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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Helping people learn (part 2)

How giving up control can create more power

We were speaking to several senior executives in a large global company recently, listening to their descriptions of the changes that were needed in their company. The company has been very successful, has achieved a great deal, and has taken pride in the culture they have built. There was an emerging realization that despite past success there were risks that leaders would not be fit for purpose going forward, particularly because they valued their own “technical expertise” too much. It seems ironic that the important business skills that allowed a company to be successful might become a handicap!

The conversation also gave voice to the idea that is was hard for the executives in the company to learn new ways because they saw themselves as “experts” in problem solving, so “why would you need to learn new ways!"

It is a paradox of modern life that many people who rise to the top of organisations and are given a title, called “leader”, are often those focused, smart and capable people who are least able to exercise leadership and learn. They have “been there and done that”. Some of them do exercise leadership from time to time because they recognise that leadership is needed to respond to the complex challenges they face. However their approach to leadership is instinctive, rather than conscious, deliberate or disciplined.

Helping people learn and improve their leadership is complex and ambiguous, in part because those who turn up in seminars and workshops are used to being the experts; to being in charge. So how can we help all those who want and need to learn to exercise more leadership, more often, and do so consciously and skillfully.

These are questions, which we started to address in Part 1, about how do people learn from experience and what are the conditions that foster such learning.

It is also clear part of the reason smart people don’t learn and don’t exercise leadership is because they are stuck in using what they know, and over value their own expertise or authority. They suffer from the "God-Complex"; believing in the rightness of their point of view and expertise. They also operate in systems that value and reinforce this belief: the cultural practice or DNA is "immune" to anything other than expertise driven approaches. Our task as educators, coaches and consultants is, therefore, to help people open themselves up to themselves and the situations around them and be concious of the limitations of their experience. This usually involves levering people off their favourite and predictable ways of doing things, challenging their defaults and helping them test and examine their own defensive routines.

Continuing to draw on what you know, your expertise or authority, is only a problem when you are dealing with more complex adaptive problems. But is also a problem when the adaptation is you: when you or your company think it is time to adapt and expand your bandwidth in order to be more effective or fit for purpose.

The urge to hold on to your own world view, to trust your past experience and expertise is very strong in all of us. The use of such power is one of the most problematic areas in leadership because as McClelland (1975) states in his classic work,"power is a great motivator". It is a motivator because all effective managers have the desire to have an impact, make a difference, be influential and control activity in the service of achieving beneficial outcomes. Giving up being the expert (having control) saying 'perhaps I don't know something' forces the individual to drop their facade, give up expert authority and stop the rationalization and defensiveness that inevitably arise when someone is visibly stuck with something that matters to them. As someone said, "If I make a decision it is a possession, I take pride in it (even if its wrong), I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it “.

When individuals in decision-making positions let go, rely on others for ideas and answers, they increase the chances of curiosity, fascination, novel thinking and ultimately reinforce the idea that knowledge, expertise and power are not phenomenon that people possess in their heads or through their roles but rather are created through what people do together. Adaptive changes require the creation of new ideas, novel solutions, experimentation and learning amongst those most affected. It requires what our colleagues Diana Renner and Stephen D'Souza call "not knowing".

This lesson was brought home when Jim, a workshop participant, summed up the experience he had just had in describing a leadership challenge he was facing. To paraphrase...

"It was a relief to hand over my big problem to others because I was increasingly feeling frustrated and incompetent (back at work) because I couldn't resolve it. Yielding my ownership of the problem to others took the burden off my shoulders. I needed a new perspective because I was stuck but as a senior executive I cannot say that at work! I am not only expected to know everything but also expected to act decisively. With this problem I didn't know what to do because despite all my knowledge, discussions and action the problem persisted. Giving over the problem to others helped me see it as a part of a bigger frame; it changed my focus because others can sit on a higher balcony. I also could see for the first time how my own behaviors and beliefs about myself were contributing to the problem”.

The observations from Jim reinforce the notion that sometimes you become more powerful when you relinquish control. This general observation can be translated into a set of operational and behavioral competencies for leadership that can be attended to during leadership development. Learning with and through others is, as we discovered from Jim, not only valuable and humbling, it also points to strategies that can be used to behave and operate more flexibly.

Despite their protestations many people only find what they are truly committed to (and how they are perceived) when a problem emerges or a crisis erupts. For many who commit to achieving goals the idea of being less powerful and all knowing is a hard one, and one that often they can't see when everything is proceeding smoothly. The danger, however, of slumbering until a crisis hits is that it is almost impossible to control the process when you are in the middle of a crisis.

We see our task as leadership educators and coaches firstly as giving leaders the tools to act more consciously; understanding the impact to their actions, behaviors and beliefs about power, so that they can avoid the damage a crisis might bring; and secondly challenging their concept of themselves and of leadership, so that they can bring their considerable talents to leadership tasks and help others make sense of what they are facing.

If our task is to assist people be more effective, especially in changing times where there will be more rather than less uncertainty and turbulence, then these myths of authority and expertise, and their consequences for organizations, need to be tested and replaced with ideas that are more enabling and sustainable. How do you do this?

First published in LinkedIn on 26 Nov 2018


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