Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Permission or forgiveness?

I've just read Tribes by Seth Godin. A great read and the phrase that sticks with me is that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It meant a lot to me because I've often used this when I've been asked to describe my own approach to leadership.

I've been accused of being careless in my approach to issues and change, but I think that's the point. I don't mean to be careless but if you are going to lead any change you have to first understand you are going to tread on toes, you are going to upset people. If you didn't it wouldn't be change. It's the very nature of leadership that you believe that something needs to change, you are passionate that an opportunity needs to be taken, or that you need to overcome a problem. Being a leader actually means caring, it means caring enough to take a journey, to overcome and work with the obstacles you are presented with.

To lead beyond authority you need to accept that you won't be able to get permission in advance. Once you do that and you start your journey to make something happen it will then all start to fall into place. The journey to this point though is what I think leadership development is all about. So then leaders accomplish their goals and they complete their journey, what are they then asking for forgiveness for? Is it for taking on the challenge and leading the change, or is it for upsetting a few apple carts along the way? I guess it depends on how well they led the change, and in turn this may be what affects whether they can build the natural authority to lead change a second time around....

Friday, 20 March 2009

Seeking Common Purpose

I have always thought finding a Common Purpose is an important part of leading change. This was brought home to me even more when I read Obama's Nowruz speech, and the Guardian commentary on it.

'Obama is reasoning that on first introductions, it pays to stick to what you have in common'.

In his speech Obama calls for a sense of partnership and highlights the need for a better future together.

I don't think the need for this search for Common Purpose needs to be restricted to world leaders. I think the lack of desire to find Common Purpose is at the heart of so many of our social and economic problems. There are so many different opinions, approaches and outlooks that we have to deal with if we are leading change, and this can a lot harder to get rid of than airline baggage, especially in the case of Iran and opinions over nuclear armament. But to be able and willing to get everyone around the negotiating table the first thing that is needed is a willingness to find a sense of Common Purpose.

I think this is something more than just vision. It has to be something that all parties see and often can only be achieved by creating it together. Obama's Nowruz speech is a step in this direction. It's a proposal for finding some Common Purpose that I hope will be enough for people involved to decide to come around the table for.

This Nowruz speech isn't a one off either, Obama has been calling for a renewed Common Purpose in many of his speeches. Will it be enough to make a difference?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Be inspired

I've come across two different descriptions of inspiration in my time as a facilitator and trainer. Firstly that it's about helping people to connect to something bigger than them. To see how things in their everyday life have more meaning, how they are part of a bigger picture. I can't count how many times I've seen this in action. People going to a local youth programme, spending time meeting people from other sectors, building a school in a rural village in Ghana, or working with young offendors. In all these situations people find more connections to others, to their wider environment and in doing so are able to make more sense of their world and what they do. This connection to something bigger is what inspires them to do something more, to take action, to make change happen.

This first description came from Ben Clayton-Jolly and what's reminded me about it is his new organisation inspiring life. Take a look and I think you'll see what I mean.

The second explanation I've come across is that it is literally breathing in, taking in oxygen, energy, breathing life into you. This one is harder to see, but exists in those moments when we take a step back, when we realise how tense we have been and we breathe again, slowly and with intent. We do so because something catches us - makes us look, see or do something differently. It is often a change of scenery, a visit to a new place, or a challenge we have come across.

I got this explanation from Paul Ogden, who has made me realise just how leaders need to work on their inspiration, to train it in so it is with you in the hard and challenging times.

We can train and develop leaders as much as we want, but we've also got to find space to generate, give and share inspiration, it's the spark that starts the fire, the place where we get the energy to take part and to lead change.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The fear of leadership

Last night the BBC aired a programme on Radio 5 Live. It was about the organisation I work for - Common Purpose - and picked up on the accusations of us being a sinister organisation being made by Brian Gerrish and others. Of course I'm not overjoyed by it, but one of the issues raised on the programme made me think. The programme suggested that our description of leadership - leading beyond authority - appears sinister.

But leadership isn't something that can be confined to boundaries of authority. Surely the recent financial crisis has taught us that at least. Social and economic challenges aren't going to respect structures and boundaries that we put in place, and problems in our own organisations or communities won't remain neatly inside the boundaries of one department or geography. People will have to learn how to deal with things outside their authority.

I don't mean people should go and interfere for the sake of it, it's more complex than that. But we do need more people who believe they can make a difference and understand how to go about it. Part of that is accepting leadership as a positive thing, not something to be frightened of. Someone who wants something to change is going to have to lead it. Doing nothing won't make a difference.

Youth crime is a great example of this: Police can't solve this on their own, they need to work with communities, with parents, schools, politicians and community activists alike. But to do this Police need to reach out and understand these different people, to stop seeing them as part of the problem and start seeing them as part of the solution. They then need to communicate with them, share the problems, build coalitions of people to take things forward. For me this means leading.

Part of the strength of talking with people about leadership is it forces a very powerful conversation about whether or not individuals can make a difference. I've worked with so many people who've rejected it because they are uncomfortable with the responsibility that it appears to carry, or who think it is a label that can only be used by those in senior positions. It's this very fear that I want people to overcome. Why can't a single mum who wants to improve conditions on her estate be called a leader. And when she is she can't be told to lead within her authority, because all the answers lie well beyond her authority.

Does leading beyond authority sound sinister or is it just another way of helping leaders understand that problems don't come in neat packages?

I've put a link here to leading beyond authority so you can read the formal stuff if you want.