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Leading Together in Tougher Times Published: Sunday, June 28, 2009 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Creating direction,alignment, and commitment-the work of leadership is becoming moredifficultthan ever. Leadership has become more difficult because ofchallenges that are not just complicated but also unpredictable. Suchchallenges demand that people and organizations fundamentally change, and makeit virtually impossible for an individual leader to accomplish the work ofleadership. What is needed is a more inclusive and collective leadership, a prospectthat although difficult to achieve holds much potential. 

In general, leadership ismore difficult today because of how environmental challenges have become muchmore complex for organizations. In the face of complex challenges, a leader, nomatter how skilled and otherwise effective, cannot simply step into the breach,articulate a new vision, make some clarifying decisions, and proclaim success. Acomplex challenge is more than just a very complicated problem. Complexityimplies a lack of predictability. Existing assumptions, methods, or tools areno good in the face of a complex challenge and may even get in the way. To be facedsuccessfully, complex challenges require altered assumptions, differentmethods, and new tools. Complex challenges require people and organizations tochange, often in profound and fundamental ways. 

Making the leadershipprocess more collective, pushing the process beyond one that depends primarilyon individuals, enriches the process of leadership to the level of sensitivityand responsiveness required by a complex challenge. Since about the 1920s (inthe writings of Mary Parker Follett) there has been research on the possibilityof distributing or sharing leadership and making leadership more inclusive andcollective. Getting more people working together in more ways increases thelikelihood that people who are able to make the needed changes themselves willbecome influential in the leadership process. Three collective capabilities canbe useful for organizations needing to achieve shared leadership: shared sense-making, connection, andnavigation

Sense making is not merely problem solving;it's not even problem defining. It's a process that must come before achallenge can even be thought of as a problem with solutions. The outcome ofthis sense-making is shared understanding. It involves people in payingattention to both the parts and the whole of the challenge. It requires peopleto experience multiple perspectives and to hold conflicting views in productivetension. It answers the persistent question about difficult change: Why change?Without an understanding of why change is required, people are rightlysuspicious of it. 

Connection: The process of leadership is realized in theconnections between people, groups, teams, functions, and whole organizations.Complex challenges threaten existing connections. Think of what happens in anorganization seeking to become more customer focused. The existing structuresand boundaries that differentiate and coordinate such entities as production,marketing, sales, and finance begin to be more like impediments than workableways of organizing. Facing complex challenges requires people and organizationsto develop and enrich their forms of connection. 

Navigation: Because a complex challenge isnot a familiar problem to be solved but a reality to be faced through changeand development, the process is one of learning from shared experiments, smallwins, innovations, and emergent strategies. No one can set a goal whose achievementwill resolve a complex challenge. It is a journey whose destination isunpredictable and unknown. A key to success is the ability to be keenlysensitive to the forces of change as they happen, like mariners who sail a shipby making minute, mutual adjustments to one another and to the elements of windand current. 

These capabilities cannotbe taken on by individuals. They can be developed only between individuals andbetween groups, functions, and whole organizations. Too often the move to moreinclusive and collective approaches to leadership is attempted without makingthis move into the space in between. More inclusive approaches to leadership haveoften been expected to flow from a change in the competencies of individual leaders,such as when leaders are called on to be more empowering and inclusive and to shareleadership. The persistence of the obstacles to more inclusive and collective leadershipcomes from the failure to let go of long-held and long-valued assumptions aboutthe individual nature of leadership.

Putting the accomplishmentof the leadership tasks at the heart of leadership frames different and moreuseful questions: What are the obstacles to clear direction, effectivealignment, and solid commitment? What resources exist in the organization forcreating direction, alignment, and commitment as a complex challenge is beingconfronted? What different approaches to accomplishing the leadership tasks arepossible for the organization? How might people act in new and different waysto accomplish the leadership tasks? 

In facing complexchallenges, people, organizations, and communities can develop ways ofaccomplishing the leadership tasks that give more people a sense of beingresponsible for setting direction, creating alignment, and generatingcommitment. Successfully facing complex challenges will support a sense ofshared power and collective competence. 


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