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
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 collectiveand 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
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
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,
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. Doeasy! 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.