Mobilising Collective Wisdom

Being stuck in an airport for five hours isn’t fun but at least it’s given me some time to capture a few thoughts after a fascinating and worthwhile week working in Canada.  I can also see certain parallels between the week I’ve experienced and that of how an airport works, full of busy-ness and business. However, a striking contrast is that many of those who walk, run, glide and sprint (yep, he’s going to miss it…) through these corridors is that they remind me more of a collection of people, not a collective.

 

What do I mean by that, I hear you ask (oh yeah, there’s great acoustics in airports!), how am I differentiating?  Well, compared to the week I’ve experienced, a week that has entailed working with one of the world’s most critical types of organisations, I would argue that a collection of people have very little by way of something to commonly care about, to invest in, to contribute to for the sake of something larger than their own personal needs.  A collective on the other hand, and in particular I’m speaking about the people I’ve encountered at the Canadian University I’m working with, well people in a collective do have something to care about, do offer their contribution, do make that longer-term investment for the sake of themselves, their stakeholders, their communities and the wider world.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve sat in this particular airport, waiting to get home (although it is the longest!).  Over the past 18 months I’ve been working with this ambitious and progressive Capital University in order to enable a leadership culture which develops their collective, embraces and enables their collective, harnesses and focuses their collective and re-invests in their collective for their longer-term future and of those they serve.  That this University is also building on our work with other Universities, and many other types of organisations, suggests that leadership is changing (duh, you don’t say!).  It suggests that many more organisations are realising the need to do much, much more than just ‘up-skill’ individual leaders, that they recognise the need to invest in their wider leadership capacity.  Or, as I would put it, they recognise the importance of mobilising collective leadership.

 

By the way, isn’t it funny how words matter?  How words signify and imply, how they create impressions and images?  For example, the idea of ‘up-skilling’ suggests that these individuals are currently ‘down-skilled’ and that they are below whatever level required.  On the other hand, my preferred notion of ‘mobilising’ suggests that this entity called collective leadership already exists and maybe just needs a nudge, some encouragement, a few permissions here and there or a little traction to get it motoring.  This is my working assumption, that every organisation contains latent collective leadership, or to describe it another way, that within every organisation there exists a ‘collegiate of the willing’; people who are eager, committed, capable and desperate to help the organisation to flourish, if they’re not already doing so.

 

Now, this isn’t the commonly held view when you talk (or more likely listen ‘cus they’re doing all the talking!) to many people who consider themselves in the business, or should that be busy-ness, of leadership development.  Some would say that developing the collective is impossible, or at the very least it’s really hard.  Well, I’m not so sure about that.  I would suggest that developing individual leaders is infinitely more difficult as what we’re then asking of them is becoming impossible, or at the very least just too hard.  Consider that the tenure of those who we might consider to be senior leaders (e.g. CEOs) is getting shorter and shorter.  That the challenges surrounding those leaders, particularly in those organisations that we consider to matter most, are getting more and more complex.  That the horizons which they’re supposed to be navigating toward seem to be getting further and further away from us.

 

It strikes me that expecting individual leaders, however well developed, to run organisations in individual ways has now become too hard.  Way, way too hard.  No matter how well paid they might be, why do organisations assume that these individuals can possibly cope with this complexity?  Why do our organisations still wage an elusive ‘war for talent’, searching for individual ‘brilliance’ in places where little exists?  Why do they keep discarding, and disregarding, the breadth of talent and wisdom at their fingertips?  (please, no answers on postcards, I’m just being a tad provocative…)

 

No, no, no, that makes no sense.  Surely there’s an easier path?  A different path that maybe needs a few more footsteps trampling down it so that other organisations can more easily follow. This is the path of mobilising the collective.  This is after all the entity that already exists in so many great organisations, an entity that is brim full of talent, that has a relational and empathic capacity which is far better equipped for responding to complexity, to better roll together with the relentless, contextual punches.

 

So that’s why ‘I’m sitting in the airport lounge, waiting for my plane’ (play Magna Carta track on ipod).  It’s because I’m fortunate to be working with an insightful and courageous University who is trying very hard not to make their leadership culture too hard.  Trying not to demand that their individual leaders suck up responsibility nor carry the full burden of expectation.  That’s too hard. Not asking their individual leaders to solve the insoluble problems that surround their organisation. Too hard.  Not assuming that their individual leaders have got all the answers.  Too hard.  Not expecting their individual leaders to do the un-doable, all on their lonesome.  Too hard.  Not wanting their individual leaders to be so damn perfect that anything less is failure.  Nope, that’s all way too hard.

 

Instead, this particular University are following the lightly worn path of other like-minded organisations as they try to do easy.  Encouraging those who care to get more involved.  Do easy! Providing those who want to offer a contribution to the complex issues, some space and permissions to make that very contribution.  Do easy!  Enabling more people to get involved by asking more questions about things that matter.  Do easy!  Sharing the load and burden of navigating through pretty challenging waters with those who have the talent and capacity to take on that load.  Do easy!  Collectively seeking out what works, where it works, and what might work, in order to spread innovative possibilities and great ideas across their organisation.  Do easy! Creating spaces for more meaningful conversations, among people who care, with the possibility that they just might go somewhere.  Do easy!

 

Here’s another poser from my experiences this week; don’t you think that sometimes organisations can make it just too hard for themselves as they set out to find (or maybe create, shape, develop, engineer…) these saviours, these oh-so-talented individual leaders who might just be oh-so-convinced that “I am the One”?  Instead, I’ve had a joyous week of working with, and within, an organisation that has done the easy thing; it has looked for leadership amongst its community. And, surprise, surprise, it has found it.  All over the place.  In bucket loads.  

 

Oh yes, I’d rather do easy.

 

 

 

This is just one of the many examples where Leaderful practice is occurring and over time our library of stories will certainly grow.  Please contact us if you know of, or are part of, a Leaderful story that you would also like to share.

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BLOG: ‘Do Easy’        23rd May 2014
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