Leading groups: participation and improvising into the unknown

I have been invited to talk to a disparate group of managers about leadership. I have no idea what people’s experience of leadership is, what they think they are coming to, or how they will react to what I have to say. I tell them that one of the themes of my talk is that leadership is a social experience. Given the ungrounded nature of most of the literature on leadership, as I have discussed in previous posts, the best definition of what it is that we are talking about might be that leadership is a social phenomenon that we all recognise when we experience it. A leader is someone whom we recognise  leading.

If this is the starting point, one of the principles of running the session, where I will be temporarily leading them in a discussion of leadership, is that we all actively participate together, so that we can reflect upon what it is we are engaged in. This will involve me restraining myself from telling them what leadership is for hours on end, but engaging them in a way that recognises their experience so that we might explore together what we mean by what we say. I talk and pause, talk and pause, and in the pauses participants begin to react to what I’ve been saying, sometimes to challenge it, sometimes to agree and develop the argument, sometimes to say something which is completely tangential to what I have been talking about. These varying responses present me with dilemmas about how to go on, what to respond to in the sometimes quite lengthy questions/statements that people offer. Given that this event is about trying to engage whomsoever chooses to come, I try to respond in some way, to recognise, whatever people have to offer.

In his most recent book on complexity in organisations, Ralph Stacey talks about leadership as a form of action.  And if leadership is a theory of action then it must always involve making ethical choices, choices to include and exclude that inevitably affect who we think we are and what it is we think we are doing together. If I think of myself as being the temporary leader in this situation, then for a very short period of time I am in a more powerful position than many people in the room to contribute to processes of inclusion and exclusion which will have an effect on the way people understand themselves as being part of the group.We are actively negotiating what it is we are doing together.

So drawing on Stacey I am making the case with this group that leading involves the ability to act into the unknown with others, to encourage the exploration of perhaps difficult, contradictory and perplexing ideas not knowing in advance where that exploration might take us. What we are doing is improvising together. I recognise that this is exciting for some, and very unsettling for others. What we are doing together certainly does not meet everyone’s expectations about what this event should be about.

In advance of this meeting there was a degree of anxiety on the part of the organisers as to what I would be doing when I came. Would I need a projector for PowerPoint slides? Would there be hand-outs? What would I do if there were long silences? And of course they are right to expect these things since the seminar is what GH Mead referred to as a social object, a generalised tendency by many people  to act in a particular way. We have come to expect such a seminar will involve presentations and hand-outs. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in the talk that followed mine, which involved presenting the results of some research. To an extent then, the afternoon may have been a good combination for the participants, since it constituted a combination of both recognisable and unfamiliar ways of interacting, both continuity and change.

In working participatively, however, I was doing so in a very different way from the way that we might commonly understand participation as practised in many group situations. Indeed  the session following mine called for participation in the way that we might usually understand it, when groups of participants sitting at tables were asked to reflect on what they had heard in 8 minutes and feed back to the facilitator the overview of what was discussed to the facilitator. There was a limited time to respond in a prescribed way to a fairly lengthy input.

There were of course constraints to the way that participation could take place in my session. I was only given an hour and half, I had to offer something for people to respond to, and not everyone in the room of 40 people would be able , or necessarily have the courage to speak into the group. From a more orthodox point of view one might make the case that participation was more limited than actively planning participation and ensuring that everyone has a chance to speak, even if only in a small group. This is assuming that people are only participating if they are speaking out loud, rather than responding to what I said, and their reactions to what I said, which could also be argued to be a participative process.

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