Leadership is not a game…

I’m in the middle of editing my next book “Leading Complex Projects” (Gower, 2013) and this week I’ve been working on the ‘leadership’ and ‘culture’ chapters.  Meanwhile, alongside the day job, I’ve been helping community groups in Abergavenny who are opposing Monmouthshire Council’s plan to close the Livestock Market and sell the site to Morrisons.

If you’re interested in this tale, look here, but for this blog, I’m more interested in reflecting on how it feels, as a citizen, to be on the receiving end of so called ‘radical leadership’ and ‘innovative thinking’.

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot; thinking about the messy reality as well as the theories; and how to write about it, as an antidote to the reductive leadership literature that trades on selling simple solutions and slogans to what are, in the end, bloody difficult and serious problems.

Over the last few years I’ve been privileged to work with leaders of complex projects who are steeped up to their ears in the mess and challenge of leading some of the big, national-critical, politically sensitive projects that you’ll have heard about in the media (and, often, not in a good way).   We’ve talked a lot about the painful reality of leadership in these complex systems – which is, all too often, a million miles away from the neat, denatured theories and simple 2×2 models, so beloved of leadership theorists and (some!) management consultants….

It has been both a humbling and an inspiring experience, sharing stories about what it takes to get up every day, feeling, deep down, that you are operating – precariously – at the very edge of your experience and competence. Your people look up to you, up there at the pointy end of the organisational pyramid, for the answers: others question your leadership and wait for you to topple off.  You have few folk, if anyone, to really talk to.  And all in the certain knowledge that you will carry the can for failure if it all goes wrong.

So it jars when I read how the Council is spending a lot of money on innovation trainers and leadership consultants; promoting themselves to win awards; spending scarce resources on more office space to create ‘innovation labs’ for a culture of ‘playful creativity’ in their new location in Magor (which, if you know Monmouthshire, you’ll realise is a long way, literally and culturally, from the main towns in the county).  I follow their tweets, exhorting each other to “Come play!”

Where we sit, in the communities where we live and work, their leadership doesn’t feel like a game to us.   At least not one we want to play.  “Come play” is not an appropriate catch phrase from leaders to their teams when communities are frustrated, angry, disconnected and marginalised.  I’m experiencing what it feels like to be part of a community which has been systematically marginalised, patronised and rubbished…  I’m experiencing what it feels like to have local knowledge, deep experience and real expertise ignored.  I’m experiencing how frustrating it feels, when I look at my campaign colleagues and see an incredibly skilled, politically, socially, economically diverse group being homogenised by a Council who can only see a singular ‘them’ in opposition to ‘us’.

Seems to me, what is billed as innovative leadership is just the re-labelled, same old behaviours – this time, hermetically-sealed inside an impermeable bubble of mutual self congratulation and cultural autopoeisis.*

Leadership is a relational practice: for leaders to have any legitimacy at all, they need followers – and that is not simply expressed once every four years in a ballot box.  For local authorities to claim leadership of the local space and to be able work resolutely with communities on the ‘wicked issues’ that affect them, they need to work with humility, honesty and transparency, with what is and what could be.   This means acknowledging and working through difficult and complex issues, not ignoring or hiding away from them: it means working through issues of power and control, creating the conditions in which communities can discover their own leadership and get things done in a way that works for them. It means valuing local intelligence and experience and really believing that solutions designed by and in communities, with the right resources, are always more valued, robust and sustainable.

Curiously, the result of this gives me some hope.  In the face of this broken relationship, local groups – in Abergavenny at least – are finding the energy and expertise to just get on with things.  They’ve given up waiting for the Council to provide any leadership they want to follow: people are organising for themselves, within interest groups and between groups.  This is local leadership in action.  It’s about practical, roll-your-sleeves up commitment, persevering for the long haul, building and sustaining relationships with the people we’ll continue to live and work with – who get things done, on the ground.  It’s about finding common purpose and working with differences.  It’s about noticing what’s going on at the edges, working on the boundaries, where all the interesting stuff happens and where the potential for radical, sustainable change really lies.   It is about mutual respect and – yes – having a laugh together, in spite of everything…  But it’s not a game…

Monmouthshire County Council would do well to look and learn from what’s going on, on their doorstep…

* Here’s an example: Monmouthshire County Council are promoting their ‘radical new strategy’ for their new county ‘brand’ – Monmouthshire: the Food Capital of Wales.  Monmouthshire has been a food destination for decades: this is entirely due to local food entrepreneurs – the producers, the restaurateurs – who make and market their products; and to Abergavenny Food Festival, an internationally renowned event, started up and run by local people… For the Council to claim ‘radical leadership’ of this just makes local people even more cynical…   Spotting the parade and rushing to the front of it is neither ‘radical’ nor ‘leadership’…

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About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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One Response to Leadership is not a game…

  1. Cindy says:

    Sue,
    I’d like to run this post on my website, The Socratic Project, under the title What is leadership? TSP is a modern, philosophical conversation at http://www.thesocraticproject.com. My audience is American, though, so if you’re interested in letting me run it, we might need to add a sentence explaining that you’re in Wales.

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