Leading Together By Fostering Collective Insight
“Why is it always up to me to have the creative idea? I’m tired of being the one that has to come up with the solution to every problem.”
Pam’s jaw clenched and her leg moved in a staccato-like fashion that conveyed frustration about her situation.
“I mean, everyone just waits for me to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Why can’t someone else come up with a good idea now and then?”
Pam is a mid-level manager at a growing pharmaceutical company. Her group is responsible to find creative ways to engage physicians and convert them to customers. Her direct reports are energetic for sure, but over time they’ve stopped bringing creative ideas to the table. They’ve heard Pam’s speech about finding creative solutions. They even mimic her, “we must think like Google” speech. But as much as Pam declares her desire for more creative ideas, her actions tell a different story. Every idea brought forward is either dismissed or co-opted by Pam. Her actions regularly curtail any possibility of collective thought, unless that collective thought happens to be her opinion. Though she can’t see it, Pam is inhibiting the very thing she wants. Why?
Our last post on, Possibility Oriented Awareness explored three steps to help you better discover the hidden opportunities just beyond the surface of personal interactions. We encouraged you to reframe the familiar and see the everyday in a new light, to be patient with the initial awkwardness inherent in new conversations, and to find a sticky topic to get the ball rolling. Each of the three strategies focused on possibility-oriented actions you can take during interactions with strangers. But how do you stimulate Possibility Oriented Awareness with the people you work with or lead?
As leaders, we can declare a desire for more Possibility Oriented Awareness, but then shut it down through everyday interactions. This shutdown happens, in part, because our ideas and beliefs about the role of a leader are still rooted in a very top down mentality. It’s the leader’s role, to “drive” change and “ensure” collaboration. There is some truth to these statements, no doubt. But if you want more Possibility Oriented Awareness (the fuel for creative thought and action), you have to shift to a side-by side rather than top-down mentality. The side-by-side mentality then enables a dynamic between people that stimulates POA and the creative action that results.
A central tenant of Possibility Oriented Awareness is that there are hidden gems in those around us. This applies both to the seemingly random interactions in the elevator or hallway, as well as more structured and formal interactions in meetings with colleagues. However, the image most likely evoked by the phrase “effective leadership” is of a person speaking, acting and directing people or a meeting with convincingly polished points. Or as Sonia Ospina and Erica Foldy describe in Enacting Collective Leadership, “when the leader acts on the followers, leadership happens.”
However, Sonia and Erica encourage us to re-think that idea and shift to Collective Leadership. Collective Leadership then entails, “creating the conditions for others to take up leadership and developing processes and structures that bring leadership into being without the need for a recurrent effort from the formal leader.” Building upon this through a Possibility Oriented Awareness lens, we propose changing how we view leadership, from primarily a noun, (“the leader,”) to a verb (“leading.”) To think of “leading” rather than “leader” shifts the concept from an individual that possesses certain traits (formal leaders) to a dynamic that occurs between people when they engage each other in a specific way.
As with any change, the shift from leader to leading, often requires we take small and initial steps toward it. We must recognize that such a mindset, behavioral habits and practices take time to infuse into an existing culture, not to mention into the behaviors of formal leaders. If you are in a formal leadership role, and you are interested in making the move from “leader” (driver of all things ingenious) to leading (facilitator of an ingenious dynamic between people), here are three actions you can cultivate that allow the dynamic of leading to occur between people
We often turn to formal leaders for direction and guidance, furthermore as formal leaders we often believe it is our responsibility to guide and direct. Yet, by taking the lead in speaking and giving instructions we are shutting the door to other interactions (between people) that could lead to Possibility Oriented Awareness. If you, as a leader, remain silent, what might someone else see and suggest? What interactions, between others could yield insights outside your perspective?
In his work, Robert Chambers scholar in participatory practices, regularly invites groups to break into pairs– placing extroverts and introverts together and instructing the extroverts to remain silent for 5 minutes while the introverts speak. It is a hard and uncomfortable task for both sides, but it gives a glimpse of what remains unspoken in our regular work environments. Though silence can be difficult for leaders, it is often the soil that fertilizes the creative awareness of others. If you fill all the conversational space with your own voice, then be prepared to get only the creativity you alone can generate.
Silence creates a void which others may now jump to fill. A second strategy is what sociologist Richard Sennett describes as speaking in the subjunctive. Rather than declare direction, collective leading is saturated in questions and tentative statements. Questions open up awareness and the possibility of exploration and tentative statements give permission for input from others. Whereas definitive declarations often shut the door to differing opinions, suggestions, and proposals which might very well result in a better outcome. In my (Dave) book, Tribal Alchemy: Turning What You Have Into What You Need, I explore why questions stimulate multiple perspectives (seeing together) that then lead to the creative insights and ingenuity we desire.
Asking more questions sounds like a good idea. But formal leaders often avoid the authentic question because it requires them to be, and appear, uncertain. Traditional leadership notions fortify the idea that the leader knows what to do and should direct others to follow. However, if a leader wants to stimulate Possibility Oriented Awareness, it means she must be uncertain of the future, the direction and the solution. Without positive uncertainty, there is no space to facilitate creative awareness between others.
Our third suggestion is equally counter-intuitive from a productivity standpoint, but we invite you to not complete your work. When you deliver a complete version to your colleagues it, once again, ends the discussion and the need for any other input or action. Whereas, drafts and works in progress invite comments and collaboration, a finished declaration simply requires people to jump into action–leaving their creative juices behind. When you’re in design-mode, include others, step back and let them play active roles in the design. Not only will you see Possibility Oriented Awareness increase, but ownership of the initiative will rise as well. Simply, leave holes for others to fill.
From Noun To Verb
What would happen if you shifted your weight just a bit this week, from leader (noun) to leading (verb)? How can you stimulate exchanges between others that increase Possibility Oriented Awareness (between them) and generate more creative thought and action between everyone. Remember Pam? She was in her own way. If you want more creative awareness and action from your tribe, you have to enable the dynamic rather than force an agenda.