the becoming: April 30, 2023

Collective Leadership

Hello, I’m Andi - an executive coach and author of this here newsletter about leadership, change, and what it means to be human. And welcome to the seventh edition of the becoming (née Kitchen Party).

A path through Mt Davidson park Photo by Susan Wilkinson on unsplash.

You will, no doubt, have noticed the name change. Kitchen Party was a good name. It evoked a sense of warmth and connection I was going after, and at one point I was thinking about hosting an actual series of real life kitchen parties because what’s better than good company, deep conversation, and nourishing food? While I haven’t hosted anything yet, the idea is very alive in my heart.

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But as far as a name for this newsletter goes, Kitchen Party was missing something. The central themes of leadership, change, and being human are still firmly in place, but the path ahead is less about answers and clarity, more about getting lost and embracing the unknown. The world is breaking in wonderful and terrifying ways. We grasp at language and struggle to find frames of reference for what we are in the middle of. Extractive systems of domination scream atop their creaking towers while pluralistic networks of survival and love, of life-affirming defiance, burst through the fissures in the seams.

The morass of complexity we are woven into calls for leadership - not the exalted god-like status imagined by the business world, but leadership enacted by each of us in different situations and at different times. In this I am influenced by the thinking of Mary Parker Follett, who saw leadership as a process of sense-making, a way of becoming deeply familiar with the web of relationships that structure an understanding of the total situation. The concept of the total situation is an interesting one, a gesture towards something comprehensive yet ultimately unknowable - a bounded web of facts, experiences, desires, and aims. For anyone to understand the total situation is of course, an impossible task. In part because of our own limited capacity to comprehend complexity, and in part because the total situation is constantly changing, dissolving, and reforming. There is no solid ground to stand on when we enact leadership in this way.

This kind of sensing, seeking, forming, dissolving is a creative dance between the known and the unknown. Both the total situation and leadership itself are reconstituted in each moment. In this perpetual movement of dissolving and becoming we may each be called to share our expertise, temporarily inhabiting the role of leader, sense maker, enactor. In her thinking Follett pushes even further, suggesting that leadership, not leaders, is what gets us through. The distinction is slight but important and serves to reposition leadership as the birthright of each and every one of us. The “one true leader” that exists in any situation, what she called the invisible leader, is the common purpose.

“The best leader does not ask people to serve him, but the common end… a common purpose, born of the desires and the activities of the group.”

I am digging this definition of leadership because of how inclusive, even reliant, it is on the collective. I am also interested in this idea of common purpose, though I am waiting for a few books to arrive before I can say more. In the hyper-individualized world of modern leaders who must bear all the weight and have all the answers, Follett’s work brings an air of freshness and liberation. For me there is a sense of letting go into the unknown, an embrace of storytelling and sense making (I’m curious to explore overlaps with Cynefin and Transition Design) as moment-to-moment way finding. That Follett was writing at the turn of the 20th century is a testament to her insight and foresight, as much as it is a testament to the intolerance of the business establishment who pretty much disappeared her work until it was republished almost a century later in the late 90s. Follett is credited with coining the term “transformational leadership” and emphasized the importance of what we now call “soft” skills such as communication and informal processes.

And so here we are at the becoming. the becoming is a place where the known meets the unknown. Where sense making coalesces and dissolves the thread that structures an understanding of the total situation, however impossible a task that may be. An unending frontier reconstituted in each moment, a “moving edge between what we know about ourselves and what we are about to become,” in the words of David Whyte. You can hear the refrains of Follett in Whyte’s words, where leadership also becomes a moving edge between what we know about the total situation and what it is about to become.

I hope you’ll stay and join me, though if you wish otherwise you can quickly and easily unsubscribe at the bottom of the page. Leadership, change, and what it means to be human will remain the focus of the newsletter, now viewed with soft eyes that blur the edges and displace the familiar so that we can sense more fully into what is emerging.

Becoming With

Over at Animas Valley Institute Bill Plotkin is up to part five in the multipart series, "Who is Up for Building a Cathedral?" (Part I, Part II, Part III can be found here - IV and V are not online yet), that began with a re-contextualization of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey not as a universal myth of individual transformation but as a guide to the “adolescent phase of life” (defined not by age but by a developmental life stage that spans from early adolescence to late adolescence). There are many gifts that this phase of life offers, including exuberance and fiery creativity. But in the West we have prolonged adolescence until it has become pathological, facing a true scarcity of adults and elders. And in this capacity, the Hero's Journey doesn't offer us any way out, any path beyond the egocentric path of the solo superstar (or the solo super-leader, in Follett’s case).

And this brings us right to the heart of what I most want to share with you in this essay: The difficulty for any given person in accessing or recognizing a mature framework (a framework for true maturity) is not only that person’s culture but, even more so, their developmental stage. Maybe it’s just obvious: If someone has not themselves matured beyond early adolescence, then their lens, too, will necessarily be adolescent; everything they experience will be seen and understood through that lens. The caterpillar cannot truly imagine the life of a butterfly.

The thread structuring the total situation - in this case the developmental challenge of becoming who we need to be to shift our relationship to each other and to the earth - is a reorientation of the individual. For Follett, this takes the form of leadership instead of leaders, enacted towards a common purpose. For Plotkin this is a remembering and a relocating of the individual back into a web of ecological relationships:

To serve the world in such a way is to inhabit one’s unique ecological niche, a distinctive way of being in relationship with other humans, creatures, ecosystems, and communities. This is to say that we cannot identify a mature way of serving the world in the social or cultural terms of a job, social role, philosophical perspective, or creative project; that’s the way it’s done in adolescence. Rather, a soul-initiated adult can identify their way of serving the world only in the ecological terms of the unique conversation they are having with the larger, not-merely-human world.

To reweave ourselves back into the thread of life through ecological connections is a kind of becoming with. Donna Haraway, another voice in the critique of human exceptionalism, writes “if we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism then we know that becoming is always becoming with, in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake.”

There is something larger at play, something emerging yet connected to what has always been. We are not alone, the individual is not the locus of all choice, all responsibility, all action. We cannot, as individuals, process all the trauma of the last few centuries through our bodies alone. This is not a shirking of responsibility but rather a call towards a common purpose, a remembering and elevation of the collective, of reweaving ourselves back into the fabric of what is most alive and an honoring of all that is here.

Worth Noting

Becoming is about, among other things, belonging. Over at Enliving Edge Betsy Sheppard wonders what it would be like for organizations to take on a management philosophy of unconditional positive regard. To see everyone as “inherently intelligent, creative, self-reflecting, self-correcting, and self-accountable.” Instead of working to remove unwanted things (hiding our weaknesses), what would it be like to access and develop the positive things? To embrace our complexity as human beings?

I thoroughly enjoyed this Ted Talk but Margaret Heffernan where she reflects on the human skills we need in an unpredictable world (a timely talk as AI worry ratchets up week by week). She calls for a move from “just in time” to “just in case” management, and advocates for the investment in preparation over planning. Inefficient? Yes. Robust? Absolutely. I was also thrilled to hear Buurtzorg mentioned (though you won’t hear it in name, only in the study of the Dutch healthcare system) - I first learned about the organization in business school and think of them whenever I need a burst of organizational inspiration. The through line of Margaret’s talk is clear - to utilize human skills we must continue to think for ourselves. The alternative, she warns, is that the more we let machines think for us, the less we can think for ourselves.

At the beginning of the year, Dave Snowden wrote a three part series on “Rewilding Leadership” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). In line with the themes of this newsletter, Snowden also writes about a more collective understanding of leadership, as “no one person can ever possess all of the various skills and experiences we need in a leadership role so we need to see the situation as a collection of people and processes that, as a whole, deliver what we need.” The posts are rich and also contain a hefty amount of links to other articles of Dave’s that include even more insight and information, but I am following closely the ways in which he is working to actually create frameworks and tools that can map the idea of what collective leadership looks like in a given organization.

As always, thank you for reading. See you next month! 👋