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March 15, 2014

The fantasy of leadership: are you being seduced?

Belief in mythical leaders who can solve all our problems has led to cynicism, disappointment and, critically, inadequate responses to the complex social challenges we face. Geoff Aigner suggests that what we really seek is leaders with a purpose to create a better world.

Geoff Aigner
Geoff Aigner, Director at SLA: ‘Leadership is something we do, not something we have’. 

Leadership and leading is rife with contradictions and polarities. For instance: it seems we either believe in charismatic and inspirational leaders or confuse leadership with the basics of management. Or we want someone to save us and at the same time resent their power.

At Social Leadership Australia (SLA), we call this the fantasy of leadership. This is the fantasy that our problems will be solved by a mythical saviour, or that we will be that saviour ourselves sweeping away people’s problems to great applause and gratitude. Or it is the fantasy that if we can just get the process, toolkit, measurement or other technical element right then we can successfully change what has eluded our system for so long. Sadly these fantasies are not very useful. There are no mythical saviours nor are there magical quick fixes, at least not for the complex problems that we face.

They are also the kinds of challenges where the fantasy of an easy solution or a mythical figure become problematic.

When a system has to do something new and difficult, something that means we are likely to get uncomfortable, the ground is ripe for leadership fantasies. This is because the work is hard and it is easier to turn to the fantasy of leadership rather than do that hard work. In the social sector, major changes such as the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the housing sector reforms, and cuts to medical research funding mean that many systems (and those who are practising leadership) are being forced to adapt to radically altered conditions. Elsewhere in Australia right now we see similar seismic shifts in manufacturing, technology and the environment.

We call these adaptive challenges – challenges that are complex, systemic and have no ready answers. It is these adaptive challenges – which require the system to learn (and adapt) – that need new and different responses by those who are trying to lead. They are also the kinds of challenges where the fantasy of an easy solution or a mythical figure become problematic.

…true leadership embodies a high dream and purpose. It means working out the kind of life we want to live and the world we want to live in.

I have witnessed many leaders who see this dynamic playing out but persist in operating the same way. It is easy to be seduced either by those around us or our own egos. These fantasies lead us understandably to a place of unrealistic hopes (at least temporarily) or cynicism. It’s no surprise then that leadership is almost always referred to in a negative context, by its lack:

  • ‘What we need is some leadership here.’
  • ‘We need someone to show leadership.’
  • ‘We need real leadership here!’

At SLA, we hear this complaint (or wish – for it is a wish) in every organisation and community we work in: whether we are talking to: people in the government, corporate or community sectors; young or old; country or city; black or white; men or women. There is general agreement that something needs to shift in how the roles of political, corporate, community and government leaders are played out. But when we ask, ‘From what and to what?’ there is either no cohesive answer or a perplexed silence.

When it comes to leadership we seem to know what we don’t want and don’t like but we find it harder to articulate – let alone agree on – what we do want.

Purposeful leadership

Yet, leadership is rightly a noble and ambitious venture.

I suspect that our complaint belies an unarticulated dream that leadership in Australia should be inspiring, sustainable and purposeful. I think this is true more broadly but it is especially felt in the ‘for purpose’ sector. And ‘purposeful’ here means something quite specific. Namely, that the purpose of leadership is always and unashamedly about the creation and maintenance of a better world – a truly civil society. How we as a society, from the prime minister to the small business owner, government bureaucrat or grass roots activist relate to and enact leadership is fundamental to our long term progress. This is something that we rarely talk about in the context of leadership.

This then means that true leadership embodies a high dream and purpose. It means working out the kind of life we want to live and the world we want to live in. It also means that leadership is not a lot of things. It is not management, entrepreneurism or dictatorship. It is the responsible use of power to make progress. And this progress means helping systems of people understand and solve their own problems. This kind of leadership is not confined to any sector, profession or level. Its result is leaving things better than we found them – more resilient communities, sustainable organisations and people who are willing to step up and take over when we are gone.

The idea that leadership can embody this ideal can be revolutionary in its own right, given how often the word ‘leadership’ is misused and the practice of it so disappointing. But if we agree with the ideal and want to use our power well, what does that mean we need to do differently?

In the social sector, acknowledging our power and using it is particularly problematic because much of what the sector does is actually a response to an abuse or neglect of power somewhere else.

In the model of social leadership with which we work, we emphasise three things for people who want to exercise more purposeful leadership. All of these are based on the premise that leadership is something we do and not something we have.

  1. Clarity of purpose. In the rough and tumble of making change it can be easy to lose sight of purpose and get caught up in our personal needs or those of others. It is surprising to see how many leaders with even the best intentions can lose sight of their purpose. In exercising leadership it is important that we are able to draw on our purpose when we are in situations that are unclear and use it to create direction or to guide our actions. It also enables us to orient others to purpose in any given moment: an important function of the role of authority. I recall a group of school principals I worked with a number of years ago – all working in highly disadvantaged communities. When we questioned them on their personal and systemic purpose they, like many in the social sector, were a bit insulted. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ they said. Well actually it wasn’t. This is a trap in the social sector – ‘doing good’ is not a purpose and not enough to rally people in a system to do something together because everyone has their own idea of what doing good means. The principals who were really making positive change were those who were able to sit with the harder ‘purpose question’ long enough to identify it and use it to mobilise their system.
  2. Understanding role. In exercising leadership it is important to understand the difference between who we are as a person and the role we are taking on in a system. If we are better able to separate self from role and be more aware of limitations and opportunities in role, then we can be more neutral. This allows us to focus on what will make progress for the whole system and not just a particular interest or faction. This is an incredibly powerful practice and one that is particularly important in the Australian context where there is a default to relating to others by relationship rather than role. It means asking ourselves ‘what is being called for me to do right now?’ not ‘what will maintain my relationships?’ or ‘what will be easy for me to do?’ Role can also be a problematic area in the social sector as we can get overtaken by our own personal purpose and needs. Thinking of the principals again, the effective principals were able to see that their role had changed in the last 10 years. It was no longer what it had been when they entered the profession nor in some instances what they wanted to do. The role now was part CEO, part community organiser and part coach; not a master teacher.
  3. Working with power and rank. ‘Power’ and ‘rank’ tend to be provocative words because we can feel uncomfortable about admitting to the power we have particularly if we haven’t earned it (e.g. we have it as a result of our gender, culture or class). Yet owning our power and putting it to good use is where all good leadership starts. In our work with hundreds of senior managers every year we find that what people fear about power is the reverse of what we expect. Those who do not understand their power and are unwilling to admit to it tend to be bullies or overbearing. Those who can ‘own’ their rank can put it to good use and be of service to their system. They bring grace and generosity to their role. In the social sector, acknowledging our power and using it is particularly problematic because much of what the sector does is actually a response to an abuse or neglect of power somewhere else. So we are rightly cautious of power as we see the negative impact we can have. Unfortunately this often ends up with people abdicating their power and as a result not being as impactful as they could be. Ironically, we are not fooling anyone. Having worked with many disadvantaged and marginalised groups, I have learned how obvious my power is and how annoying it can be when I try and act like I don’t have any. We would argue that neglect can often be worse than abuse of power.

These are a sample of the practices we think are important in exercising leadership which is beneficial to our world. It is a privilege to be able to attempt this kind of work. The world needs this kind of leadership: leadership that can transcend our egos, bring love, freedom and compassion to those we work with and for.

 About Geoff Aigner

Geoff Aigner is the Director of Social Leadership Australia (SLA), The Benevolent Society’s leadership centre. He is an experienced consultant, teacher and author of Leadership Beyond Good Intentions: What It Takes To Really Make A Difference and co-author of The Australian Leadership Paradox with Liz Skelton both published by Allen & Unwin. As Director of SLA, Geoff is responsible for providing strategic direction for the centre in its mission to create better leadership for a better Australia. Geoff is also adjunct faculty at the Australian Graduate School of Management.

SLA is a social enterprise at The Benevolent Society  that provides courses on adaptive leadership, leading change in the Indigenous cross-cultural space, as well many other programs for individuals and issues-based and/or place-based leadership initiatives.

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