Why do we expect people to be complete fully-formed leaders, when really we are always a work in progress?
What makes a person? Is a person a singular thing? Think of your day – the one you are having right now. What roles are you playing? What states have you been through? (For ‘states’, read: moods, feelings, ups and downs, responses, reactions etc.). On that basis, how much of ‘one thing’ are you? Or are you indeed many things, roughly coalescing into the ‘you’ that answers the phone and says ‘hello’ into it, the next time it rings?
This isn’t meant as some kind of criticism – indeed it could be the wonder of humanity that we are so many different aspects, so many different capacities of being, roughly thrown together in the shape of a ‘citizen’. But it does ask some difficult questions of us. It suggests that we may alter through the course not just of our lives, but of the days we inhabit. Whereof ‘authenticity’? It suggests that who we are resides not in the ‘Self’, a rather problematic concept in this case, but in the spaces between us and the people and things we encounter.
So who I am with my well-tempered, perfectly behaving coffee-maker might be quite in contrast to the ‘me’ that interfaces with my misbehaving, recalcitrant kettle. And when it comes to people, how I am with them may be as much about me, and my quirks as about ‘how they are’. So what does all of this have to do with leadership? Well, it might be already plain, that we expect a lot from our leaders. We expect them to be consistent, authentic, fair and reasonable, which, as it was argued above are a set of qualities in great contrast to how most of us really experience life. Indeed, we expect leaders to be finished, when really we are always a work in progress.
The online self
This has always been so, but in our age, something is happening which further widens this gulf between how we live our lives and what we expect of our leaders. This is the online self, which exists in ever more fragmented forms, across Facebook, twitter, linked-in and beyond. Again, this isn’t to be critical per se; it is a fantastic opportunity for self-expression, yet it casts further doubt on any of us, let alone the leader, to persist with the myth that I am consistent, ‘authentic’ fixed, in any way ‘singular’. So leaders, and the companies they occupy, wait for the singular moment of clarity, over, say a merger or sale, when meanwhile, the twittersphere is humming with speculation and chatter. A product is ‘launched’ when blogs have been discussing it for months.
Leaders in practice
Leaders ‘announce’ what was already widely known. Communities are ‘consulted’ on something they already have stopped talking about. Leaders are still expected to do their thinking behind closed doors and come up with their singular view when we all know this is just not how things are. So the gulf opens up between this heroic singularity and the experience of followers. And what is worse, in the learning and development profession, we still offer programmes and courses for the finished leader, rather than offering ways of learning that fold into the everyday, unfinished experience of the leaders in practice.
Doing something different
So we are trying to do something different. Our C21L programme is designed to support the honest, unfinished leader, and get alongside their lifestyle and experience. This means it is, by definition, a work in progress, as much a research programme as a ‘course’ based around the experience of a series of one-day ‘learning sets’.
It is exciting to be asking a question, rather than offering the answer: ‘How do we, in the learning and development world, support the honest, unfinished leader?’