Embracing a new leadership story

 In Change management, Culture, Leadership

Our brains are amazing and the subconscious part of our minds do a massive amount of work. Studies show that at least 90% of what we do is influenced by our subconscious.  Basically we use a lot of shortcuts. And a lot of those are like little stories we put together in different ways.

The story of a woman. The story of a man.  The first thing we think when someone says they are a doctor, teacher or student. These are the stories we live by.


Our story for leaders

So let’s think about the story that goes with leadership. When people talk about being a leader we all have a prototype in our heads. It’s automatic and when someone becomes a leader they, without realising it, step into that social label – along with all its categorisation and expectations. Identity is made up of a label that determines not just how we behave but also how others behave towards us.


Shared understanding

You see all groups, including workplaces, operate using shared sets subconscious rules that everyone understands and works to. It makes things easier. Especially in this complex world where we’re faced with many different types of people and decisions every day.

Group expectations of leadership used to operate to a vertical style with the assumption that approval and control flowed from top to bottom.  We trusted that bosses had all the answers and the employee’s job is to follow orders and not rock the boat. And for a very long time that didn’t change much. Relationships were transactions and simple. You came to work – did a job – got paid – and went home.

New leadership

But actually with leadership – that story has shifted a lot recently.  Increasingly a leader’s job is not about having all the answers but instead creating the right conditions for collaboration and teamwork. We have new rules of engagement.

Leaders are now tasked with creating an environment of increased collaboration and a more ‘horizontal’ style of leading. Teams are being given permission to experiment, learning as they go along. There is an increased need for everyone to speak up when they see something not working as bosses can’t have all the answers. No-one does.

But did you tell leaders you know that?  Because if you didn’t they’ll still be acting as a vertical boss.


A different set of norms

Our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world means that there are quite a different set of norms for leaders today that demand a much more relational style of leadership. One that empowers others rather than asks them to be a superhero. Which means we need to unpick those Superhero mental models that used to serve us and equip leaders with a new story of empowerment and teaming.


The new focus of leadership

Today’s leadership is less about production lines, task management, accountability, control and having answers.  Today’s problems don’t have tried and tested solutions.  Leadership is about helping teams be their very best to solve those complex problems in innovative ways.

Leaders are thinking about empowerment, team wellbeing and creating the connection to purpose that allows them to get the very best from their teams. We need a leadership identity to match that. A social label that works by realising the power of a team, not being a superhero.  We need a label that allows our leaders to live all of the opportunities of 21st-century thinking.

The residue we’re dealing with

Social labels are about not just how we see the role but also how others see the role. Where you get assigned an identity categorisation. Let’s think about what that is for leadership.


Imagine that your street has decided to hold a street party and the residents decide they need a leader. Would you volunteer or run a mile. Why? What do you know comes with that label of ‘leader’? What shared understanding have you used without being told what is expected of that person? Can you see how social identities help us quickly organise as social beings? 

When you recognise that there is a very established shared understanding of the word ‘leader’, you start to see that it’s quite a big job to rewrite it. Especially when you want to introduce a different model for leadership.  You need to reset this understanding not just for yourself but for everyone else.

Organisations that want to introduce more ways to lead need to play out a strategic plan to help create that change. To expand shared expectations that bind us to what leadership used to be about. And to replace them with a broader set of norms about empowered leadership. A lot of this is about giving collective permission to lead differently. We need to think more about how we think about leadership.

So let’s be clear. The target isn’t to get rid of the leadership label, instead, it’s to ensure the leadership identities reflect the best of current thinking. For many, our mental model of leadership will be stuck with the legacy of ways of thinking that served us for so long. But they served a different time and workplace – one that was transactional and task-based.  So we need to update things a bit. Leadership has been lived before and needs to be updated to align with how things are now rather than how they were.

A new narrative

We need to allow leaders to be humble about empowering others to lead. Enable more diverse views of what it is to lead and to see the huge skill and value that comes from creating teams as recognition is important too. Seeing and nurturing the potential in others is a huge skill. Allowing people to redefine leadership.

This is about expansion rather than conforming and links beautifully into diversity.  Introducing new leadership identities to challenge and reset stereotypical representations of old. Help leaders find their own unique leadership identity and embed that into the organisation by building new narratives, networks and practices to support a new collective way.

Use system thinking

A key starting point though is to see the landscape properly as different teams have different needs. For example, needs for HR will differ to that of finance or customer services. Too many change programmes tackle the whole and not the system. Let’s talk about the big story but also little stories.

Also, too much change focuses at the other end of the individual and psychometrics. Know we’re looking at a team – and what makes that team great. People’s behaviours change as they move between the size of groups. The person you are alone is not the person you are in a group. Psychometrics is good for one-on-one coaching to help you be the best version of yourself. BUT if you want to improve a team – you also need to look at the whole and how the parts show up in the whole.

Five steps to change

Five steps that we find help with behaviour change:

1. Understand the as-is
Our new Team Chemistry Tool measures four dimensions that allow teams to objectively look at their team chemistry: measuring how the team perceives their culture in terms of psychological safety, wellbeing, readiness for change, and emotional connection.

And where this is useful is if you measure something you generally see change.

2. Conversations create change

We change our mental models through conversations with others – reacting to how the group sees things. People are always testing concepts and resetting them through the group sense-making that happens in conversations.

People change mental models through conversations. We test and reset through group sense-making. Workshops and away days help with this but design these sensitively. Build wellbeing into them because identity matters to people and the label of ‘leader’ comes with recognition. When a person spends 20 years climbing a career ladder based on having all the answers, you need to be aware that you are changing their value system – how they recognise they are doing a good job.

If you peel that away and give them a new model, you have to help people come around to accepting it.

But we need to see that leadership can’t be repeated blindly in its old form. It needs a new branch in its identity. There are two conversations to have to achieve this and allow for reinterpretation and renegotiation of leadership. These are:

a. Help leaders see leadership differently, find their own authentic style and role model the new behaviours. Help them cope with identity change.
b. Help teams see leadership differently and encourage them to adopt new behaviours. If you ask people to step up and speak out you have to help them adjust, feel safe in doing so and connect with the broader organisational purpose.

3. Introduce new practices

A common pitfall is that empowered leadership is mistaken for self-organising teams with no controls. Laissez-Faire achieves little. Autonomy has structure.

Most likely you will need to introduce new processes around decision making, experimentation and meetings. And you will need to take the time to bed in those new practices, allowing time to learn new skills.

4. Help people find their voice

Diversity is important. You don’t want everyone to be the same. Let people find their style. Help them to see strong role models. Build networks of female leaders, diverse voices. Don’t squash everyone into one model.

5. Keep going
Change doesn’t happen overnight. This isn’t a one stop shop. If only change was as easy as saying it once and we all change. You need to repeat, repeat, repeat. Stay consistent, simple in what you want and keep going. When something goes wrong – work with it. Learn from it. See it as an opportunity to role model what you believe in.

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