Archive for “Leadership”

Leadership teams for collaboration

“Who will make sure it doesn’t fall over?”

This was a question posed by someone in a workshop I facilitated, which brought together stakeholders (potential collaborators) who shared an interest in a water catchment.

It was a good question. In a collaboration, where equality between organisations is a value – and the pragmatic as well as philosophical truth is that everyone is only involved because they choose to be – what constitutes leadership? How do you avoid no-one taking responsibility because everyone is sharing responsibility?

If the collaboration stops moving forwards, like a bicycle it will be in danger of falling over.  Who will step forward to right it again, give it a push and help it regain momentum?

Luxurious reading time

I’ve been doing some reading, in preparating for writing a slim volume on collaboration for the lovely people over at DōSustainability. (Update: published July 2013.) It’s been rather lovely to browse the internet, following my nose from reference to reference.  I found some great academic papers, including “Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice” by Chris Ansell and Alison Gash.  This paper is based on a review of 137 case studies, and draws out what the authors call ‘critical variables’ which influence the success of attempts at collaborative governance.

It’s worth just pausing to notice that this paper focuses on ‘collaborative governance’, which you could characterise as when stakeholders come together to make decisions about what some other organisation is going to do (e.g. agree a management plan for a nature reserve ), to contrast it with other kinds of collaboration where the stakeholders who choose to collaborate are making decisions about what they themselves will do, to further the common or complementary aims of the collaboration (e.g. the emerging work of Tasting the Future).

Leadership as a critical variable

Ansell and Gash identify leadership as one of these critical variables.  They say:

“Although ‘unassisted’ negotiations are sometimes possible, the literature overwhelmingly finds that facilitative leadership is important for bringing stakeholders together and getting them to engage each other in a collaborative spirit.”

What kind of person can provide this facilitative leadership?  Do they have to be disinterested, in the manner of an agenda-neutral facilitator?  Or do they have to be a figure with credibility and power within the system, to provide a sense of agency to the collaboration?

Interestingly, Ansell and Gash think both are needed, depending on whether power is distributed relatively equally or relatively unequally among the potential collaborators.  It’s worth quoting at some length here:

“Where conflict is high and trust is low, but power distribution is relatively equal and stakeholders have an incentive to participate, then collaborative governance can successfully proceed by relying on the services of an honest broker that the respective stakeholders accept and trust.”

This honest broker will pay attention to process and remain ‘above the fray’ – a facilitator or mediator.

“Where power distribution is more asymmetric or incentives to participate are weak or asymmetric, then collaborative governance is more likely to succeed if there is a strong “organic” leader who commands the respect and trust of the various stakeholders at the outset of the process.”

An organic leader emerges from among the stakeholders, and my reading of the paper suggests that their strength may come from the power and credibility of their organisation as well as personal qualities like technical knowledge, charisma and so on.

While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful ‘organic’ leader if they are not already in the system. Ansell and Gash note “an implication of this contingency is that the possibility for effective collaboration may be seriously constrained by a lack of leadership.”

Policy framework for collaboration

I’m also interested in this right now, because of my involvement in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach.  I have been supporting people both as a facilitator (honest broker) and by building the capacity of staff at the Environment Agency to work collaboratively and ‘host’ or ‘lead’ collaborative work in some of the pilot catchments.  The former role has been mainly with Dialogue by Design, and latter with InterAct Networks.

One of the things that has been explored in these pilots, is what the differences are when the collaboration is hosted by the Environment Agency, and when it is hosted by another organisation, as in for example Your Tidal Thames or the Brent Catchment Partnership.

There was a well-attended conference on February 14th, where preliminary results were shared and Defra officials talked about what may happen next. The policy framework which Defra is due to set out in the Spring of 2013 will have important implications for where the facilitative leadership comes from.

One of the phrases used in Defra’s presentation was ‘independent host’ and another was ‘facilitator’.  It’s not yet clear what Defra might mean by these two phrases.  I immediately wondered: independent of what, or of whom?  Might this point towards the more agenda-neutral facilitator, the honest broker?  If so, how will this be resourced?

I am thoughtful about whether these catchments might have the characteristics where the Ansell and Gash’s honest broker will succeed, or whether they have characteristics which indicate an organic leader is needed.  Perhaps both would be useful, working together in a leadership team.

Those designing the policy framework could do worse than read this paper.

Adjective/abstract noun

These phrases have caught my attention recently.

All were uttered by sustainability professionals working within different large well-known mainstream businesses.

“…restless dissatisfaction…”

“…chronic unease…”  (apparently the ‘price of safety‘)

“…irrational optimism…”

Witty constructs: adjective/abstract noun.

Like a secret handshake, they signal the speaker knows that what’s being done now is nothing like enough, that optimism is not justified (because trends have not yet reversed), but neither is panic or acute action.  This is a long emergency.

At a workshop last week, the adjective/abstract noun combination favoured by was ‘blessed unrest‘, after Paul Hawken.

The combinations catch my eye (ear?) when there’s some contradiction between the words, an element of surprise.  When they capture the unknowability of this strange time we find ourselves in.

If not me, then who? Leadership and sustainable development

Holding out for a hero

We’re in a hole and we’re not making headway on the huge challenges that face us as a species and as a society.  Our so-called leaders shy away from action which isn’t incremental and easy.  We’re caught in a web of interlocking dependencies shoring up the status quo.  And meanwhile environmental limits are being breached every way we turn.  Why doesn’t somebody DO SOMETHING?

But hang on, what if we are the people we’ve been waiting for?

We, too, can be tempered radicals, positive deviants or social intrapreneurs – different labels for essentially the same ambiguous role: change makers on the inside of our organisation or community, wherever this may be.

This antidote to ‘great man’ leadership is explored in two books: The Positive Deviant (Parkin) helps you prepare and plan, Leadership for Sustainability (Marshall et al) is an edited collection of tales from fellow travellers, shared with a degree of honesty and openness which is unexpected outside the safety of a coaching conversation.

Who will show leadership?

Both books rightly assert that leadership can come from anywhere.  The leader may be the boss, but leadership is something any of us can practice.  And that’s lucky, because we need whole systems to change, not just individual organisations.  And systems don’t have a boss.  Leadership is necessarily distributed throughout the system, even if some people have more power than others.

Parkin’s positive deviant is someone who does the right thing

despite being surrounded by the wrong institutions, the wrong processes and stubbornly uncooperative people”.

They work to change the rules of the game.  Rather than waiting for stepping stones to appear they chuck in rocks, building a path for others as they go.

Effective leadership comes from surprising places within hierarchical structures, and can arise in situations where there isn’t any formal organisation at all.  This makes the positive deviant quite close to the tempered radical, yet Meyerson’s work is a surprising omission from Parkin’s index and bibliography.

Marshall et al see leadership

“as much [in] the vigilante consumer demanding to know where products have come from as [in] the chief executive promoting environmentally aware corporate practices.”

So none of us is off the hook.

What kind of leaders do we need?

If we are all in a position to show leadership, which qualities do we need to hone, to help us be really good at it?

Parkin is clear that we need to be ethical and effective.

Ethical

As Cooper points out in one of the chapters of Leadership for Sustainability, the scale of the transformation implied by how bad things are now means that doing things right is not enough: we need to do the right things.

It is not enough to show leadership merely in the service of your own organisation or community. With sustainability leadership the canvas is all humanity and the whole planet (All Life On Earth including Us, as Parkin puts it).  Regular readers of this blog, and participants on the Post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business will know that this is one of the distinctions I make between ‘any old organisational change’ and ‘organisational change for sustainable development’.  See the slide 22 in the slide show here for more on this and other tensions for sustainability change makers.

To do this, the Positive Deviant has a ‘good enough’ understanding of a range of core sustainability information and concepts, and Parkin summarises a familiar set of priority subjects.  Less familiar are the snippets of sustainability literacy from classical antiquity which liven things up a bit: Cleopatra’s use of orange peel as a contraceptive and Plato’s observations of local climatic changes caused by overenthusiastic logging.

If you already know this big picture sustainability stuff, you may feel you can safely skip Parkin’s first, third and fourth section.  Not so fast.  I read these on the day DCLG published its risible presumption in favour of sustainable development.  DCLG’s failure to mention environmental limits and the equating of sustainable development with sustainable building is a caution: perhaps people who might be expected to have a good understanding of sustainability should read this section, whether they think they need it or not!

Effective

We need to understand the kinds of problems we’re facing.  Parkin offers use Grint’s useful sense-making triad to understand different kinds of problems which need different approaches:

  • tame (familiar, solvable, limited uncertainty),
  • wicked (more intractable, complex, lots of uncertainty, no clear solutions without downsides) and
  • critical (emergency, urgent, very large) problems.

The problems of unsustainability are very largely wicked (e.g. breaking environmental limits), and some are critical (e.g. extreme weather events).

Complex, uncertain and intractable situations require experimentation and agility, according to Marshall et al.  Parkin echoes this:

“By definition, we’ve not done sustainable development before … so we are all learning as we go.”

Marshall et al go further:

“we doubt if change for sustainability can often be brought about by directed, intentional action, deliberately followed through.”

Superficial change may result, but not systemic transformation.  So leadership demands that we embrace uncertainty and release control.  This is pretty much what I’m trying to articulate here, so you’d expect me to agree. I do.

Parkin is dismissive of understandings of leadership in the context of chaos or distributed systems.  She may be right that it is a perverse choice to lead in this way if you are within an organisation which functions well in a predictable external context.  But as we have seen, leadership is most urgently required in situations which are much less simple than this, where there isn’t an obvious person with a mandate to be ‘the leader’.  Dispersed leadership is a more accurate description of reality and a more practical theory in these situations.  There are some well-thought of organisational consultants and theorists worth reading on this.  For example Chris Rodgers and Richard Seel have both influenced my thinking.  AMED’s Organisations&People journal regularly carries great articles if you want to explore this side of things.

From the installation of secret water-saving hippos in Cabinet Office (Goulden in Leadership for Sustainability) to John Bird setting up the Big Issue or Wangari Maathai founding of the “deliciously subversive” Green Belt Movement (some of Parkin’s choices as Positive Deviant role models), the reader can’t help but be personally challenged: how do I compare, in my leadership?  Am I ethical? Am I effective?

How will we get them?

How can we make ourselves more effective as leaders, where-ever we find ourselves?   How can we help others to show leadership?

These questions bring us to the educational and personal development aspect of these books.

Education and training

Leadership for Sustainability is a collection of personal stories gleaned from people who have been through the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice at the University of Bath’s School of Management (succeeded by Ashridge Business School’s MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility and the MA in Leadership for Sustainability at Lancaster University School of Management).  Parkin designed Forum for the Future’s Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development.  So you can expect that both books have something to say about how we educate our future leaders.

Parkin dissects the ways business schools have betrayed their students and the organisations they go on to lead.  Unquestioningly sticking to a narrow focus of value, not understanding the finite nature of the world we live in, and avoiding a critique of the purpose of business and economy, by and large they continue to produce future leaders with little or no appreciation of the crash they are contributing to.

Marshall and her colleagues have shown leadership in this field, using a Trojan horse approach by setting up their MSc in the heart of a traditional business school, and seeding other courses.  Positive deviance in practice!

Personal development

Formal training aside, we can all improve our sustainability leadership skills.

Parkin argues that as well as having a ‘good enough’ level of sustainability literacy, Positive Deviants need to practice four habits of thought.  These are:

  • Resilience – an understanding of ecosystems, environmental limits and their resilience, rather than the personal robustness of the change maker.
  • Relationships – understanding and strengthening the relationships between people, and between us and the ecosystems which support us.
  • Reflection – noticing the impact of our actions and changing what we do to be more effective, as a reflective practitioner.
  • Reverence – an awe for the universe of which we are a part

Action research

Of those four habits of thought, reflection is the one closest to the heart of Marshall’s Leadership for Sustainability approach.

Marshall, Coleman and Reason are committed to an action research approach, seeing it as

“an orientation towards research and practice in which engagement, curiosity and questioning are brought to bear on significant issues in the service of a better world.”

In her chapter, Downey reminds us of the ‘simple instruction at the heart’ of action research

“take action about something you care about, and learn from it.”

Marshall et al tell us that action research was central to the structure and tutoring on their MSc.  I have to confess to being unclear about the distinctions between action inquiry, action research and action learning.  Answers in the comments section, please!

Marshall et al’s action learning chapters are useful to anyone involved in helping develop others as managers, coaches, consultants, teachers, trainers and so on – required reading, in fact, for those wrong-headed business schools which Parkin criticises so vehemently.

The power of the action research approach shines through in the collection of twenty-nine stories, which made this book – despite the somewhat heavy going of the theoretical chapters – the most compelling sustainability book I’ve read in a long time.  People have taken action about things they care about, and they have learnt from it.

Their stories demonstrate that we encourage people to show leadership in part by allowing them to be humble and to experiment, not by pretending that only the perfect can show leadership.  The stories do not trumpet an approach or sell us a technique. They are travellers’ tales for people who’ll see themselves in the narrative, and be inspired and comforted by it.

What does it feel like, to be this kind of leader?

Does this kind of leader sound like you yet?  It could be – anyone can show leadership.  But perhaps you’re sceptical or looking for a reason why it can’t be you?  It sounds like a lot of hard work and there’s no guarantee of success.

Marshall and her colleagues on the MSc course have evidently created a safe space for people to reflect about their doubts and uncertainties as well as their hopes and insights.  Chapters including this kind of personal testimony from people like Gater, Bent and Karp are intriguing, dramatic and engaging.

Karp’s story about food procurement shows difference between action learning approach and leader as hero – she’s as open about the set-backs as the successes.

I instantly recognised Bent’s description of holding professional optimism with personal pessimism, and many people I know have had that same conversation: wondering where their bolt-hole will be, to escape the impacts of runaway climate change.

Gater’s story in a brilliantly honest account of his work within a mainstream financial institution, moving a certain distance and then coming up against a seemingly insurmountable systemic challenge.  In a model of authentic story-telling, he describes tensions I have heard so many organisational change agents express.  He talks about visiting his colleagues ‘in their world’ and inviting them to visit him in his.  At the end of his story, the two worlds remain unreconciled,

“but it was okay – I had done what I could do as well as I believe I could have done it, and that had to be enough.”

Concluding

Both books start from the premise that we can’t wait for others to show leadership – we need to show leadership from where we are.

But we know that’s hard: Downey reminds us that

“…those who protect the status quo get rewarded for the inaction that slows down change, while disturbers-of-the-peace who send warning signals are disparaged, demoted or dismissed.”

But for her that’s not an excuse to hang back:

“we are not too small, and there is no small act. Either way we shape what happens.”

Transparency alert: Penny Walker is an Associate of Forum for Future, of which Sara Parkin is a Founder Director.  Penny has also been a visiting speaker on the MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice run by Judi Marshall, Gill Coleman and Peter Reason, as well as being a tutor on what might be seen as a competitor course, the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership in conjunction with Forum for the Future.

A shorter version of this review was first published in Defra’s SDScene, here.

Environmental professionals – getting the savvy of the change-maker

Back in March 2011, I enjoyed working with the IEMA to facilitate a workshop for environmental professionals, ably supported by Debbie Warrener. The workshop was organised to give some of the UK’s most long-serving and successful internal environmental specialists a chance to share experiences of leadership around sustainable business practice, and collaboratively sketch out the skills environmental professionals need if they are to shift their organisations strategically towards sustainability.

There were no presentations – it was a collaborative venture where everyone in the room had wisdom and expertise to contribute.

During the workshop they created a mind map of key skills. This was done very rapidly, following several rounds of discussing challenges successfully met and skills used in doing so.

I came across my notes of this mind map in the nether reaches of my filing pile just now, and it struck me as one of those things which you could work away at for a long time and not improve much.

So here it is.

I was really pleased to see how much was to do with interpersonal skills, influence, collaboration and mainstream management and leadership skills.  We have heaps of fantastically technically expert environmentalists working in organisations. Too often they are marginalised and lacking in power or influence. They can find themselves shaking their heads sadly at the decisions made by the people with power, who don’t see the unsustainability of their actions or can’t see how to change.  Combining technical excellence with the savvy of the change-maker is essential.

IEMA’s current framework

IEMA have since developed a skills framework at a number of levels which draws on this work, and other research and engagement they have done with their members.  You can see it here and read more about how people are reacting to it here.

And there’s another framework mentioned in this earlier blog post and the article it links to.

Update

In November 2011, IEMA’s magazine published this, looking at the skills and aptitudes needed by some very senior sustainability people in UK businesses, and includes personal stories from a number.

“Engaging Emergence” – first impressions

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Peggy Holman’s new book, Engaging Emergence. Many readers will know Peggy as one of the authors of The Change Handbook, along with Tom Devane and Steven Cady.

I read it in bursts, and every chapter has something comforting and challenging in it. Peggy asks

“What if tensions inspired curiosity? What if we knew how to express our anger, fear, or grief so that it contributed to something better?”

There’s so much anger, fear and grief in conversations about ecosystem collapse.  I’d love it if that negative emotion could be composted into the fertile soil where new things grow.  There are positive reframings of disturbance and disruption.

I relished the permission she gives to let go of the things which bore or scare us, but which we do out of a misplaced sense of duty, and to embrace the aspects of the system which we are really interested in:

“Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.”

I am developing some training on collaboration at the moment, and this exhortation to hold what’s important to you, whilst also deeply hearing what’s important to other people will become a theme, I’m sure.

Collaborative writing

An interesting footnote on why I was sent a copy: Peggy wrote the book as a blog, and invited anyone who wanted to post comments.  Because I interacted with this, I was offered a copy.  Fascinating peer review process and marketing wheeze rolled up together.  The blog (now inactive) is here and the list of all those who helped out is here.

http://strategicengagement.webs.com/

Penny’s blog

Portrait of Penny

Thoughts, updates, links, and essays on creating change for sustainable development.