The best leaders dream: a reflection

Leadership has been much in the news this past week perhaps not surprisingly because it has been International Leadership Week up until yesterday. There’s also been a bit of a debate about the Peppa Pig approach to political leadership!

I’m always somewhat reticent in writing or talking about leadership in part because there is such an industry built around it that I don’t want to be responsible for adding to. I haven’t had much choice but to reflect on the issues this week as along with others I was taking part in a Project Lift workshop on Thursday and have also been interviewed this week by a research project exploring leadership in social care.

At the workshop I shared two reflections on what leadership means for me.

The first is one I’ve written about in this blog before and relates to my time many years ago as a student on a maternity ward. It was there that I sensed a model of leadership which was distinctive and insightful, natural and humane. Maieutic leadership is one where the leader enables the other person or team to identify what needs to be achieved and provides the support and resource to enable them to achieve their outcome or objective. A midwife does not do the work of birthing but is there to support, to guide, to encourage, to address and answer fears and concerns. She is the bridge of birth that a mother must walk across but at her own pace and in her own way.

I also reflected on another leadership insight. Years ago, I spent some time in Crete and experienced quite a few community and cultural celebrations. What struck me about the many processions I saw weave their way through the village with an almost weekly occurrence was the fact that the leaders of the parade walked not at the front nor back but in the middle – amongst and within those who made up the community.

They also significantly didn’t just look backwards and forwards but continually were looking outwards to ensure all were walking and included because the destination could not be reached unless all were arriving. They were there to watch out for those who might struggle to have their voice heard, to be noticed or have their contribution valued. Inclusion was everything to them because without all the community could not be whole.

The topic of leadership is of course not just of theoretical importance but is of huge practical importance especially as any system or organisation seeks to reform and change itself. I believe leadership by example has to be focussed around what it means to be authentic, relational, vulnerable and dynamic. These four characteristics enable personal psychological integrity and wellbeing and should, I believe, form the core characteristics of any and all who seek to lead others regardless of context or situation. Such an approach has, I would suggest, much to teach those of us who work in health and social care.

For me leadership has first and foremost to be relational. You cannot hope to be successful in managing people and in leadership unless you are able to relate to others. Leaders do not sit in a room (especially behind a closed door) detached from the reality of experience, the necessity of relating, and the invitation to encounter others. But relationships in leading and managing are not always easy, not least because in so many professions we have become obsessed with ‘boundaries’ and distance. Relationship formation especially with those who are different from us is challenging and the danger of not focussing on its importance and priority is that organisations can develop to look like their leader which is rarely creative or positive. As in all of life leadership relationships require effort and work – they do not just happen – they require all to be open to the other, to adjust and be prepared for the novel and change, contradiction and surprise, they require us to walk alongside one another, rather than to expect similitude and compliance. Relationship is frequently about risk and leadership is often about adventure.

A core enabler of positive work or organisational leadership is the ability of everyone to develop, nurture and foster the gifts of listening and strong affective communication skills. In my experience when things become challenging or when resistance intensifies there is often in the midst of that situation someone who feels unheard, undervalued and unrecognised. The best leaders are those who are open to hearing what they might not want or expect to hear and recognise the necessity of creating space for people not just to talk and share but to be heard.

A second characteristic which is important for me is that leadership has to be authentic. Again, I have written before about how important it is that people are able to recognise someone who walks the talk in their leaders. But authenticity, that sense of being ‘hand-made’, genuine, transparent, and real, is something which allows space for contradictory unpredictability. At its best authenticity is allowing you to be the person you really are and being authentic helps you discover the person you want to be. Being authentic is not about playing at a role, it is living life as much as possible without wearing the mask of pretence. It is really costly to be authentic in a world which demands predictability and constancy – for being human is rarely a linear walk – for me – it is as much about the hills and valleys as the calm and settled plains.

Part of being authentic is my third characteristic of leadership. Being able to embrace your vulnerability is so important. I do not mean that we need to go around carrying a box of Kleenex with a faux emotionalism. What I mean is that we have to discover the strength to be open to challenge and change, open to being able to relate at a deeply affective level where we are willing and enabled to share the questions we have, the doubts we possess and the dreams we are still nurturing. We live in a society which too often denotes strength and ability with some ideal image of wholeness, whereas in my experience being able to show your woundedness, your limitation of knowledge and the unfinishedness of your ideas, gives space for others to flourish and be more fully themselves in relation to you and the world around them. Vulnerability is not a personal weakness it is the deepest strength of authentic being in relationship with others especially as a leader.

And lastly there has to be a recognition of dynamic in our leadership – life continually changes, and relationships alter always – a good leader or manager is open to the dynamics of change, constantly re-orientating and learning but solid in the predictability of being open, honest, straight, and transparent; enabling of others, allowing others to achieve their potential rather than being self-interested or self-serving. We should not be afraid that the person we are today is different from who we were yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago. This is why for me the best leaders rarely see themselves as leaders because they are still striving to improve, to discover better gifts of authenticity, and to dig deeper into their humanity.

It is why dreaming, and vision-capturing are so critical for the leadership of any organisation or system. My old grandmother used to say that dreams are wasted on the night. The best dreamers change their day and I think the best leaders are dreamers. These dreams are not the stuff of cloud cuckoo land, but the dreams which are cabled and grounded in the earth of experience, in the reality of revolution, as we continually seek to turn our communities into places of compassion, dignity, humanity and equality. Every single person has the capacity to dream in their day so that it changes their tomorrow, and the most gifted leaders enable you to dream your dreams.

The American poet and novelist Langston Hughes was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance, and in his work, he brought to the fore black life in America from the twenties through to the sixties. One of his best-known short poems says it all for me about what leaders need to do to relate, be authentic, show vulnerability and thrive through change, they need to hold fast to dreams:

Dreams:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

 

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

 

Donald Macaskill