A recent article from Dr Colm Foster, Director of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute, sets out the idea that, particularly in a fast-moving VUCA environment, leaders might start to aim to ‘be like water’. Foster points out that a lots of leadership education is still done on the basis of ‘great men’ such as Jack Welch and Steve Jobs. These guys, and many others, sought to impose themselves on a situation and definitely influence people, pushing them to exert control in difficult times. Interestingly, research from Richard Boyatzis at Case Western Reserve University showed that these influencers’ ended up a lot less happy with their lives and careers than others.
Foster wonders whether, in more turbulent, close-to-the-edge times, it might be better not to push people but instead to be more adaptive. He writes:
“This will require a cadre of new leaders who are less ego-identified with success and winning, who don’t see problems as opportunities to impose themselves and demonstrate mastery of the environment.
“Rather we will see the emergence of leaders who can go with the flow, adapt to new realities quickly, work through and with others as either leader or follower and pivot gracefully as cherished paradigms fall away and hard-earned experience proves ineffective as a guide to new problems.” (Foster, 2018)
Foster notes that this is reminiscent of martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s instruction to his students to ‘Be like water’. This idea of ‘going with the flow’ and adapting quickly is built into the Host Leadership paradigm; a good host both makes a (good) plan, and is prepared to let go of the plan when needs arise. In this piece I would like to focus on one particular element of Foster’s selection above – working through and with others either as leader or follower.
Once of the key aspects we’ve discovered in our research about what great hosts (and host leaders) do is the act of stepping forward and back. Sometimes we want to step forward, set the scene, make people aware of what is going on, direct attention and set out what might happen next. Then, we might step back – leaving people to get on with it, giving them space to respond to what’s going on. Then we, having stepped back, can take a look around, see how things are going, what needs attention, who needs to be engaged, before we step forward again.
One of our ‘six roles of a host leader’ is the Co-Participator role. When we step forward in this role, it is as one of the team, doing what needs to be done whatever the status of the job. This might be taking a turn at the customer service desk, helping out on the shop floor, or even just doing the photocopying – there’s a great story in the book about a very senior director helping out in just that way during a late night rush to get things ready for the morning. He did what needed to be done – and what there was no-one else to do at that particular moment.
This willingness to join in, throw our shoulders to the wheel in whatever way is necessary, is a practical implementation of switching between leader and follower and back again. Note that doing some of the team’s work, being a follower for a while, doesn’t mean relinquishing the leadership role overall. In fact, when the team members see the leader helping out in this way it very much strengthens the relationships and respect, so that when the leader steps back into a their leading role once more it is with a new degree of awareness from all parties. Trying it tomorrow – where can you be a Co-Participator and help your team out for a while? What difference does it make for you? For the team?
The international Host Leadership Gathering 2018 is in Paris, France on 28-29 May 2018. Come and join us for workshops, keynotes, open space discussions and social time with some very interesting leaders and leadership developers.
Hat tip to the Alan Lyons in Dublin for pointing me to the Colm Foster piece online. Thanks Alan!
Dr Mark McKergow is the co-author of Host: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements (Solutions Books 2014).