Picture an orchestra. Each musician is a master in their own right, holding an instrument unique from the others.
There is a rhythm in their breaths, a cadence in their postures, all in anticipation of what’s to come. Now, picture the conductor stepping onto the stage. The baton rises, and with a simple wave, the beautiful symphony begins. The conductor doesn’t need to play each instrument. Instead, through a shared understanding and vision, they guide each part to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
In this image lies a metaphor for what every organization strives to achieve – a harmonious collaboration that leads to shared success. But how do we translate this harmony from an orchestra to an organization? How do we synchronize individual brilliance to create a collective masterpiece?
I invite you to join me in asking: Can we scale the magic of that conductor’s baton across time, size, resources, and individual objectives? And if the answer is ‘no’, then where do we look for the answers?
Let’s take a step back from the tried-and-tested, from the dictations and prescriptions, and contemplate a different approach.
What if, instead of instructing each note, we prompt the melody? What if we explore leadership not as a power to control but as a beacon to inspire?
I call this new paradigm– Enactive Leadership.
Hold on to these questions, keep an open mind, and get ready to challenge your understanding of leadership, while I present an exciting possibility for a more harmonious, effective, and sustainable future.
As I delve into the heart of the matter, it’s important to understand the landscape we’re traversing. Leadership and management within organizations have seen many models, all in pursuit of an effective way to scale command and control.
Scaling Command and Control
Our first approach, the most straightforward one, was simply telling people what to do. This command-mode of organizing, an almost primal method, resembles a tight-knit tribe following the lead of its chieftain. Effective in small teams and with a skilled leader, it quickly buckles under complexity, as the size of the team expands or the skill of the leader wanes. The reality soon dawns: telling people what to do just doesn’t scale very well, neither in time nor in size.
As organizations grow, a new method comes into play: hierarchy. Hierarchical structure attempts to scale the size dimension, creating cells of individuals who are coordinated by a leader. The leader’s command is passed down, acting as a link connecting the organizational strata. Despite its appeal and apparent structure, anyone who has played the ‘telephone game’ knows the propensity for messages to morph and meaning to be lost.
Next, we take on the time dimension. The unpredictability of future decisions and actions gives rise to planning. It is the act of mapping out the future actions, prescribing the pathway before setting foot on it. However, like a weather prediction failing at the sight of a sudden storm, plans start to crumble in the face of uncertainty.
To help manage resource decisions, budgeting enters the scene. A budgeting process allows for control over decision-making, effectively granting permission to use resources in accordance with a pre-established plan. But, like a tightrope walker facing a gust of wind, the smallest, unexpected change can throw the whole system off balance.
Finally, in a bid to further improve this command-and-control model, we introduce performance management. Breaking down larger goals into individual objectives, we guide employees like a maze runner, aiming to reach a designated point. But here we face a principal problem: very quickly, the metrics become the target. The map is mistaken for the territory, and employees focus more on meeting their metrics than achieving the broader goal.
These approaches, though not without merit, fall short in their own ways. They try to scale command and control but leave us yearning for a melody that is more harmonious, more synchronized. So, the question we must ask ourselves is: do we need a new songbook?
The answer is a resounding yes. We need to shift away from this paradigm of prescribed behaviors, directives, and hierarchies. Instead, we must think about prompting behaviors, about inspiring action, not enforcing it.
This brings us to a revolutionary concept: Enactive Leadership. A leadership model designed not to control but to create conditions for emergent, desirable behavior. An approach where the baton of the conductor doesn’t dictate the tune but fosters it, encouraging the musicians to perform in harmony.
As I embark on this exploration of Enactive Leadership, let’s first take a moment to truly appreciate its radical departure from our traditional conceptions of leadership. This isn’t about the dictatorial maestro forcing the orchestra into compliance, but the nurturing conductor who understands and empowers each instrument’s unique voice to collectively create a symphony.
Enactive Leadership looks to the orchestra not just as individual musicians, but as a collective whole.
How does Enactive Leadership accomplish this? Well, the first fundamental shift is the transition from prescriptive to evocative leadership. Rather than telling people what to do or directing every action, the leader sets the stage, articulates the vision, and then encourages the team to bring that vision to life. It’s the difference between handing out sheet music and inspiring an original composition.
The leader prompts behaviors instead of prescribing them, nudging the team members to align their actions towards the shared vision. By fostering an environment that stimulates the right behavior, the leader helps create a cohesive unit that moves organically towards shared objectives.
And how does the leader prompt these behaviors? By creating a specific set of conditions that encourage autonomy, yet align individual actions with collective goals. These conditions may vary depending on the organization’s context, the team’s characteristics, and the task at hand, but they always aim to foster a sense of unity and shared purpose.
This is a shift from hierarchy to a network, from command and control to encouragement and enablement. Instead of silos, we have interconnections. Instead of orders, we have shared understanding. It’s a leadership style that honors the intelligence and capabilities of its team members and leverages those assets for the organization’s collective success.
A Shift in Mindset
This is not to say that it’s easy. It requires a significant shift in mindset, away from traditional leadership models. It also requires the courage to let go, to relinquish control and trust in the collective capability of your team. But the rewards are worth it. In an age where creativity, agility, and innovation are more important than ever, Enactive Leadership provides the pathway to harmonize our collective efforts.
As we explore this new paradigm, let us remember that leadership isn’t about command and control. It’s about connection and coordination. It’s about creating a symphony of unique voices, all playing in harmony towards a shared goal. It’s time for us to embrace Enactive Leadership and orchestrate a future where everyone plays a part in our collective success. The music is in our hands. Let’s play it together.
A New Model of Leadership
Our current understanding of leadership often carries the romantic image of a conductor directing an orchestra. With a single wave of the baton, each musician follows, creating a beautifully harmonized symphony. However, as captivating as this model is, its application in the complex world of large organizations is severely limited.
Unlike an orchestra where a conductor’s directive is instantly visible and audible, the machinery of a large corporation is infinitely more intricate. Leaders cannot simply wave their proverbial baton and expect the vast and diverse components of an organization to harmonize instantaneously. The model fails to capture the dynamic and multifaceted nature of modern corporations, and thus, we must look elsewhere for inspiration.
And for that inspiration, we turn to a story that comes not from the boardroom, but the battlefield, and the story of General Stanley McChrystal’s transformation as a leader. His journey and his approach to leadership present a paradigm shift that we, as leaders in our respective fields, can learn from.
General McChrystal served in the United States Army for over three decades, rising to command all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. Throughout his career, he faced a multitude of complex and evolving challenges. Yet, it was his innovative response to these challenges that truly set him apart.
As a young officer, McChrystal was deeply entrenched in the traditional ‘command and control’ structure of the military. Every move was dictated from the top, with little room for individual decision-making. But as he progressed through the ranks, taking on larger responsibilities in an increasingly complex world, he quickly realized the inadequacy of this model.
The battlefield was no longer a chessboard with fixed pieces and predictable outcomes. It was more akin to a constantly changing ecosystem with diverse actors and shifting dynamics. To effectively lead in this environment, he knew he had to evolve from a traditional commander to something else – something more akin to a gardener.
In place of dictating every move, McChrystal started fostering an environment where his teams could make agile decisions. He laid out the strategic vision and resources, and then gave them the freedom to adapt and evolve as the situation required. He stepped back from his role as a micromanager and became a nurturer, fostering growth, agility, and resilience.
One of the key tenets of this gardener leadership model was transparency. He demanded it of himself and his teams, creating an environment where everyone’s actions were visible for evaluation and learning. It was a stark departure from the traditional leadership model, one that valued openness and learning over command and secrecy.
As we look to the future, McChrystal’s transformative leadership journey from a commander to a gardener is not just relevant but vital. Like him, we must evolve our leadership approach to nurture an environment of agility, transparency, and resilience. We will transition from being conductors, commanding every note, to gardeners, nurturing every seed of potential.
This will require patience, a redefinition of roles, and a steadfast commitment to fostering growth. The fruits of this model, like those of a well-tended garden, may not be immediate. But with persistent and thoughtful care, we will reap a bountiful harvest: a resilient, agile organization fully equipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead.