Who are you calling Leaders?

10th February by Dr Hilary Lines

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Who are you calling Leaders

This was the question a fellow dinner party guest asked me one evening. "More and more people call themselves leaders nowadays and they are not" he said emphatically. "Only the people at the top - those who have the responsibility to lead the organisation - should be called leaders".

My first reaction was that my dinner companion was way off beam. I started replying that leadership was not just a question of job title: a leader was someone who is able to create energy to inspire others for the benefit of a shared endeavour and that, in the complex and changing world of today, leadership was needed at every level of an organisation.

...but then, I started to realise that our models of leadership rested on very different assumptions and world views. He was seeing leadership as invested in one person - the leader - whose job it is to drive things from the top. And, of course, we do need those people in many situations. But I see leadership as invested in relationship - in the creative connection across the difference that exists between people and groups in an enterprise. It is this connection at the 'touchpoint' between the leader and others that creates the added-value of working in organisation, as opposed to working separately.

This perspective requires those people who provide leadership to have

1) An awareness and appreciation of how they develop productive relationships - what works and how they sometimes get in the way,

2) A highly tuned sense of what happens in the moment they connect with others at the 'touchpoint', and the agility of mindset, style and approach to flex in order to create energy and learning at that moment,

3) A critical helicopter view of the pattern of connections in their leadership context - how and where value is being created and where it is being lost, blocked, or ignored – and, of course, a willingness to do something about it.

This view of leadership stresses interdependency rather that independence. It recognises that leaders work across the multiple layers of system in an organisation, they need to adapt their style to release the best value from the interactions.

So, getting back to my dinner party companion, if you see leaders as only people that drive things from the top, then, yes, I agree with him – I often see too many of those in the businesses where I coach. They may lead their own teams to achieve, but they often do so resulting in fragmentation, silos, isolation – so that the whole enterprise operates at less than the sum of its parts. We also know that when we coach an individual one- to-one without a perspective on their system, we run the risk of contributing to this state of affairs.

What about Teams and Team Coaching?

I believe the same principle applies: We have to be wary of creating fragmentation by only coaching teams on their internal goals and ways of working. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating too many happy and isolated performing teams and too little connection. No team is an island. No team can be understood separately from the context in which it works. A leader of one team is a member of another, a member of a team is a leader in another, and a customer of another and a supplier of another – this is the Systemic perspective.

So the systemic team coach needs to help teams

  1. See the relevance of their position in a complex and interrelated system, and
  2. Develop the flexibility and skill to work with this ebb and flow of leadership–membership–followership–customer-supplier.

As a result the team coach helps the team catalyse creative connection across the enterprise and its context which will drive real value for the whole organisation.

What does this mean for how we develop systemic team coaches?

A critical part of developing as a systemic team coach is growing our own ability to play along this leadership–followership spectrum. Participants on the AoEC Systemic Team Coaching Diploma Programme do this by being immersed in different teams and roles within a complex learning system. Most importantly, they learn the skill of coaching not just solo but in a tight coaching team, where dancing between leadership and followership in the moment is key to the success of the coaching. A previous participant in our Diploma Programme remarked “A key outcome of the programme for me was learning how to be a member”. If our team coaching can teach humility and followership as part of leadership we can make a real difference to creating energetic connectivity in organisations.