Why Talk About Leadership?

After read­ing Steven Den­ning’s arti­cle, “The Sur­pris­ing Rea­sons Why Amer­i­ca Lost Its Abil­i­ty To Com­pete,” based on his reac­tions to a Har­vard study, my first thought was about the need to dis­cuss leadership.

Please take a look at the arti­cle and study for your­self if you are able. The gist of Den­ning’s piece is that top Amer­i­can cor­po­rate lead­ers do not see them­selves respon­si­ble for the loss of this coun­try’s glob­al com­pet­i­tive­ness. The fix, he says, is going to be enor­mous­ly chal­leng­ing, requir­ing a full-scale par­a­digm shift from focus on short term prof­its and share­hold­er val­ue to an empha­sis on build­ing cus­tomer-cen­tered, tru­ly sus­tain­able orga­ni­za­tions. To do so will require a deep­er under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion for a sys­tem that includes soci­ety as a whole, not just busi­ness in iso­la­tion. There’s noth­ing easy about the results of the study or Steve’s reac­tions. It’s like watch­ing the slow col­li­sion of tec­ton­ic plates. At one lev­el, it’s all an abstrac­tion; at anoth­er it’s about the earth­quakes around the cor­ner, the sink­holes that may open up and swal­low our homes and livelihoods.

The arti­cle and study, how­ev­er, are not what this post is about. Rather, it is about about the world we all seem to be liv­ing in now, one rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent than the one we knew only a few short years ago, about the more inti­mate ques­tion of what peo­ple are expe­ri­enc­ing these days and the sys­tem they are oper­at­ing with­in at ground lev­el. It’s one thing to decry the prin­ci­ples of short-term prof­its; it’s anoth­er to go to the mail­box in fear. And what ties those things togeth­er is the idea that lead­er­ship might exist, might some­how rise out of the very sense of pow­er­less­ness that seems to grip many. The oppo­site of that lead­er­ship hope is the expe­ri­ence of survival.


What I hear behind the scenes, in the hall­ways and park­ing lots these days are ques­tions. Where are they going? Where are they tak­ing us? Do they even know? Can they ever agree? What’s in it for them seems to be dri­ving us and I’m scared.

What’s clear is that the con­tract seems to have been changed — again. More than ever, peo­ple are learn­ing to see them­selves as com­modi­ties, as pawns, taught they must fend for them­selves and yet be hap­py and opti­mistic about a world in which the sense of threat has been ampli­fied beyond rea­son and their views, opin­ions and expe­ri­ences mean even less. The idea of an inclu­sive we-based orga­ni­za­tion seems far­ther off than ever before. Big tides are car­ry­ing us to new places…and maybe right over the falls while stud­ies are done and arti­cles are writ­ten describ­ing the win­ners and losers, argu­ing con­ser­v­a­tive and lib­er­al philoso­phies, blam­ing the gov­ern­ment, blam­ing the greedy cap­i­tal­ists. And while every­thing stalls out, who is affect­ed? Whose life is in the vise-grip of anxiety?

Lead­er­ship is a term that touch­es every­thing in the work­place and is the widest, strongest bridge between peo­ple and the sys­tems they work with­in. It’s also a term that touch­es the con­text of orga­ni­za­tions, mean­ing the cul­ture of the soci­ety in which enter­pris­es are “nest­ed,” and the con­di­tions of that con­text. Just so, talk­ing about lead­er­ship is absolute­ly essen­tial when times are this tense and peo­ple feel this afflicted.

Now, I’m not talk­ing about some high­ly con­fi­den­tial, cen­tripetal exchange as part of a retreat for the senior man­age­ment team, or some very con­trolled, intel­lec­tu­al­ly watered down con­ver­sa­tion about lead­er­ship that is part of a man­age­ment train­ing pro­gram. This isn’t the one with case-stud­ies and The­o­ries X and Y, and a shal­low list of do’s and don’ts. It’s the one that’s real­ly open, that’s invit­ed by those who are in the lead­er­ship roles ask­ing what oth­ers see about them and lead­er­ship of the enterprise.

I don’t know of many lead­ers that have the courage to con­vene and fol­low-through on such broad con­ver­sa­tions and then using them as cat­a­lysts for mean­ing­ful change. In my career, I’ve cer­tain­ly met a few, but the major­i­ty have not been that brave or con­nect­ed to sys­tems think­ing. Their hes­i­ta­tions to have the con­ver­sa­tion, as I have heard them, include:

• “It would be unclear what the pur­pose of the con­ver­sa­tion would be”
• “We don’t have time now”
• “It will just turn into a gripe session”
• “It could be embar­rass­ing or painful”
• “Staff are already doing this — there’s no prob­lem with peo­ple speak­ing up”
• “Oth­ers’ emo­tions could sur­face. We’d lose control”
• “It would lead to ten­sion, dis­cord, con­flict and blam­ing, cre­at­ing a mess”
• “It won’t do any good”
• “Why make peo­ple uncomfortable?”
• “We don’t do touchy-feely”
• “This is not our mis­sion — we’re not respon­si­ble for the Recession” 

These are stat­ed as per­son­al reser­va­tions, but they also turn out to be very com­mon ratio­nales across many orga­ni­za­tions, mak­ing them cul­tur­al and there­fore sys­temic rea­sons why open con­ver­sa­tion about lead­er­ship is not as pos­si­ble as it needs to be. Make no mis­take, these state­ments rep­re­sent gen­uine con­cerns that can­not be mag­i­cal­ly dis­missed. Peo­ple need tons of sup­port to begin to face this stuff and decide for them­selves how best to pro­ceed, how best to exer­cise their courage.

The sys­tem, it turns out, is adapt­able, but only when it is dis­cerned for what it is: self-ref­er­en­tial, self-pro­tec­tive, and, above all, per­son­al. In my expe­ri­ence, you can’t get to that lay­er unless you exam­ine things holis­ti­cal­ly and if you want to do that well and in a way that will actu­al­ly induce col­lab­o­ra­tive change, you can’t just ana­lyze to find and point out the con­tra­dic­tions. There are plen­ty of them to find, but feed­back alone and par­tic­u­lar­ly the kind of feed­back that cyn­i­cal­ly points out every hypocrisy, is nev­er enough. If you real­ly want change, you must do that dis­cern­ment work in an envi­ron­ment where gen­uine care and sup­port for the human beings in the room is pre-emi­nent. You must show your deep respect and care for the peo­ple who are there as indi­vid­u­als, as mem­bers of teams, as part of a com­mon, shared-in enter­prise. You must show con­cern for the whole sys­tem, and all of soci­ety in which you oper­ate. Many of us know how to do the cyn­i­cal analy­sis part, the point-out-the-hypocrisy part, but care for the human com­mu­ni­ty isn’t yet a full part of the platform.

The thing about such lead­er­ship con­ver­sa­tions, includ­ing the poten­tial fears that go with them, is that they are about help­ing us see what we are actu­al­ly part of and where we par­tic­i­pate and help cre­ate what we’ve got, for good or ill. It’s about build­ing under­stand­ing togeth­er and decid­ing togeth­er how best to chal­lenge and change the con­di­tions of our work and our com­mon soci­ety. A hier­ar­chy, by com­par­i­son, is about an elite that does not have to care or need to know what it par­tic­i­pates in, that all too often is iso­lat­ed from real-world impacts on real peo­ple, that retains pow­er pre­cise­ly through the uncon­scious­ness that goes with the power. 

Just so, Den­ning’s arti­cle is a small part of macro-lev­el lead­er­ship con­ver­sa­tion, and about the major over­haul that’s going on right now in the way we think about “busi­ness” and soci­ety. We are so lucky to have this oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about it because free speech is val­ued here and after all, it’s an over­haul we are all part of. But the macro con­ver­sa­tion is not enough. It also needs to hap­pen local­ly, here and now in our own orga­ni­za­tions, and in a very open-end­ed way. Lead­ers, us, you and I need to con­vene the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s about our­selves and the orga­ni­za­tions we are guid­ing. The con­ver­sa­tions need to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble. Maybe that means Board mem­bers and entry lev­el asso­ciates in the same room. Maybe it’s peo­ple who applied for jobs and did­n’t get them. Maybe it’s hear­ing from cus­tomers who did­n’t get what they came for. And maybe it’s just the folks across the hall in that oth­er depart­ment who we’ve nev­er met.

And always the ques­tions can be the same, “How are we — as lead­ers — doing? How is it going for you? What should we talk about togeth­er? What prob­lems have we got? Have we caused? What are we miss­ing that we need to know and can work on with you?”

In doing so, if it’s at all real, it’s like­ly there will be con­flict, blame, maybe even embar­rass­ment in the con­ver­sa­tion. Maybe it will feel like the wrong stuff to be work­ing on, a poor use of our time. Maybe it will feel like just a lot of unre­solved gripes. Maybe we won’t feel pre­pared. Maybe peo­ple will get upset, tense and reac­tive; maybe as lead­ers we will begin to feel out of con­trol. Maybe unearthing our real assump­tions and beliefs — the ones we hear our­selves express in the moment — will just cre­ate dis­cord and con­flict and anx­i­ety and maybe it’s going to feel like it won’t do any­body any good at all. Per­haps it will just make us and oth­ers squirm because it is too much about our feel­ings, our rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er, and our bat­tling val­ues. But that’s how, after all, a sys­tem is most like­ly to see itself and under­stand itself, by going into the real exchange that vio­lates every one of the sys­temic rea­sons list­ed above for not hav­ing it. 

Thus the need for extra­or­di­nary care for all who engage, for love and authen­tic­i­ty, and the desire to cre­ate safe­ty while tak­ing the risk per­son­al­ly to tread in awk­ward places. 

And what’s the out­come of this con­ver­sa­tion? The deep­est pos­si­ble affir­ma­tion of what we can do and be togeth­er. And work…hard work…to address the need­ed changes.

If we don’t have this con­ver­sa­tion, if we don’t ever real­ly enter the for­est, thick as it is, choos­ing instead sim­ply to avoid and numb out what’s hap­pen­ing, it’s pret­ty clear what we will lose. You can call that any­thing you want but I think in the end it’s about the loss of peo­ple, of the human spir­it, of human being. It’s about some­thing cold­er and more imper­son­al and more dis­em­pow­er­ing than ever com­ing into the work­place and mak­ing that an excuse for what is. All of which is to say we have to decide whether to open our­selves, reveal our­selves and our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, get stronger and lead — or not — like a bear con­tem­plat­ing bit­ing into a bee hive. The bear inevitably will get stung, but that’s also the only way the bear will ever get the honey.

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  • Hi Dan,

    How do I respond to such a deep and mas­ter­ful piece? 

    It reminds me (per­haps odd­ly) of a film I saw recent­ly that looked at the cul­ture of the peo­ple who had farmed the land for hun­dreds of years, large­ly unchanged, in Eng­land at the start of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Strange omens appeared, dreams of smoke­stacks that peo­ple had nev­er seen and lit­tle anx­i­eties crept into every­day life. In the past, they had time to adapt to every­thing new that was intro­duced into dai­ly life. Even though life for them was not easy, the slow­er and sim­pler life they inher­it­ed from their ances­tors was about to be thrown into chaos and harsh­er real­i­ties were inevitable. 

    I think, we’re there. We’re at the point where we know mas­sive changes are engulf­ing us, some we see com­ing, oth­ers we don’t, cloud­ing us with this con­stant mesh of anx­i­ety in fac­ing the unknown. But the “field” is vast­ly larg­er than for those farm­ers. A deci­sion in the Euro­zone may impact my busi­ness next week. Melt­ing ice in the polar caps in the Arc­tic may flood my field in the UK next season. 

    Some of us avoid what we have cat­e­go­rized as “polit­i­cal” con­ver­sa­tions as we do not want to engage or offend. We shy away from talk that is still taboo in most busi­ness set­tings, for rea­sons, as you say, “there is not time,” “it will turn into a gripe ses­sion.” Yet, most cor­po­ra­tions we work for are heav­i­ly engaged in huge con­tri­bu­tions to politi­cians and issues that influ­ence every facet of life, affect­ing how we live now and will live in the future. It’s not busi­ness as usu­al. We’re in new ter­ri­to­ry. Anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion we don’t engage.

    As a soci­ety we face unprece­dent­ed income equal­i­ty. This sit­u­a­tion grows worse every day and is not sus­tain­able. We write arti­cles about lead­er­ship and engage­ment and peo­ple are going hun­gry and untreat­ed med­ical­ly, right next door. 

    There is a mas­sive ele­phant in the room and you are shin­ing a big light on it in this article. 

    Like you, I can only ask ques­tions. This is too big for me alone — but I believe — not for us togeth­er. But we have to have the con­ver­sa­tion — all of us — as you point out, ” Lead­ers, us, you and I need to con­vene the con­ver­sa­tion. It’s about our­selves and the orga­ni­za­tions we are guid­ing. The con­ver­sa­tions need to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble. Maybe that means Board mem­bers and entry lev­el asso­ciates in the same room. Maybe it’s peo­ple who applied for jobs and didn’t get them. Maybe it’s hear­ing from cus­tomers who didn’t get what they came for. And maybe it’s just the folks across the hall in that oth­er depart­ment who we’ve nev­er met.”

    We have to enter the for­est. We’re all lead­ers now. We have to be. 

    Much appre­ci­a­tion,

  • Thanks, Louise.

    It’s clear we share a kin­ship and I love your last lines…

    I also deeply appre­ci­ate your obser­va­tion about the irony of writ­ing (high lev­el) arti­cles about lead­er­ship and engage­ment while peo­ple are hun­gry and hurt­ing and uncar­ed for. There’s anoth­er peren­ni­al ques­tion lead­ers can ask — “How am I col­lud­ing in the very prob­lems I say I want to solve?”

    I’m glad you are will­ing to enter that for­est, too. There are a lot of us, and every hope of find­ing a path through the trees…

    All the best

  • Lead­er­ship will not stop the pre­cari­ti­sa­tion of work — ‘coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions’ will only serve to mask this trend.
    Den­ning’s arti­cle is impor­tant and points to the sys­temic shift needed.

  • Hi Thabo

    Thanks for weigh­ing in on this post — one I feel very strong­ly about, for what it’s worth. 

    I had to look it up — but I love the phrase you use, “pre­cari­ti­sa­tion of work,” which I under­stand com­bines the mean­ings of work becom­ing more “pre­car­i­ous” and the syn­chro­nous cre­ation of a new kind of “pro­le­tari­at.”

    It may well be true that indi­vid­ual lead­ers host­ing con­ver­sa­tions about lead­er­ship will not be able to stop the pre­cari­ti­sa­tion of work or the cre­ation of a “pre­cari­at,” as deep­er social trends. This deeply affects me — it frankly makes me sad. I feel that pre­cari­ti­sa­tion hap­pen­ing in myself and also in my clients. It seems like every­one at every lev­el, includ­ing top lead­ers, feel exact­ly that “class-ifi­ca­tion” occur­ring, which is one rea­son no one ever seems to have enough, no mat­ter what they’ve already got. It seems to be a very long-term trend, first artic­u­lat­ed (iron­i­cal­ly so) for me in Tom Peters’ book, Brand You, many years ago.

    It is an aspect of what I allud­ed to toward the end of my post as some­thing new and more imper­son­al com­ing into the work­place, a new kind of sur­vival, side-tak­ing, and destruc­tive competition. 

    But I haven’t giv­en up all hope. Deep­er con­ver­sa­tions about lead­er­ship can be trans­for­ma­tive and cre­ate a new sense of com­mu­ni­ty and a bet­ter under­stand­ing of exact­ly how sys­tems of work and rela­tion­ships are bound togeth­er, not sim­ply cre­ate a new set of adver­saries or unwin-able argu­ments. At least that’s been my own per­son­al experience. 

    I don’t, by the way, see con­ver­sa­tions about lead­er­ship as a “cure-all to sys­temic issues,” just the ingre­di­ent that is most fre­quent­ly miss­ing; a lever­age point for change. I don’t have a cure-all, nor do I have any easy answers. Just a heart-felt place to start.

    Aung San Suu Kyi in her book, Free­dom from Fear, makes the point that democ­ra­cy does­n’t make life eas­i­er — it just points to hard work that’s a whole lot bet­ter than human vio­lence. I’d say that’s close to where I’m com­ing from.

    Again, thank you so much for your com­ment, for it opens a door to exact­ly what needs to take place — an exchange — which is pre­cise­ly what we need. I know for myself that I can­not learn with­out it. 

    Here’s hop­ing to con­tin­ue the con­ver­sa­tion — and for oth­ers to weigh in, as well!

    All the best

  • […] Why talk about lead­er­ship? – After read­ing Steven Denning’s arti­cle, “The Sur­pris­ing Rea­sons Why Amer­i­ca Lost Its Abil­i­ty To Compete,” based on his reac­tions to Har­vard study, my first thought was about the need to dis­cuss leadership. […]

  • Reidar Hansen wrote:

    Dan, I real­ly res­onate with your post and fol­low-up comments.However, you have artic­u­lat­ed it much more elo­quent­ly than I could ever imagine.You may remem­ber the arti­cle I dis­cussed with you about fear in the work­place which I was going to sub­mit to the Jour­nal of Employ­ee Assistance.At that time , I saw EA pro­fes­sion­als, espe­cial­ly those who worked in inter­nal pro­grams hav­ing a key role in start­ing the con­ver­sa­tions in their orga­ni­za­tions. I based this on their per­ceived “fin­ger on the pulse” of their orga­ni­za­tion due to their con­tact with all lev­els of the orga­ni­za­tion. EAPs, in many orga­ni­za­tions, serve as inter­nal con­sul­tants on many “peo­ple Issues’ and gen­er­al­ly know way more than they are giv­en cred­it for. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many inter­nal and exter­nal pro­grams are either unwill­ing or ill pre­pared to approach man­age­ment at any lev­el to begin these con­ver­sa­tions due to their own fears.For exter­nals, this may be about los­ing their con­tract with the com­pa­ny. For internals,the fear may that they will be accused of “scope creep,or going out­side of their pre­scribed role in the orga­ni­za­tion. Cer­tain­ly, these fears are based in some real­i­ty. With that said, EA pro­fes­sion­als could be game chang­ers in many orga­ni­za­tions by putting the “undis­cus­si­bles” on the table in front of lead­ers. Things like the dis­par­i­ty between pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, CEO salaries, and work­er com­pen­sa­tion could be the cat­a­lysts for dis­cus­sions about work­er morale, conflict,employee reten­tion, use of med­ical ben­e­fits, etc. We live in organ­ic sys­tems and have to come to real­ize that what hap­pens in one part of the orga­ni­za­tion, effects oth­er parts of the organization.
    Years ago while I was work­ing at a major oil com­pa­ny, we began focus­ing on the short term and adding val­ue for stock­hold­ers (as Den­ning’s arti­cle states). We went through 2–3 down­siz­ings and one merg­er in my 13 years there, most­ly pred­i­cat­ed on prof­its and stock­hold­er val­ue. Lit­tle care was shown toward the employ­ees except to help ease the pain of being ter­mi­nat­ed (that was part­ly the role of the EAP) and to help pre­vent vio­lent respons­es by those leav­ing the com­pa­ny. Those who remained were con­sid­ered lucky to have jobs and the mes­sage was, “get back to work and be even more pro­duc­tive.” This response was not unique to my com­pa­ny. Col­leagues report­ed this in their organizations.
    At that time we had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to begin a con­ver­sa­tion with man­age­ment about the ideas you have expressed. In many cas­es man­age­ment, espe­cial­ly front line man­agers, were ask­ing us for answers on how to relate to the work­force and help their peo­ple deal with the changes,Unfortunately, we focused on a band-aid approach to the prob­lem (heal the wound­ed and get them back on line) rather than dis­cussing the more sys­temic issues fac­ing the organization.Perhaps we lacked the inter­ven­tion skills need­ed at the time, had our own fears, or were just too busy to pay atten­tion to the opportunity.

  • Rei­dar

    Your exam­ples are right in line with my own obser­va­tions — that the need­ed real exchanges have often been sup­pressed. There have been so many missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to build a dif­fer­ent kind of orga­ni­za­tion, and, unfor­tu­nate­ly, these “missed oppor­tu­ni­ties” reflect very broad eco­nom­ic forces and fun­da­men­tal­ly flawed (and some­times very destruc­tive) man­age­ment philoso­phies. We are all part of that. Please note, I’m say­ing “man­age­ment the­o­ries,” not lead­er­ship ones.

    EAP folks in my expe­ri­ence are most fre­quent­ly very sen­si­tive to the impacts of change, cul­ture, and man­age­ment prac­tice on peo­ple. They are often the very def­i­n­i­tion of “ground-lev­el” in their work. And they, too, are part of the same sys­tem, locked up by fear and the desire for survival. 

    To me, the sit­u­a­tion is less about the inter­ven­tion skills them­selves than the raw will­ing­ness to inter­vene. That’s pre­cise­ly why and how it is a lead­er­ship issue, and why move­ment has been so slow. No one wants to lose their liveli­hood, just as peo­ple did­n’t want to lose their lives as part of the civ­il rights move­ment, and that’s exact­ly what keeps the sys­tem and its trend-lines going. 

    True lead­ers will notice, how­ev­er, and they will broach the undis­cuss­ables that include their own think­ing, beliefs, and behav­ior. They will invite a broad array of mem­bers of the sys­tem — includ­ing key helpers, such as EAP folks — into the dis­cus­sion. They will open the doors, look, trust, serve, fol­low their own des­tinies and best Selves, and they will do the right thing.

    Thanks for tak­ing the time to share your expe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives, here, Rei­dar. You are much appreciated.

  • Arabella wrote:

    Dan — as always a very thought-pro­vok­ing, enlight­en­ing, and pow­er­ful post.

    I just took the time to read Den­ning’s arti­cle — also lots to think about. I have to say that behind and through some of his pre­scrip­tive ideas, I heard many echoes of W. Edwards Dem­ing — focus on con­tin­u­al improve­ment (or inno­va­tion), cus­tomers first, let go of short-term think­ing, cre­ate con­stan­cy of (a high­er) pur­pose. I know from your “Dri­ve out fear” book that you have more than pass­ing famil­iar­i­ty with Dem­ing. Thoughts?

  • Hi Ara­bel­la

    Yes, I saw the same kinds of prin­ci­ples at work in Den­ning’s arti­cle, includ­ing Dem­ing’s exhor­ta­tion to devel­op an “Appre­ci­a­tion for a Sys­tem.” I respect Den­ning’s arti­cle a great deal and through my own want­ed to add the thought that lead­ers them­selves may well not be able to get to that appre­ci­a­tion unless there’s a pro­found open­ing to do so. 

    My hope in encour­ag­ing the con­ven­ing of the “lead­er­ship con­ver­sa­tion” is pre­cise­ly to gen­er­ate one pos­si­ble — and often neglect­ed — open­ing. When that con­ver­sa­tion is tru­ly on the table, it is a won­der­ful chance to begin think­ing in more sys­temic and less hier­ar­chi­cal terms. 

    Thanks for ask­ing, Ara­bel­la, and for cre­at­ing space to clar­i­fy where there’s an over­lap with my book, “Dri­ving Fear Out of the Work­place.” Thank you!

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