Leaders we deserve: The WordPress example

August 26, 2007

giant-despair.jpgThis weekend the WordPress internet company ran into serious delivery difficulties. It received a flood of encouraging messages from its customers. The company had earned considerable goodwill through its unwavering customer-orientation. This provides insights into exemplary corporate leadership

In a few years the WordPress organization has signed up over a million bloggers. Subscribers this weekend faced life without a fully-functioning service from their fast-growing provider. That’s a lot of disappointed bloggers. No doubt there were many whose anger and frustration boiled over towards Word Press and the world in general.

However, it seems that quite a lot of people reacted with considerable goodwill towards the company. My own reaction echoed a substantial number of customers who sent emails to Word Press. One typical one came from member advertboy:

Thanks for the heads up.. I completely understand it has nothing to do with WordPress but rather your datacenter providers. I hope you are getting compensation from your datacenter provider …, this is really an unacceptable outage for any business.

Other emails described the fears that the user had been responsible for loss of contact with WordPress, and the subsequent relief to discover there was someone out there caring. Despair turns to hope.

During the night, the team at WordPress continued to work. Tellyworth found time to reply to queries:

The problem wasn’t a hacker, virus or anything malicious like that. We’re still not sure but it looks like a failed upgrade at one of our providers. It hasn’t affected our servers, just network traffic to and between them. Intermittent network problems are still affecting some people, and that will probably continue until after the scheduled maintenance

Unconditional trust

The company seems to have achieved something special within its global network of subscribers. Subscribers? Customers? Members of an extended family? Corporate speak falls short of what’s going on here. To be sure, many corporations say that the customer is their prime concern. But their rhetoric is often ultimately self-defeating. It dulls the senses as it echoes around the catacombs of cynicism. Customers mostly accept that in a far from perfect world, in business transactions they are likely to be dealing with the frailties of human beings intent on putting self-preservation first. Being nice to customers happens to be one way of doing business. Sme firms do their best. But that pragmatic stance is tested when ‘putting people first’ means ‘putting corporate interests second’. Caveat emptor rings as true to day as it has for a couple of millennia.

A few firms transcend pragmatism. Word Press illustrates a process within which a corporate culture is established which has behaves so as to engender unconditional trust in its business actions. How to earn trust? Be trustworthy. Easy to say. For some firms it is also easy to do because it is natural. It would be unnatural for the firm not to work through the night finding a thousand things that might, just might help in a period of crisis. The process is made easier because they already have a lot of capital earned and deposited in the psychological Bank of Trust.

I had been struck by the enthusiasm for improvement shown by the company in its communications. These tend to inform users of improvements to the service. But also they reveal a deep commitment to creativity. What Carl Rogers was describing as the human need to create, so often shrivelled up in corporate life. Only this week users were told how good things come in threes, and learned about the new visuals showing daily, weekly and monthly blog traffic.

Tom Peters was an influential guru from the last Millennium. He wrote a lot of things about excellence, much of it rather insanely enthusiastic of the virtues of being, well, insanely enthusiastic about your business life. He would have loved to have a Word Press to illustrate his ideas.

The disturbances persist

Attempts to preview this post suggest that the crisis is not yet passed. But Giant Despair is more or less under lock and key. Let’s give it another try …


What is creative leadership?

June 2, 2007

180px-telemachus_and_mentor.jpgCreative leaders attract a great deal of attention in business, politics, sport, and education. There seems to be a widespread belief that creative leadership is a good thing and that more you can get the better. How far are we from a rigorous understanding of an under-researched topic?

Creativity and leadership have various characteristics in common. Both have attracted attention across a wide range of professional, educational, and socio-political fields. Both have defied easy definition. Furthermore, there are few convincing answers to questions such as: How might creative leadership be distinguished from non-creative leadership? In what way might this distinction help anyone?

A personal view

A few years ago I collaborated with Susan Moger on a practitioner text, Handbook for Creative Team Leaders. We have used it in different countries and with many different kinds of team. In the book, we point to two different sets of beliefs about creativity. The first is the rare gift view, and the second is the universal human capability view. Our commitment to the latter can be traced to ideas of creativity derived from Carl Rogers, and developed within the creative problem-solving movement.

Our audiences have tended to take for granted the notion that teams need creativity. When asked for definitions or explanations we tend to say something like ‘Creativity is a process through which individuals and groups discover new and useful ideas. Creative leaders are people who help that process come about’.

A confession

They say you make progress when you realize how much you don’t know. If that’s the case, I’ve made progress recently. I’ve reached the conclusion that I have no well-grounded answer to the question ‘what is creative leadership?’.

My dissatisfaction comes from the knowledge that the approach outlined above has tended to favour the lived experience over the abstract concept. The focus is on creating rather than reflecting on the creative process.

This need not be the case. Chris Argyris has called the primary discovery processes single-loop, and reflective one double-loop learning.

Argyris has made significant contributions to theorizing of Organisational Behavior. His proposal can be understood as implying that

Double loop theory is based upon a “theory of action” perspective outlined by Argyris & Schon … This perspective examines reality from the point of view of human beings as actors. Changes in values, behavior, leadership, and helping others, are all part of, and informed by, the actors’ theory of action. An important aspect of the theory is the distinction between an individual’s espoused theory and their “theory-in-use” (what they actually do); bringing these two into congruence is a primary concern of double loop learning. Typically, interaction with others is necessary to identify the conflict.

Pressure for results

My belief remains that projects engaging teams in creative activities are promising opportunities for learning about learning (double-loop learning). The most promising opportunities are those with extended projects. These have been found to occur when they are part of lengthier educational processes. Even then, pressures for results tempt a majority of teams to stick too closely to concerns for short-term performance outcomes and course grades. With appropriate mentorship the teams are better able to confront the ambiguities of their situations.

What do you think?

So, what do you think? I’d like to hear other experiences and views on the nature of creative leadership. This will be incorporated in a subsequent post, which will also include findings from a forthcoming issue of the Creativity and Innovation Management Journal which examines the links between leadership and creativity.


The Trap: TV series models the leaders we deserve

March 24, 2007

the_trap_screenshot.pngThe Trap explores the impact of game theory on contemporary life. It suggests how such social beliefs and actions may be helping create the leaders we deserve.

The BBC TV series, The Trap, promises to become a cultish success. Before its first broadcast, web-surfers were alerting their networks to its importance.

Part 1 of 3, F**k You Buddy: A series of films by BAFTA-winning producer Adam Curtis that tells the story of the rise of today’s narrow idea of freedom. It will show how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today’s idea of freedom. This model was derived from ideas and techniques developed by nuclear strategists during the Cold War. It was then taken up by genetic biologists, anthropologists, radical psychiatrists and free market economists, until it became a new system of invisible control.

Lumbering along after the trend-setters, I caught up with the second episode last Sunday. Curtis offers his thesis in a way that is likely to promote discussion.

The web community offers its increasingly significant early indications of beliefs and arguments. Discussion has tended to polarise, with contrarians positive towards the programme for its revelation of the dystopian conditions in a globalizing culture.

In the UK, The Guardian offered about as thorough a critique as could be hoped for. Sometimes the blogging discussions transcend the traditional efforts of journalists, but Oliver Burkeman’s piece is a hard act to follow.

An audacious hypothesis

The trap according to Burkeman offers an audacious hypothesis whereby:

the paranoid theories hatched during the cold war would come to inspire a peculiar, cold-hearted idea of personal freedom – one that helps explain everything from the rise of Prozac and Viagra to Labour’s obsession with healthcare targets, from the military crusades of George Bush and the rise of the Iraqi insurgency to the rampant diagnosis of attention deficit disorder in children.

Burkeman captures one strong concern of some bloggers subsequently, that Curtis engages in ‘conceptual long-jumping’. He, like the bloggers, picks up on Curtis’ treatment of the beliefs of radical psychiatrists. The Trap presents R D Laing as contributing to the belief that madness is totally a socially constructed phenomenon. This may, or may not be what Curtis believes. His approach permits him to present himself as committed to a defense of individual freedom and leaving the viewers to take the debate forward.

As he tells Burkeman:

If there’s one thing that links all I do, it’s trying to make people pull back, look at their time

To which, Burkeman, who is largely sympathetic to the project, comments tartly that

The Trap occasionally feels as if it is stepping a little too far back, wrapping the whole past half-century into a single argument

The Trap and Leadership

I take Burkeman’s point, while feeling (in common with a view expressed in other blogs about the programme) that the Curtis perspectice can not be completely dismissed. Critical theorists such as Gibson Burrell and David Collins have been plugging away in a similar vein in their examination of received wisdom of leadership and organizational studies. They argue that the dominant paradigm severely distorts and diminishes the complexities of human beings engaged in working and organizing.

Judging from the comments they have provoked, the programmes have succeeded in helping (making?) people ‘pull back’, the better to reflect on wide social trends. They may also help us reflect on cherished notions of leadership.
The broad thrust of the argument is that an influential intellectual movement has, for several decades, reduced human behaviour to a kind of Hobbesian self-interested scrabble. From such a perspective, leadership is a construct of social control, cynically espoused for self-interested motives. It aligns with the theoretical perspective that all politicians are ‘only out for themselves’, and that claims to be acting out of a ‘higher’ sense of duty are efforts to manipulate.

This is in precise opposition to the humanistic psychologists such as Abe Maslow and Carl Rogers.

In an earlier blog I suggested that the ideas of Carl Rogers provided a rationale for trust-based leadership. I could have added that humanistic psychology also lies at the heart of the new leadership paradigm, and the idea of the transformational leader, elevating the moral and social sensitivities of the wider social group.

From a Hobbesian or Rogerian perspective we end up with leaders we trust. Hobbesians expect and respect one kind of ‘strong’ leader for exercising social control; Rogerians another frespected for removing impediments to moral development.

In either case, we end up with leaders we create, sustain, and deserve.


On becoming a leader

February 11, 2007

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?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,495 other followers