Four ways to be the leader 2017 demands - RSA

Four ways to be the leader 2017 demands

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  • Picture of Rich Watkins
    Rich Watkins
    We've got to get better at getting things done in groups
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You don't need me to tell you that we live in turbulent times: politics, technologies, industries, organisations have all moved at pace through 2016. There will be plenty of articles analysing 2016, diagnosing why things turned out the way they did and speculating about what is needed next. But I'm mostly interested in the hows: how can we face into complex challenges with confidence? How can we navigate turbulence for meaningful progress? How can we harness the diverse wisdom of multiple perspectives? And, how can we balance a humility of not having all the answers ourselves with a clarity that inspires belief?

From certainty to commitment

Waves of uncertainty roll and in 2016 they have felt fierce. In the instability, it's tempting to project a pseudo-certainty even when we know it’s wishful thinking. The good news is that there is an anchor that doesn't rely on declaring we have all the answers: remembering what you are committed to.

And we know this. Simon Sinek (who recently spoke at the RSA) expressed it powerfully with 'start with why' and there is increasing awareness that purposeful organisations perform well. But we need to be careful that this thinking about purpose isn't restricted to boardrooms - translating purpose to projects and teams is a leadership essential if we want confidence through uncertainty. It's less about parroting fancy high-level phrases and more about reminding ourselves and others in simple terms what we care about, and what we will orientate choices around.

From polarisation to curiosity

When the stakes are high and there is strong disagreement, it's tempting to write off opponents as enemies and stick firmly to established tribes. But if we want to solve complex problems, we need to break rank and embrace generous enquiry. Only with curiosity and empathy can we get a feel for the nuances of an opposing view - and this will be powerful in two ways:

  1. Sometimes we find unexpected common ground by unpacking miscommunication - we see that beneath the surface we have areas in which we are strongly aligned and can meaningfully work together on.
  2. Other times, we learn that our difference is profoundly entrenched - but our empathic connection will give us new wisdom and strategies to influence, negotiate or compete more effectively.

If you haven't come across Non Violent Communication, I have found it is a simple helpful framework to get started with this – reminding you to tune into the needs and hopes behind ideas and assessments.

From paralysis to experiments

There's a football cliché of 'taking each game as it comes' - of not imagining too far into hypothetical futures. With uncertainty in the air, teams of all sorts can get caught out in a similar way and become preoccupied with fantasies about how things might turn out. Being thoughtful and prepared is great but we must avoid the trap of trying to predict the unpredictable.

A dream of making the perfect plan and executing it flawlessly is just that - a dream - and is often paralysing. A better way through uncertainty is to think in terms of little experiments. Instead of pinning hopes on jackpot ideas, we aim to learn by trying things out. In user centred design and start-up culture, we talk about prototyping and 'minimum viable product' - but this can equally apply to this that aren't products like: how we lead, how we resolve entrenched debates, cultural change. Try something simple and small – and improve from there.

 From loss to integration

When humans undergo big changes there are practicalities that need to be resolved but also an inevitable emotional fallout - a change often means losing something valued. As a culture we aren't eloquent on grief and some of our clumsiness here also comes out in how we deal with these other losses.

I learnt valuable lessons working with Cancer Research UK when I was pointed towards a powerful way of understanding grief - the Dual Process Model. Instead of seeing grief as a journey with stages, the Dual Process Model holds that grief is the oscillation between two distinct processes or orientations - at one moment an orientation towards the loss, and at another moment towards a sense of restoration. This process happens from day one and comes in waves, the end point of grief isn't "getting over" the loss, there is no predestined path, and you don't help by telling someone how they should feel. Instead the work of grieving is to integrate with the reality of both orientations - the reality of the loss and the reality that a positive future is possible.

So, for leaders navigating through any change, we need to get over our fixation with positivity. We don't need to predict or dictate people's feelings - but we do need to create space where people can feel both sadness at loss as well as a sense of hope. When we integrate both our forward momentum will be more powerful.

Heading into 2017

May you anchor to your commitments through uncertainty, get curious about alternative views, experiment to learn and iterate, and integrate with the sadness of losses as you create positive new futures.


Richard Watkins is the founder of Let's Go, a consulting practice that offers practical support for organisations who want to get better at collaboration.

Follow Rich on twitter @letsgorich

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  • Thanks for the comment Steve - totally agree and I would love to see that research - do you have a link? With my lens

  • Rich Watkins presents some very interesting ideas on leadership. I have recently been engaged in some research identifying leadership behaviours that staff members, as it happens academics, respond to. The results reflect much of what Rich alludes to in this article. Our findings of when leadership is authenticated fall into eight behavioural traits: reliability, empathy, ability to anticipate outcomes, ability to deploy logical actions, honesty, openness to ideas, willingness to socially interact, transparency of transactional activity. Interestingly leadership performance would appear to be intertwined with good management skills, followship comes not just by inspiration but being professional, demonstrating sound management practice 

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