Chapter 4: Leadership, What does progressive leadership look like?

Hello leaders of the revolution,

Sorry this section is so big – but I wanted you to get it all in one hit.

Lemme know what you think, all of the feedback and edits continue to be HUGELY helpful,



So what does progressive Leadership look like?

Here are 7 components of Leadership in a social business.

1.    Self
2.    Style
3.    Trust & Ethics
4.    Transparency
5.    Rewards
6.    Communication / Realtime
7.    Support

1. Leading yourself

Just as this book puts People before Leadership, we must also put leading yourself before leading others.

There is a reason why we have the appallingly bleak but recognisable models of management style such as the mushroom management (‘keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em crap’), the seagull (‘arrive in a flap, squawk around for a while, crap over everybody and then fly out’) and so on. It’s because we have all seen and experienced them! They do exist.

Will those approaches to leadership help organisations thrive in the 21st century? I really don’t believe so. So what allows this to happen in the first place? Two things: a lack of organisational awareness and a lack of personal awareness.

As transparency rises in society at large and inside businesses in particular, more and more feedback will exist openly about manager and leader performance. As the agenda to make boardrooms more transparent and accountable to shareholders and wider stakeholders, again the same forces will drive an openness and awareness previously unseen. The organisation will learn more quickly and more transparently what works and who performs, which naturally then must influence the individual leaders and managers. Transparency has a momentum of its own – and will permeate all of our organisations.

As a result, in the evolved organisation it will be very hard to lead others unless you are constantly learning and improving in how you manager yourself. (In fact, that is the case today – it’s just a lot of people get away with crap leadership because the world allows them to).

So knowing how to lead yourself means knowing the answers to the following questions:

•    What is my purpose in this work?
•    What motivates and demotivates me?
•    What are my values, and which ones am I honouring and which am I not honouring in this work?
•    What do I believe my strengths and weaknesses are, and how am I consciously working with them?
•    What do the people around me believe my strengths and weaknesses are?
•    How do I bounce back from challenges and re-energise when I’m low?
•    What are my blind spots, what don’t I know about myself?
•    What do I tend to resist or ignore?

Knowing these answers is an iterative and constant learning process. The answers may change over time, or become more (or less) clear. Knowing to keep reflecting on them, and practicing and evolving methods of operating from these answers is the key to self-leadership.

2. Style

Just as we are all different, so are our styles and approaches to engaging with people and therefore ‘leading’. There is no correct style for this kind of evolved business we look at throughout this book.

However, there are a few stylistic themes or tensions to be aware of. The first is the tension between being the all-solving hero and the convenor or curator of the group.

Heroic leadership

In the popular definition of leadership, the leader rides in on his white stallion, glistening in the midday sun, holding a spear aloft, squinting slightly with a look of hard resolve, his mouth (and this leader definitely is a ‘him’) is very human, his ears wise, his arms strong, his hands etc etc. You get the idea. Now that he has arrived, the problem will be solved. Be it through wisdom, strength, bravery or decisiveness, this leader will fix it and in record time! ‘Stand back, minions!!! I AM SOLVING THE PROBLEM!’.

Personally, I find this style very attractive, and am drawn to it regularly. One of my biggest flaws is that I want to be the hero, the all-fixing leader. If you have the same idea about how you should be as a leader, then you will find that the issue is that it crowds out the possibility for others to participate, for the group to function as a whole, and for others to step up and take responsibility. To unlock a team’s full potential through their participation and democratic practices, this style may not be best. To engage an organisation of smart, progressive people that have seen through the fallacies of old school leadership, this style may not be best.

Convening, curating, gardening

Perhaps a better style to adopt more of the time is that not of the hero, but of a convener or curator of the group – be that a whole organisation or a small team. The shift here is from being the individual fixer that the most complex issues get escalated to, to being the person that helps the group observe what is happening, creates the space for them to share in that information, helps them reach decisions and create accountability.

This is a more removed personal style of leadership than the heroic mode – this is leadership as facilitation, or if you prefer the metaphor, gardening. Adding something here, pruning a little there, encouraging this bit to come forward, digging deeper, patiently nurturing changes and growth.

Given that we are now managing groups of people whose behaviour and attitudes may be becoming more like volunteers, that we are managing people distributed physically (whether they are working from home or working across multiple geographies), and in an environment where the best talent have given up on the idea of a job for life and can pick or choose from the best jobs, our style may need to increasingly be one of influencing over directing. Or curating/gardening over heroic leadership.

The challenge for you and any of us is that when we are told ‘you’re in charge’ then assuming a directive style is easy. Or at least it is a known style – it’s what we’ve been trained in since school. I say jump, you say how high! Teacher, boss, captain, coach, General – all of these have had different styles, but the commonly held view is that leadership is about telling people what to do and making sure they do it. As emotionally intelligent types, we probably don’t couch it like that – but our inclinations, particularly under stress, will be directive. It is the established paradigm, so no need to explain that. What can be much harder is to resist that model and the indoctrination there, and to overcome your urges to just tell everyone what to do. The challenge, then, is to influence and persuade, to garden and curate, rather than just directing.

Managing volunteers and creating ‘followership’

As we have touched on, the people in our organisations will increasingly demand this adapted, evolved style of management. Gen Y in particular seek the dialogue, participation and feedback from their manager, and meaning in the work. Managing Gen Y is often characterised as managing volunteers: finding ways to excite, cajole and generate tangible results from a group of people who have lots to give but will not respond well to just being told what to do.

As John Chambers, the long-standing CEO of Cisco put it in an interview with TK: “I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right. But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style — more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies. If you had told me I’d be video blogging and blogging, I would have said, no way. And yet our 20-somethings in the company really pushed me to use that more.”

Interestingly, at Gore they talk about Leadership being ‘defined by followership’. That is, that the group nominates its leaders – they “vote with their feet” as CEO Terri Kelly puts it. You cannot be a leader at Gore without having people that are willing to follow you. What a powerful evolution from the norm.

So the question for you is how do you create followership in your work? What is it that you do that makes the people around you want to follow you? And what is that you do that makes people not want to follow you? Finally, if your people weren’t paid and were volunteers, how would you engage with them to create the best results possible?

Changing styles

But leadership is situational. There surely will be occasions where this more directive ‘heroic’ stance is the right one to take. And others where being the curator or gardener will generate the best results for and from the group. That is the judgement we all have to make continuously – which style and approach is right for this context.

3. Trust & Ethics

Underpinning much of the 21st century approach to leadership are Trust and Ethics.

The trust dimension is trusting in the people and the practices of the organisation to deliver the desired results. Trust is particularly important in order to accept some of the contemporary practices we talk about in this book: giving power to more of the people in the organisation; allowing new spokespeople to emerge; entrusting big decisions to groups rather than making decisions in ones and twos.

Without trust, there can be no empowerment of others – instead, a lack of trust creates a centre of gravity that leads to micromanagement across the whole organisation, which in turn creates slowness, bottlenecks, stifles creativity and so on.

So there must be trust flowing from the leaders in the organisation. There should be a default ‘I trust you’ position rather than a default ‘I don’t trust you’, though in many organisations it feels the other way around.

The final point to make on trust is that the most powerful thing a contemporary leader may do is to publicly fail inside (and outside) the organisation. By failing and communicating that failure, leaders make it OK to fail AND immediately create a different context for trust to exist in. It sets a new precedent and provides at least the promise that others in the organisation can fail too. This is powerful fuel for the creation of trust, because what it does is not only says but actually demonstrates that it is OK to be vulnerable in this organisation. Leaders fail first. In fact, that’s a nice slogan: Leaders fail first.

The ethics dimension is about behaving with integrity – and particularly about doing only what you would be happy the whole world knowing about if that email or decision was shared with the whole world. I’m sure there are great books on this whole topic – do we really need to describe ethics? You might think so, looking at some business people’s behaviour. But really, it is just about doing the right thing, all of the time. (Simple!).

4. Transparency  

Leading in a more transparent world demands different things from us. We can break these into two sub-categories: Informational Transparency and Emotional Transparency.

Leaders have always dealt with a higher degree of transparency than everyone else in an organisation, to the extent that they have always been highly visible, are subject to higher expectations than normal and are typically surrounded by and at the centre of a variety of competing influences and stakeholders. Clearly, this varies hugely from being a manager in a medium-sized organisation to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 multi-national or a leading politician.

This transparency has manifested itself in a variety of ways: from gossipy tabloid stories about personal lives to the fact that executives in publicly listed companies have their remuneration published openly to the whole world.

However, as we continue to discuss in this book, this transparency around information – not only rewards, but also performance, feedback and increasingly other more subtle data (think MPs expenses, or carbon footprints, or travel patterns) – is going to increase.

So as a leader, you must prepare for and cope with more and more information about you and your various impacts being open and available to others.

The emotional transparency of the coming age of leadership is perhaps the more demanding shift.

If the organisations that we lead in are becoming more conscious, more authentic and more open to dialogue and listening then we leaders must necessarily do so too. It will not be possible for the people in an organisation to take their risks and become more vulnerable and open at work if the leaders do not lead the way.

Emotional transparency requires leaders to be congruent: to actually act in accordance with their feelings no matter how unexpected that is. Can you image you or other leaders in your organisation saying any of the following to a group of your people:

•    “I’m scared about this and I don’t know what the answer is”
•    “I’m feeling sad”
•    “I need help, I’m lost right now”
•    “I feel like going home and hiding”
•    “When I look at this, I’m ashamed to be part of this organisation”
•    “I feel guilty because I haven’t done my job well in this area”

Yes, these are deliberately provocative. But what would it be like if people were more emotionally transparent at work more of the time, starting with the leaders? What is your biggest fear here, when you read through that list of proposed ‘acceptable things for a leader to say’? Are there benefits to this approach? What are the downsides and risks? And how emotionally transparent or ‘congruent’ are you?

5. Rewards

The rewards of leaders in organisations, particularly CEOs and the board, have been at the forefront of media and activist attention for a long time. Hopefully that pressure and attention will continue – it feels like their are some ugly wrinkles developed in the latter part of the 20th century that still need ironing out. Think about golden parachutes for failing CEOs, the lack of a relationship between value-creating performance and rewards more generally, the lack of transparency and rigour in setting of top management rewards including weak or non-existent remuneration committees, and so on. This, however, feels like it is in hand – the world knows about it and expectations and behaviours are gradually changing.

However there are two additional concerns that fit into the scope of this book: the ratio of top earners rewards to the rest of the workforce’s; and a shift towards recognising the value of non-financial rewards.

In a social business, the ingredients of a more empowered organisation and greater transparency result in a clearer focus on the inter-relationship between peoples rewards in the organisation. And in recent times, as the Occupy movement has reminded all of us, the rich have been growing richer and the poor poorer. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has actually grown. An awareness of this has led many progressive businesses to put in place formal ratios or to continually observe the ratio between the earnings of the lowest paid person in the organisation and the highest paid person in the organisation.

At the incredibly admired John Lewis Partnership in the UK, TK

TK Other research on ratios.

Secondly, to the topic of non-financial rewards. Right now it feels like most leaders only do it for the money, but there is rapidly growing body of interest around social enterprise, social business (in the Mohammad Yunus TK definition) and entrepreneurs and leaders doing what they do for a much higher purpose than the accumulation of wealth.

TK Khan quote

Having looked at motivations in the People chapter, we have already reminded ourselves that motivation at work is much broader and richer than the pay packet alone. What would it be like if we as leaders and the other leaders around us were all nourished by and talked about job satisfaction and the rewards we really enjoyed in a more open and nuanced way?

6. Communication / Realtime

In this networked world, both the demands on and opportunities for leaders around communication are increased. We are living in a world where the time between something of importance happening and the world knowing about it are increasingly the same – the buffer between the two are less and less.

There is less time to prepare the right message. There is less belief and trust in leaders generally, and so in the message itself there is an increased demand for authenticity and honesty. There is an always-on-ness to the world’s media, to the workforce with their BlackBerries and internal collaboration platforms (see Technology) so communication cannot be a one-off or occasional piece of work, but more a constant flow.

Consider how Cristóbal Conde, president and C.E.O. of SunGard described it in an interview with the New York Times: “I try to see a client every day, and because of my title I get to see more senior people. And so then they’ll tell me things — you know, what are their biggest problems, what are their biggest issues, what are their biggest bets. All this information is incredibly valuable. Now, what could I do with that? I’m not going to send that out in a broadcast voice mail to every employee. I’m not even going to write a long e-mail about it to every employee, because even that is almost too formal. But I can write five lines on Yammer [which this book looks at in the Technology chapter], which is about all it takes. A free flow of information is an incredible tool because I can tell people, “Look, this is one of our largest clients, and the C.E.O. just told me his top three priorities are X, Y and Z. Think about them.”

The combination of these platforms, this growing culture and these expectations is a huge opportunity for all leaders as an outbound communication channel. But as much of the value for leaders can be in the inbound or dialogue aspect too.

There is a growing application of the concept of ‘people as sensors’. In a networked world, there are exponentially more opportunities to harness relevant, timely information, and for people and attention to gravitate towards which senor has the best available information at any given moment. As Brian Humphrey who was then working with the Los Angeles Fire Dept put it in a tweet: “Every soldier is a sensor. Every citizen is a contributor. Every resident is a reporter of #crisisdata”.

By using the communication landscape to their advantage, contemporary leaders can harness this huge opportunity to plug in to their organisational sensors, and both flow out and flow in realtime information to and from the rest of the business.

7. Support

The last aspect to leadership in a progressive 21st century business is putting in place the appropriate support for yourself and other leaders going on this journey.

The world is pretty much geared up to support the 20th century leader. The expectation is you’re a hero and an all-conquering expert, that you’re doing it for the money alone, that you do not and will not talk about your feelings (and may not even have them), that you will issue command-and-control dictats from your ivory tower, that you only want to hear good news, that you resist and dislike technology and – probably also – that you’re a man or behave like a man and are old and white.

If you are not these, life can be hard. The conventional support networks and the wisdom and advice available through conventional resources may not help you. You may find yourself feeling isolated and stupid – asking yourself ‘why am I doing this differently to everyone else – maybe I should stop trying to do things the long, hard, stupid way and just fall in line with everyone else’.

So to give yourself the best chances of success you must find or create a support network of people that do get this new world, that do belong to the community of changers striving for something different, who have walked the same alternative paths. For me personally, the single best thing I did on this front was go to WorldBlu Live 2011 in San Francisco and met over the course of 3 days a whole community of people motivated by the same things and with many of the same values. It was like coming home! It gave me faith that I wasn’t (that) stupid and certainly didn’t need to feel like it was only my organisation on that path.

Fortunately the world is changing. Our numbers grow! And there are radical shifts in the articles published by the blue-blooded business press (like Harvard Business Review), in the newly-celebrated CEO stars (like Vineet Nayar of HCL) and in the professional support available from accountants, lawyers and associations (like WorldBlu or The Employee Ownership Association).

By addressing and working on these 7 dimensions of leadership in the 21st century you will strengthen yourself over time. As you work at it, you will evolve in exciting ways. You will provide a subtle, powerful role model for those around you. You will become the future you want to see in the world.

How was that? Please provide feedback: via comments on this post, via email to, tweets @willmcinnes #cltrshck.

Next extract: ‘How do I go on this journey?’, with seven handy (but not easy!) practical next steps.

Thank you for your support.

Bon voyage, Will

6 thoughts on “Chapter 4: Leadership, What does progressive leadership look like?

  1. Gosh, that is a long section.

    I think there is a lot of good stuff in it Will. But also, for me, quite a lot of conflict.

    What I mean is that you are saying one thing – I think. But at the same time I hear another conflicting message.

    For example, you talk about leaders as if everyone leads. But then leaders still seem to be “special” people.

    I think you need to think about this section really carefully and get really clear.

    Maybe it would help to think in terms of leadership behaviours – not people.

    Maybe it would help to consider organisational structure – leadership is often confused with decision-making. Why for examples do leaders have to make decisions?

    Organisational paradigms also drive our default methods of decision making. Command and control is much more than a leadership mindset. It is an organisational mindset.

    But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many organisms don’t operate in command and control ways. Very successfully.

    For me, leadership is a personal thing. It is about what each individual does – how aligned their values are with their behaviour.

    For me it has little to do with being at the front.

    Look at Gandhi for example. He ‘led’ a nation against the most powerful empire on earth. But perhaps not in any of the ways you mention.

    Hope that helps

  2. Also:

    Sensors are important, yes, But, I think, not in a robotic, command and control way. Having sensors doesn’t transform an organisation.

    The best metaphor I heard of around this is (I think it was Brian Robertson) of how to ride a bike: You could have some meetings. You could assess all the risks. You could form a plan. You could get on, start pedalling, shut your eyes and follow the plan. Pedal at the planned rate. Turn when planned.

    But of course we don’t ride bikes like that. We ride bikes in a much more dynamic, sensing, organic way. This is much more like how nature works – the organisation is the thing, not the leader.

    Cut off a cockroaches head and it can live for days?

    I’d suggest reading John Buck’s book on sociocracy.

    Just to be clear, I think you need be *really clear* about the paradigm you are adopting/supporting.

  3. Hiya, some style based points – the examples of mushroom and seagull leaders are caricatures rather than models; replace ‘crap’ leadership with poor leadership (crap is a little too trivial in this content); and it feels like the section on communication changes from the ‘how to be’ flavour of the rest of the chapter to a more ‘how to do’ which didn’t flow for me.

  4. All the time I attempt to access the page, this message comes up: “403 Forbidden – You don’t have permission to access / on this server. Additionally, a 500 Internal Server Error error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.” I’ve never came across a problem like this before; is it through some error of mine, or perhaps there a problem with the web-site itself?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s