Why I Blog: Fostering Healthy Leadership

Be the Change, Feggy Art, Flickr

Photo Credit: Be the Change, Feggy Art, Flickr

“Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”
– James MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns’ quote resonates with most of our experiences. We see leadership occurring all around us, but rarely take time to reflect in a systematic way on what makes this leadership helpful or unhelpful—effective or ineffective. Further complicating our observations, at times we see people leading well who have no formal positions of leadership within our organizations, and at other times we see people in positions of leadership who really are not providing the necessary leadership direction for our organizations as we move into the future.

Lingering Questions

And so we come back to Burns’ comments: Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth. But must it be this way? Is leadership simply a mysterious reality? Is it something that we simply know when it is going well or poorly, but will never really understand what makes it work? Or might we be able to provide some basic descriptions of the form and shape of good, helpful, and effective leadership? Might we be able to get at some minimum factors that characterize both what helpful leaders and leadership look like?

Leadership Can Be Learned

Part of my vocational calling is providing thoughtful responses to such questions. I believe leadership can be described and studied. I believe it can be learned. Not every person is wired to be a capital “L” Leader. However, just about everyone embedded in an organization, group, or family can grow in and learn how to positively influence and guide the people around them.

This is the heart behind why I’ve started blogging at purposeinleadership.com. Although I’ve been observing leaders in action most of my life, I’ve spent the last 15 years in focused study on the topic through various degree programs, organizational roles, research agendas, and teaching opportunities. I want to start sharing some of these lessons learned with a wider audience.

A Passion for Ridding the World of Bad Leadership

Harvard Business Review’s editorial mission is “to rid the world of bad management.” I have a similar passion in the area of leadership. Though I won’t be able to personally rid the world of bad leadership, I’d love to make a dent in this ambitious agenda. I want to spread a message…

  • …that leadership is more about serving others than being served,
  • …that people are the priority even in profit-driven sectors,
  • …that leaders need to create organizations and societies that are not only productive, but also are fit for human beings,
  • …that purpose in leadership is of central importance,
  • …that leadership is vital in organizations that create value for those they serve,
  • …that people will endure great hardship and sacrifice when they believe in what they are doing and feel their work and leadership has meaning and purpose,
  • …that leaders have a God-given responsibility to care for the people they lead,
  • …that core leadership characteristics and behaviors can be described,
  • …that leadership is vital in working toward human flourishing in organizations and societies.

Thanks for Joining Me in this Pursuit

Although I don’t believe that everything rises or falls on leadership, I do believe that the pursuit of effective and healthy models of leadership is a first-order priority in our day.

Thanks for joining me on this journey toward good, helpful, and effective leadership. Our organizations and the people we serve as leaders deserve our very best!

Chaos, Creativity, and Connectedness: Learning to Embrace the New Organizational Story

From Chaos to Order, Sebastien Wiertz, Flickr

Photo Credit: From Chaos to Order, Sebastien Wiertz, Flickr

I enjoyed reading Margaret Wheatley’s book Finding our Way: Leadership for Uncertain Time recently. Wheatley discusses at length the important shift from old stories to new.

The Old Organizational Story

The old organizational story that Wheatley emphasizes is a mechanistic story in which a desire for predictability and consistency is pursued. Wheatley notes, “We want a story of simple dimensions: People can be viewed as machines and controlled to perform with the same efficiency and predictability.” As efficient as this goal or desire seems, Wheatley notes that there is one major problem with it: “people never behave like machines,” and when we try to have them act like machines we “ignore the deep realities of human existence” and “take the complexity of human life and organize it away.”

The New Organizational Story

In contrast to this old story, Wheatley is calling for a new story that is a tale of life…one where the complexities of human life are embraced and welcomed rather than controlled and managed away. Wheatley notes that, “Life seeks organization, but it uses messes to get there. Organization is a process, not a structure.” When we, as leaders and managers, simply try to mechanistically structure organization, we often work against rather than with the larger patterns of organization at work in the world.

On this point, Wheatley notes, “Self-organizing systems have the capacity to create for themselves the aspects of organization that we thought leaders had to provide. Self-organizing systems create structures and pathways, networks of communication, values and meaning, behaviors and norms.” In such a model, Wheatley is arguing for the importance of both creativity and connectedness in the life of the organization.

Pursuing Creativity and Connectedness

Pursuing creativity and connectedness feels messy and can feel at odds with the need for stability and consistency. This is one of the largest challenges. As leaders and organizations, are we willing to let go of perceived order pursued through mechanistic means in order to find deeper and more authentic order through more organic means?

Organizations and Chaos Theory

Chaos seems to be a threatening concept for many organizational leaders, but Wheatley reminds us that sometimes the deepest order is found in the midst of self-organizing systems that seem quite unorganized. In Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, Wheatley points to realities in our world such as fractal and spiraling structures that manifest deep order from what seems chaotic at first glance. Although seemingly at odds with our desire to pursue organizational structure through mechanistic means, Wheatley challenges us to look for order where we typically see chaos.

Pursuing Meaningfulness—What Matters Most

One final point: I love Wheatley’s emphasis on creativity being found through meaning. “As soon as people become interested in an issue, their creativity is engaged. If we want people to be innovative, leaders must engage them in meaningful issues.” Rather than having to prod and production followers through extrinsic means in the mechanistic model, tapping into what is meaningful allows us to pursue creativity through intrinsic motivation of opportunities that are meaningful in a more organic model.

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How do you respond to Wheatley’s arguments? Looking to the new story and themes surrounding chaos, creativity, and connectedness can feel uncomfortable at first, but I encourage you to give it time and thought. Sometimes the most power insights come to us in unexpected ways.