30 January 2012

Are You just a leader, or Are You a Great Leader?

As Canada’s parliament returns to work today amidst a swirl of advance news concerning bold – read: controversial – initiatives concerning pensions and Old Age Security, I am moved to reflect on Prime Minister Harper in the role of leader. In particular, I imagined what I might say to the Prime Minister in my role of leader-educator if I had an opportunity to have two or three minutes with him, one-on-one.

It is well known that Mr. Harper keeps very tight control over what his government says and does. I would guess that he does it – in most, but not all cases – not out of malice but rather from a place of deep conviction that what he is doing is right for the country as a whole; that he (again, mostly but not always) alone knows what is best for the sustainability of the country as a viable, sovereign entity, and the future wellbeing of its citizens. Considerations of hubris aside, in one sense, I think he is correct:
All leaders are right—until they are not. 
The difference between a leader who merely seeks control and imposition of their vision at any cost, and a Great Leader who inspires their country (read: organization) to greatness, is that the latter actively seeks ways to understand when they are heading towards “not.”

(Mr. Harper: My perception is that you do not seek to understand.)

26 January 2012

More on The End of Vision

I’ve received some considerable feedback about my article on the Linked 2 Leadership blog, “The End of Vision.” Almost all of the feedback expresses appreciation for introducing the idea of tactility—understanding the intentional and mindful, sustained effects throughout the wider social, material, and natural environments among an organization’s various constituencies.

I distinguish tactility from vision – an imagining of objectives to be attained in the unknowable (and most certainly uncontrollable) future. I argue that vision is obsolescent in the contemporary, UCaPP world; that the pervasive proximity which is characteristic of our times precludes vision as a useful sensory metaphor because it is our only sense that necessarily requires distance and separation to work. Tactility, on the other hand, is our most proximate of senses, the one that best corresponds to today’s reality.

Those who took issue with my rather emphatic negation of vision as continuing to provide useful guidance for leaders unanimously point to the ability of vision to inspire. For example, as Dr. Tom Cocklereese notes, “vision statements have motivated people to move heaven and earth to achieve new heights.” Another commenter observes that vision provides, “passion and energy and ultimately what engages and motivates others.” Without question, I agree that passion, energy, and motivation are vital to inspiring organization members to innovate, achieve greatness, and change the(ir) world. An inspiring vision may contribute to helping people discover their passion—Dr. Tom points to the inspiring visions of Moses, Kennedy, and King Jr. But it would be a grave mistake to conflate vision with passion, inspiration, and motivation. The two are not equivalent, or even necessarily connected.

And that’s the problem: Too many organizational leaders assume that the vision statement they (and perhaps several others at the top of the organization) craft will necessarily, if not automatically, inspire passion and greatness. Sadly, often bleak organizational realities might inspire only cynicism, mistrust, and – let’s face it – mediocrity. How many of our leaders – corporate and otherwise – are truly able to inspire genuine passion that can move nations like those to whom Dr. Tom refers?

Have a look at a sampling of vision statements from well-known companies. Many of them read like the laundry list of next year’s key performance indicators, written in bland corporatese. Some of them are downright aggressive and negative, using words like “destroy” and “crush.” They might inspire the sociopaths that often tend to occupy “executive row,” but as an inspirational vision for today’s world...? The majority of them have a vision to “dominate,” or to “be the best,” or to be the “world leader,” and my favourite nonsensical and useless vision-statement phrase, to “exceed expectations” (as if the organization’s leaders have any clue whatsoever what those amorphous expectations might actually be, whether they are reasonable or rational, whether exceeding them is actually what will benefit their constituencies, and so forth). Especially when committed to paper (or screen), they are almost unanimously devoid of passion, absent of inspiration, stripped of their ability to transform cynical compliance to engaged commitment.

More important, as I point out in my article, in most cases organizational vision becomes a type of blinkered vision, with a single-minded focus on achieving the goals and objectives the vision describes. We have all experienced the destruction and dysfunction throughout the world wrought by single-minded corporate, political, xenophobic, and megalomaniacal visions over the past several decades. We have learned that what might have seemed like a good idea at the time turns out disastrously—made considerably worse by a leadership determined to “stay the course,” even in the face of so-called unintended consequences, code for “unanticipated effects.”

No one could reasonably argue against the premise that today’s world is extraordinarily complex. By definition, this means that nothing of significance in our world is deterministically predictable. Today’s “vision” that certain goals and objectives are right, and appropriate, and true may turn out to be tomorrow’s folly. The direction inspired by vision may create unforeseen, emergent effects that may be worse than unintended—they may be considerably at odds with the fundamental values of the organization, and the values of the organization’s members (which is precisely what I found in my research: in traditional bureaucratic, administratively controlled, hierarchical organizations, “individual humanity scales to collective collective callousness”).

Vision was the appropriate sensory metaphor for organizational guidance in an age that was deterministic, more predictable, more linearly explainable by clockwork, industrialized models. In other words, it was appropriate for the 19th and 20th centuries. Even though the reality of our environment has already transformed to become the UCaPP world that we now experience, people take a long time to catch up (about 300 years from the time the dominant form of communications changes; by my estimation, we’re about 168 years through the transition). Vision has had its day; it’s time to embrace the immediacy and presence of tactility in its stead.

So here’s my suggestion: Find your own tactility. Whom are you going to touch and how are you going to touch them today—and each and every day hereafter? Craft that into a statement which expresses what it is that you do that inspires you, motivates you, and most of all, expresses your passion. Take that personal tactility statement with you wherever you go. Embrace it. Live it authentically. Use is as the answer to the cocktail party question, “so what do you do?” Combine it with the tactilities of those with whom you collaborate in your workplace, enabling your organizational tactility to emerge. Most of all, be mindful of the effects you enable and create throughout your world. (For those who are interested, here’s considerably more on Vision, Values, Tactility, and Mission.)

P.S. Here’s mine: “I enable and create great environments of engagement.” And, I say it with passion!

20 January 2012

Reverse Mentoring - A Good Start in Creating Leaderful Organizations

Today's Globe and Mail has a nice article describing the phenomenon of "reverse mentoring" or "mentoring from the bottom," in which a more junior employee serves as a mentor to a more senior employee - often an executive or senior manager - in ways that "can re-energize older employees, keep younger workers engaged and improve relationships between the different generations in the workplace." In particular (and not unexpectedly) the article focuses on how younger employees can assist their more tech-challenged elders with how to employ social media and how to rethink career advancement strategies in ways that are more in-tune with contemporary "personal branding."

Stereotypes and clichés aside, the notion that good ideas, insights, wisdom, and useful knowledge are the exclusive realm of those who hold more seniority in an organization is by now long obsolesced. One of the hallmarks of more-UCaPP organizations is that employees from every hierarchical level, and all degrees of seniority are invited to contribute and actively participate in organizational venues that were once the sole prerogative of those who had climbed the latter and paid their so-called dues. In fact, my research discovered an organization in which employees from all levels and all departments were invited to take up leadership roles for various infrastructure projects throughout the organization, and invited to participate in what otherwise would be considered senior-level, strategy sessions. In the words of the CEO,
What’s non-traditional about it is the level of contribution [more junior employees] have in almost every decision of the company. They’re often amazed that they’re at the table in those kinds of conversations of these kinds of decisions.... They bring whole new ways of us looking at things. They’ll ask a question and we’ll say, gee, we’ve never thought about it that way. It might be somebody who joined the company two weeks ago as an account coordinator, an entry level position. They might have had an experience through a parent who has told their stories at work, or something they’ve learned at college, or they had an internship, or they’re very well-read or connected, and they put a question on the table that completely changes the way you think about it. And that’s what we’re working very hard not to dismiss, is how much we can learn from anybody, versus it has to be the same five to seven [senior] people, because they’re at a certain status. These decisions are no longer driven on status. 
 What such a reversal of thinking - that decisions are no longer driven on status - accomplishes is to create more engagement among employees - junior employees - especially those about whom more senior managers often have concerns about engagement and commitment. Diverse inclusion not only provides more insight in decision-making, it also helps motivate employees to be more committed to the enterprise. Additionally, such practices conveys a sense of collective responsibility and mutual accountability among all organization members that serve to encourage individual autonomy and agency. What it accomplishes is more than strengthening leadership in a UCaPP context. It sets the stage for transforming our conception of organizational leadership to become focused instead on creating leaderful organizations.

16 January 2012

An Opportunity to Engage With Me as Coach

Have you ever considered engaging the guidance of a professional coach?

Let me reframe the question: Are you feeling a connection with any of the following intentions as they might pertain to either personal or professional aspects of your life:
  • What do I want to achieve? 
  • What do I really want in my life right now? 
  • How can I bring myself to face this tough decision and move onward? 
  • How can I be an even more effective leader in my organization? 
  • How can I better integrate my professional and personal lives to be able to live more authentically as “me?”
  • How can I change the way I work (or what I do as an occupation) to be more in tune with my life’s purpose?
  • What is my life’s purpose? 
  • How can I feel more complete in what I do as a professional? As a parent? As a person? 
Or, to frame all of this more succinctly:
How can I achieve more awareness and more fulfillment throughout all aspects of my life via a guided process of learning, reflection, and focused conversation? 
I have the opportunity of a couple of openings in my coaching practice for new clients. We can engage our coaching conversations in person, over the phone, or through technology like Skype. After an initial foundational and discovery session (usually about two hours), subsequent coaching sessions typically run, on average, about 45 minutes to an hour. You should expect that our coaching arrangement would run for at least six sessions post-discovery, either weekly, twice-a-month, or monthly, depending on your schedule and needs.

For those who have worked with me in other contexts – as consultant, academic mentor, or facilitator – the coaching relationship is a different kind of engagement. Coaching is based on the fundamental affirmation that the client is creative, resourceful, and whole, and is closely connected to Appreciative Practices (in a consulting context) and Positive Psychology (in a therapeutic context). Most of all, coaching is centred in developing one's individual potential, enabling more productive and meaningful relationships throughout all aspects of one's life.

I invite you to connect with me – be it now or in the future – whenever you find yourself drawn to enabling and creating change that will lead you to your hoped-for aspirations and desired results.

Update (17 Jan 2012): If you're still wondering, "What can a coach do for you?" Harvard Business Review answers that very question!

Honest Leadership: The End of "Vision"

Over on the Linked 2 Leadership blog, I have a new post, Honest Leadership: The end of "vision." In it, I open with the controversial idea that,  
Vision is terribly over-rated as a valuable attribute of leadership... More than being over-rated, I would suggest that vision is counter-productive to providing appropriate leadership in a world that has become unfathomably complex and rife with intractable problems. Now, before you fill the comment stream with rebuttals along the lines of this: “If you don’t have a vision, you won’t know where your organization is headed…” let me suggest that knowing where your organization is heading may be of less value to society and the world-at-large than realizing the direct and indirect effects your organization is creating along the way.
Regular readers will undoubtedly recognize that in this post, I'm building the case for tactility as the dominant sensory metaphor for organizational leadership, answering the question that I suggest is paramount in today's UCaPP world: whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them, today? Head over to L2L, have a read, and please let me know your thoughts.

06 January 2012

Why Johnny and Janey Can't Read - en Espanol!

Among my earlier "big thinks," and one that formed the basis of almost all of my subsequent work including Valence Theory, was my seminal paper, Why Johnny and Janey Can't Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can't Teach. It traces the the thinking of the Toronto School of Communication and its particular take on interpreting history, and challenges the assumptive ground upon which our institutions of education – primary, secondary and tertiary – are built, and raise the real question of our time – and of any time – namely, what is valued as knowledge, who decides, and who is valued as authority.

Friend Diego Leal has taken this paper and translated it into Spanish as Por qué Juanito y Juanita no pueden leer y por qué el Sr. y la Sra. Gómez no pueden enseñar, which is quite an accomplishment. He writes:
Mark Federman, un investigador de la Universidad de Toronto que en una charla de 2005 proponía unas ideas sobre el impacto de la tecnología en la sociedad que yo no había visto con claridad antes (a pesar de que resuena con el trabajo de Marshall McLuhan o Neil Postman). Diría que su forma de exposición me llevó a ver cosas que no me había comprendido antes, y me ayudó a lograr una perspectiva más amplia, con más raíces históricas, que de alguna manera se ha integrado (de manera muy sutil) en ArTIC. La lectura fue inquietante y tranquilizante a la vez, a pesar de algunos puntos de desacuerdo y de los años que ya pasaron desde que la charla fue realizada...

Comprender esto tiene enormes implicaciones para cualquier persona que participe en procesos educativos de cualquier tipo, por lo que encontré muy valioso realizar una traducción de la charla. Como digo, aunque en ella hay muchas ideas que uno se ha encontrado en muchos otros sitios, la mirada desde la que las aborda da una perspectiva histórica que, al menos para mi, resultó invaluable.
 Muchas gracias, Diego, for your interest in my work, and even more for enabling the ideas to be more widely disseminated throughout the world.