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Creating a Culture of Leadership

Creating a Culture of Leadership

What is leadership? And how can we create a culture of leadership? Two core questions in today's volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment.

I'm going to borrow Hudson's definition of leadership to answer question one. Partly because Crissa Sumner's blog inspired this article. And partly because she's working in Australia (as am I) and Australia needs to start taking this question seriously. But that does not stop it being relevant elsewhere. For Crissa, leaders are:

"driven, with an appetite to learn and grow; courageous and resilient in the face of uncertainty and change; mentally flexible and able to make sense of disparate and conflicting information; decisive in ambiguous circumstances; and capable of connecting with a diverse range of stakeholders and inspiring a shared sense of purpose."

It's a good definition. She argues that the contemporary organisation needs to develop a culture in which all employees can exhibit such qualities.

Read her post. It's excellent from a talent management / I/O Psychology perspective. But it leaves us slightly short from an organisational design one. What exactly is a culture of leadership? And how do we go about creating one?

These are difficult questions.

The Paradoxical Nature of Contemporary Leadership

Creating a culture of leadership is complex because it is so paradoxical. A leadership culture requires leaders to let go of the levels of control they feel comfortable with. So, a core part of leadership is the willingness and ability to not lead, but follow.

Confused? I'll try to explain.

The traditional task of leadership is to think about and plan the actions of the workforce. You plan a strategy, design a culture, choose the developmental path of your product, etc. This can be traced as far back as Taylorism, and has become part and parcel of modern work through the practice of strategic management.

The VUCA environment requires the precise opposite. Decisions are made on the ground by trusted personnel who have the skills and expertise to quickly evaluate emerging data and act appropriately and effectively. These actions can be in direct opposition to the expectations of the planners.

This is a tough paradox. To be successful, an organisation needs a planned and emergent strategy, a designed and emerging culture, and formulated and forming work. Many company leaders struggle to recognise this gap. Many employees end up living and working in it.

Being in this paradoxical gap is innately stressful. You can suffer psychological breakdown. Hence the popular focus on resilience, emotionality, social intelligence, curiosity, and passion. They are as much survival strategies as they are qualities required to do good work.

  1. They help articulate the gaps between how things are expected to be and how they actually are.
  2. They help people bond with like-minded souls.
  3. They help to work out creative and innovative solutions to complex problems.
  4. They keep people going when under intense pressure and stress.

For anybody with interest in I/O Psychology, these are not going to be new concepts. They are pretty much everywhere.

The Dark Side

But there are a couple of dark sides. Things that only emerge when you examine the paradoxical divide from a socio-cultural perspective.

Authentic culture is an oxymoron.

Firstly, on the emergent side of the divide, we have well-meaning but overly enthusiastic attempts to solve the paradox. We have seen commentator after commentator oversell the benefits of passion, purpose, and authenticity.

This is problematic because they all emerge out of environmental interaction. You cannot build a culture based on authentic passion and purpose, because authentic action emerges from the paradoxical gap. It is innately interactive. It manifests as a response to the absurdities of a culture. You become authentic because you base your actions on inner belief, not cultural demand. Your ongoing purpose emerges from how you negotiate that motivation with your external environment.

Positivity requires negativity.

Secondly, on the control side of the divide, we have developed an acute fear of critical behaviours. We insist on cultural fit, compliance, and painfully documented processes and practices. This is down to the over-reliance on psychology. I/O Psychology, rightly, argues that to live a good life we must have authentic experiences. However, it wrongly assumes that we can design organisations around a pre-supposed agreement as to what they should be. Hence all the compliance and cultural fittery.

In such environments, anyone who criticises is seen as resistant. Consequently, what might be high-quality emergent ideas get transmitted through irony, sarcasm, buffoonery, cynicism and humour. Not surprisingly, they often get lost in translation. But without this negative perspective of reality, we cannot get all the positive behaviours that can change it.

A Complex Problem

A culture of leadership requires traditional leaders to walk the tightropes between control and chaos, planning and reacting, and design and adaptation. Unfortunately:

  • Our business schools are not training people for this.
  • Our systems for measuring business performance do not recognise this.
  • We try to teach people to solve problems, not live with paradox.
  • We focus too much on the psychology of the individual and too little on social interactions. As neuroscience is increasingly illustrating, the latter is what counts.

By doing so, we risk trapping those who should lead in ivory towers detached from the stressful realities of VUCA work. Encouraging them to resist diverse opinions and ideas. To think that highly specialised complex work can be managerially planned through spreadsheets and Gantt charts, and delivered to precise timetables.

Until we can get leaders to loosen their grip, all the pressure of coping with paradox falls on the workforce. And when it does, emotional and cognitive problems will follow. We will see action paralysis. Acute disengagement. And correspondingly low productivity and motivation.

So, it's a debate worth having.

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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