All around the world people cry out for leadership. The question on everyone’s lips is, Where are today’s leaders? I can tell you. They are trapped in prisons of our own invention, snared by obsolete beliefs underpinning a narrative that emboldens individuals to come forward, hoists them up, exposes them to the spotlight’s glare and demands immediate action - all the while hindering the vital re-framing of knowledge so necessary for paradigmatic change.
This is a scam - a betrayal of the highest order. Alone, and lonely too, they find themselves snagged in a cruel deception. Yet still they fail to recognise their fate. Their sole recourse is to stare blankly into the void of intensifying irrelevance.
Our present assumptions about leaders are archaic. It is time to reconceptualise leadership and leading for the conditions in which we now find ourselves. But how and where should we start? Perhaps the best place to start is an examination of the psychology that allows our current beliefs about leaders, leading and leadership to persist unchallenged.
Cognitive distortion is a psychological condition - a deluded state that affects individuals and groups alike. It can be treated. But, unlike cognitive reframing which occurs intuitively, as new information replaces old or obsolete data, cognitive restructuring is a therapeutic technique for reducing stress, anxiety and melancholy.
This technique, a key component of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, detects and challenges maladaptive, irrational, and anxiety-producing thoughts. Shifting frames of reference through the conscious restructuring of the way events, concepts and emotions are experienced, it allows more positive, credible options, to take hold.
Here is a down-to-earth illustration. Over the past few years I have gained far too much weight. I love food and my Thai wife is a cook par excellence. As I began to put on kilos I rationalised the fact that I had no time to exercise or to go to the gym and tried not to notice my expanding girth. I did make one or two attempts to diet from time to time, but always lapsed into my normal routine after a few days. It was only when friends and family started commenting upon my increasing corpulence, and my clothes became tighter and more uncomfortable, that I decided to approach the problem with the gravity it deserved.
So I started to reassess my situation. Instead of resigning myself to getting fatter and fatter, and buying into the idea that it was impossible for me to lose weight, I recalled what actions I had taken in the past that had worked. If other people can lose weight, I rationalised, then so can I. The first thing was to make a sincere commitment to myself. I stopped making excuses and tackled the problem one step at a time. I needed some quick wins, and I convinced myself that I had nothing to lose. Right away I felt more capable of doing this.
That was two months ago. I have since lost two kilos, feel much healthier, and can at last fit into my only remaining suit! In this simple example I was able to deliberately reframe my thinking, coming at the problem from a more positive point of view, in order to sidestep the entrenched belief that I would not be able to lose weight. The lesson is that the stories we tell ourselves and hear from others really matter. They shape the way we tackle everyday stuff.
Returning to the topic of leadership, I would now like to conduct another simple, but far more meaningful, analysis. Some will regard this topic as provocative. Others, particularly business school academics, may see my proposition as heretical nonsense. In any case I have given the latter licence to disregard my thesis given that I have no citations in this paper, and only a single footnote.
The origin of this current experiment goes back to the years of applied research The Hames Group undertook during the course of writing my third book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership. Among several hypotheses, we concluded that leadership was not an imposed condition or jurisdiction, but a collective inquiry into impelling and experiencing change. We felt that the most any individual could do when embroiled in whole-system change was to collaborate with others in helping to facilitate the experience – or decline to be involved. One insight in particular became fundamental. We posited that most distinctions between a single leader and others immersed in the same experience were utterly false.
Leadership – or rather the lack of it - is a topic attracting much attention these days. There is clear evidence in social media, the alternative press, and most corporate media, that many of us are concerned about the state of leadership in the world, and have negative thoughts about, and feel let down by, our current batch of leaders. People are saying that leading has become a lost art.
These feelings run deep. They are now beginning to cause rifts in society that threaten to tear the social fabric apart. Bigotry, anxiety and hatred are displacing love, unity and empathy in ways that could so easily portend an upsurge of neo-fascism and segregation. Furthermore the fuel for this discord, if not coming directly from our leaders, in many cases appears to have their tacit endorsement.
So let us take accepted notions regarding the role and meaning of being a leader - including the individualistic implications denoted by that term - in the light of a world-system that is infinitely more complicated today than it was yesterday[i] - and submit the concept to a cognitive restructuring.
Let us suppose, to take a radical view, that the expectations we place on the shoulders of individual leaders to lead in that complicated dynamic create an impossible burden for them, and that the term leader, ipso facto, is therefore obsolete – overwhelmed by the escalating diversity of needs and expectations resulting from the complexity in which we are stuck.
We must also consider the concomitant trappings of leadership of course. For example, if leading by an individual leader is obsolete, appreciating that the role of leader only makes sense within an ecosystem of followers, then these, too, must be redundant – the spirit and impulse of following largely superfluous.
But first let us further ponder the rationale for why we might want to restructure our thinking about leaders, leading and leadership - understanding that these are all different facets of a single concept – namely, advancing one or more aspects of our society by shaping conditions in which that undertaking becomes easier. This is fundamentally different from the notion of managers, managing and management, of course, which is the professional administration of issues, events and artefacts arising from changing conditions.
Our belief in the capacity of individual leaders to lead - by engaging, inspiring or otherwise coercing followers in an act of leadership - is an article of faith in modern societies. The idea of an individual leader as the principal initiator and agent of change has been an ingrained doctrine for at least 250 years or more.
But faith alone has its constraints. So consider this… The idea of an individual leader as the principal initiator and agent of change in a dynamically complex world-system comprising over seven billion people is a cognitive distortion - an exaggerated concept unsupported by rational thought or empirical evidence. What happens if we submit this new proposition to a positive restructuring?
Initially we must take into account evidence that is contributing to a massive accumulation of negativity against leaders in the public domain. Is this negativity really a distortion of reality? Much of my recent evidence is anecdotal, but valid nevertheless, for prejudicial behaviour is in plentiful supply. This ranges from shirking responsibility, blaming others, and professing ignorance, to showcasing a stunning lack of ethics, empathy, honesty and integrity.
Our faith in leaders has been particularly marred by recent events of course – the rise of a misogynist and bigot as President-elect of the USA, the brazen corruption of President Zuma in South Africa, the intimidating tactics of Duterte in the Philippines, the superstition-tinged speeches of Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha, turmoil in South Korea where President Park Geun-hye is facing strident calls for her impeachment, Pyongyang’s rogue regime led by the youthful dictator Kim Jong-un, Travis Kalanick’s price gouging at Uber, the moral muteness of Volkswagen’s Martin Winterkorn, and the unabashed racism of Pauline Hanson and her ilk in Australia, for example. The list goes on and on…
When integrity and morality are in decline, credibility crashes, its wreckage scooped up and swept along on a tsunami of fear and indecision. Thus is the state of leadership today, with many individual leaders not behaving as we would hope or were led to expect given their highly privileged status.
In fairness there are always a few iconic role models to whom we constantly refer - people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and Evo Morales, for example, who instinctively take the moral high ground while avoiding demagoguery, pandering to self-interest, and populism. It goes without saying that these and others like them are exceptional individuals. They play a prominent role in making the world a better place and inspiring others to do the same. But we should also note the lengths they go to in giving credit to those around them, avoiding the limelight where possible, except when a deeper mission is best served by using their celebrity in a benign way. In other words there is generally a tacit acknowledgement by those we most admire that leading and leadership are collective phenomena, with mutual responsibilities necessary for generating positive emergent experiences.
While it seems impossible to deny that increasing complexity is partly responsible for the sheer numbers of leaders who fall far short of our expectations, there are other related factors we cannot ignore and that go some way to explain the near impossibility for any individual to live up to the ideals of being a leader in the classic sense today.
- Information is a commodity
Increasing complexity results from many factors. One of these is the amount of data and information being generated. Misinformation, fake news, and propaganda as well. In the past leaders were able to give a decent impression of infallibility. Today this is not the case. News seems to move at the speed of light which makes it almost impossible to plan ahead with any certainty. Besides, the uneven rate of change confounds and unsettles all those schooled in linear reductionism.
These factors put enormous pressure on individuals who are always in the spotlight. They must identify information that is accurate and relevant; find ways to grasp, interpret and use that information before it becomes dated; make systemically convincing decisions based on the facts, while conceding any personal or ideological preferences; and communicate ideas in a manner that is compelling and fresh. All the while remaining cool, suave and unflustered.
Some folk do that masterfully, enjoying the theatre of their situation. Others need a script or the safety mechanism of a ten second sound grab which they can repeat over and over again. But most are out of their depth. They know the cat is out of the bag. Within our distributed information networks we can access all the information we need, when we need it, instantly. Individual leaders no longer have privileged access to knowledge. This has eroded a key raison-d’etre for needing individual leaders.
- Untruths & fictions
Public intolerance of poor leaders is at an all time high. Meanwhile the disenchantment and subsequent apathy that almost always follows news of bad or unethical behaviour by leaders has become widespread - and it is getting worse. The leader ‘brand’ has been tarnished by a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth. We are disheartened and embittered as a consequence. Trust in individual leaders has been trashed – even to the extent that people of exceptional integrity are now regarded with suspicion when speaking the truth. Indifference from the public is evident from low voter turnouts in elections and the relatively small numbers of shareholders who routinely attend annual general meetings.
In spite of an outbreak of ethical codes and standards, we have allowed an environment in which deceit and lies, graft and corruption, are accepted and acceptable. The main reason for this seems to be that we have come to expect that our leaders are simply incapable of telling the truth, or presenting the facts, without embellishing or distorting key elements to suit their own ends. We have become resigned to them doing as they please once they have gained office, and then doing whatever it takes to remain in office. Even though this impression can be inaccurate, it is a charade conveniently sustained by a media perfectly happy to trade in the discomfort of leaders behaving badly.
- Outmoded paraphernalia
In spite of the fact that the context for leadership has become exceedingly complex - the rate of technological change intensifying exponentially - the methods and tools used by a majority of leaders remain the same that were in use over half a century ago. Except they are no longer exclusively accessible to the few or the erudite among us. They are obsolete.
Many of them are also inappropriate. The practices and procedures bestowed on leaders by business schools and consulting firms have been misappropriated from the archives of scientific management. As a consequence they are operationally-focused and utterly ill-suited to the exigencies of leading. New tools, like the use of 3D immersive facilities for visualising complex patterns, anticipatory foresight, digital platforms and algorithms for crunching large amounts of unstructured data, and sophisticated processes enabling the forensic examination of data, for example, are ignored or put in the ‘too hard’ basket. “There isn’t time to go into too much detail”, and “consulting our staff will serve no useful purpose in this instance”, are oft-heard mantras that still haunt boardrooms and the corridors of power.
Even straightforward discussion has become dulled and dumbed down. Most international leadership forums still favour a mix of talking heads, the delivery of academic papers, and expert panels. Renowned leaders are usually interviewed – invited to answer vapid questions that lead nowhere and mean nothing. In instances where supplementary voices are induced to join the conversation, the favoured format is that of debate. This uniquely ordered dialogical process is preferred by large organisations like the UN. The use of debate is often contrived to sustain dichotomous narratives and ingrained opinions which, in some cultures, is just considered vulgar. In the final analysis debate is far too structured a method for dealing with the many salient, yet messy, subtleties buried within contemporary issues.
Because of this conversational primitivism, combined with an apparent inability or hesitancy to embrace intricate or sensitive propositions, many possibilities are not even raised, least of all considered. Meanwhile the impulse to innovate and to reinvent are engulfed by an even greater need to conform, to stick to convention so as to remain artificially aligned with others in the same leading class who are facing the same or similar predicaments. All of this puts intolerable stress on individual leaders while necessarily resulting in facile and bankrupt ‘group think’.
- Misleading narratives
Through no fault of their own leaders are trapped in prisons of our own invention – stories fabricated in ancient folk-lore, held captive by more recent developments, and continuously reified by the trappings of appointment or election. Part of the problem is the convergence of these stories in the mythic structure of the hero’s journey, which expresses the power of the sole leader as a rarefied mix of visionary combatant and moral trailblazer. Unwarranted and unseen, this doppelgänger is an encumbrance, a shadow hanging over the heads of leaders. With the best will in the world it is nigh impossible for any one individual to live up to such noble expectations.
Meanwhile there are few narratives concerning the future of leaders and leading. And so we remain anchored by the code of history - a modus operandi more familiar within the fields of governance or management. This is particularly evident in the way leaders are engaged. Like run of the mill executives, the impulse of those who would lead are constrained by prescribed limits and stipulations we impose concerning performance. Individual and personalised, they itemise what is expected of them in terms of organising and directing a portfolio of activities, affording no true expression or latitude regarding true leadership.
In summary then the critical evidence we need to challenge the concept of an individual as a leader boils down to the following:
- Increasing complexity of the world in which we live, coupled with the exponential rate of change in which numerous, ambiguous events can collide and ricochet, makes it practically impossible to know enough, and act fast enough
- Pressures on individual performance, exacerbated by the unreasonable expectations we have regarding the integrity of our leaders, and the constant scrutiny we subject them to, are becoming too much to bear, often accounting for behaviours that are worrying or irrational and policies that are reactionary - circumscribed by a lack of imagination
- A penchant for linear and reductionist tools including, critically, the manner in which negotiations are conducted, information is acquired and interrogated, and discourse is pursued, makes it highly improbable that humanity’s most life-critical systems are deeply understood, and all options canvassed, before leaders make their decisions.
This critical evidence provides reasons for not sticking with the notion of a leader as an individual. It is a cognitive distortion.
More importantly this cognitive reframing provides us with an elegant pivot into the world of distributed leadership - of new values centered around empathy, cooperation and reciprocity; a sense of abundance; peer-driven modes of organising and governing; and ‘common bonds’ expressing the common concerns of all of humanity, rather than the restrictive legalities of individual deals, as the collective contractual basis for leading.
Some obvious alternatives for liberating an ecology of distributed leadership – as distinct from the petty tyrannies imposed by individual leaders who frequently tend to be infatuated with their own narcissistic visions to the exclusion of all else – are to be found in the various grassroots transition initiatives and activist groups springing up around the world. However viable new approaches to distributed leadership are not limited to ‘unconventional’ initiatives such as these. Political parties, peer-driven alliances, public-private partnerships, collective enterprises, technological startups, social impact projects, business cooperatives, and even large corporations, are busy exploring these new autopoietic models of shared leadership in which there are no leaders in the traditional sense. That does not mean leadership is absent. It is simply a distributed phenomenon that is collectively owned.
What does this mean? The following case study references a deliberate reframing of leading within a project that is being incubated and funded by Centre for the Future in Australia.
MiVote Ltd. aims to build a more inclusive, participative democracy, starting in Australia. The core proposition is based upon the use of smart technology to deliver characteristics that include informing the electorate of alternative policy options by adopting a non-partisan approach and framing issues through a range of different lenses. Unlike most political parties MiVote is not interested in telling people what to think, what to believe, or what is right and wrong. MiVote simply provides members with the unbiased information they need to make up their own minds. Then, when the majority of MiVote members have voted, the organisation works to bring that informed, majority decision to fruition.
MiVote is predominantly a volunteer network organisation. It also happens to be one of the fastest growing socio-political movements on the planet. As for leadership there is a Chief Steward. He came up with the original thesis. His name is Adam Jacoby. Adam tells an inspiring story about the origins and destiny of the MiVote concept and he makes his aspirations particularly clear. But he does not lead in the orthodox sense. Adam is a peer among many peers, cross-fertilising ideas and energising stakeholders in ways that are taken up and amplified in their own way by every single member of the organisation, and projected into the interstices of the extended networks of MiVote’s partnerships, community alliances, and sponsor circles.
Why are these volunteers so enthusiastic? Why are our partners so excited about our cause? Why is it that we are not having to spend time and money on shaping the culture we need? The answer is as simple as it is elegant but a well-known quality that can be seen in most volunteer organisations. MiVote’s people are passionate investors in the purpose of the enterprise and feel personally accountable for its evolution. This mission - the restoration of authentic democracy - matters to them so much they are prepared to bequeath their spare time to bring us success. And of course it is their success too.
Now let us imagine what might happen when the traditional notion of a single leader is taken out of the equation in much larger, globally convoluted contexts, involving multinational organisations and governments. How might these new models of distributed leading benefit us more than traditional approaches to leadership when addressing some of the most urgent and complex issues of our time? What happens, for example, when virtuous, in many cases remarkable individuals – incumbent leaders - are taken out of the equation to the extent that their new role of collaborative stewardship is entirely foreign to their beliefs and underlying assumptions? Does shared purpose energy collapse as a result? Are these initiatives really much better equipped to deal with problems once thought highly improbable because of their distressing and confronting nature? Or are we fooling ourselves? Again the answer to these and similar questions is in the extent to which we can deliberately reframe both the context and the problems.
Autopoietic, or participative self-organising, organisations are growing in number. So one of the ways, of course, is to look around the world at the millions of successful ventures that are moving on from conventional forms of leading and organising. Not only are most of these thriving in their own right, they unconsciously ‘include and transcend’ many of the more inspiring features we have come to rely on from individual leaders with apparent ease. Features like clarity around a higher purpose; nurturing a culture for doing what is felt to be morally right; shared trust, integrity and steadfastness; calm encouragement when things go awry; a sense of belonging; passion and enthusiasm for the task at hand; and an empathic concern for the entire team. Actually it turns out that these features occur effortlessly, and are far easier to sustain, in working environments where leading is distributed and no single person is held accountable for leadership. In other words situations where leadership is an emergent quality of the entire collaborative experience.
Another way of verifying the positive nature of self-organising (that is leader-full and not leader-less) entities is to observe the maturity of strategic conversations while noting the currency of the toolkit-in-use.
That previous sentence reads blandly on the page. One needs to experience such learning encounters in order to fully appreciate the disparity between conventional exchanges and genuinely wide-ranging discourses that openly and transparently deconstruct and reconstruct belief systems, take polyocular views into account, inject new data through the use of digital platforms and sophisticated algorithms, and design cardinal principles which facilitate the exploration of many more options than were previously evident. If this kind of process is conducted by expert curators, in immersive environments where systemic complexity can be visualised, the results can be both humbling and awe-inspiring.
Finally, in this process of cognitive restructuring, I would like to envisage the benefits we might gain from taking the world’s most pressing problems out of the hands of individual leaders, and studying them in various forms of proven cooperative working groups with a universal or planetary mandate.
It goes without saying that we would grasp issues that are proving to be too wicked, even for organisations ostensibly set up to deal with the complexities arising from globalised trade, or disputes arising from culturally disparate communities. Issues like the elimination of poverty, the adverse hegemony of old empires, the impact of predatory capitalism on globalisation, the possibility of nuclear proliferation, widening gap between the underprivileged and affluent classes, adapting to a changing climate, shifting resources towards a low-carbon economy, how to produce, distribute and secure food for a world of 7.5 billion inhabitants without poisoning them from the excessive use of chemicals, the matter of disputed territories, corruption in public life, and designing for a post-capitalist era in which machines will be smarter than humans, for example.
Not only that but we would deal with more existential matters and moral issues, not as discrete emergencies that need patching up today, but in a manner that acknowledges their entanglement within those life-critical systems needed for the future survival of sapiens.
So come with me on an imaginary journey into one of our decision theatres. Sit down with twenty or so other world leaders from government, commerce and community organisations. You will notice that floor-to-ceiling screens surround us. There are no windows or traditional artefacts to distract us. We are about to be plunged into a dynamic encounter with profound knowledge – a confronting yet mind-opening experience aimed at shaping enduring solutions to the dilemmas you and your peers deal with as a top-level leader.
The curators start by outlining the issue from differing cultural perspectives. As discussions commence, hesitantly at first but then more enthusiastically, our attention is drawn to the screens. Images begin to form before our eyes in ways that cut through the everyday noise of the assumptions and theories-in-use we have brought into the room, revealing a level of coherence to which none of us are unaccustomed. Drawn progressively into an inquiry that tenaciously uncovers territory we usually try to ignore, or set aside as inconsequential, the conversation gets heated - yet more profound at the same time.
Programmers now introduce new and contrary elements into the imagery - responding to spontaneous remarks, off-hand observations, fragmentary assertions, and theories they pick up from listening intently to our conversation.
Now we sit back and watch new patterns emerge. Critical patterns linking factors and events previously thought to be discrete are being made visible, possibly for the first time. We hadn’t fully appreciated patterns like this before. We argue about the implications in an animated manner.
Indigenous wisdom is now assimilated and the genesis of new systems pondered. Epiphanies tumble out as a more granular clarity becomes clear. Matters are not as we originally thought. Some of us are surprised by the extent of our previous unfamiliarity with what increasingly seems to be obvious.
A single acupuncture point emerges from the visualisation – an intervention point where with the least amount of effort and disruption, the entire system we are discussing can flip into a new, more beneficial state with the slightest of nudges.
We run alternative scenarios, watching the consequences of our decisions unfold in time. Priorities can now be reassessed, protocols redesigned to accommodate diverse needs in the broader context of the human family. We are all exhausted from the mental exertion. But also elated - awestruck by the elegance that had previous eluded us and our fellow leaders.
A huge burden will have been lifted from our shoulders. We will experience the euphoria from working collaboratively with others and finding solutions we had never imagined.
We will have moved beyond anxiety and trauma to confidence and reassurance. And we will then use that new-found confidence to reinvent other systems that are failing us – redesigning them from first principles. The tensions unfairly impacting so many of our colleagues, the current leaders, will be attenuated.
Who knows, we might even be free to make progress without resorting to the futility of conflict or war. A more conscious evolution perhaps?
[i] If you find claims of increasing complication implausible, just examine one facet of the complexity now enveloping us: the amount of data we produce. Each day we generate around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data – or the capacity of 10,000,000 blu-ray discs. If stacked on top of one another those discs would reach a height of 1,296 meters – the equivalent of four Eiffel towers. Consider then the fact that 90 per cent of the world’s data in existence today was created in the last two years alone. Data generation is accelerating exponentially. Looking forward, we expect 400 billion gigabytes of data will be in existence by 2020. That is 5,200 gigabytes of data for every man, woman and child on the planet! This is what I refer to when I talk about the increasingly complicated nature of the world-system.