How much is leadership about facilitation? How far are the skills of the leader in an age of complexity (21st Century Leadership or C21L) equivalent to those of a facilitator? Isn’t ‘facilitation skills’ just ‘leadership skills’ in disguise?
Recently I ran a Facilitation Masterclass for a client based in the Far East. This was a three-day, two-module programme. A participant, one of the less voluble members of the group, sent me an extensive evaluation of what she had learnt afterwards. This was particularly valuable as it said so much more than the usual ‘happy sheets’ and was all the more of a gift for the fact that it was voluntary. As with such things, this action said as much about her, and her quiet, deep reflexivity as it did about what she had noticed in us, the co-facilitators.
It was a particularly acute journal of ‘noticings’, about what matters in facilitation, but on reading her list, it occurred to me it was also applicable in terms of C21L, leadership in the age of complexity. Here’s her list, with my C21L annotations.
‘Holding the Space’ – she was referring here to the facilitator’s capacity to provide a focus and create a ‘field’ around the group-space, which is both a physical and a narrative activity. The Facilitator has to make sense, both at the level of conceptualization and as a presence in the group. Isn’t this was leaders have to do for their businesses and teams?
‘Noticing the Gap’ – ‘giving voice to those who haven’t spoken’, as she put it. It seems this is what quality leaders have to do to ensure balance and clarity. What unspoken voices were there in the risk departments of banks before the credit crunch?
‘Expressing or Labelling your Feelings (with an understanding that it may be a function of how the group is feeling)’ – Isn’t this what we call ‘self as instrument’ – the capacity to notice our feeling states as an indication, an intuition of what might be going on in a system? Most leaders underuse their intuitive capacity, being too absorbed in the everyday detail.
‘Stepping in and out of the Field to Observe and Make Sense of the Ongoing’ – this is linked to the above – a C21L leader has to be able to be highly engaged and involved and at the same time is able to pull back and look at the bigger picture, more ‘objectively’. Is this what Peter Sands, Head of Standard Chartered Bank, apparently once called ‘analysis both at 30,000ft and 3 inches’?
‘Challenging the Group/Individuals’ – how many organisations fail to get to grips with the performance of people at the level of detail and engagement that will actually make a difference? How many good, challenging, difficult, respectful conversations go on in your organisation?
‘Simplifying the Process’ – Both facilitators and leaders in business need to be able to cut through to the issues, the ‘enabling truths’ as we call them; as it is said: ‘the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing’.
‘Being Conversational as Co-Facilitators’ – clearly our participant noticed the co-facilitators on this programme talked with eachother, openly negotiating and working explicitly, in front of and as a model for the group. In our C21L work, we are developing the concept of the ‘Unfinished Leader’; the leader who is more open about what they know and don’t know, more honest about the ‘front’ that leaders often feel they have to carry, more openly negotiable with their colleagues, less presumptive that they know it all. In the networked age, everyone knows how often they, and everyone else, is winging it. Why pretend? Surely it is more honest, engaging and inspiring for leaders to model respectful negotiation with each other?
So there you go – perhaps it is suffice to say, C21L, leadership in a complex age, is really a facilitative task. But the final honour goes to my participant: perhaps what she role models is the greatest skill of leadership of all, in any age: that of the listener.