Leadership Unnamed

By Dave Cooper

Have you ever wondered why there are so many different types, or schools, of leadership?

Servant, transformational, authentic, adaptive, mindful, participative, situational, and so on — as many schools of leadership as there are authors looking to make a name (not to mention a buck or two) for themselves. Is leadership really that complicated that it has to be deconstructed so precisely that each nuance requires its own school of thought?

A quick Google-Scholar search reveals some 3 million-plus articles and books on the subject of leadership. Three million! If anything in the last century has gone viral, it’s leadership. And if we consider that the future is path-dependent, not necessarily determined by previous states and conditions in the past but definitely influenced by them, then how did we get here, to a place where it takes an advanced degree to not only comprehend the myriad leadership models and their associated theories but just to remember all their names? Whatever happened to just leadership?

The roots of the word “leader” are certainly humble enough. There seems not to be any direct translation for leader or leadership in Ancient Greece, other than “King” or “General.” One could surmise that without a word for leadership, no leadership was done or no leadership development was undertaken, but that would prove a foolish assumption, wouldn’t it? 

It’s telling that we don’t necessarily need a specific word for a collection of behaviors that have been with us for at least as long as we could communicate with each other. Variously throughout the ages, with each and every new context encountered, the word “lead” has come to mean guide, travel, see, reveal, bring forth, direct, and so on. Equally telling is that each of these definitions involves motion and change — leadership as calculus. Certainly, if you are leading or being led, you do not expect to end up in the same place as you started. This is the reason that some view leadership and change as synonymous.  

Not until the 19th century did our common understanding of leadership begin to emerge, then expand and change, first to acknowledge the position of a leader (i.e. at the fore), and then much later in reference to a pattern of behavior (i.e. influence) that could be embraced at any level in a team or organization or family.

Today, we can point to formal leadership, which accompanies a formal position, and informal leadership, which is not associated with an official position but could still be construed to mean “at the fore” in terms of character or skill or, better yet, both. And each time the context changed over the last 150 years or so, what it means to lead has changed, even if only slightly. One setting, say, the assembly line, might involve being prescriptive or transactional, and another, like that which exists in a six- or eight-man SEAL Team or the All Blacks rugby team, might involve being transformational, adaptive, and authentic.

Perhaps we should coin a new term, like Contextual Leadership—oh wait, that name is already taken. Leadership models seem to be a bit like babies’ names, don’t they? We don’t want to steal our friend’s baby’s name or use a name that has already been used in the (leadership) neighborhood, lest we be seen as copycats or unoriginal. So, we give new names to our baby leadership models.

And when it comes to models, I’m reminded of what George Box, the British statistician, said: All models are false, some models are useful. Ah, there it is! But useful for what? I’d contend that the usefulness is in trying to make sense of what it is we’re experiencing in any given situation. If we can simplify what we’re seeing and experiencing by packaging it up into a nice, neat model, we can effectively make sense of a complex world more rapidly in the future — by imposing our model on the world — and, consequently, spend less time and cognitive energy doing so. This is the way our brains often work, by unloading patterns of thinking and behaving onto the habit-forming areas of the brain so that we maintain the capacity to deal with the novel as it arises.

The trouble, of course, is that leadership is often about the novel, and our nice, neat, habitual model might not extend to this novel or dissimilar context. My wife once coached T-ball, but I can’t imagine Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians would get very far with her heavily task-oriented style. I do find it rather humorous imagining Francona hanging a water bottle on the fence and telling Corey Kluber to throw the ball at the bottle and to make sure he puts his left leg forward when he throws the ball with his right hand.  

I might also contend that inventing a new leadership model in an age where leadership is synonymous with status, brings with it, well, status. Let’s face it, being the leader carries a certain cachet — a sign of superior status, whether we believe it was earned or not. And so does being a leader of leadership theorists and divining a new leadership model.

Suffice it to say, if all of the sudden turning cartwheels gave leaders and theorists an elevated status, we’d all be out there turning cartwheels, perhaps even naming them, like the servant cartwheel (where we’re doing it to support others in their cartwheeling) and the authentic cartwheel (where we’re doing it because we absolutely value cartwheels). Maybe some of us genuinely value serving others in their cartwheeling; hence, I give you the authentic servant cartwheel.

But I jest …

Nevertheless, models — in this case, leadership models — do help us make sense of the world. This is the primary reason, I believe, that leadership theorists devise new models — to make sense of what they are experiencing as they study organizational dynamics in unique settings. And that is fine, preferable even, so long as we remember that a model of the world is not the actual world — a useful simplification perhaps, but by no means an exact replica of the richness and complexity that surrounds us.

Our models are rather more like snapshots — two- and sometimes three-dimensional renditions that help us dial down the complexity of what we’re experiencing as we travel or move through life, organizational or otherwise, from the place where we are currently to the place where we want to be tomorrow. Our models are not always in the process of becoming, but we are. Change and motion.

And whether we translate the model into an equation or into prose, it evolves into a narrative — a leadership narrative. And narratives, whether snippets or full-length stories, can be powerful tools for change and sensemaking. As leaders, whether guides, travelers, change agents, seers, or influencers, we use narratives and stories to transmit culture in ways subtle and not so subtle. Leaders, both formal and informal, and through narrative acts both verbal and behavioral, send signals about trust and cooperation, about team values and beliefs, and about how things generally get done in the group and the acceptable behaviors for doing so.

But even the most potent narratives, paradoxically, can limit what’s imaginable and achievable. It’s hard to get to Valhalla if you’ve adopted a Greco-Roman narrative. Alas, you’re bound for the underworld. Sorry.

When we start to name and label and place verbal boundaries around a complex whole, a practice called metonymy, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees, of missing the possibilities in the sea of probabilities. Our leadership becomes reductive and not as expansive as we perhaps intended it. And we end up, perhaps, where we are today, with more leadership models than any one person can rightfully make use of.

But what if we were to quit bouncing between narratives and turn the corner on our model-making journey? What if we came full-circle on ourselves — what might that look like? Indeed, it would not look like the place where we started, not entirely that is. Times are different, and so are we.

Our full-circle model might look more like a lock-washer or the beginnings of a spiral: we’re close to the same place, where leader and leadership are simple words with complex underpinnings, but we’re not at the same place. That is to say, the vertical distance between point A (where we started) and point B (where we are now) is slight, but the actual distance traveled through time and space and the resulting change that transpired might be vast. As Heraclitus said, we can’t step twice into the same river. We can come back to our leadership home, but that home isn’t as we left it, and neither are we.

When I was in the SEAL Teams, we preached four simple rules that could be applied to just about any combat situation — or any that I’d ever seen, that is, although the black swan is out there, I’m sure. Those rules were ancient and derived from the tomes of doctrine from Sun Tzu to John Boyd. And the first rule of fight club: Don’t bunch up. If we could conceive of a danger area, we did not put all of our forces in it at once. We spread out—a practice similar to diversifying one’s interests or portfolio.

The second rule of fight club: if we had to cross open ground, we always did so with the use of covering fire, or more aptly, the threat of it, such that we could employ it instantly if the group that was moving got into trouble. If we were up and moving, we were not only in the open and drawing attention, but we were hampered in our ability to return fire accurately. In short, we were vulnerable. Heisenberg on the battlefield: you can have speed or position but not both. So, someone always covered for us when we moved — a practice similar to hedging a bet — an action — by devising a contingency plan should that action fail.

The third rule: we sought to make contact with the enemy, whether visual contact (preferred) or direct fire contact (preferred only in Hollywood) with the smallest element possible. An eight-man team usually broke down into two elements, or fireteams, of four. Thus, we sought to make contact with a group of four, leaving the other four to maneuver and achieve a position of advantage — a practice similar to mitigating risk by maintaining freedom of maneuver and the ability to seize upon opportunities as they arose. And since we sought to make contact with only four of the eight, this simple rule meshed nicely with the first: don’t bunch up.

And the fourth rule: be prepared to break the rules if the situation demanded it.

These simple rules, then, endemic to the tasks involved in counterterrorism, allowed us to glimpse the complexity of our environment without having to get bogged down by naming every minute detail in every context we encountered. When in doubt, when the hackles of assuming risks were raised, we went back to the rules. But we were prepared to break the rules if our collective experience and learning deemed it necessary. (Notice I wrote “collective experience.”)

What might leadership look like, then, if we set the reductionist doctrine aside for a moment? What if we looked at leadership as we do design? Good leadership is found not when there’s nothing more to add to the canon or the practice but when there’s nothing more to take away. In that case, it’s hard to imagine a stripped-down view of leadership where influence doesn’t matter, and it’s hard to imagine a context where intention doesn’t matter. I’d contend that one’s influence and intentions should be aimed toward achieving the group’s shared goals and not one’s selfish goals (i.e. political behavior).

That’s not to say one can’t derive pleasure from the practice of leadership — one can and should — but only to say that one’s focus should tend toward the group. And if each person’s intentions and influence are aimed at how the group might achieve its goals and vision, I’d contend that the quality of relationships between group members could be enhanced exponentially. If nothing else, good leadership is not only contextual but deeply relational.

It’s also hard to imagine a context where effort doesn’t matter — a lot. Some of that effort should be geared toward exploiting what works in the present context or environment but also toward imagining various futures; and since the future is always provisional, some of that effort should be set aside for conducting small experiments, to include seizing opportunities that come flitting down the pike and, similarly, amplifying small positive changes that emerge locally into larger, perhaps even global, changes. We do that by creating positive feedback loops to amplify a small change, by resourcing a small change, and by weaving a cultural narrative that enhances the attractiveness of the change and draws more people and energy toward it—all easier said than done.

A portion of that effort should also be geared toward the practice of humility as well, toward striking a dynamic balance between advocating for one’s position or vision but also actively listening to and inquiring into the viewpoints of one’s teammates, particularly those at the frontlines of the business, and then integrating aspects of those diverse points of view to produce solutions more powerful (generally) than any one leader could come up with on his or her own. Again, that effort could pay dividends in enhancing the quality of relationships in the team or group by shaping an environment where trust, respect, care, commitment, and accountability can blossom and flourish. The practice of leadership isn’t rocket science, but, done well, it isn’t easy, either.

Finally, leadership also has to be about achieving results, and when successful, rewarding those results. And when not successful, rewarding the effort where it’s warranted. That is to say, all those with influence in the group, and thus in a leadership role even if not a formal one, must make the effort to reward the right behaviors, whether those behaviors and actions are witnessed in a subordinate, a peer, or a superior. A nod of appreciation and a heartfelt thanks for a job well done or a herculean effort still go a long way toward reinforcing positive behaviors, though we often lose sight of the importance of such small acts of kindness and sacrifice. As such, there’s more than a bit of mindfulness and a deep sense of awareness — of self and others — that’s required here.

Right influence. Right intentions. Right effort. Right results. Right rewards. Right mind. Start your full-circle narrative there, perhaps, in your continuous leadership journey, whether leading a family, a community, a company, or a country, and see what happens. Test it out. And keep circling back to these rules. Don’t add to them — if you can help it — but certainly see what can be taken away. This is the realm of constructing identities and building relationships around tasks, and then aligning and shaping the cultures that emerge from those relationships, shaving off the rough edges, so to speak, so that your culture can roll into ever-higher levels of performance. And don’t be afraid to break the rules when it’s rule-breaking that’s required.

Click here for Dave Cooper’s full bio.

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