In competitive motor sport, when the conditions are wet and difficult, best practice is to follow the “Dry Line” – the part of the track that has been cleared of damp by those in front. It makes sense – the line is clear to see, reduces risk, and increases available speed.
Which is fine providing you are following. but what if you’re the leader?
The convention here is to follow the “racing line” – the path around the track that minimises distance and maximises speed. When the track is familiar, the racing line is well understood – it’s been taken by many people before. Follow best practice as effectively as you can.
So what do we do when the track is unfamiliar, the weather unpredictable, the competition unknown and the length of the race indeterminate? When the goal is not to win the race, but to get as many people over the line in the time available? When there is no best practice?
Times like now. This is when skill, meets commitment, meets courage and gets expressed as leadership. It is not for the faint hearted, nor the opportunist, because you might fail. Then again, you might not.
Seeing what’s on the horizon at the moment is difficult, as mists of uncertainty swirl around us, combining to restrict our vision, and we find there are no longer any easy “solutions” to recovering it.
Not that long ago, pre-pandemic, there was an enormous supply of people who provided us with easy-to-use answers, templates and formulas – often government-funded and given catch names like ‘Growth Accelerator.” They provided psychological support to the decisions that would usually have been made anyway and gave them a veneer of professional respectability. They did no harm, sometimes helped a little, but did not change things for the long term, even as the mist was forming, even then.
Today, the consultants are as confused as the clients. Those stock answers no longer help, even a little and are more likely to harm if we turn to them hoping they will, like some form of magic incantation.
We are in a different place. We need to make space for wisdom.
Wisdom is one of those comfortable ideas, all rocking chairs and warm fires that we shape to pretend it is not as challenging as it is. Our dictionaries collude, defining it as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement.”
The reality is that wisdom is where we go when the science runs out, and as a society that has become addicted to science as truth, the idea is very challenging. Science implies understanding, and understanding means control, and right now, all of that is in very short supply. Wisdom invokes other, less tangible knowledge garnered over generations; Intuition, experience, spirituality, survival and other areas which do not lend themselves to evidence-based debate.
As I write this, authorities of every sort are flying in the face of wisdom to water down the recommendations of the IPCC regarding the measures we take – fossil fuel? – a jolly good thing; industrial farming? – no problem. The list goes on, driven by a tenuous hold on power rather than increasing our chances of long term survival. Here in the UK, a government dedicated to the supremacy of money as the meaning of life refutes the wisdom of a “plan B” to mitigate pressures on a health service recommended by scientists. The NHS is, after all, only a consumer of money, not a generator. Science can be real nuisance sometimes.
Wisdom is a function of leadership, whilst science is the stuff of management. Both are vital but very different. Wisdom accommodates science, but the rigours of science exclude wisdom, and the result appears to be that we have managers trying to be leaders and failing.
I sometimes think leadership has gone missing. As I’ve listened to the news and spoken with people worldwide, all facing different versions of the challenges we all face, the same issue keeps cropping up – the people and places we look to for leadership have become pale shadows of what we need.
I do not think it is because they are all deficient in some way – they are bright, committed people; otherwise, we would not have put them where they are. I think it is more that the structures we have created were designed for a different time, when centralisation, scale, and hierarchies delivered what followers needed.
That time is long gone, and scale has meant that the centre is now a very, very long way from the edge where the action happens. A leader’s first and foremost responsibility is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those she leads given the conditions they face. Being a long way from where those followers make that a huge challenge. Firstly, the privileges that go with leadership, from money to location, mean that they have very different experiences of everyday reality. Secondly, as we have made leadership a profession more than a vocation, the emotional distance between leader and follower has become more significant. Leaders and the led have little in common. Thirdly, leaders are increasingly transient and nomadic, moving from position to position rather than being attached to a cause. We have turned leaders into mercenaries.
I think we have turned business leadership into a cult. A combination of business school orthodoxy, technology, and phenomenal rewards for corporate boards has created a dogma that has little to do with leadership in its purest, human form.
Operational leadership, of the “up close and personal” kind, has always existed at the edge where new is constantly emerging out of the uncertainty of orthodoxy dissolving. At its best, strategic leadership occurs at the centre, but only where the centre and the edge share a common purpose, and similar risks, so authentic leadership is never a safe occupation.
Authentic leadership has not gone missing; it is just that it does not often exist in a job description or a business card title. Leadership is done by those who care about those they choose to lead more than themselves because what they do together matters. It is taking place all around us by people close to us who do not see themselves as leaders and would be surprised to be described as such. They are the ones who speak out firmly but quietly in support of what and who they believe in and who demonstrate in action their commitment to it. Leaders are those who take lots of small steps to keep things moving forward rather than drawing up enormous plans for approval or making extravagant promises about a future they will not be there to lead us into.
As we navigate our way through the uncertainty we face, leadership is local, and it is us.
Some dots waiting to be joined.
The Archbishop of York. Leaders are not afraid to be contentious, and in pointing out an uncomfortable truth, he does us a service. His point that the English identity seems to have been submerged underneath the more dominant identities of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Westminster will be unwelcome to many.
Open Source Intelligence. Economist. Centralised leaders have always relied on privileged access to information, but technology is changing that. This article looks at how intelligence is going open source and what that means for organisations and nations.