Personal leadership: Answer the moral challenge of our age

Psychology blossomed in the noughties

Positive psychology, appreciative inquiry, and mytho-poetic tradition are well understood and taught in psychology and management classrooms in all corners of the world.

But we need a name

Paradoxically though, the technical names for these fields are relatively unintelligible to lay people. If there is anything we want to achieve in this field, it is to be intelligible to ordinary people.

Would personal leadership do as name?

Eventually, I settled on the term personal leadership.

We are concerned about styles of leadership that are personal.  What I do, for example is not strictly relevant to what you do.  And what I do today, has little bearing on what is relevant tomorrow.

And does the name contribute to our understanding?

Having described the rationale of this new field in these words, is it truly a discipline that belongs in the professions?

How can this definition of leadership generate a theory that is useful in practice? After all, if what is relevant today and is not relevant tomorrow, what use is that theory?

We have an ontological challenge

The difficulty is less in the epistemology, that is in the way we study leadership, than in the ontology, the nature of leadership.

We used to think of leadership as something we do.

Now we look at ourselves in context. Our unit of analysis, as researchers say, is “ourself in context”.

What are the practical implications of defining leadership as ourselves in context?

We don’t exist when we don’t see

David Whyte refers to attention. “When my eyes are tired the world is tired also”. We are our habits of attention. We are what we attend to. We are our capacity to pay attention.  When our way is lost, we find ourselves by paying attention. By becoming mindful and “touching and feeling” what is around us.

The big change in our understanding of leadership

Who we are is not what we do repeatedly and well.

Who we are is our frontier. Who we are is the place where we are curious about the world. Who we are is the frontier we cannot ignore.

Paradoxically, often when we feel tired, it is not because we are at our frontier, it is because we are not. We are not at a place where we are confronting the unknown carried by the energy of compulsive curiosity.

Leadership is not a spectator sport

We feel alive when we are in a place where “we want to know”. We are leaders when our curiosity about a situation leads us to ask questions. We are leaders when our compulsive curiosity asks questions which holds a mirror up to a situation.

We are leaders when our questions allow people to ask their questions.

How can we understand leadership in a way that allows us to share knowledge?

This question has two goals.

#1  What is the knowledge I can share?

There are many ways of sharing knowledge and we know stories are much more effectual than dry statistics answering questions that were unlikely from the outset to produce a practically significant answer.

We also know that knowledge is also more likely to be absorbed when people trust the presenter – when the presenter shares the journey of the students.

#2  What can I charge for my knowledge?

And probably more important is the heretical question of what can we charge for our knowledge. How can we claim and sustain status for our knowledge?

It is this question that personal leadership answers. We share knowledge not because we are right, but because we are willing to share in the gains and losses of a decision.

It is here that the field of personal leadership enters into the spirit of our age. Authority comes from being willing to share the gains and losses of a decision.

Are we so curious about the people we are with that they are willing to be changed by them ~ without notice and without guarantee?

That is knowledge to be passed on. Am I willing to act with you right now?

Ignorance is bliss but please don’t charge me for your services!

It’s a good thing they don’t know

Today I had glass of warm water and a few drops of lemon juice for breakfast to allow the medics to do a fasting blood test.  A fasting blood test helps them get ‘reliable’ readings for something for other.  Happy in my ignorance.

We spend most of our waking hours in ignorance of what we are doing or why – happy to let someone else decide.

So, for those of us who have taken it upon ourselves to teach, we find ourselves in a daft situation.  We can be annoyed when the knowledge of our profession is not taken seriously.  We are seriously annoyed when the professionals in our field don’t know the basics.

And none of us really know

To talk glibly of “evidence-based practice” is really rather irritating.  We boil water for our glass of warm water, in many countries in the world to kill bugs.  But let’s face it.  Many bugs survive boiling water.  Some thrive in concentrated sulfuric acid.  What we mean is that of the things we know how to do and can do in our kitchen, boiling water is pretty useful at killing some bugs that kill us.  A very northern hemisphere idea, btw.  It’s just as good to put your water in a clear bottle and leave it in the sun.  But of course, there is not to much sun in the UK.  It works fine in hotter climes.  Do you get my drift?

We need to communicate in terms that can be understood

All our knowledge is based on custom and folk-lore and we are not exempt.   To pass on knowledge to people who are not experts in our field in language and practice they can relate to is not a disgrace.  It is a professional necessity.  They don’t want to know the ins and the outs.  They want to know what to do.  They are leaving uswith the responsibility for the result.

It is a disgrace not to know the basics

But what a disgrace it is to not know the basics.  When we start to believe that boiling water kills bugs rather than some bugs do not survive boiling water, then we perhaps should have our license take away.

Knowing the basics leads to creativity

It is knowing the basics that helps us think of new solutions.

Imagine if I were on the proverbial desert island, wouldn’t it be better to have the idea in my head that I must get rid of bugs in the water that might kill me.  I am abundant in my ignorance.  There are so many bugs that can kill me and fair handful that scientists don’t even know about yet.   Therefore, the question is not what is the solution but what are the many ways I can ‘purify’ [another misleading idea] the water.  And the right action is to do what I can and begin as General Colin Powell says, when I have a 40-60% chance of being right.

Research-based practice or more snake-oil?

So don’t talk glibly of research-based practice.   You are trying to wave a spell in the air.  Actually, you are trying to get me to pay you more money.

Show me your protocols.  And make sure

a. They are intelligible to me

b. I don’t know more than you

Otherwise, we might just chase you out of town.  We won’t call you a witch, because that is still illegal in UK, but we won’t allow you near our food.  Get your own.

Show me your protocols – in language and experiences I can understand and where I can see the goal and the basic idea.