Humility

Yesterday i shared a short introduction to an idea for an essay on ‘The Humble Leader’. Today, i have felt encouraged to build the idea out further. This is a rewrite, and substantial build upon, yesterdays post.

Part 1: Society

These pages form a reflection on humility and how, in the Social Age, we can aspire to be more humble as leaders: it’s neither a definition, nor a route map. If anything, it’s a personal journey.

The Humble Leader

Humility may not be a state we attain, but is, perhaps, a light that shines upon our actions.

It’s not an intent, but rather a judgement. A measurement or shadow of our action.

Gain is not a finite resource: we can all win. Your success does not deplete mine. Sharing can empower us both. These pages are a commentary about winning, but strangely, winning by giving everything away.

We have constructed our society: it’s an aggregated, shared, belief system. Social norms, each with a history, often contested, and all, subject to our whim, able to change.

Take equality: society has consistently moved, adapted, evolved, not fast enough for some, yet too fast for others. Change has happened through consensus, and through opposition. It’s often been framed by bold action and sacrifice, led through brave leadership. But change is not simply about the loud and visible. It’s about our individual actions in the moment.

Kindness, respect, gentle reason. Sharing, storytelling, story listening.

Brave leaders can be humble, but leaders are only one part of a system.

I might reflect on how our aggregated normalisation of behaviours has left us in a difficult place: a world dominated by oppositional power, the partisanship of occluded, unequal, divisive politics, arguably played by the wealthy, for individual gain, more than by the many, for the good of society.

The professional and performance nature of politics today may have led it simply to form an extension of the market. Regulator and beneficiary. There are poor politicians, but they form a minority.

Of course, humility is not about poverty: i see no reason why a rich woman may not be humble, and a poor man arrogant.

Within industry, the market rewards success. Success, it can seem, at all costs. We may not seek the hero leader, but the financial reward, and risk of failure, may drive us there. Inherently it can seem as though the role of leadership is to direct, and of others to follow. But the corollary of this is not true: the strength, the win, does not come from pointing. It comes from carrying the load, and that load is shared throughout the system.

Indeed, the model whereby we pay the people at the top more money is, itself, a social construct. Power systems based upon physical dominance led to power systems based upon resource dominance, and hence into organisational structures based upon pure power dominance. I have it: you lack it.

The normalisation of behaviours, from politics to industry, leaves us here, in the 21st century, with a model that may be flawed. Our hierarchies of power and wealth may be outdated. It may be that we need strength throughout the systems, not simply heroes at the top. And we may need more distributed fairness, not simply contractual bonds.

Perhaps we should seek to remake our society with humility: a society where kindness forms our basis for action, where pride sits often in the achievement of others, and where the greatest good comes from being a humble leader.

Part 2: Salvation

The 21st century is feeling the impacts of collaborative technology, technology that can connect us globally, and yet reinforces our divisions. Technology will not make us humble: indeed, some would argue that most current paradigms of social media encourage egotism and narcissistic pride.

Perhaps the humility we need is humility distributed throughout a system: a system that listens as much as it talks. That gives respect as much as it demands attention.

The world sits on the edge of a precipice: deepening wealth inequality, ongoing resource depletion, widespread political turmoil and the unsettling of established order, gender based power imbalances, failed national approaches to immigration, systemic racism and homophobia, insurgency, failed or failing financial models.

We see foundational shifts in Organisations, forces at play that will transform everything: the potential (or threat) of automation, imposed social accountability, the urgency of privacy, the rise of the transnationals, the fractured Social Contract, democratised creativity, and the consequences of failing to be deeply fair.

Our salvation will not come from our politicians and bankers, from our legal systems or bosses. It won’t be a solution imposed from above. If we are to step back from the brink, it will be through a distributed, yet aggregated, salvation. It will be quiet voices that will lead. It will be consensus and respect that drive the unity. Or it will be if we can find our humility in leadership. There will be no single hero, but rather the heroism of simplicity, leadership with kindness, unity through humility.

Salvation, if it comes from anywhere, may start within. It may start by asking questions:

Not ‘what will you do?’, but ‘how can i listen?’.

Not ‘who can i blame?’, but ‘how can i help?’.

Not ‘what will it cost?’, but ‘what am i prepared to invest?’.

The answers may not come through heroic leadership, but rather distributed leadership.

They may not come from bold steps from the front, but rather from quiet steps in every direction.

The leadership we need may be strong, but it will be humble.

This book is a reflection on humility in leadership: on why humility may be the hardest thing to gain, and the easiest thing to fall by the wayside.

Writing about humility does not mean that one is humble: just the opposite in fact, it may be an aspiration for a journey, the start of a sketch map to travel through.

Part 3: Listening

We easily spend the time we should be listening instead deciding what to say. The pace, the tempo, the demands, of our everyday encourage a response more so than a silence. We seek to validate, to deny, to counter, or respond, to any story that is shared: outside of the theatre, we rarely find a pure space to listen, and a permission to do just that.

Silence is not affirmation.

Silence can be respectful.

Silence can be a breath, a pause, or a deeper moment of contemplation.

Silence can be the wave that washes the sand clean again.

We can listen: feel ourselves connect in anger or denial, in pride or power, but let that wash away, move into reflection and consideration, move into acceptance and gratitude.

Part 4: Roots

Where are you grounded?

Our roots form the foundation of our power: we may be grounded within a system, a structure, a formal framework. Our roots may be our qualifications, our rank, our seniority, our wealth, our status, or our job title.

Roots hold us steady, but hold us still. Our roots make us safe, whilst holding us true to systems that may be outdated. Roots can make it hard to change.

Humility may be the process of unhitching ourselves from status within a system, and investing ourselves, instead, in service of the people around us. Humility may give us a power that is granted, not claimed.

To be humble in our approach is not to forgo power or opportunity, but perhaps instead to open ourselves to a new form of power. To be considered, to be reflective, to be generous, to be thoughtful, these are things that come at no cost. We can be reflective, yet still decisive. We can be generous with our encouragement, our gratitude, and our connections: generosity does not require money.

Wisdom is our notion of the considered response: to be a wise woman, or a wise man, brings images of grey hair and wrinkled smiles, but wisdom does not need to be scholarly and purely a feature of age. We can have ‘wisdom beyond our years’, as though it were an exception. Perhaps to be a child is, itself, a humility, for we have not yet learned to be constrained or arrogant in full measure.

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#WorkingOutLoud sharing ideas on ‘The Humble Leader’

I’ve been toying with the idea for a while of a very short book, maybe 3-5k words, on ‘humility’, or ‘kindness’. More a reflective essay than anything else. I used the flight from Berlin to work on some notes for it, and, in the spirit of #WorkingOutLoud, am sharing it here. It won’t develop into a book yet, as i have two urgent projects to complete (both of which are late…), ‘The Trust Sketchbook’, and ‘The Change Handbook’, but, as i near completing those, i allowed myself a short detour to explore ‘Humility: reflecting on the humble leader’. Let me know what you think!

The Humble Leader

Gain is not a finite resource: we can all win. Your success does not deplete mine. This is a book about winning, but strangely, winning by giving everything away.

The world sits on the edge of a precipice: deepening wealth inequality, ongoing resource depletion, widespread political turmoil and the unsettling of established order, gender based power imbalances, failed national approaches to immigration, systemic racism and homophobia, insurgency, failed or failing financial models.

We see foundational shifts in Organisations, forces at play that will transform everything: the potential (or threat) of automation, imposed social accountability, the urgency of privacy, the rise of the transnationals, the fractured Social Contract, democratised creativity, and the consequences of failing to be deeply fair.

Our salvation will not come from our politicians and bankers, from our legal systems or bosses. It won’t be a solution imposed from above. If we are to step back from the brink, it will be through a distributed, yet aggregated, salvation. It will be quiet voices that will lead. It will be consensus and respect that drive the unity. Or it will be if we can find our humility in leadership. There will be no single hero, but rather the heroism of simplicity, leadership with kindness, unity through humility.

Salvation, if it comes from anywhere, may start within. It may start by asking questions:

Not ‘what will you do?’, but ‘how can i listen?’.

Not ‘who can i blame?’, but ‘how can i help?’.

Not ‘what will it cost?’, but ‘what am i prepared to invest?’.

The answers may not come through heroic leadership, but rather distributed leadership.

They may not come from bold steps from the front, but rather from quiet steps in every direction.

The leadership we need may be strong, but it will be humble.

This book is a reflection on humility in leadership: on why humility may be the hardest thing to gain, and the easiest thing to fall by the wayside.

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Perpetually Opposed

As i’ve been thinking about communities, and the forces that bind them, i’ve reached what feels like an inescapable truth: that for any unity, there must be opposition, for any membership, there must be exclusion. I don’t mean active disenfranchisement or aggression, but at the most basic level, if we are connected in some way, it leaves open the fact that others are not, or that there is always the potential for disconnection. Joining some communities inevitably means leaving others. For me, this reinforces one aspect of the Social Age that feels important: that we are not striving for uniformity, globally unified identity, and conformity, but rather that we may seek a respectful and humble difference.

Community

Communities are not just unified with shared purpose and shared values: they can be unified in opposition to a third force. It’s the opposition that unifies them, not any shared sense of an alternative. Some will graduate to find shared purpose, but some are simply communities of protest or dissent, and will never, nor will ever seek, to achieve conformity.

This brings to the fore the role of Social Leadership: not to drive towards a consensus in stories, but rather to help understand those stories of difference.

Stories of difference involve charting our shared differences: co-creating a narrative of dissonance, a story of unconformity. Those stories may be challenging, but can still be founded upon respect, even if only a respect for the process of difference. If we use our self assurance as a power to conquer, we only reinforce opposition, whilst if we can use our humility as a power to connect, we can help build a common path.

We exist in complex webs of opinion and doubt: we will never be unified, nor should we seek to be. Being perpetually opposed, at least in some aspects, gives us our richness and diversity, whilst also holding the potential for inequality and persecution.

Large organisational systems are complex and fragmented, an entity like the NHS will never be united in one shared view, but we can work towards being less divided in enmity and acrimony.

Intertwined

We may achieve this if we can be more interconnected: if we, individually, can broaden our network, not simply in our own image, but in a more reflective and considered way. If we can include communities of difference within our sphere, spaces where we can respectfully listen and learn. Again, not to engage with dissent, but with respect.

Social systems will never be perfect, that is not their purpose, but we do hold the potential to be perpetually opposed, but united in respect.

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A Permission To Be Wrong

I often talk about ‘permission’ an easily shoplifted thing: you can be given it, or you can pick it up and walk away with it. And nobody can stop you. Permission can be granted, or it can be claimed. Not all permission of course: formal permission, within a formal space, is almost by definition a gift of the formal structure, an award for consensus and loyalty. But permission to express, to share stories, well that kind of permission can be claimed, even if only as invisible cultural graffiti, anonymously scrawled, spoken from the soul, unattributable, a voice to be claimed. And permission to be wrong? That’s hard to say: many organisations say ‘we only learn through failure’, and yet, in a very real way, we pay a high price for it. Not necessarily a formal, one, but possibly a reputation based and tangible one. Being wrong is tough.

A Permission To Be Wrong

I’ve taken to explaining how much of my own work is wrong. Not all of it and, i hope, none of it intentionally, or maliciously, but nevertheless, in it’s own way, much of it will be wrong. The consolation, at least in my eyes, of #WorkingOutLoud, is that being wrong is an almost inevitable step on the journey to being fractionally closer to right. When visualising abstract social systems, when building abstractions to represent complex and dynamic interactions, we are often wrong in the details, but can learn to be right in the frame. We can learn to build useful abstractions: not exact and predictive representations of what is true, but useful and pragmatic abstractions of that truth.

I guess that is what all models are: not reality, but rather conceptual frames that we can project our reality upon.

Another aspect of this view is that are all, in our own ways, wrong. ‘Truth’ is like history, an ultimately subjective construct, hence why most formal leadership development is wrong, or weak: it falls into the trap that you can teach leadership, whilst in fact, all you can do is to create a space, provocations, exploratory space, and capability, to learn what ‘leadership’ means to me. My ultimate understanding of anything is always within my cognitive space and sense of self. At some level, if it does not relate back to me, to my sense of ideals, of values, of right and wrong, it’s just abstract.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many great leadership practitioners, it’s just that the ultimate understanding of ‘leadership’ is created in the individual, not on a page. Or certainly not on a page that i write. We each write our own story when we learn.

So let’s claim our permission: if we have a humility to believe that we have not yet learnt everything there is to learn, if we have a capacity for change, then claiming a permission to be wrong, as we explore, as we learn, is a vital component of growth. So here’s to claiming a permission to be wrong, whilst maintaining a drive, a desire, to learn how to be marginally more ‘right’.

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On Learning

Learning’ is probably a more visceral, and less refined experience than we care to believe is true: a lurching series of beliefs, rationalised in retrospect, validated in our preconceptions and bias. Very little learning happens in isolation of context: either the motivation for it’s occurrence, or the pollution of it’s application. We often retreat to analogies of ‘exploration’, journeys into new knowledge, as if learning occurs in a landscape, a preconceived and heavily weathered region that is just waiting for us to discover it. But the truth is somewhat different: this is a land shaped by our observation. The paths we tread weather the mountains and tame the wilderness. Learning is not a process of passive uptake of knowledge: it’s a process of realising, and in many ways creating, that landscape around us.

Learning 2017

Additive views of learning are comforting, built upon our intuitive understanding of Lego, and the appeal of order. A sense of towers of intellect, built from the bricks of knowledge and mortar of comprehension. But almost certainly follies: flights of fancy, pillars of the imagination.

Learning may be more a series of projections, anticipated spaces that we rationalise into existence: we visualise a future state of enlightenment, curate and collect ideas, forge understanding, hammer the facts to our advantage, and consider ourselves cured of ignorance.

I don’t believe you can fully anticipate what will be learned in any given context, nor can you unlearn what has been committed to your truth. All we can truly do is to guide the journey, to provide the best tools of navigation, and to ensure we have in place the plans to mount a rescue when all is lost.

In some real way, these should be our guidelines, our principles adopted for learning in any context: not a question of how we hammer the truth into ignorant bliss, but rather how we shape spaces and opportunities to learn. Our role, to shape that space, to guide, to rescue, and to listen.

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Innovation and Culture

In my work around Innovation, i’ve become increasingly interested in culture, specifically the notion that we may require a certain fluidity, that culture may be optimised in specific spaces, and that the very optimisation that permits us to thrive, may actively sub-optimise us for new challenges. I shared a draft of this framework late last year, but today i have simplified it, and added more context: the premise is that innovation may just be the start of a transformation journey, and not necessarily the hardest part.

Innovation and Culture

In this work, i use the notion of ‘Action Sets’, to describe the way that things are done. For example, making toast is an action set: i get the bread out, put it in the toaster, depress the lever, and wait for my breakfast. Somewhere in the world, somebody is building a Toasting Robot: they are innovating, but they have not yet disrupted me. Certainly their robot is picking up bread, their machine learning algorithm is analysing optimal carbonisation algorithms, and they are getting excited about their future sales on Amazon, but i am still making toast the old fashioned way. To disrupt me, they would remove my need to manually carry out that process.

The language of the model is this: it explores five manifestations of culture. Culture can be ‘Known’, ‘Innovative’, ‘Experimental’, ‘Disruptive’, or ‘Exploitive’.

A Known Culture is one that relies on existing, and repeated, action sets: it’s constrained (in the language of the Dynamic Change Framework), and safe. If you just want toast, and you want it as cheaply, efficiently, and optimised as possible, then you want a Known Culture. Much of the structures of hierarchy and organisation that exist around us are about making cultures know, optimised, and safe.

Innovation is not that hard: ideas come aplenty. An Innovative Culture explores new action sets: it builds prototype robots and flying plates. It has a certain determination, and a deeply embedded methodology for creativity. An innovative culture can probably co-exist, or concurrently exist, with a Known one. Both can be held fairly safely, if separately, with each regarding the other at a suspicious distance. Organisations that develop a carbuncle of innovation do so by maintaining separation in the two cultures.

But to do anything with innovation, we need an Experimental Culture, a culture that actively takes risk, that burns risk as the fuel of change, and iterates new action sets. This is a learning culture: learning to exploit the innovation, to build momentum and certainty. Experimental Cultures have to have a deep understanding of failure, of the process of experimentation, need to be highly open to conflicting stories and truths, and must hold their power and pride in risk and uncertainty. Experimental Cultures may be reasonably safe, but increasingly irritate incumbent culture: they are straying a long way from the Known.

A Disruptive Culture is one that actively negates previous action sets: it is predatory. A known culture will not consider a Disruptive one to be ‘nice’. Indeed, it will probably try to kill it. Most organisations fail to get to Disruption, foundering on the seas of innovation or experimentation. To get to Disruption is remarkably hard, because Disruption requires us to actually change. And to leave the old behind.

But Disruption is not the goal: disruption is costly, risky, and impermanent. If we are at Disruption, we have high potential to fail, which is why i end with an Exploitative culture, a term i use carefully.

Black Swans: Innovation and disruption

A culture of Exploitation is not one that exploits it’s people: it’s one that can exploit the innovation, and optimise the disruption. It takes the Disruption and re-grounds it into everyday reality. It optimises it. This is how we drive efficiency, make ourselves safe again, and extract profit. Only by exploiting innovation can we build sustainability into the business.

So we have five different cultures, some of which exist in opposition to each other, some of which exist in tension. And some of which compliment, if developed at the right time.

I’m using this work to look at disruption and change, and as part of the wider exploration of the Socially Dynamic Organisation, and will continue to #WorkOutLoud as i do so.

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Closed Competence

I have an uneasy relationship with electricity: last time the main fuse blew in my house, i fixed it, tentatively, but turned it back on at arms length, with a wooden spoon, hiding behind a cushion. World class protection from electrocution, i’m sure you will agree. But i’m nothing if not enthusiastic, so when my parents broke their paper shredder, i thought “i’ll give it a go”. After all, how complicated can a shredder be? And i unplugged it first…

Closed Competence

I was rather taken by a book i read last year, exploring our evolved relationship with trades: mechanics, electricians, plumbers, reduced from the level of artisan, through principles of scientific management, to mere operators. Crawford argues that there is an art, a craft, to diagnostics and repair and, ever the optimist, i believed him.

Shortly thereafter, surrounded by the toolkit of the incompetent, scissors, knives, and a few incorrect screwdrivers, i had the thing in pieces. This was something of a surprise to me, as so much technology today is shielded, hidden: the craft is hidden behind smooth curves and recessed rivets. Not so our cheap shredder: it succumbed to my ministrations with a deceptive ease.

The kicker of repair is that, at some point, the hidden world is revealed, the curtain drawn aside, revealing not glossy beauty, but dusty and frankly dubious soldering. Steve Jobs may have made his engineers sign the inside of the first Mac, thing of wonder as it was, but had he signed this thing, it would have long ago faded and disappeared into the murk. But i set to work with my knitting needle, clearing out paper, gleefully prodding things that looked prod-able, and generally mucking about.

Having fleetingly flirted with the notion of testing it without the cover on, i remember the churning, crunching sound it had made, and opted to cover the gnashing teeth before bringing it back to life. Eighteen screws later, and we stood ready to go. Such was my confidence that i forsook the cushion and wooden spoon, and flicked the switch.

A faint whir, the smell of burning paper, and that was that: consigned to the tip.

It turns out that my competence is still unconscious or, simply, absent. But here’s a thing: we hide higher knowledge away in many ways. We secrete it, make it un-permitted, forbidden. We dramatise the danger, make it arcane, shield it in faux complexity.

We do that in organisations too: creating domains, jargon, and hierarchy, all of which can forbid curiosity. Sometimes, we all need to take the cover off and have a good poke around. We may not fix it, but it’s remarkably empowering to fail.

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