The finest definition of leadership I have come across yet…

A few years ago, thirteen to be precise (where did that go?), I was fortunate enough to be a participant on a leadership development course run by the charitable organisation Common Purpose. I thought the course was excellent, pulling together as it did people from all levels and many parts of the private, public and third sectors, with varied views, facing a wide range of seemingly disparate yet often inextricably linked challenges. I was fortunate to be amongst a cohort of intelligent and talented attendees. One of my fellow participants was the softly-spoken director of a theatre, a patient and driven man who shared his wisdom and experience readily with anyone who made time to listen. He offered the group what I still think to this day is the finest definition of leadership I have heard. He said that in his view, leadership was about creating the conditions in which things happen. It’s a wonderful, powerful and simple definition that merits exploration.

I have mulled over his words many times, and though there are countless gurus ready to offer far lengthier more complex academic and opaque definitions of leadership, none of them hits the spot for me. The reason I think I find this definition of leadership so powerful is that it strips away the simplistic notion of leaders being merely dealers in hope, a vague intangible destination many leaders aspire to, one that also avoids real scrutiny, and it allows us to inspect and interpret the empirical results of leadership through the lens of our lived experience. Looking in the rearview mirror and stopping to look around enables us to see what was passed to us as leadership for what it truly was, it allows us to contrast the journey it promised to take us on, versus what it delivered, the landscape it ultimately led us to. It facilitates learning and accountability in a way no other leadership paradigm I know of does.

There is an old adage that says we are where we are because of decisions we made yesterday, there is I feel some truth to this. But what is often missed in this nugget of wisdom is a clear acknowledgement that we are more than likely where we are not because of decisions we ourselves made, but because of the decision’s others made and in some cases, that we allowed them to make on our behalf. All our lives are to some degree merely the consequence of other’s actions; yes, control is largely an illusion. Pandemic anyone?

Seeing where we are, really seeing, allows us to observe with the benefit of experience and data where we are now and where we have been, in both our recent and distant pasts. It develops informed-understanding based on factual insight and the benefit of unambiguous if retrospective knowledge. What factors and forces conspired that led us to wherever we find ourselves, individually and collectively? Are we sitting on the hard-shoulder because we didn’t take on fuel when we should have, are we upside down in a field because we didn’t change the tyres or failed to see the corner, or are we exactly where we expected to be, perhaps even ahead of schedule, cruising unimpeded along an unanticipated recently upgraded highway? Taking time to really understand why we are where we are is I believe one of the most underrated under-practised pastimes we humans engage in.

If you have followed the news this week, there is not only a fair to middling chance that you will be severely depressed, but you will also have doubtless witnessed a growing procession of notable people, the global great and good, queuing up to criticise President Trump for his role in inciting the riots and violence that occurred in the very heart of America’s democracy. Everyone seems to be wading in. Have you noticed how many people suddenly acquire and express a strong view when they have nothing to lose? It has certainly been an interesting start to 2021, which of us will ever forget the half-beast half-man sporting buffalo horns and face paint proudly strutting the halls of Capitol Hill in his lounge-pants. I, like many others I imagine, initially thought he had driven straight from a fancy dress party, I had no idea he had actually dressed for the occasion. Then again, I wonder if more of us would engage in the process of politics if the characters were just a little bit more interesting. However, my point here is not to observe the lack of moral fibre or absence of an internal compass that seems so prevalent in leaders today or to criticise the citizens of any country for their sartorial choices. No, my point is to highlight the wilful blindness and even hypocrisy that leads us to apply our judgements only when it suits our world view and our biases.

If we are to believe Trump is accountable in some part for what has happened both recently and during the last four years across America, and there is good reason to do so, then we are in effect applying the definition of leadership that was offered to me. From a position of great authority, visibility and influence, Trump created the conditions in which things would happen. But if we are happy to go along with this undeniably rational train of thought, then shouldn’t we consistently apply the same logic in other spheres? Those of a certain age may recall how Margaret Thatcher’s leadership created the conditions for recurrent rioting, for which I recall only the rioters were prosecuted. More recently the Tory government has been lambasted on the national stage for what it is doing to the poor and for overseeing the creation of the wretched conditions in which a minister for suicide prevention is required.

Are we condemning Trump, are we condemning his zealous followers, the press, or all? Do we explain rioting as the logical outcome of poor or misguided leadership? What is the role of personal agency and self-determination in all of this? And is it time to start looking more closely at the many harmful often tragic failures in public sector services through the lens of predictable foresight as easily anticipated consequences of the prevailing leadership doctrines? I found myself shaking my head in frustration this morning as I watched one of the most strident former advocates of reduced NHS funding telling the BBC News that the UK’s healthcare services are facing unprecedented pressures. A man whose previous direction of leadership had been a significant contributing factor in creating the stretched services and unsustainable conditions presently facing the NHS, now staring shamelessly from my TV screen as he addresses me without a hint of irony or apparent self-delusion. If leadership is about creating the conditions in which things happen, then we need to listen less to those who have brought us to the place we find ourselves in, and more to those who are prepared to think increasingly deeply about the consequences of their actions or inaction.

I founded the HIPSS website as a place where open candid conversations can be had about what drives public sector services to behave so poorly so often. I think it’s important to develop our collective understanding of why we are where we are, to enable lasting and worthwhile improvements to occur. #leadership #leadershipmatters #ethics

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