Leadership in the Age of Complexity

(continued) Leaders who do know the value of full engagement, who do trust those they lead, have to constantly defend their staff from senior leaders who insist on more controls and more bureaucracy to curtail their activities, even when those very activities are producing excellent results. Strange to say, but too many senior leaders choose control over effectiveness; they’re willing to risk creating more chaos by continuing their take-charge, command and control leadership.

Re-engaging People

Those who’ve been held back in confining roles, who’ve been buried in the hierarchy, will eventually blossom and develop in the company of a hosting leader. Yet, it takes time for employees to believe that this boss is different, that this leader actually wants them to contribute. It can take 12 to 18 months in systems where people have been silenced into submission by autocratic leadership. These days, most people take a wait-and-see attitude, no longer interested in participating because past invitations weren’t sincere, or didn’t engage them in meaningful work. The leader needs to prove him or herself by continually insisting that work cannot be accomplished, nor problems solved without the participation of everyone. If the message is sincere and consistent, people gradually return to life; even people who have died on the job, who’re just waiting until retirement, can come alive in the presence of a leader who encourages them and creates opportunities for them to contribute.

Leaders-as-hosts need to be skilled conveners. They realize that their organization or community is rich in resources, and that the easiest way to discover these is to bring diverse people together in conversations that matter. People who didn’t like each other, people who discounted and ignored each other, people who felt invisible, neglected, left out—these are the people who can emerge from their boxes and labels to become interesting, engaged colleagues and citizens.

Hosting meaningful conversations isn’t about getting people to like each other or feel good. It’s about creating the means for problems to get solved, for teams to function well, for people to become energetic activists. Hosting Leaders create substantive change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment and generosity. They learn from firsthand experience that these qualities are present in just about everyone and in every organization. They extend sincere invitations, ask good questions, and have the courage to support risk-taking and experimentation.

Are You a Hero?

Many of us can get caught up acting like heroes, not from power drives, but from our good intentions and desires to help. Are you acting as a hero? Here’s how to know. You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things; that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can save the situation, the person, the world.

Our heroic impulses most often are born from the best of intentions. We want to help, we want to solve, we want to fix. Yet this is the illusion of specialness, that we’re the only ones who can offer help, service, skills. If we don’t do it, nobody will. This hero’s path has only one guaranteed destination—we end up feeling lonely, exhausted and unappreciated.

It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems.

Truth be told, they never wanted heroes to rescue them anyway.

Parts of this article are excerpts from Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Forthcoming April 2011.

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