Reading Notes: Beyond Leadership Ch. 2-4

Warren Bennis, Jadis Parik, Ronnie Lessem

There is an old paradigm of static-state, intellectually driven leadership that needs to change. The book offers a new paradigm which balances self-management, integrative thinking, and a sense of constant change.

Discussion about a monolithic “old paradigm” is a huge turn-off for me, because it sets up a blatantly false dichotomy. This book constructs this dichotomy and then gives it weight by talking about the crises of the day, though doesn’t do a good job of saying what these crises have to do with the paradigms in question. I should be wary of doing this with paradigms, like sustainability, that I believe in.

The new paradygm is about

  • Thinking in open systems rather than static states–  accepting that the world is highly interconnected and constantly changing. Leaders should be able to change their viewpoints constantly, rather than getting invested in a particular view of the world. This directly contradicts what the book says later about visions!
  • Having the flexibility to think from a diverse range of viewpoints– and therefore to bridge cultural and other cognitive divides. This seems like it’s about listening more than open-minded imagination, though the text doesn’t address that directly.
  • Seeing the interrelatedness of everythingBuddhist, but not practical from a managerial standpoint. Which connections do you focus on given limited time?
  • Increasing shared abundance– A positive standpoint that’s contrasted with the scarcity of traditional economics.
  • Accepting diverse data inputs– This seems to be about technology, the book is from the early days of the internet.

Self-Mastery

In order to effectively work with organizations, one must first learn to manage oneself. This is about focusing on integration points- places where your skill, your passion, and organizational needs intersect (and, ideally, broader social needs intersect.) Focusing on these areas allows one to maintain a positive, vision driven outlook. The book doesn’t talk about how to ignore things that aren’t in that narrow area of intersection but still demand attention, which is probably the chief complaint of the problem-swamped person. I would say that it’s about seeing how those problems integrate with the broader vision and prioritizing them accordingly.

One key way to reduce stress and focus on these integration points is detached involvement.

Detached Involvement

Detached involvement is about building and maintaining the relationships that do work in a group, rather than taking direct responsibility for that work yourself. To do this you take on a variety of roles:

  • Focalizer– establishing or nurturing a sense of purpose which creates a sense of shared value in the group.
  • Facilitator– creating a structure of communication which allows those relationships to grow and function smoothly.
  • Synergizer- integrating relationships within the group with the goals and sources of value in the broader organization.
  • Co-creator-when it comes to the actual work, contribute by example as one among equals. 

There’s a bit in there about letting go of the ego that reminds me of my own thinking around focusing on relationships as a source of meaning rather than on self, but it’s hard to understand b/c it’s in the language of their paradigm and not that concretely grounded.

Visionary Leadership

Leaders need to establish and visions, “goals which beckon” for the organization. These visions create a shared sense of empowerment which the org can then self-organize around.

Creating a good vision involves paying attention to:

  • The Past– in order to avoid past pitfalls and to understand long-term trends that a vision can harness.
  • The Present– in order to understand the desires of the people who need to accept the vision, the feasible long-term opportunities that could empower those people.
  • The Future- through projection of trends in the past and present, a vision should articulate an attainable, empowering version of the future. There should be lots of room for those who are to become invested in the vision to fill in their own details.

I like the listening and reflecting version of vision creation a lot more. This book puts a lot more cognitive burden on the leader to weigh the different opportunities, come up with a magical solution and convince the group to love it. It seems like a leader should establish a process for the group to do that, not try to do it herself. This will create a more grounded vision and will help with buyin. Appreciative inquiry processes, followed by iterative positive focusing (“what is most exciting to you about this right now?”) seems like it can accomplish this in a group.

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