Last year I participated in an online course run by one of Australia’s most prestigious Business Schools entitled Learning to Lead.  One of the first slides that was put up was one which said “It’s all about Me”.

I immediately had a visceral negative reaction. Why?

Because these words demonstrated to me everything that I believe is at the core of what is wrong with much of our current 21st Century leadership, starkly revealed by the  latest Edelman Trust Barometer 2021:

there is an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.

For quite some time I have been musing on the word leadership and trying to determine what it means for me and the work we do as Intersticia.  When I’m quizzed about Intersticia I often struggle to find an easy answer.  If I say we develop and support emerging leaders people immediately assume we are a Leadership Development consultancy or we just provide educational scholarships, neither of which remotely describes who we are or what we do.

For me this UNSW leadership course, as with the World Economic Forum’s concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, represents an outdated, industrial age mindset built around the concept of the Century of the Self which emanates from the liberalism of Enlightenment thinking and it’s belief in rationality and the power of the individual as they key agent of change:

Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control. (Danny Hills)

In the mid 20th Century as the world emerged from an unprecedented period of self-destruction so rose the hopes for a better life built on shiny new technologies powering towering metropolises, global trading systems harvesting natural resources through unbridled capitalism.  This fueled a mindset of greed and consumption, of winner take all and Kardashian-type narcissism which led to rising inequality and has now culminated in what Shoshana Zuboff describes as

Surveillance Capitalisma marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.

It has been our self-obsession which has resulted in the imbalance between us and the natural environment, and then … along came Covid and suddenly everything has changed.

Economies have been shut down, borders have been slammed shut and libertarian societies have introduced monitoring Apps but the air is cleaner and many people have had more time to pause to breathe it.

We are now all living in the interstice between the pre-and post Covid worlds.  This interstice – as Kurt Lewin so eloquently put it in his CATS model – is where the real opportunity lies and the real work happens.

Getting caught up in semantics

Much of my discomfort with the way the word leadership is used comes from the concept that it is something transactional and commoditised – with the right set of tools it can be taught and applied at just the right time.

I also feel that the term conjures up a zero-sum hierarchy where only one person can be a leader at a time, with everyone else lining up to follow.  This makes me think of the Messiah Complex and Great Man approaches which have so resonated throughout human history through most of our heroic literature where one lone individual comes to save us all from monsters, aliens and more often than not, ourselves.  Throughout the ages the tales of war and conflict seem mainly to have arisen due to the ego and hubis of individual so-called leaders who are either driven by greed and power, or who are corrupted, and who command the battle field – whether military, political or commercial – in order to win at all costs.  They need to be brought down in order to restore balance – the classic duality of good versus evil; light versus dark that underpins our mythologies and religions.

Finally, I feel that the word leader is becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. We have always lived as a species within the natural environment but we are now globally inter-connected as never before supported by the intertwingularity of the technical systems we have constructed and the networks of minds who collaborate.  This is enabling us to solve complex problems (vaccines for Pandemics) and operate virtually across time zones but it is also resulting in a new level of transparency in how we live our lives, both personal and professional, and who holds the power to influence.

This transparency is revealing the fundamental differences in how different societies operate as the balance between notions of privacy and personal freedom are pitted against those of health and security.

Rethinking Democracy

In his history of Democracy author David Stasavage states that

If we see seeking consent as a basic ingredient of democracy, then we can say that democracy itself occurs naturally among humans, even if it is far from inevitable.

Throughout history societies have drawn upon the different skills and capabilities of people in order to govern themselves.  Whether the system was proto-democratic or autocratic in nature seems to have depended on the balance between how much rulers needed their people and how much people could do without their rulers.  As early societies became more settled developing technologies enabled more sophisticated bureaucratic institutions which were exploited by more autocratic systems (listen to Stasavage interviewed by Sean Carroll; also Yuval Noah Harari).  It may be that the reason that proto-democratic and consultative processes became more embedded in Europe was due to the slower progress of science which gave societies more time to adopt and refine democratic governance processes time before bureaucratic autocracy could take hold.

The relationship between Science and Society is symbiotic and one that autocratic leaders keenly appreciate.  This is why those in positions of power and authority need to more fully understand the implications of the tools being developed, but also be more consultative in how decisions are made.  The Pandemic has shown that those governments which have listened to the Science seem to have managed things better, but what does that mean for what we do next?

Management controls, Leadership Guides … Stewardship Nurtures

Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.  (Sherry Turkle)

At our recent Brave Conversations Bangalore I interviewed former InfoSys CEO and Chairman ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan.  I asked Kris for his thoughts around the development of information technologies in to the 21st Century and he felt there were three areas of major change:

  1.  Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives
  2. The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population and is less developed economically so there will be big shifts in this area.
  3. This will result in a shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.

So the question is how can the East bring it’s philosophy and culture to solve some of the problems of the world?  How do we use Eastern values to move from a consumption led to needs led system?

Historian Ian Morris suggests that the forces which cause societal collapse include:  uncontrollable large scale migration, breakdown of major states, spread of epidemic diseases in new forms, spread of massive famine, and rapid climate change in a way that people can’t control.  All of these seem to be converging in the 21st Century but this time we are armed with tools which our ancestors did not have.

The first is over a century of social science which has analysed history and society through multiple lenses.  For a start we have truly begun to question our own mindsets and analyse how we see ourselves and each other, revealing some of our cultural biases and limitations (see Joseph Henrich’s work on WEIRD values, Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations, and East and West).

We have taken this in to our organisations to analyse the differing roles people play, how power and influence operates and how we can work more effectively.  This, of course, has resulted in the development of Leadership Development programmes as a label and a whole field of research.

The word lead comes from the word loedan – to travel – thus one definition that has always resonated with me is that a leader is one who takes the hardship of finding a better way of doing things for the common good and then selflessly shares the knowledge with others by guiding them on that path. (Avijit Dutta)

This sharing to me is the key to leadership, because it implies that leadership is a collaborative activity, it is not a thing, it is a process, and it includes others who take equally important, but complemenary and different roles.

Those who lead require others to follow especially Managers, the people who embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly—sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully. (Abraham Zaleznik)

But is this really following? Or is it the other way around?

Robert Greenleaf, who crafted the concept of Servant Leadership, and whose ideas have always informed much of the work I have done in the leadership space, believed that

The servant-leader is servant first (which … ) is sharply different from one who is leader first. … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Greenleaf stressed that a core component of Servant Leadership was to be a steward (Larry Spears), someone who is guided by the long term interests of those they serve and exercise their free will to make a conscious choice in favour of service as opposed to self-interest (see Peter Block) in how they use their personal talents, abilities, power and authority and where they direct their energies.

The power and potential of the Steward

Instead of being all about me it’s about us in the broadest possible sense

The word steward seems to have a range of roots including the Old Norse stivadl, Old English stiward (house guardian) which evolved to Middle English meaning the act of caring for or improving with time which morphed in to the Scottish name Stewart and Stuart.  Much of the literature seems to reflect the fact that the term was hijacked by the Christian church in particular referring to the Book of Genesis and humankind being stewards of the Earth (as evidenced in theological writings of people like Douglas John Hall).

Regardless of how one views the term

the word stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours. (Davis 1997)

The concept of being a steward is driven by something beyond oneself and links to a concept of time beyond the life of one human being, an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between all living things, and the idea of being responsible for sustainability.  This can be articulated in the idea of being a good ancestor, something which Kevin Kelly feels is an outcome of understanding the power of networks and appreciating that taking a longer term view, even for entrepreneurs and start ups, is what builds successful companies – what goes around comes around.

Many years ago I met Macquarie University academic Professor Gayle Avery who wrote  Leadership for Sustainable Futures which became the Honeybee and Locust framework.  Avery’s model is underpinned by the idea of an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations As part of a natural system Honeybees are natural stewards, but we as human being have a greater responsibility.

With great power comes great responsibility

In the 20th Century we learned how to annihilate ourselves with atomic weapons, in the 21st Century we are learning how to create artificial life.  As the rate of technological progress increases and the machines we build become smarter and begin to build their own progeny we need to think deeply about the types of people to whom we entrust the power to determine our future.

Our history tells us that we have favoured the leaders, those who showed the way and enlisted others to follow.  But we are entering a dangerous phase where we have made a Faustian Bargain with the future.  Our obsession with shiny toys and smart machines relieves us of the toil our ancestors endured to craft their homes out of the Earth, but we have become slaves to the machines we have built, and we are pillaging the planet to feed those machines and the lifestyles they provide.  Whilst I wouldn’t advocate going back to pre-industrialised times something tells me that the smart move next is to embrace the ‘and‘ and harness the wisdom of our history to inform the power of our knowledge and technology in order to craft a new mindset based on appreciating the mystical fundamentals and wonder of the cosmos that awed and inspired our ancestors whilst applying the power of our technologies.

The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technologies. (E. O. Wilson)

We need to do much more than lead as we change our institutions and systems, we also need to consciously and proactively embrace the principles and behaviours of stewardship if we are to secure and protect the fundamental human values upon which societies around the world are built.

When it comes to Intersticia as I consider the fine young people who make up our community, not all of them will become leaders who need to step out in front because I don’t think they necessarily want to.  But there is no doubt in my mind that they are already exceptionally fine Stewards which is why we have chosen them, and they choose to continue with us.