On becoming a leader

This post takes the humanistic legacy of Carl Rogers to explore: Leadership as map making; Leadership as block busting; and Leadership as bridge building. It offers a framework for use in leadership development progammes at undergraduate, graduate, professional and executive levels.

Old Bridge

The title of this post acknowledges the work of Carl Rogers, a pioneer (with Abe Maslow) of humanistic psychology. His ideas on personal development have since come into common currency. In particular the post connects leadership to the title of his most influential book, On becoming a person.

The legacy of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) conceived of human development as the process of becoming (self-actualizing). Although his major professional world was that of clinical therapy, his ideas have become influential beyond that domain. His dominant idea is that the process of self-actualization is natural, albeit hindered by various life experiences. We each have an instinctive desire (an aspiration) to develop our potential.

Furthermore, we feel good about ourselves when we are engaged in the processes of developing our potential. This is at the heart of another key concept, that of positive self-regard. (terms such as self-image and identity can be traced back to his work). At a personal level, positive self-regard is unconditional in nature.

However, social groups have developed in ways in which self-regard receives only conditional respect. That is to say, we become restricted by the conditions and rewards of the social group. Such reinforcement distorts the natural processes of development. The individual may have trouble dealing with the gap between the expectations of the group, and his or her perceptions of ‘the real me’.

Over time the individual deals with the problem through psychological defences (Rogers notes two major defence systems, distortion and denial).

Developing yourself, developing others

The core of Rogerian theory is the capacity of the human to self-development. You are your most important teacher and moral leader. However, he also was concerned with the process of developing others (particularly those with seriously damaged processes of self-actualisation). The Rogerian therapist strives to develop openness (‘congruence’), empathy, and respect (unconditional positive regard). If we are to borrow from Rogerian theory for leadership development we must examine whether these principles can translate.

As a first step, we can see how Rogers had worked out a model for encouraging individuals to achieve their potential. This is what the therapist does. I believe we can indeed borrow many of his ideas (changing what needs to be changed) to arrive at a more general model for leadership and for leadership development.

We will be connecting the ideas of Carl Rogers with the leadership text, Dilemmas of Leadership, to explore the importance of map making, block busting and bridge building in leadership development.

Leadership as Map-making

Dilemmas of Leadership suggests that leaders develop themselves through processes of map reading, map testing and map making.

The mapping processes are metaphors of journeys of self discovery. During the journeys, maps of received knowledge, and examined in the context of direct experience leading to revision of personal beliefs.

Dilemmas of Leadership suggests that a text can be read as a Platform of Understanding or summary of a belief system. The POU is a kind of map, ready for use. It covers the historical maps of leadership from trait theory maps, through situational maps, to those maps dealing with new leadership concepts (transformational leadership).

To take a simple example, a student may read a book about leadership and extract from it a map of what leadership is all about. She then has a personal assignment – let’s say it is in a volunteering project. During the project she experiences various events which can be connected to the things she has read in the textbook. The process of testing enables her to make sense of the text-book connected through her own experience. This, in turn, strengthens her skills in future leadership roles. When she acts, she draws on the (always developing) personal map she has been making.

Map-making from the daily news

This blog can be seen as a series of maps about leadership drawn from the news stories appearing every day of the year. Out of personal choice I select a story that seems to have some leadership interest and summarise it for myself. Towards the end of that stage of map-making I find myself doing some map testing. Does the story fit with what I already believe I know? Even more rarely I might make a new connection and discover a new (to me) leadership concept.

For example, I came across several stories about threats, either by a leader or to a leader. A recent rather complicated one involves the chairman of The Royal Mail, Allan Leighton. You can follow the story in an earlier blog. The point here, is that the story reminded me of the way in which a threat takes on a dominating role. I could have been reminded of global warming, but I happened to think of an old chess story attributed to a chess player by the name of Nimsowitsch. This is now leading me to look more actively for examples of threats to a leader, and for convenience I label the process the Nimsowitsch principle. Maybe the concept will help me act differently in the future, not just in a chess game, but faced with real-life crises.

A second example is the map of management and organisational structures often known as Fordism (after Henry Ford’s production line innovation). A colleague suggested that Toyota’s lead production methods were moving manufacturing away from Fordism, and associated with a new leadership approach. I found refrences to Toyotism. What if, I wondered, we were seeing a shift in leadership approaches to include Eastern philosophic values. Perhaps inspired by a well-known book on the Tao of leadership, I added another concept to the map, and coined the term Toyotaoism.

An invitation to make some leadership maps

I believe in the processes of map reading, making and testing, and invite you to try them out for yourselves. You could keep a diary or learning log. Which, come to think of it, is not that far away from the process of writing a weblog or blog …

It’s a process of triangulation through which you combine your connect your received knowledge maps, with your personal experiences, and with the stories available every day of other leaders and their actions.

Leadership as block busting

Leadership as block busting was dealt with in an earlier blog. One new twist is worth mentioning, namely to link block busting to the leadership development ideas of Carl Rogers.

In his writings, Rogers explained creativity as the output or manifestation of self-actualisation. Why is creativity so rare and prized? Because of those distortions of the (Rogerian) ‘true’ self through socially imposed bias, which produces denial or distortion of the creative journey of discovery.

There is an enormous body of literature, theory and practice dealing with ways of breaking out of the assumptions imposed in an individual. We have been applying Lateral Thinking methods with cohorts of MBA students for several decades and summarised it:

Lateral Thinking for Project Work

For a recent introduction to creativity in business see the (admittedly lengthy) monograph from The Innovation Research group at Brighton University Business School. The report goes far more deeply into the brief summary offered here.

We have identified several Lateral Thinking techniques which help in the production of new ideas. The techniques (Reversals, Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If, and Jolts) are summarized in a power point presentation on using Lateral Thinking in project teams.

Bridge building

The leader as bridge builder is implied in the leadership literature. The textbook Dilemmas of Leadership explores the concept as trust-building. Leaders who believe in a trust-based style accept that they have to grant followers permission to act without direct leadership control. This leads to a dilemma of granting power to others if the leader wishes to exercise more direct control over them. Trust-based leadership facilitates and invites change rather than directing it.

In Celtic legend the story of the giant Bran tells of the way a great chief has to be a bridge.

In the Romance of Branwen, there is a curious passage where Bran and his men come to an impassable river. Bran says, “he who will be a chief, let him be a bridge”, and lays himself down to form a bridge over a river, allowing his army to cross over. The narrator of the romance tells us that this was the first time the saying was uttered.

In negotiations, the bridge building style is essential where it is vital to avoid win-lose outcomes (that’s back to the Nimzowitsch principle, by the way). It is necessary as peace process negotiations develop. It is often needed to resolve honesty held differences, by making a creative leap.

The related concept of ‘join up’ was originally developed by Monty Roberts (The ‘so-called Horse Whisperer’ in the film starring Robert Redford). Join up involves collaborative working, even if one partner may have more power and responsibility that others. It has since been extended to provide insights for trust-based leadership methods applied in Primary and Secondary Schools, as well as in business and social care environments. (Note, these are unequal power partners, where there can still be respect, Rogerian unconditional positive regard of the other partner, be it a child, a horse, or a remedial prisoner).

A parallel has been proposed between creative leadership and trust-based leadership

A simple to use concept is to look for Yes And rather than Either Or in your leadership efforts. As a bridge building technique, Yes And has been documented as having been applied successfully in numerous trust-based projects to achieve better decisions, harmony, innovation, and other creative outcomes. It offers a way to work through the (Rogerian) blocks which would otherwise reduce individuals to feelings of powerlessness.

Discussion Points

Various approaches have been described to support the process of leadership development, that is to say the process of becoming the leader you are capable of becoming. Using a humanistic approach developed by Carl Rogers, three aspects of leadership development were studied: map making, block busting, and bridge building.

In what ways do the suggestions support (or challenge) your beliefs about leadership, and suggest learning for future actions?

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5 Responses to On becoming a leader

  1. chinedu udeh says:

    I support Carl Rogers in his map making theory, I myself have used this a few times, as a pass leader, i have implemented ways which i have been taught previously from training sessions to solve tasks e.g how to lead groups and making sure everyone contributes, allowing students who do not like communicating talk a bit more without even letting them realise what i’m doing; asking open ended questions which would lea to discussion but making sure the whole class contributes and that not just one group of people are monopolizing the conversation. i believe in self actualization and always look for ways to better myself, positive thinking and the ‘law of attraction’ have helped shape me a lot as i’ve seen that thinking positive and not negative thoughts makes only good things happen around me and prevent me from worrying, getting angry e.t.c. i think leaders should radiate positivity around them because if they are happy and not sullen or angry, it will encourage people a lot and give their followers peace of mind.

  2. Thank you for wonderful posts and great comments on various facets of management and leadership. I am a regular reader of the blog.Encouraged by my technology background and MBS MBA I have tried to put a student perspective on our MBA programme in our MBA student blog. It is more informal in nature.
    I would be glad and it will be very helpful if you could give feedback on the blog.
    Thank you.
    Bhaskar Mahendrakar
    MBA 2008.Manchester Business School
    http://blogs.mbs.ac.uk/

  3. Mike Jenkins says:

    The idea of maps has struck me as interesting. Does this theory imply that everyone is born with their own map which is the basis of how they test the maps of others?
    If I follow the idea correctly you suggest map reading comes first but surely map making comes first as everyone must make their own map based on both their nature and how they were nurtured as a child. People then use this map to test the maps they are presented with through out their lives. The map we have created ourselves is one which we find very hard to change and only those who can do this will become successful leaders.
    The self maps may also link into the idea of denial that Rogers mention as the fact that most people deny change is due to the fact that their own map says that it is not possible. So the first step to change is the rewriting of the maps of those who are in denial and the only way that this can happen is by those who have already rewritten their self maps to say “Wouldnt it be wonderful if…”.
    So the most successful leaders should have already rewritten their self maps and have the ability to rewrite the self maps of others.

    Mike Jenkins
    MLP Student

  4. Tudor says:

    Thanks Mike. If we work on this point I suppose we get to a very on debate about whether a child is a ‘tabula rasa’, a clean slate on which impressions can be made. Instincts ‘unfold’ into untaught actions (i.e. some actions are somewhat hard-wired). That’s your point about nature ans nururing influences.

    I agree with so much of what you have proposed. Where I’d see things a bit differently is I’m not comfortable with linear models of ‘first this then that ..’ So often the interesting stuff occurs in rather complex loops of action and reflection among individuals and groups. Chenges occur within this messy sort of social context, and we make sense of them according to our old maps, and sometimes according to newer ones. For a leader mybe the challenge is to be as alert to ways of challenging his or her maps as to acting directly to impact on those of others? Hence thhe Rogerian insistence on becoming not on ‘having become’

    PS After a long time, I’m still ‘becoming’ someone who explores and borrows from Rogers, not an utter committed convert …

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