Not Leader Development—Leadership-as-Practice Development
There is a sea change going on within the leadership field. I refer you to the new perspective on leadership referred to as “leadership-as-practice” (L-A-P). What makes it stand out from the other fads and movements in the field of leadership through the decades is that it detaches leadership from the individual leader and from leader competencies. The competencies unfortunately often are detached from the very sites in which they are to be applied.
L-A-P instead sees leadership occurring as a turning point or change in trajectory in the practices by all those interconnected parties coming together to engage in a mutual endeavor. This perspective challenges our traditional views of leadership because it does not rely on the attributes of individuals nor does it focus on the dyadic relationship between leaders and followers, which historically has been the starting point for any discussion of leadership.
So where do we find leadership? We find it in the practices in which it may be occurring.
There are several fields that have adopted the practice perspective, often referred to as the “as-practice” movements. For example, strategy-as-practice or S-A-P alters our thinking about strategy as no longer an attribute that the firm has but as something that people do. It looks to such activities as conversations, board meetings, consulting interventions, and team briefings, conducted not just by top managers but by middle managers, consultants, and business school gurus.
What Is Leadership-as-Practice Development (LAPD)?
If the practice movement strikes you as a compatible leadership approach to the re-engineered work of the digital era, then will it not require a comparable re-engineering in the way we prepare people for participating in leadership in this era? First, it will require a shift from leader development to leadership-as-practice development (LAPD). The label, LAPD, first used by David Denyer and Kim Turnbull James—both professors at the Cranfield School of Management—does not focus on training just the managers; it applies to everyone associated with the practice or project in question. There is attention to their relationship(s), their materials, and the specifics of the context in which they are working.
Rather than dwelling on generic leader competencies that may not apply to the setting, learning is brought into, let’s call it, “lived” (not simulated) conditions where the action is going on and where people can be found engaging with one another on particular projects. A critical learning intervention is known as work-based or action learning. Accordingly, participants intervene in their own organizational units to examine and potentially disrupt practices that have been producing less than effective results. The aim is to change patterns and thinking that could transform a culture of mediocrity to one of excellence and resilience. The resulting learning produces a collective reflection on the part of participants who are endeavoring to expand and create new knowledge while at the same time improve their practices.
LAPD as a Response to Digitalization
Digitalization requires connectivity and information sharing, creating ties among geographically dispersed stakeholders. In this case, organizational members need to have the capacity and the trust to proceed beyond organizational boundaries. Hence, everyone needs to be released to participate in leadership. Access to information and decision-making become democratized in a world dominated by information and communication technologies (ICTs). When it comes to talent development, then, the learning needs to occur in conjunction with the practice; managers or any other trainee cannot be isolated from those doing the work.
LAPD as Response to Crises
Not only is LAPD responsive to digitalization, it is responsive to crisis conditions, as we have experienced with the Coronavirus. Since crises of this nature and magnitude constitute unfamiliar socio-environmental conditions, we need a form of leadership that can improvise around the reality that is unfolding in front of us. The improvisation cannot come from any one single leader; no one has the capacity to reconcile the complexity and uncertainty surrounding such variable conditions. Rather, we need a collective response that can work with and through the ongoing and evolving practices, as well as the relationships and materials to manage the “turning points” to meet the challenges.
How Does LAPD Work?
LAPD requires an acute immersion into the practices that are embedded within relationships. Participants engage with one another on mutual problems, and they are offered a means of collective reflection on their experience at the right time and in the right dose to be immediately useful to them.
In accomplishing their project work, wikis and other forms of “pull” technology, along with social networking, help participants find the answers they need. Knowledge arises less from pure expertise and more from contested interaction as people improvise to solve their own problems. They acquire a situated understanding of what works, what doesn’t work, and what might work. Leadership learning, then, occurs less from a vertical transmission of instructions. In the practice world, it needs to take place laterally across those connected to each other doing the work.
Teams working on projects concurrently become “learning teams” in which the focus is on individual and collective learning rather than just on completing the task. During learning team time, participants focus on their own interpersonal dynamics while attempting to cope with the problems and practical dilemmas arising from actions in their work settings. This would include learning how to cope with the emotional, political, and ethical constraints needing to be addressed to solve the problem.
Participants also begin to rely on one another as sounding boards and deliverers of reliable feedback to help each other surface and question their own mental models. They become accustomed to novel forms of conversation that would be aimed as much at learning as at task accomplishment. How is this accomplished?
It can be said that in LAPD the primary objective is to both figuratively and literally “catch” people immersed in their own practices. Perhaps they are facing a current dilemma in how things ought to be done. Coaches initially let them learn their way out! Then, as the conversations ensue, they might merely add a touch of reflective dialogue to change the conversation. By reflective dialogue, I refer to such practices as:
- Engaging in deep and active listening
- Demonstrating respectful dissent
- Re-evaluating standard practices and values
- Testing available knowledge
- Disrupting existing meaning and then reframing
- Challenging assumptions and inferences
- Considering perspectives different from one’s own
- Entertaining the prospect of being changed by what one learns.
Although I have made the case for a practice approach through LAPD as a vital answer to the need for a more responsive and effective leadership practice, there are other more acute outcomes for those who choose to participate in this form of leadership development. In particular, participants acquire particular habits and attitudes that give rise to an appreciation of leadership as a collective or leaderful process. Along these lines, they also develop a peripheral awareness of one another and anticipate the needs of their colleagues and stakeholders. They see the value in sharing leadership—understanding that any contribution they make is likely dependent upon the contributions of others. They also begin to collaborate with a new sense of humility, not necessarily looking for agreement or for truth among those participating in a venture, but rather for mutual understanding and consideration as their projects move forward.
Joe Raelin is an international authority in collaborative leadership and learning. He is the Donald Gordon Visiting Professor of Leadership at the University of Cape Town; the Knowles Chair Emeritus at Northeastern University; and principal of the firm, the Leaderful Consultancy. See more at www.leaderful.com or reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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