Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Much of What We've Understood About Leadership Is Wrong

Peter Block, in his book Community, challenges the conventional understanding of leadership by emphasizing it as a capacity that can be learned by anyone. What keeps us stuck, Block asserts, is the lingering assumption that leadership must be clustered in the hands of a few and our prevalent behavior of "looking for" leaders beyond ourselves to figure things out and do something.

"If our traditional form of leadership has been studied for so long, written about with such admiration, defined by so many, worshipped by so few, and the cause of so much disappointment, maybe doing more of all that is not productive," Block writes. "The search for great leadership is a prime example of how often we take something that does not work and try harder at it."

I gulped a little when reading how Block describes the typical claims made during most leadership trainings (I facilitate leadership workshops as part of my professional role): Leaders are top and essential, role models who possess unique skills. The task of a leader is to define the destination and the blueprint for how to get there. The leader's work is to bring others on board, to "enroll, align, inspire." Leaders provide and define the oversight, measurement and training needed to reach said destination.

Such beliefs, Block continues, "elevate leaders as an elite group" and have the unintended consequences of creating isolation, entitlement and passivity in our communities.

The real task of a leader, Block puts forth, is to convene a context of engagement where citizens embrace accountability and commitment toward defining destinations and getting there themselves. In Block's way of thinking, then, leadership--the latent quality inherent in each of us that must be developed--is held to three key tasks:

1. Create a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability, and commitment

2. Initiate and convene conversations that shift people's experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them

3. Listen and pay attention

As I continue to work my way through Community, Block's ideas certainly are transforming my approach to leadership development work; how I put them into action remains to unfold, as I first must make sense of it all so I can explain it to others.

And as I think about the more conventional foundations of leadership and reflect on its application in many spheres of western life, I find it hard not to agree that we must shift the paradigm in order to get different results. Few of us can admit that we are satisfied with how our long-held approach to consolidating leadership in the hands of a few has impacted politics; global relations; religious institutions; many arenas of business; poverty; crime; environmental stewardship; and education. We have long pointed our fingers at leaders who have let us down in each of these categories, but the larger truth is that we have let ourselves down by abdicating the leadership capacity that is rightfully and responsibly ours to develop.


At 6:27 AM , Anonymous Jim Seybert said...

Peter Block is great. His Flawless Consulting is one of my essentials. I'll have to check out Community. Thanks for the introduction.


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