· Features

Leadership: influencing what matters

Leadership is usually thought about in the context of elected politics or big business and so the idea becomes a rather distant one, practised by people we read about or see on television. Leadership becomes something for ‘them’ and not something for ‘us’.

But here’s the catch. We are all in leadership, whether we like it or not. Our lives are shaped by little acts of leadership. The question is, how far are we prepared to go to influence the leadership that really matters to us? 

Leadership must be about surfacing, negotiating and working with what matters to people. 

Conflict is a key part of nurturing and developing what matters to people. This is a counterintuitive idea, but one which is gaining traction in both organisational and political scholarship. We duck it because it can just feel icky, awkward, or embarrassing – especially for us Brits.

But our society is built on the idea of conflict. The founding idea of a democratic state is that we engage in productive conflict over things that matter to us. Then someone wins (temporarily) and we move on, never giving up our values but respecting and valuing the positions of others.

The fact is that someone in a formal position of leadership can never have all of the answers. We need leaders in all levels of organisations and groups – people who will provide the lively question, who will provoke thought. 

Then we have the related but different idea of working with resistance. Usually we think of resistance in organisations as something negative, a purely anti-position. But mostly people resist because they really care about something, either in their communities or at work. Resistance is interesting. It offers valuable information and is potentially the source of real energy. Running towards resistance, instead of trying to hide it under the carpet, is really important in grappling with what matters to people.

So what’s the role of the skill, the knowledge of the individual leader in a position of authority? Leading academics such as Ronald Heifetz and Keith Grint are explicit in emphasising the role of the individual leader as an orchestrator, a provocateur of leadership from others. They offer vision but theirs is the desire to unearth and tackle big problems, rather than flattering their egos with flashy vision statements (the ubiquitous ‘blue sky thinking’).

But perhaps here we might turn to the world of psychoanalysis for a much-needed dose of scepticism and support. One of the core lessons of psychoanalysis is that we crave, yet also fear, loathe, respect and adore figures of authority who tell us what to do. They are useful totems because they help us focus our celebrations and provide a scapegoat when things go wrong. 

So can’t we expect a fair degree of disruption – even outright hostility – from followers accustomed to passing the buck or choosing not to get involved?

Yes – and this is where the fun starts for everyone. 

The value of course lies not in conflict resolution but in learning from conflict. 

For the individual leader such a process surely involves absorbing quite a lot of pain, as people resist, sometimes very vociferously. But that’s ok. An important part of leadership is staying the distance, hanging in there.

There are no simple guides when adopting this kind of mindset. But here are three things to think about in your practice. 

1.What kind of forums (informal or formal) would work to discover what matters to others?

2.How can you get them to think about what they don’t know, what is missing from their worldview?

3.How can you demonstrate to people that this kind of leadership works? What are the big wins? 

Owain Smolovic Jones is an academic in the department of public leadership and social enterprise at the Open University Business School