What might this idea of leadership look like? Could it include the older ideas of leadership by dominance, influence, and shared commitment? If it is true that leadership sometimes needs to come from a strong, directive person, how can leadership as shared meaning making account for this? The answer is by thinking of a strong, directive leader’s effectiveness as a result not just of the leader’s competence but of how the whole group makes sense of (arrives at an agreement on how to understand and value) its work.
For example, take a group of learners and their teacher in the classroom. The learners do not know what the teacher knows; they need the teacher for guidance, need to be told how to do something in order to do it correctly. Theirs is a reciprocal relationship in which the teacher teaches in exchange for learning in the classroom. In light of that agreed-upon meaning, learners consider strong direction from the teacher only natural; they take it for granted.
This quality of taken-for-granted reality is a hallmark of meaning that has been made and agreed to. If strong directive leadership seems natural and people take it for granted that it simply makes good common sense, then the group, in its reciprocal relations, can be said to create its own leadership process.
But what happens as the learners learn more and gain more experience of their own? Perhaps they work with new equipment (iPhone, iPad, …) and use social media like nothing the teacher has ever done; they gain experiences the teacher has never had. At this point, the relationship of the learners to the teacher changes. The old reciprocity no longer makes good sense: the learners no longer exchange their work (now expert in its own right) for learning from the teacher. A new reciprocity evolves in which the former learners teach the master about the new tools while the teacher continues to provide them with a classroom and content. This new reciprocity brings into being a new process of leadership, a new way of making meaning of their work. It is not so much the teacher who needs to change a directive leadership style as it is a change in the whole system of making sense together. This need of a whole system to live a new leadership process is the idea of leadership development that has to operate in the future.
For now, this rather simplified example helps illustrate how leadership as shared meaning making includes the older ideas of leadership as dominance, influence, and shared commitment. It is an idea of leadership that looks at people who are called leaders and followers not as creators of the leadership process, but as those who llive the process. People make the Creative Interchange process go when they work together and also try to understand what is important or valuable about working together, and how to go forward together – in short, when they make meaning of their work together. On the other hand, when they fail to make meaning of their work together, they fail to create leadership between them, they don’t live the Creative Interchange Process.
This Paradigm, while including the useful aspects of preceding Paradigms in Leadership. creates new possibilities for leadership and tries to overcome the limitations of the modern idea of common goals as discussed earlier to get a better sense of the possibilities this new Paradigm in Leadership opens up, we need to engage in a little imagination, a thought experiment.
Imagine that you live in a world where leadership has never been conceived of as coming from a person called a leader. Imagine you have always lived in a world where leadership was simply presumed to come out of the reciprocal relationships between people working together. Let’s say you live in this imaginary world (which is just like our world except for the change in assumptions about leadership) and you are a member of a company that has been having trouble deciding how to respond to some recent changes in the market for your products.
People in the company have a variety of interpretations of the ‘problem’ some people are certain it’s a manufacturing issue, and they point to a lot of evidence to support their position, others are equally certain that the problem lies in better customer education and a new marketing strategy. They too have surveys and impressive evidence to support their point of view. Still others insist that there is a very real threat from new competitors, and they have facts and figures to back this up. There are even some people who don’t see a problem at all; they point to similar periods in the past where the company has been successful by essentially staying the course.
It is a very complex situation with no easy answer. In a world where leadership is assumed to be shared meaning making, how is this situation addressed?
First of all, there is no blaming the current leader or leadership group for getting the company into the mess. No one says, “If they [meaning top management] would only listen to me. . . “ people understand without needing to say so that it is the company’s ways of talking thinking and working together that has put it where it is. If a shared sense of how to go forward together is lacking people need to look not to leaders but to interrelationships. They need to create the conditions for Creative Interchange and use the tools of Crucial dialogues.
So the first area for inquiry is the differences of viewpoint on the cause and nature of the problem. The first leadership action is to ask: “Why do we see this differently? How have our various experiences created these different interpretations?” The goal is not to discover which interpretation is “right”, because in this imaginary world people assume that no interpretation is right in and of itself. Interpretations are all simply ways of making sense of what’s happening. The goal is to create the interpretation that is most useful in helping the company choose appropriate actions, decisions, directions, and so forth. This is done by inquiring into what assumptions, values, feelings – in short, what meaning – lies beneath the various perspectives being offered. The search for leadership is engaged by looking at what is going on between people.
In its best case, if this leadership process [i.e. the Creative Interchange Process] is effective, it leads to dynamic decisions and actions that create a period of long-term vitality for the company. In the worst case, if the leadership process fails, it could lead to paralysis, a deadlock of irresolute perspectives and values. This is a fact of life in this imaginary world, just as there are certain facts of life about effective and ineffective leadership in our real world. This is not a utopian vision of leadership; rather it is a version of leadership that can be either effective or ineffective depending on the sensitivity skill, and experience with which it is engaged.
So is everyone somehow equal in this imaginary world? Probably not. People vary in their desire for power authority, responsibility and being held accountable; they also vary in their experience, learning, and maturity. There may be people-teachers; advisors, mentors, elders — who have a powerful effect on the meanings that get made yet are not seen as making leadership itself happen. They are understood as participants in the process like anyone else. They may even be entrusted with certain power and authority that serves the meaning making of the whole, though they are not seen as causing meaning making or as initiating leadership. They are responsible though to create the conditions that are needed so that the Creative Interchange process can thrive. There may be others who are less experienced, less willing to take authority, less knowledgeable, but they are not seen as the object of leadership. Even though their role may be to carry out plans, they themselves make sense of these plans in their interrelationships, and thus they are responsible for the whole, not just their job. They are living the tools of the Creative Interchange Process.
The effectiveness of leadership, then, is determined by the vitality of the process itself, that is, by the vitality of the interactions between the people involved and by the extent to which people are willing to take responsibility for those interactions, for nurturing and improving them. People with less experience and authority improve the leadershiprocess as much as people with great experience and more authority. Improving the whole process of leadership is, in fact, how people think of leadership development.
This little imaginary excursion is intended to do nothing more than evoke the possibility that the fourth Paradigm in Leadership as a process of shared meaning making is at least conceivable, and to suggest that such an idea of leadership has profound implications for the practice of leadership development.