Opinion: Daily Journal

Join The Choir

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Karen Palasek, Director of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.

RALEIGH — In preparation for a symposium discussing how leadership might look in the future, the Harvard Business Review opened a six-week blog series that raised a number of issues. The topics range from what leadership is — and perhaps is not — to the “soul” of leadership, the role of values and morals, the science of leadership, the anticipated talent shortage, and a few thoughts on what lies ahead. The series also talks about something called nonconscious leadership, the stuff leaders do and convey that they may not even be aware they are doing or conveying.

Here are a few ideas from the discussion to consider: First, context. Author Hermina Ibarra argues in “Why Becoming a Leader is Not Like Improving Your Golf Swing” that leadership is less a static and enduring feature of the individual than we often suppose. The “golf swing” analogy supposes that exercising good leadership is about having the right tools (and having practiced with them), and being ready to pull them out of the bag at the right place and time.

Ibarra emphasizes that these strategies, and the static definitions of ourselves we get from standardized assessments (like the familiar Myers-Briggs and others), detach leaders from the social context of leadership. Static self-definitions actually can inhibit our ability to make the transition to new and greater leadership roles. And if anything is apparent from our anticipation of 21st-century leadership, it is the need to navigate transitions successfully and repeatedly.

If one side of the discussion focuses on context, a substantial portion of the discussion weighs in on structure. Harvard Business School professor Bill George argues that the great man, hierarchical model “just doesn’t work any more.” So what’s ahead?

In “What Lies Ahead for Leadership?” Ellen Peebles collects examples of what the bloggers said they admire in leaders. These included openness to truly honest conversations, a defiance of the strict standards/empathy trade-off (the idea that one cannot exhibit both and be an effective leader), and the admiration of those who are exemplars of “moral leadership in action.”

How does one tap into the social context, stay open to and understand the nonleaders in the group, and still remain effective? One suggestion is to play a nonleader role for a while, akin to what is needed in an orchestra or choir when ensemble members must, to produce a beautiful ensemble sound, constantly remain “mindful” of their role as well as that of others in the group. There is a marked difference in the product, and the difference has been documented by listeners and by audience response. Most ensembles still will prefer to place a conductor “in charge” of the group, but in the very best organizations, the maestro may not be absolutely essential.

The 21st-century understanding of what leadership “is” is even now transforming itself, based on business models, yes, and increasingly on neurobiology and psychology. While the height of hierarchical leadership may be the traditional top-down pyramidal authority structure, perhaps the opposite extreme can be found in descriptions of a radically different “leaderless” or “swarm” form, based on context and awareness.

In brief, swarming represents a completely flat structure lacking any centralized authority. Taking the concept of peer leadership to its limits, author Justin Long speaks of swarming structures (particularly in relation to his work in China) as using deference rather than authority in the process of getting things done. Even where hierarchical structures exist, Long argues, deference to others describes how things really work.

Clear signals abound that leadership practice and thinking in transition to the future must become more adaptive, more flexible, and more context-bound.