“We stick to the wrong thing quite often, not because it will come to fruition by further effort, but because we cannot let go of the way we have decided to tell the story”
David Whyte, Consolations
Despite good intentions, there are habits that hold us back. Organisations can get tangled up in ways of doing things, in established systems, norms, traditions and ideas that stall progress ‘because that is the way things get done around here.’ Like Gulliver in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, their leaders too can find themselves pinned down on the shoreline by the numerous small ties that bind. These, often invisible, ties are too rarely examined or challenged as they are part of day to day habits and ways of working that get taken for granted.
Seeing the System
What to do? Ron Heifitz exhorted leaders to ‘get on the balcony’, to stand above the fray in order to identify new patterns as they emerge and to be able to squint out at the horizon. This perspective-taking involves deliberately stepping out of the maelstrom of the everyday. It requires getting some perspective to see where moribund systems need disruption in society, in our organisations and in ourselves. The act of ‘getting on the balcony’ takes courage. Once a leader has observed a compromised system with a detached and cool eye, that system cannot be unseen. The entanglements observed and the obsolete loyalties recognized become the basis for a clarion call for action. Generative leaders are unafraid of disrupting their own systems, even those that feel precious, in order to unlock a productive future.
Articulating the Territory
Such a disruptive perspective was famously illustrated by Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian, who shifted the conversation at Davos into a more productive space by articulating the systemic challenges at play. “What Bregman said, put simply, was the Davos emperors have no clothes. They talk a lot about how something must be done about inequality and the need to address social unrest, but cavil at the idea they might be a big part of the problem.He told his audience that people in Davos talked about participation, justice, equality and transparency, but “nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share. It is like going to a firefighters’ conference and not talking about water.” (the Guardian, February 2019)
Stepping out of the Box
External ties may hold us hostage to the present but many leaders also maintain precious internal loyalties to ideas of themselves formed long ago that no longer serve. Much of what we do was decided by the person we were years ago. That data is often inadequate for the context of leadership and requires a deliberate re-examination. We see the vulnerability and openness that such bold steps require in the most exciting, generative leaders we meet as they think about the future.
On our programmes we use dynamic mapping that draws from Constellation practice. This mapping allows systemic blocks to surface as well as organisational stresses and unhelpful dynamics to be witnessed. Here the leader gets a chance literally to step outside the system and observe how those operating within it experience its dynamics. Those representing the different components of the dynamic system can describe what it feels like to be part of the system – drawing on a new data set that goes beyond the limited, so-called objective descriptions so beloved by organisations. (flow charts, project plans, organograms, reporting lines etc).
We work at a deep level with people’s engrained ideas of themselves, seen alongside detailed developmental feedback from peers and faculty during the course of a programme. We use tightly designed small group processes to allow people to inhabit the gap that this work can throw up.What loyalties to old ideas of themselves can people leave behind? How might they find the confidence, with help from the group, to step into an even more generative way of leading?