I was invited to facilitate a two day retreat for a senior management team by the team leader. One of the things that exercised him was the fact that individually his colleagues were very competent, but somehow they did not work well together with him as a team. The style of his predecessor had been very different from his, in that she had a much more authoritarian way of working. She was more comfortable dealing with people bilaterally. When the team met together as a group they had learnt to wait for her to tell them what she had decided and had got out of the habit of talking things over together. When the new team leader came into post he would ask them what they thought about something, and they would reply by asking him what he thought. They were forever waiting for him to take the lead.
The team leader decided that the best thing to do was to start the retreat by talking about leadership, and the kind of leadership that the team should be exercising, together and with others. His suggestion was that we should spend the first session defining what we meant by leadership, agreeing it, then working out what that might mean for practice. We would go on to develop a plan for the kinds of leadership we might have in place by a certain point in the future.
A constraint for me in knowing how to work with this group was the fact that they had had a session the previous year, with their last team leader, where things had broken down in the group quite quickly and someone had stormed out of the meeting. I realised that there might be quite a lot of trepidation about this meeting and how it might be run.
One of the difficulties that I had with this way of working, of agreeing the meaning of an abstract idea, then proceeding from there, is the notion that a group of people would necessarily agree, or even that it is important to do so. Is it really possible to reach a sufficient degree of understanding for the next steps of working together to be obvious? Many of us would be able to articulate idealised understandings of leadership, but how far does this enable us to lead? There are of course lots of books in train stations or airports setting out simple rules, the six steps to this, or the three ways of being. Or, of course, we could buy the books by the great captains of industry who offer us access to the secrets of leading.
How should we lead together, however, in this time and place, in this context, with each other?
I suggested an alternative. Rather than spending so much time in idealising about abstract concepts, team members would give an account to each other of the kinds of things that they are managing at the moment as a way into exploring how they were working together, and how they might go on to support each other. We would deal with questions of real time practice. By taking turns, team members would practice recognising each other as managers and leaders, and would come to understand their role in the group in doing so. We would use this method as a way of experiencing, and reflecting on how the team was leading together, rather than how they ‘should’ be leading.
I suggested this as a way of working to undermine the way we predominantly understand practice in Western organisations as thought before action. It seems a common sense approach: first we establish what it is by what we mean in abstract terms, and then this shared understanding enables us to coordinate our actions. The alternative I was offering is to understand leadership as a shared experience: reflecting on our actions and giving an account to each other of how we are leading gives us a much better grounded opportunity to come to realise what we mean by leadership. We come to know it when we experience it together. Theory arises out of practice and informs it, which in turn drives theory.