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The Risky Leadership Gap

fenix_leadership_imageA sizable gap currently exists between our collective ideas about good leadership and what we find demonstrated to be the capacities and qualities of effective strategic leadership.

When I first began my professional career, I worked as an associate researcher on the GLOBE project, directed by Bob House of the Wharton School, which compared leadership prototypes across 62 different societies. A cornerstone of this work was the implicit leadership theory – that individuals collectively hold in a society particular assumptions and expectations about the qualities, capacities and behaviors constituting good leadership.  These expectations and beliefs influence an individual’s perceptions and behavior toward the leader. This collective concept or framework is frequently different than what we have learned actually constitutes effective leadership, although initially leaders needs to gain credibility and power by fitting the model of what the followers believe to be good leadership.

The election of Donald Trump has revealed a ‘huge’ gap between what we find demonstrated to be strategic leadership in our complex world and what the American people have endorsed by their vote. So, I think it is worthwhile to think about what leadership capabilities have been shown to be effective in today’s complex environment, which are: empathy, the ability to respect another’s point of view, build trust, and harness collective intelligence; the complexity of mind and thought to grasp nuances and to recognize non-linear causality; the ability to address conflict; and to be capable of wielding power, as well as sharing power effectively. A leader moves beyond conventional notions of ‘goodness’ to understand that two seemingly opposed truths or perspectives may possibly both be equally valid and to act effectively in ambiguous circumstances. The effective leader possesses the capacity to anticipate, in the midst of action, the potential for unintended consequences. Also, the person must have an appreciation of his/her role in the larger ‘system’ and take responsibility for his/her impact. These are the leadership capacities that auger well for sustainable, successful enterprises be they private businesses or public governmental organizations. They are also the capacities, qualities and behavior that transformational leaders possess – leaders that are truly capable of changing a corporate culture or institutional environments in a constructive way. Frankly, it is rare to find all of these qualities in one individual. However, a good leader is sufficiently self-aware of his/her capabilities and limitations so that he/she includes advisors and confidantes in the leadership team who possess the qualities and abilities which may be missing, in order to assure sound decision-making processes.

So my questions are: How can we move toward creating a more robust idea of leadership in the popular imagination and public discourse? How can we build narratives about effective leadership that would illustrate the relationship between these types of leadership qualities and capacities and achieving the common good – well-paid jobs for the many rather than the few, sound educational opportunities for all of our children, safe neighborhoods, and a healthy and sustainable environment? How do we hold our leaders accountable for meeting our expectations of good and effective leadership? Can we resuscitate the idea of a virtuous leader? In my view, the future of our democracy, and perhaps of the world, depend upon how we address these questions. The stakes could not be higher.

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Gary Gottlieb
Gary Gottlieb
7 years ago

This is a critically important topic at this time, and needs to be addressed. I appreciate the author’s attempt to create a framework to move forward while asking questions critical to our success as we seek more effective leaders.

7 years ago

This is a wonderful invitation, Sandra. I love the crisp and powerful way you write, too…I’m jealous.

I’m including here the conclusion to the OXFORD Chapter on the practice of polarity/paradox that we (Barry, Margaret Seidler, and I) are submitting. I think what you are zeroing in on is the OR and AND thinking distinction…I have new respect for the power of OR thinking as a result of this election. It has allowed for irrationality and a host of cognitive biases to rule the day. Shocking.

“Breakthroughs come when people learn how to take the time to stop and examine their assumptions.” –Peter Senge
The city of Charleston demonstrated how stellar leadership of a police department together with skilled community facilitation supported leveraging “AND” Thinking challenges, which strengthened relationships between police and citizens. Growing community competency applying polarity practices extended to other community challenges, including those between daytime/nighttime businesses and residents and in response to a tragic mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Charleston was recognized for its exemplary leadership and resilience and stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration for cities that face similar challenges, nationally and globally.
Essential to understanding the practice of polarity/paradox is appreciating the immense power of “OR” Thinking. Solvable technical problems are effectively and efficiently addressed using “OR” Thinking. However, misapplying “OR” Thinking for chronic, ongoing, and unsolvable challenges requiring “AND” Thinking limits the ability to see polarity dynamics and undermines effectiveness addressing complex social challenges. The acute and complex 21st century realities of our interdependent and interconnected world demands we leverage the benefits of both thinking competencies to thrive sustainably. It is crucial that leaders and organizational systems rapidly accelerate competency to supplement “OR” Thinking with “AND” Thinking to increase resilience, reduce polarization, and enhance the quality of life. Increased innovation in technology tools and approaches (such as the PACT™ assessment) that explicitly measures performance for a broad array of polarities/paradoxes will support efforts to scale at enterprise levels.

Sally Colella
7 years ago

This is a very clear and articulate description of what the world needs most at this point in time. Thank you for writing the piece and for inviting the conversation.

I am very curious about what happened during our election. I wonder if their is a way that leaders today need to be able to handle complexity, as so beautifully described above, while also cutting through the complexity to provide simple and clear descriptions of where we stand. Looking forward to continuing this fascinating dialogue.

Ann V. Deaton, Ph.D., PCC
7 years ago

Sandra, Very thought-provoking article. In reading your post, I keep coming back to the importance of learning and listening in any leader. A leader who can’t listen and learn will not be able to expand on what he/she sees, will never be able to compensate for blind spots. One of the significant benefits of our diversity is that together we create a more complete and actionable picture than any of us can do on our own.