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Leadership in the Age of Complexity

This article is shared by Player Development Project

The Big Idea

Get ready for a wake-up call to the common among us—which is to say a call to all of us.  In this short paper published in Resurgence Magazine (Winter 2011) Margaret Wheatley takes a unique position regarding leadership.  She will argue that the place to look for true leadership in an age of complexity is inward, and not outward to the time-worn desire for heroes to come to our rescue.

Early on, Wheatley refers to the opening line of the William Stafford poem, Allegiance: “It is time for all the heroes to go home.”  The entire opening stanza clarifies:

It is time for all the heroes to go home 

if they have any, time for all of us common ones

to locate ourselves by the real things

we live by.

In other words, anywhere there are leadership needs—for instance, in the world of sports, whether player, coach, management, parent, or fan—there are imperatives for us common ones to take charge of our local destinies.  But, Wheatley asks, do we?

Takeaways

  • Is it the case that our age-old belief in heroes may compromise our own innermost abilities and gumption to locate ourselves?
  • To rely on heroes to save us, or to do the heavy lifting, or to figure things out for us, may be a seductive but dangerous image.
  • It is time to reconsider this image because it can rob us of our independence, individual voice, and freedom.
  • Leaders often see themselves as heroes who have all the answers, who know what needs to be done, and who can fix everything.
  • Models based on this belief usually give rise to command and control in organisations and governments.
  • But the illusion here is that the world and all components of it can be controlled at all; and especially that one person can be in control of anything.
  • Wheatley argues that the leader-as-hero needs to be replaced by the leader-as-host.
  • Leader-as-host understands the complexity of the living world, so much so that they lead by invitation to others to join up in the frustrations and festivities of living in this world.
  • As a benevolent leader, the host leads by trusting others to work together to solve problems together.
  • Hosting leaders create substantive change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment, and generosity.
  • It is time, Wheatley concludes, for us common ones to resist control by the leader-as-hero and grow into becoming leaders-as-hosts ourselves.

The Research

What’s the problem with heroes?

For starters, we create the need for heroes by our own inertia.  Whether through laziness or lack of confidence in ourselves, we rely on others who make the claim to know how to fix what is broken, or who promise victories in the face of challenges.

Given the plentiful stand-ups who proclaim having these powers, we surrender to them with nary a thought.  We come to believe that salvation comes from the single voices who compete for the stage.  What can follow is a surrender to these self-anointed heroes “of the real things we live by.”

And then, dependency and passivity follow—a living managed by spectatorship, not participation.  Models of control arise.  Power is imposed.  In exchange for security, we surrender our freedom.

The Illusion

The illusion that control is possible arises from underestimating the complexity of modern times.  Complex systems are inherently chaotic.  They are beyond the control of single individuals no matter how competent or courageous they may be.  Wheatley reminds us that:

No one is in charge of our food systems.  No one is in charge of our schools.

No one is in charge of the environment.  No one is in charge of national security.

No one is in charge!

As systems go, these life-realities are emerging simultaneously, perpetually converging and diverging.  They are the result of the smallest of unpredictable actions and reactions, all of which are continuously interacting.

(For that matter, and connected to Wheatley’s thesis regarding the complexity of living environments, our reader’s might enjoy reading this interesting blog by our PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan, on the simplicity vs. complexity debate in football)

From Hero to Host?

So, what is a leader?  Wheatley argues that we need to abandon the idea of relying on the leader-as-hero in favor of inviting in the leader-as-host.  Wheatley explains that the leader-as-host is in tune with the complexity and chaos of the ordinary world-at-large.  No matter the organisation led—country, business, school, club—the leader-as-host knows instinctively that all participants in the organisation matter.

The leader-as-host often abandons or de-emphasises the pre-existing hierarchies and role descriptions.  Instead, they listen to the people who serve and to those whom it serves.  They find out who can do what; they learn what potential contributions lie fallow; they invite solutions from wherever for the problems at hand; they listen and converse and invest.  Mostly they realise that people are more apt to thrive in an organisation if they participate in helping create it.

Here is the bullet list of what the leader-as-host attends to:

  • Provide conditions and group processes which foster collaboration.
  • Provide resources and time to complete tasks.
  • Encourage learning from experience.
  • Offer unequivocal support.
  • Protect the team from bureaucratic interferences.
  • Provide regular feedback and ask for regular feedback.
  • Collaborate on creating relevant measures of progress for team and for leader-as-host.
  • Promote esprit-de-corps by celebrating the spirit that arises in any group with common goals that accomplishes difficult work together.
  • Defend the promise of the community against superiors in the organisation who attempt to impose power and control from above.
  • Be prepared to re-engage members of the organisation who are burned out, or cynical, or simply waiting to retire—and for this, there must be the sincere effort to promote organisation-wide creativity, commitment, and generosity.

Are you a hero?

Wheatley provides a short test to see whether her readers are acting like heroes, not like hosts. You are acting like a hero, she says, when:

  • You believe if you just work harder, you will fix things.
  • You believe if you get smarter or learn a new technique, you will solve problems for others.
  • You believe if you take on more projects and causes and have less time for relationships.
  • You believe if you can save the situation, the person, the world.

These beliefs are often the result of good intentions, Wheatley admits.  But she calls this belief an illusion of specialness: namely, that we are the only ones who can do the job, offer the help, give the service, and have the right skills.

But, she says, “This hero’s path has only one guaranteed destination—we end up feeling lonely, exhausted, and unappreciated.”

Hosts know implicitly they are not alone.  Hosts become surrounded by other hosts, all of whom want to contribute, to give ideas, to be useful, and to be wanted.  And they don’t need to be rescued by heroes.  Hosts inspire others to be hosts.  And we, the common ones, become leaders ourselves.

Image Credit: Dave Lintott / lintottphoto.co.nz

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