We need generative leadership in a VUCA world

Utilising generative leadership requires courage and a higher-than-average level of socio-emotional intelligence

Pick up any book or article on leadership and chances are pretty high that ‘vision’ will be a central characteristic. The popular distinction between transformational and transactional leadership rests on the notion that real leaders can see a solution, or a preferred future, and can articulate this in a way that captures followership. This includes the expectation that leaders provide ‘winning’ goals, targets and strategies that others can steer by.

But while the business press, and leadership texts, laud the visionary attributes of founders of highly successful companies, they tend to ignore the high percentage of failed visions. Nor is there much recognition of the increasingly complex and even chaotic situations leaders face and for which there are no clear solutions or even solution paths.

In such complex situations a different generative leadership style is needed. Essentially generative leadership requires identifying the issue that needs to be addressed and framing it in a way that will motivate a variety of stakeholders to engage in coming up with new ideas.

Rather than saying ‘I know the answer follow me’, generative leaders say ‘I know the challenge and I invite you into conversations where you will decide what to do about it’. To do this successfully requires identifying not a problem but a ‘purpose’, which captures something the stakeholders care about.

A vision identifies, in concrete terms, a future state. A purpose identifies what the group or organisation is trying to do every day, and often is not something that will ever be fully realised. For example, a purpose might be to eliminate AIDS while a vision might be to have 10 needle-exchange clinics operating throughout a city. Generative leadership reframes issues and goals into compelling purposes that capture stakeholders’ attention and motivate them.

Generative leadership is enhanced through the use of ‘generative images’: a combination of words that can create new conversations and stimulate people to discuss and imagine things they weren’t able to before. Important qualities of generative images are that it hasn’t been discussed before, no-one is sure how to do it, but it seems like an attractive notion. It is the ambiguity that allows for innovations to emerge, and the attractiveness that compels people to act on them.

Utilising generative leadership requires courage and a higher-than-average level of socio-emotional intelligence. Leaders have to ‘let go to let come’; a difficult process that will evoke anxiety in both themselves and their followers. And it requires that people change their expectations of how their leaders should act.

While the virtues of engagement, empowerment, and participative leadership have been extolled for decades, the reality is that some people expect their leaders to have all the answers. Basic beliefs about leadership are violated when a leader says ‘I don’t know the answer’, and ‘I am going to engage stakeholders in an emergent process that I can’t predict or control’.

The ability to see, appreciate and work with paradox, to hold the space of not knowing in a way that avoids either/or polarisations, and at times even transcends both/and to a place of ‘because…’ is a hallmark of later-stage, post-conventional socio-cognitive development. This will require leaders and HR practitioners who want to use generative leadership to engage in personal development processes quite different from skills training and knowledge acquisition, which instead develop the emotional, social and systemic intelligence of the whole person.

There are now decades of studies that show the superiority of generative change processes for producing rapid and transformational results. So it’s time more leaders, where appropriate, adopted a generative approach. And it’s time HR supported them to do this.

Gervase Bushe is professor of leadership and organization development at Beedie School of Business, Vancouver, and ranks 13th on HR magazine’s HR Most Influential Thinkers 2018 list