Leadership — A Conversation

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:


Gary (CEO of a small manufacturing company). The topic of uncertainty ties directly to my question. I’m interested in leadership—what it takes today. I think quite exceptional leadership will be required in times ahead. I mean not just governmental leadership as with Tom and Vivian’s example, but leadership of all sorts. I think being able to handle great uncertainty will be a huge factor in effective future leadership.

CJ: Say more.

Gary: A lot in leadership today is just less clear-cut. That makes things harder. I think it can also undermine confidence in leadership. I’ve seen pretty scary statistics about the diminished trust people today often feel in leaders … of all kinds—along with politicians, doctors, teachers, leaders in business and the media.

I can understand this lack of confidence. Twenty years ago I understood what it meant to be a good leader, even if I sometimes came up short. Today, as often as not, I feel like I am walking on quicksand. And I am not alone. Most of the best leaders I know feel the same way.

CJ: What creates new uncertainty for you?

Gary: Some of what makes what I do less predictable comes from obvious changes in world. Globalization promises new economic opportunities. And at the same time, it creates the need to do business with cultures that have different practices and assumptions than my own. The Internet makes much more possible. Yet it also increases the pace of interactions and the speed with which surprises can have their effects.

But the most significant factors, at least those that impact me the most, feel like they have less to do with external realities than leadership itself. What it means to be a leader is changing—and in some pretty basic ways. I wish I could be clearer. I guess that lack of clarity is part of the uncertainty. But leadership is definitely making new demands and at a deep and basic level. Changes are happening that make effective leadership a different sort of enterprise.

CJ: Say what you can.

Gary: A big piece has to do with how my role is seen—from both outside and inside the organization. With regard to the outside world, I’m expected to be more visible in my interactions than before, more immediately accountable. Decisions made in smoke-filled rooms with the doors closed don’t cut it the way they once did.

At the same time, internal relationships are becoming less predefined and my role less protected and elevated. That doesn’t mean that suddenly my job is to be everybody’s friend or that the final word lies any less in my hands. But people think of me differently than they did twenty years ago when I took this job. I’ve become less as a symbol, more a person with tough work to do.

I think I end up with more power as a leader. But the new picture changes what exercising power looks and feels like.

CJ: Do you like these changes?

Gary:  At times I don’t. Greater transparency and more engaged leadership each make my job more difficult. I have to understand both the organization and the larger world in which we do business more deeply. I also have to better understand myself. But, I’m sure that, in the end, these changes are for the good. They make the business environment more creative and make much more possible than in times past. There is also something in these changes that just feels right—and important.

CJ: If viewing leaders less as symbols and more simply as people is, as you suggest, something we see, it certainly would be significant. It would also be something quite new. Throughout history, exaggerating the capabilities of authority—putting leaders on pedestals—has always been part of leadership. It has been key to making leadership work.

But I agree with you that today we see changes. The false security that comes with notions of an invincible and unswerving leader can be pretty seductive. And sometimes faking it a bit is exactly what good leadership requires. But we are better recognizing how such false security can get us into trouble. I find the most innovative and capable leaders increasingly seeking out the kind of more mature leadership relationships you describe.

Gary: If nothing else, we seem more ready to put our leaders’ failings on display. I think of the growing litany of scandals within my world of business—the recent financial collapse and our blindness to the house-of-cards risk taking that produced it, the Enron debacle, insider trading on Wall Street. We seem, too, more ready to confront political wrongdoings. And there is our greater willingness to address sexual abuse in the clergy and elsewhere Shortsightedness, corruption, and  deceit are not new to any of these realms. But we seem more willing to challenge it.

CJ: I think more important than admitting mistakes is something implied in your earlier comments—simply being upfront about the uncertainties that are just a part of how things are.

I’m drawn back to my training in medical school. Much that we did—from the wearing of white coats to thirty-six hour ritual stints in the emergency room—in the end had more to do with the assumption of a ceremonial role than the learning of medicine. I was critical of this then. Now I better recognize its historic purpose.

I remember once wondering as I watched a surgeon cut into the jello-fragile tissue of a young woman’s brain, whether he could have still carried out this God-like task—there with life or death balanced on the tip of his scalpel—had he not had medicine’s mythic trappings to protect him from the full uncertainty of his craft.

Over the last few decades, physicians have made significant strides toward setting aside past deific imagery and approaching their work more as ordinary human beings with demanding roles to play. Working from a place of deeper humility ultimately translates into greater effectiveness and subtlety. But this more mortal posture also requires a willingness to hold life more complexly, and with a much fuller cognizance of how much we do not, and often cannot, know.

Being more humble to what we don’t know and often can’t know will be increasingly important wherever we look.

Gary: Recognizing that many of the changes I’m dealing with pertain to all kinds of leadership is helpful.

CJ: I think they pertain ultimately to more than just formal leadership. We see parallel changes in how we understand authority more generally. The shifts—and the accompanying new uncertainties—are just as present with authority in private interpersonal relationships—between men and women, between parents and children. And this kind of change is just as dramatic, and arguably even more fundamentally important, in how we relate to ourselves, in what the future will require if we are to effectively direct our daily lives.

Gary: None of those changes make things easier.

CJ: Definitely not. More mature authority dynamics—of any sort—make for greater demands and greater uncertainty all the way around. But these changes also expand creative possibilities in ways we should find increasingly critical and fulfilling.

Paradoxically, the same shifts that amplify uncertainty in the end make possible greater precision and specificity in how we act and think. In the most big-picture sense, they help us be more certain. For example, they offer that we might much more accurately evaluate risk. The changes we are talking about make our world more complicated. But they also result in a more full, more deeply engaged, relationship with ourselves, with whatever we might choose to do, and with truth itself.

Gary: Do you believe we will succeed in making these changes?

CJ: I don’t think we have any choice. The need for more mature understandings of authority—and for the greater comfort with uncertainty they require—is fundamental and inescapable. It will be necessary everywhere if we are to succeed at making decisions with the sophistication the future will increasingly require.