Learning About Leadership Episode 1

📅 Posted 2020-05-31

Feature Image for Learning About Leadership Episode 1

Recently I’ve been attending training sessions on what makes a great leader and what I (and the rest of my team) can do better to reach leadership nirvana. It’s a really positive exercise and frankly, the best training I’ve done in a long time.

We’ve been asked to keep a diary, which I’ve never been really that good at. Well, apart from this blog of course. But that’s a little different! I’m going to try and share as much as I think I can (and as much as I can remember) as well as put down some of the thoughts that I wrote down as I went along. Some of it will be difficult to share - I can’t read all of my handwriting!

The timing is good because just after typing up all these notes, I manage to spill tea on my notebook. At least it’s written in pencil!

If I’m going to be spending time writing things down, reflecting and ruminating, then as I always say, if I can, I might as well share it on the web. I’ve talked about this before, probably in the intro to one of my varied entries on this very site.

The other tip was to drink plenty of water, which has been pretty easy of late with the tap only 5 metres away from my desk! I’ve noticed the growing trend of walking around the office with a bottle of water. I think if I did that, I’d leave my bottle behind all the time!

Leadership Love-in

The training sessions are called this.

I wasn’t sure at first. But now I think it’s a catchy title, Leadership Love-In. Love in? In this pandemic climate? Well, I guess the title was created before we were stricken to endless Zoom sessions. But actually, it works quite well over Zoom, so you quickly forget everyone else is also sitting at their dining tables in their pyjamas surrounded by piles of washing.

My read of it is that leadership training is tough. It takes a lot of thinking time between sessions for the ideas to flow, sink in and develop. This is why we’ve only done 2 x 3 hour sessions so far, on different days, with more sessions to come in the future.

These sessions have been inspired by my 2-up manager’s recent experience studying an EMBA (I’m still learning all of the acronyms, it’s like jargon only a different variety). The fact that our leader has decided to grant us this opportunity to us is, by itself, inspiring.

I’m hoping to write and share what I can here, as much as I can. Sometimes this is tricky if you’ve already spent all day on the computer, so spending a few more hours at night typing up my thoughts isn’t exactly my first choice of activity.

So that I don’t forget, so far our guest presenters have been Jane Lowther, Lex Dwyer and Rob Kozinets.

Back to school

We were given a select collection of ‘only’ 4 articles as pre-reading before any of the sessions. This sounded OK, considering that most uni courses of this nature would require many more readings. Some of tough going. Actually, most of them are. Some have some “executive highlights” which cover the general thoughts of each piece. This is very useful for those who are time-poor. They are filled with all kinds of businessy jargon which I’m not really familiar with.

I open the first reading.

Harvard Business Review it says. “Urgh” is my first reaction. Harvard. Business. Review. It sounds so dreary from the outset. Looks like I’m in for a rough night. I might need some music to get me through. Luckily, I have this to keep me going.

Actually the readings are generally not too bad. It appears boring at first, but each reading showcases a different perspective and can be quite inspiring once you get into it.

Some of the readings seem a bit more “common sense” and don’t seem to be covering any new ground, at least in my thoughts.

We’ve given one super academic paper on Technocultures, which has a 2 column layout favoured by papers and quotes a huge array of research. The paragraphs are long. But the message is an interesting reflection on the impact that technology has on culture and that culture has on technology. I would like to know more. Lucky for us, the author Robert V Kozinets was to be one of the guest presenters in the 2nd day!

(I’m still not a fan of the “academic paper layout”. It seems like really poor UX to me, someone get onto that STAT)

The initial readings were:

  • The Authenticity Paradox by Herminia Ibarra
  • The Work of Leadership by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie
  • In Praise of the Incomplete Leader by Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wanda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge
  • Consuming Technocultures: An Extended JCR Curation by Robert V. Kozinets

Some definitions

Firstly, we didn’t cover this exactly in the training, but it comes up here and there, especially when discussing these sessions on the side with other colleagues. Managing versus leading. Many books have been written on this very topic so I’ll give this a shot:

Managers utlise strategies, processes and practices to reach a certain outcome, in line with policy to meet some set of aims. Often this will involve managing risks, whether they be risk of the performance variety or business risk.

Leaders take a broader view, inspiring, crafting strategies and uplifting entire generations of workers to produce the best outcomes given all constraints.

After doing some brief Googling I can see that “Leadership” and “Love” are like hand and glove. Try it!

There are many approaches to leadership and research on the topic is constantly changing. We won’t always get it right. But we’ll continuously improve, and that’s what’s most important.

What I’m enjoying

One element I like about the training thus far is the bringing of various thought leaders into the mix to present and then push us to think about new ideas. They’ve been very encouraging in coming to the table not with all the answers, but often with unanswered questions (for us to think about answering in our own way) as well as opinions that we might disagree with. But disagreeing, as we quickly learn, is a great way to keep the conversation and thoughts flowing.

It starts feeling a bit academic and I’m reminded of a subject I once did called “Engineering for Sustainability”. It involved a lot a readers and essays but in hindsight, that gave it a bit of charm compared to learning how to program in Java with Object Oriented Programming 101. Amusingly, my 2-up manager (who organised the leadership training) also studied the same course that contained these subjects!

A variety of models

We went through a few different models, such as:

  • Laughter leads to learning
  • Fun is not the opposite of work

The people I relate to the most at work are probably the ones I play boardgames with. Boardgames are fun, but also a great learning exercise. I don’t even work with these folk on a daily basis, but sometimes our paths cross. And other times, we’ve going over to each other’s houses to play boardgames. The meta is strong. There’s a lot of meta when talking about how leaders operate, so I can see there are many parallels here. I think a lot of leaders would learn a lot from playing games like Secret Hitler (no, really!).

  • The Wellness Continuum

I’m briefly distracted by the word continuum (thanks, Jaco Pastorius). But I can’t help but think on this scale, I’ve experienced many signs which do turn into symptoms, and I think we’ve all been there.

On the left is: Disability < Symptoms < Signs

On the right is: Awareness > Education > Growth

In the middle is a neutral state of wellbeing.

Gotta keep pushing to the right. I sway sometimes to the left; I find sitting at a desk too much can be very tiring.

  • 4 quadrants of energy

Not to be confused with this Billy Cobham number (fusion jazz, it’s everywhere).

My response to this is using the right level of energy required at the time. You can’t possibly feel energised all the time. But say you are energised and your team is not. Some people are not naturally energetic even though they are passionate about their work. So I think it’s a good idea to pick the right level of energy for the context you are operating in at that precise moment. I’ve seen high energy leaders totally extinguish the attention of some super smart introverted people. So care and attention here.

Some topics too, like…

This presentation was so enthralling, I didn’t write any notes down. Yikes! I think I’ll have to experience it again! Some takeaways, though:

  • I still don’t know why Starbucks is successful. I don’t get it.
  • I’m pretty sure we read his paper as part of my uni course, it sounds so damn familiar.
  • Technocultures seems to be describing something so innate in society that everything is affected by it
  • Rob’s a great presenter!

Some thoughts at this point: We need to spend more time leaning on each other (ie other leaders) to truly enable teams to solve problems (rather than solve all of the problems ourselves).

A lot of this talk of leadership really resonates with me, because I love the “creative” side of my job but I don’t like the “management” side of so much. I’ve written before about how I like to lead technology teams, which plays into my current role as a Senior Digital Architect quite nicely, and I still think it’s still true today.

Managing architecture? Not so interesting. Leading architecture? Now you’re talking.

I’m not for a second going to imagine that managers aren’t creative. They’re definitely creative. But not in the way that works for me. Leadership can be creative, so I’m going to follow this thread to see where it goes.

I’ve written a bit about trialling being an Engineering Manager before. You can ready about it here. It was interesting and I learnt a lot, but isn’t something I see myself getting back into all that quickly.

Break-out sessions that are actually good

I’ve only had the opportunity to use the “break-out session” feature of Zoom a handful of times, but in this instance, it’s actually really good. The groups are small, say about 5 or so people. I know everyone. I can feel comfortable sharing my thoughts and ideas. And I can be heard, which often I find a bit tricky in a crowdy and noisy room with my weeny little voice.

For once, I’m not fearing the “share back” ask of the break-out session. I can openly summarise and share people’s thoughts. Loving this.

I think one of the other contributing factors to this is it’s not a uni class. You aren’t being marked for “participation” where everyone is trying to get their words in so they can get some marks and pass. Now that is no way to operate.

What I’m finding difficult

I feel a sense of model-fatigue when it comes to trying to apply quadrants or geometric shapes to box and describe patterns, feelings, processes and approaches. I get it. It’s a way to try and describe something very complex and nuanced, but like the presenter at the time said, every model is wrong.

There was an exercise (which we need to practice in our own time) involving naming the letters of ther alphabet and holding up an assortment of left arms, right arms or both. I’m not sure where this is going, but it reminds me of reading sheet music where the treble clef is annoyingly 2 notes different to the bass clef. Combined with needing to use both hands at once. And count with your voice. And use the pedals. And then your brain needs to work extra hard when passages of music end up inevitably requiring your left hand to ‘read’ notes in treble clef. Probably nowhere near as being an ‘octopus’ playing the drums, though!

Some other comments and thoughts

We discussed VUCA, or dealing with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It was talked about how this was increasing. I outright disagreed with this and the thought of “always has been, always will be” came to mind. But perhaps we’re just a bit more aware of it these days? I’m sure cavemen living from one roasted gazelle to the next left a lot of uncertainty and complexity that they didn’t really understand.

I brought up the idea of “least worst” solution, which I still like. For me, it has parallels to the idea about allowing disappointment at a rate people can deal with.

I’ve been told before that resilience is an attribute of great eaders and I think everyone has their own limits.

I wrote down “What is our purpose??” which is an interesting question… without knowing this, it’s different to lead. We probably know it, intrinsically, but it’s a difficult one to describe. Getting to the big topics here! One answer could be to “facilitate balanced discussions, not take a certain side”. It’s definitely one of the aims of the organisation.

In addition to industry thought leaders, we also had a guest presenter from within our organisation and I think it was the first time I heard the leader speak much more from the heart than ever before. Previously, they would talk at quite a distance to the “people on the ground” so to speak, but we experienced a real vulnerability during these sessions. This was profound for me, because it’s a new perspective I haven’t seen before. The parting comment?

Earn followers by demonstrating success. The number one job is managing difficult conversations.

I have to agree and this is something I reckon I could do with more experience on.

Now, I know that no leader is perfect, pretending to be perfect and try and mash your way through answers to things you don’t really know is more detrimental than to be honest. People can see through the lies. People can also take the fact that you don’t know something and use that against you. Eh, it’s a tough world.

I don’t mind showing weakness at the right times. We’re all human. If we pretend otherwise, people won’t warm to us.

What do other people think

I briefly shared my experience with leaders from across the wider technology team in my organisation and they were really keen to know if they could experience it as well. Maybe I did a really good job of selling it? But I think at the moment, my mind is that all leaders and aspiring leaders should be able to experience a love-in or two.

What’s next?

Sorry if this was a bit of a brain-dump at times, but it’s important to get it all down!

Well there’s a couple of weeks until the next session and we’ve got a stack of homework to get through. So I’ll get onto that and see you again soon, in episode two.

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