently, you can change yourself. Our fragments of thought create the ‘meaning’ and worldview that we operate within: sometimes it is thought alone that fractures a framework, and provides us with the space to truly grow.

With these thoughts, words, and smallest of actions, we can change many things.

  • You can change one persons day: through the smallest of things.
  • You can change one inequality, through a small action.
  • You can change one unfair outcome, through your powerful small words or actions.
  • You can challenge a culture of fear, through a powerful word or action.
  • You can change the world, if you smallest of words capture the imagination, inspire or promote others, knock down a barrier or constraint, are shared with an authentic power.

And you never know: if you are willing to make a journey into Quiet Leadership, to consider the very smallest of your thoughts, your words, and your actions, you may even change the hardest thing of all.

You may change yourself.

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Everyday, Through The Smallest Of Actions

Today i am #WorkingOutLoud sharing extracts from the Quiet Leadership Guidebook that i am working on.

The central notion to hold onto is that we all enhance our ecosystem, and we all degrade it too.

If it were as simple as all of us ‘wishing’ that things were better, then the problem would already be solved. But it isn’t.

In fact, it’s worse: the challenges of culture persist despite us all thinking like this.

Because thinking is not enough.

Culture is an asset created and recreated in the moment: it’s an aggregation of behaviour, not a reflection of intent.

Everyday, through my small actions, and the ways that those actions land in the shadows. Our culture is formed.

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The Wrong Hat

When my son was born, i found myself in an unfamiliar environment. Hospital systems can be inherently disconcerting, because they strip away our sense of control and power. If you are admitted, virtually the first thing they do is to take your clothes away, followed by controlling when you eat and sleep.

In this instance, largely as a spectator in the most important event of my life, i felt swept along by circumstance.

At one point, i was given a hat to wear.

It was a special hat: nobody told me what it stood for, but the meaning was clear.

That hat shouted out to everyone who could see it “do not trust this man to do anything”.

The hat badged me as exactly what i was: an incompetent spectator.

It looked like the hats worn by the incredible teams that surrounded us, except for it’s colour that screamed out “not me – stay away”.

I wonder if we need more hats like this?

Our Organisational systems put such pressure on people to perform, to have knowledge, to know what to do, that it sometimes feels as though we have no permission to be ignorant.

Perhaps, as our Organisations become more connected, more dynamic, more agile and changeable, we need to not only badge for expertise, but badge for proud ignorance too.

Perhaps we all at times need a hat that says “not me”.

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Quiet Leadership: Nobody Alone

Quiet Leadership recognises that the Organisation is like an ecosystem: yesterday i shared a piece that explored this. Today, as i continue writing the Guidebook that accompanies the journey, i consider how none of us, alone, can save the system.

If no one of us alone can tend to the whole ecosystem, then how is the system kept healthy?

Quiet Leadership considers the ecosystem as interconnected, through webs that are largely invisible in their fullest extent: whilst our individual action cannot change the system by force, that action is nonetheless observed at a local level.

The way that we are, the ways that we act, the things that we say, and the behaviours we exhibit, they all land within the landscape.

Each of these things does one of two things: it makes the system better, or it degrades it.

It is a leaf that lands on the forest floor, or a piece of rubbish lodged in the hedgerow.

When we take these smallest of actions, and make the system better, we do not do so simply for ourselves; we create a space for others to gather around.

Our actions help to create a culture that overall impacts the ecosystem at scale. If we make our garden, our field, our part of the forest, better, then others may move in the same direction, as we create a narrative, a norm, a space for behaviour to flourish.

If only it were this simple: the litter of our cultural landscape, the refuse strewn through our organisational ecosystem, is not like the rubbish thrown from a moving car: much of it is neither deliberately cast aside, nor does it visibly represent rubbish.

Because the degradation of our ecosystem does not often occur through bad people doing bad things: rather it occurs because of good people like you and me doing good, but disconnected things, or simply because we do nothing. We look away, or we fail to see what falls in our shadow.

As we explore Quiet Leadership, we will come back, time and again, to our shadow: it’s the mechanisms by which we end up fragmented, separate, in a forest that is dying. Polluted not by intent, but by inaction, not by bad people, but by the impact of all people.

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Quiet Leadership: The Organisation As Ecosystem

I am #WorkingOutLoud to share writing from the Quiet Leadership book that i am working on. This piece is a rewrite of several previous descriptions of the Organisation as Ecosystem, and i hope will form the start of the first chapter.

Consider the Organisation that you work for as an ecosystem: a landscape that stretches out in front of you.

Some parts of it you are familiar with: those that are local to you, or that you visit often.

Other parts are foreign, distant, or lie as wilderness.

Each of us can look after one area: you may tend to a field, i can care for a tree in the forest, someone else stands on the river bank and clears the weeds.

Through our individual action, we make our own part better, and yet the ecosystem as a whole may not thrive.

Some parts flourish, others are denuded, some are simply out of sight and mind.

No one of us can care for the whole landscape, and yet the way we treat the ecosystem affects us all.

We are interconnected: my actions have an effect, not simply in front of me, in full sight, but in the ways that they interact, cascade through to, or influence, others.

If i behave in certain ways, i give permission or space for others to do so too. If i ‘take’ from the system, i demonstrate that ‘taking’ is acceptable. If i push, then others push back.

Much of this takes place in our everyday: not through grand ideas and large scale initiatives, but through our action in the moment.

We impact our ecosystem in the smallest of ways, and yet those small ways, combined, change everything.

If the water is polluted, if the skies fill with fumes, or if the wells are run dry, we all suffer.

Quiet Leadership takes this ecosystem view: it says that the system can only be healthy, our Organisation can only thrive, if we are connected, and if we care.

And yet it also recognises that we cannot impose this state: no one of us alone can save us all. No one of us alone can tend to the whole forest or plain.

On this journey into Quiet Leadership we will explore how we can tend to the ecosystem together: beyond hierarchy, beyond what is local, beyond what is mine.

Through the smallest of actions we can change everything, if everyone takes the smallest of actions.

Quiet Leadership looks at how we do this: how we care for our ecosystem, so that we can thrive within it.

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The Driftwood Cross

Flotsam is that which is washed off the deck: jetsam that which is cast aside, into the salt, over the deep. Washed by sun and smoothed by the tide, it ultimately finds it’s way to shore, where it beaches in the intertidal zone. The marginal space. The Edge Land.

Claimed by both, the liminal space of the surf is neither truly ocean, nor land: a space of deposit and erosion, of wrack and wreck. It is a space of salvation, or the space from which we are washed away.

Walk along the beach and gather the firewood: in all shapes and sizes, until you hold an armful.

Cured by the summer sun, dried by the wind, gather round stones and strike a spark.

A driftwood fire will burn with a fierce light, a rainbow flame.

That which is cast aside, washed away, brings light.

Take the last two splinters from the flame: make a cross. From the margins, from the discarded, a driftwood cross to carry a light.

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