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The art and science of leadership has been on the organisational agenda for almost 40 years now. Back then leadership started to reveal itself as something important and something different from management, which had been the dominant player in organisations since the Industrial Revolution. Today, leadership stands as the pre-eminent driver of organisation outcomes and the go-to place for addressing organisation shortcomings. And where it stands today and looking forward is quite different to where things were 40 years ago.
When leadership first hit the organisational headlines in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s it was in the form of Heroic Leadership – individuals charged with the responsibility to forge the way ahead and to recruit and motivate followers to do the tasks required for organisation success. Leaders were perceived to have been borne with attributes that set them apart as leaders, such attributes as character, charisma, courage and persistence. Over time additional characteristics were identified and morphed into sets of competencies and behaviours that were understood to enable leaders to achieve organisation outcomes through the actions of others - strategic, decisive and results-focused to name a few.
By the 1990’s the idea of leaders as people and the ‘led’ as components of the organisation system was laid to rest. Leaders were now expected to be in sustained relationships with the led; harmoniously going about the organisation’s business. This gave rise to additional competencies and behaviours required of leaders - communication, people development and the like.
The beginning of the 21st Century was pretty much the death knell for Heroic Leadership – the advent of mobile technology and the internet, including social media, has revolutionised not only how organisations work, but also how and when people connect with one another at work, locally and across the globe. Organisation leadership is now practised in an environment of speed, uncertainty and constant change. This calls for a new type of leadership: Leadership-as-Practice.
Leadership-as-Practice recognises that organisation leadership plays out in day-to-day experience, relationships, context and situations; ‘…not like a coat that one can slip into for a specific setting….. more like a skin that we wear and that it can’t be taken off’. We don’t build leadership, we dwell in it. Leadership-as-Practice centres on persistent cycling between reflecting and doing, immersed in the day-to-day context of the organisation; observing and adapting personal practice in tune with the surrounding dynamics. It is quite at home in the ‘adhocracy’ of today’s fast-paced organisations.
Leadership-as-Practice embeds moral, emotional and relational aspects in everyday leadership practice; rather than the rational, objective and technical aspects favoured under Heroic Leadership and its predecessors. It transcends application of a skillset alone; reliant also on an appropriate mindset.
Looking to the future, Leadership-as-Practice may also come to an end; in favour of a collective model of distributed leadership - Leaderful Practice.
Leaderful Practice is characterised by collectiveness (everyone can serve as a leader), concurrency (members serve as leader at the same time), collaboration (members are co-creating the enterprise), and compassion (members commit to preserving the dignity of all). It is a participative and inclusive model of leadership in which the notion of leader and follower have no place; every member is equally free to express and to engage.
Each of Heroic Leadership, Leadership-as-Practice and Leaderful Practice demand a different approach to leadership development. All three require leaders to have access to a portfolio of ideas, tools and methods to support their leadership practice; knowledge about these can be imparted ‘offline’, but their value lies in their application and that can only be learned in context at work. So, even for Heroic Leadership, learning and application need to integrate into practice and at work is the logical place for that to happen.
Leadership-as-Practice is immersive in nature and learning/application in-situ is the only model that makes sense. The habit of reflective practice is key to this form of leadership, without which Leadership-as-Practice fails to fire – constant review and adaption are the only way to stay in sync with the fast-changing organisation dynamics.
Leaderful Practice, by virtue of its newness and radically different approach for most organisations, is likely to require a complete change in mindset, particularly around willingness to share control, ie both letting go as well as stepping up; and to work collaboratively with others towards a shared organisational goal. Self-awareness and reflection are corner stones of successfully developing Leaderful Practice. Learners firstly need to understand their current tendencies towards either traditional leadership or leaderful practice. From this baseline, development planning can take place, preferably with coaching support. Reflective practice will help learners to determine if their tendencies have changed over time, leading to further coach conversations and decisions about other development needs.
As you and your organisation transition between these leadership models, it is important that you identify the changes required in your leadership learning and that you work with new learning solutions that are fit for purpose.
Brigid Carroll, Lester Levy and David Richmond, Leadership as Practice: Challenging the Competency Paradigm (downloaded from lea.sagepub.com on 7 Dec 2015).
Joseph A Raelin, Creating Leaderful Organisations (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, 2003).
Joseph A Raelin, From Leadership-as-Practice to Leaderful Practice, in Leadership, Vol.7, No2, 2011 (Sage Publications Ltd, 2011).