Exploring Leadership Practice

Photo by Gabriel Sollmann on Unsplash

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to explore some of the literature on the subject of leadership and what attributes people prioritize in leaders.  While I’ve held a leadership position for some time, my approach has been primarily influenced by experiences with leaders I’ve worked with in the past.  It’s been interesting to see which of my preconceived notions are supported by the literature, and what ways of thinking I should consider adopting.

Conceptual Confirmation

While much of what I’ve read in the literature has reinforced my previous notions of what makes an effective leader, there were a few points that I came across which I found compelling.  One such point was that regardless of circumstances or geography, most of us look for the same four qualities in a leader.  Kouzes and Posner (2011) observed that “the majority of people look for and admire leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent” (p. 4).  This was reinforced in the group activity my team engaged in earlier when Carpenter et al. (2021) prioritized honesty, competence, and inspiration as some of the most important leadership qualities.  I’ve often thought that we as people aren’t all that unique when it comes to what drives us to excel.  Generally speaking, we care about the same things.  So, the evidence presented here in the research shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Another interesting point that came up was the idea of leadership as service.  I was particularly drawn to the Indigenous interpretation of this concept which presents a greater sense of responsibility than that of Western cultures on the impact of a leader’s actions.  Julien et al. (2010) argued that “Aboriginal leadership is about meeting the needs of the entire community and connecting community to the past” (p. 119).  In this way, a leader is not only responsible for how their actions impact their organization and their constituents, but also how those actions impact the community at large.  I think this sense of responsibility to the whole, rather than solely those directly associated with an organization, is woefully lacking in Western leadership.  A shift towards this Indigenous way of thinking would likely be beneficial for the health and sustainability of our communities.

Changes Moving Forward

In the future, I plan to make some adjustments to the way in which I lead, particularly in an online environment.  First, I need to be more intentional about the way in which I communicate the objectives I envision for my organization and be much more articulate about what success looks like.  Kouzes and Posner (2011) argued that “leaders can’t just have dreams of the future; they must be able to communicate those dreams in ways that encourage people to sign on for the duration and to work hard for the goal” (p. 6).  In addition, Castelli (2016) noted “that when followers view their work as relevant and purposeful to the organization, job satisfaction and motivation to perform increase” (p. 224).  I’ve found that in person, this kind of communication happens more naturally in casual conversations between meetings.  In an online environment, however, when interactions are more appointment driven, the conversation is less likely to move naturally to greater objectives.  Therefore, I need to make a specific point of speaking about the future and how each individual’s part contributes to the organization’s success.

My recent reading of the literature also brought to my attention some similarities between Indigenous and Feminist approaches to leadership, leading me to think about how I can incorporate those ideas into my practice.  Julien et al. (2010), from an Indigenous perspective, and Batliwala (2010), from a Feminist perspective, both describe the importance of a leader considering their constituents in a holistic fashion, rather than merely employees.  I have a tendency to focus too much on people’s contributions to their work, rather than how other influential factors impact their wellbeing.  As presented by Tussyadiah (2015), the ubiquity of mobile devices has supported a blending of work and personal life.  Therefore, we need to be more mindful of the whole nature of a person in order to develop a more meaningful connection.  I was also struck by the similarity between the Indigenous method to lead by consensus (Julien et al., 2010) and the Feminist preference for all members of an organization to have influence in certain decision-making (Batliwala, 2010).  This leads me to believe that I need to be more conscious of encouraging conversation amongst the entire group when considering ways forward and be willing to shift my perspective to be more inclusive.

References

Batliwala, S. (2010). Feminist leadership for social transformation: Clearing the conceptual cloud. 1–42. https://justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf

Carpenter, J., Guichon, P., MacKay, M., Nix, C. H., & Rowe, C. (2021). Admired Leadership Attributes. Christopher’s Blog. https://malat-webspace.royalroads.ca/rru0162/

Castelli, P. A. (2016). Reflective leadership review: a framework for improving organisational performance. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 217–236. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMD-08-2015-0112

Julien, M., Wright, B., & Zinni, D. M. (2010). Stories from the circle: Leadership lessons learned from aboriginal leaders. Leadership Quarterly, 21(1), 114–126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2009.10.009

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It,. In Quality Management Journal (Vol. 19, Issue 3, pp. 69–70). https://doi.org/10.1080/10686967.2012.11918075

Tussyadiah, I. P. (2015). Personal technology and tourism experiences. ISCONTOUR, 1–10. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279178497_Personal_Technology_and_Tourism_Experiences

12 thoughts on “Exploring Leadership Practice”

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and reflection. A few things stood out for me, but one was your point about needing more intentional communication with the shift to mostly remote work. We have been discussing this at length in our own leadership teams as we are missing those more informal check-ins that often do a lot of the work within an organization. I think it also relates to your thoughts about considering a more holistic approach to leadership – how do you create the kinds of spaces where you can engage more deeply with your team when you are all remote? How do you ensure that you are creating spaces for everyone’s voices (and that they feel the kind of trust needed to openly share? In my own organization there is a lot of discussion about keeping some of our teams remote even when it is safe to bring everyone back F2F, at least part of the time, so it is something that is really top of mind. Ensuring communication is transparent and open, so that everyone feels heard and valued is going to be one challenge moving forward.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Michelle. I think it’s so difficult to recreate the natural conversations that take place in a F2F environment. I’ve had some experience with virtual team-building get-togethers that I think have been designed for this purpose… but my experience is that it’s mostly felt forced and uncomfortable. On those occasions, I think it’s been a result of poor leadership. As you say, the importance here is for everyone’s voice to be heard… and to Patrick’s point, only one person can speak at a time in a video conference. For that reason, I think even these scheduled “casual” conversations need structure and direction from the leader. Perhaps there could be some kind of symbol to “pass around” like a virtual Lord of the Flies-esque conch (minus the severed pig head, preferably).

      Also, to build trust in these situations and to create an environment where people are willing to open up and be honest, I think it’s appropriate for the leader to present some vulnerability. Recently, I’ve had a couple of conversations with students who have been dealing with mental health issues (no doubt exacerbated by the current isolation) and I shared with them my own struggles with mental health. This (I hope) created an environment where their issues were normalized and validated which resulted in a more meaningful and productive conversation… again… I hope… I’m no therapist.

  2. I so agree.
    I think that smalltalk is something that is missing in this work-from home environment.
    When I taught on campus prior to the pandemic, I would chat with co-workers when I saw them in the hallway or for a few minutes before and after meetings. Now, during the pandemic, unless you schedule a specific meeting with them (which can feel formal and tense) you don’t have those spontaneous and natural conversations. Zoom calls can only really have 1 person talking effectively, however, in person gatherings can have multiple smaller side conversations.
    I have been trying harder to meet with my co-workers for no particular reason, except that it’s Tuesday and I’d like to chat, otherwise I find I don’t talk with them nearly as much.

    1. You make a really great point, Patrick, about the ability for only one person to able to speak in a video conference… it really restricts the ability to have natural conversations… especially in large group settings. I’ve recently participated in a couple casual get-togethers on Zoom with our entire department, where 50 or 60 people attended. This results in basically, at most, three people having a conversation and the remainder being relegated to the role of spectators. It’s neither fun, nor productive. Equally difficult, I think, is the environment where some people are physically present in the same room and others are attending remotely. What seems to happen there is that the local people have a great conversation and the remote participants are excluded… or again, spectators. This is definitely something that needs to be remedied in the near future, if remote working is going to be adopted by a large percentage of the workforce… which I think is the direction in which we’re headed.

  3. Oh! So this is where all the cool kids came. *COUGH* *Clears Throat*

    Christopher, *notes to self he did not call him Chris and is very proud*

    I feel you hit one of the significant limitations of remote learning and work; despite having video chats, it is still tough to create an environment conducive to small talk. There is a crazy lady (her words, not mine, though it is 100% true, and I am proud to even know her) named Jody Carrington. She is loud, in your face, swears like a sailor; however, she has the most engaging seminars if you are willing to engage. She creates an environment of trust through her conversations by making herself vulnerable, and in my experience, this seems to permeate to the digital mediums. So, I wonder if the environment for chit-chat is buried there, underneath all the formal rhetoric waiting for us to ease up and enjoy ourselves.

    1. Micheal,

      I was just thinking about this. Folks are so guarded on tech. Everything is survelenced and can never be ‘off the record’. I think that contributes to the feeling of lessened comradarie in working remotely. I am even subdued in our discord chats… 😂

      1. Great point, Sandra. I think there’s some real truth in that. Also, I think communicating through an online stream is still in its infancy. Even for those of us who do it more than others… it’s still new. I wonder if we just haven’t yet developed a sense of comfort in the medium. Kind of what Mike was getting at, I think… that we need to learn to be comfortable and be ourselves using the format. Will we just get better at it with practice? I’m not sure.

      2. Wait?! That is you subdued!? Oh my…

        I wonder if it has something of the interactions being permanent, we have been so trained to be guarded online that we may forget to be human. Most top organizations (mostly tech) want to engage in the whole person, not just the persona we throw together to be presentable at work or to walk in the presence of the normies on the streets. I am not saying professional interactions should be a party. Still, it seems this strict, stifled view of the “professional” is a hindrance and a relic from the past when need to act systematically to ensure smooth operations (and we didn’t need problem solvers).

    2. Thanks for remembering Mike! It’s honestly not that big a deal. If I had a problem with people calling my Chris, I would have a difficult life.

      I think you’ve made a really great point here. The leader in the room (digital or otherwise) does seem to set the tone of the conversation. If that person can be a little more relaxed (or even a crazy lady), that kind of gives permission to the rest of the attendees to do the same… which can break down people’s barriers.

      1. Of course, Christopher!

        I still feel there is something intangible in conversations, whether it is a gut feeling or whatever, that helps us engage in the conversation. It is our sense that the person is genuine or trustworthy, and I have my doubts it is brought on by hierarchical conversations. Perhaps vulnerability is one of the ways of exposing our true selves to others; it is recognized and reciprocated.

  4. Hi everyone,

    Some good things to think about in trying to creating space in virtual space – Patrick and Christopher (sorry for the Chris, I even asked during our synchronous session :)) you describe every video meet with large groups – 3-4 people dominate and the rest sit quietly. Your suggestion of a virtual talking stick is a good one – but it might be that also need to check in just to chat. I think we need (organizationally) to put value on that time. Michael you also bring up vulnerability and somehow digging our way back to informality – I often wonder what it is about virtual spaces that make them seem more formal (even if there is not the permanence of writing – is it the lack of non-verbal cues?).

    1. Great question about the inherent formality of the medium… I don’t know. Is Sandra right… that we’re all on our best behaviour because Big Brother is watching? If that’s true… is it possible that we simply need to reassure attendees that there aren’t repercussions for “misbehaviour”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *