“But hold on, what do we actually mean when we say Leadership TODAY?”

The question which I had been asked earlier in the day still resonated with me hours later. Yes, good question I thought…

At times it can feel baffling and slightly exasperating that despite the countless books, articles, seminars, and business courses about leadership, there is still something about it that eludes us. It almost seems as if there is an essence to leadership that exists ‘out there’ which we have failed to grasp but that hangs tantalisingly just out of reach.

Yet the phrasing of this question suggests a different perspective: “what do we mean when we say Leadership today”. This places leadership in a temporal context; what was considered as leadership yesterday doesn’t necessarily represent leadership today, hence the fact that our idea of leadership evolves. The beginning of the question also stresses our own human involvement in the notion of leadership: “what do we mean” emphasises the perspective that leadership is a ‘concept’ being conceived collectively by us and as such is open to new interpretations. And as organisations turn towards new ways of conducting business, it is interesting to look at what the people in organisations may be turning towards in terms of their views of leadership.

Organisations invest significant amounts of resources in hiring talented and diverse people. When I talk to people in organisations most of them wish to be treated as capable and creative human beings that can help build something they value and feel is worthwhile, both to the organisation and to the wider community. They seek environments where they feel they can be part of making a difference by shaping the decision-making and having more equal relationships with their leaders. Organisations readily talk about creating common purpose, shared values, and learning communities where learning is valued as work, and work as learning. Focus is placed on the participative nature of both learning and work; it is sometimes described as ‘I turning to we’. These words may well describe organisational aspiration rather than reality, yet this in itself is interesting: it asks serious questions about how people want to interact together in organisations and how they wish to be led.

Through their acts and words leaders are in unique positions to help create cultures which shape how employees interact with one another and engage with the organisation. As the unpredictability of the future increases, practices which worked in the past tend to quickly go beyond their sell-by-dates. In this context it seems that cultures which emphasise innovation and developing the collective potential of their employees may have much to offer.

By working together, leaders can create environments where employees are encouraged to take initiative, collaborate, experiment, reflect, and learn. Insights that are generated from these collaborations can inform business direction as well as deepen the cycles of on-going learning. Leaders are often well-placed to share what is emerging from such collaborations across various parts of the organisation, connecting different groups and enriching the learning between them. Striving to create conditions where learning can dynamically flow through the organisation encourages a cross-fertilisation of ideas where previously unimagined possibilities may emerge, form the basis of new experimentation, and expand opportunities for future growth.

Undoubtedly there are multiple dimensions to how leadership in organisations can look today depending on the particular context. Yet this aspect of empowering talent within organisations to create, improvise, learn and develop in connected and collaborative working communities feels especially relevant in our current context of increasing uncertainty. In a sense leading people has at its core the ability to enable others to take more of a lead thus creating communities of leaders; perhaps this is where the “I” can indeed change to “we”.

Written by Tamsin Owen


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