At the Core of Leadership

In this piece, I’d like to consider leadership and the essentials which those leading must do and focus on to be considered a highly functioning leader. 

Whilst specific roles are considered as ‘leadership’, and so require the role-holder to function as a leader, the taking on of leadership in any role is essentially a personal decision. In being a leader, we individually and actively decide to be up front, pushing forward and chartering new territories. In this voyage of intentful leadership discovery, the new leader is giving things a go and continuously learning what works well (and what doesn’t!), always recognising the key leadership imperative to keep themselves, work colleagues and the organisation appropriately safe within the process.

It is helpful to consider leadership as a function of the system, i.e. something done within the system of the organisation, to help it move forward safely and most productively. Essentially, the leader needs to be in charge of the how the system works and how it progresses. To lead well, the leader need to activate these 5 core leadership functions:-

1.    Support the organisation to clarify, agree on and continually revisit its Primary Task
That is, help the organisation as a collective to define, verbalise and regularly reappraise what it must do or achieve to survive. This conscious group agreement will then keep everyone aligned and contributing to this core objective within their varying roles.
2.    Generate and share a vision of the future and define, with the group, a strategy to achieve
It is vital that the leader develops, holds and generously communicates their vision of where they’d like the organisation to be getting to in terms of position, operation or both. This needs to be clear enough, so that followers can actively help the leader to define the strategic ‘how’ of getting there.
3.    Provide a containing structure to allow safety and encourage creativity
Leaders need to figuratively get their arms around the organisation, to hold it securely, just not too tightly, so it can breathe creatively. A containing structure arises from clear accountability, consistent processes and active encouragement of innovation & new ideas, in line with primary task.
4.    Attend to ‘flow’ at the boundaries of the system – energy, roles & resources
If the leader focuses on the boundary, he/she can see how resource, roles or energy are coming into, or going out of, the system, and then manage this in line with organisational strategy and primary task. Leaders should encourage the edges of the system to be permeable and all roles to be clear.  
5.    Locate and attend to defensive or resistant behaviours – both in self and others
These ‘stepping away’, avoiding or defending behaviours will always be present, as organisations and individuals use defences to manage their anxieties. For a leader, noticing these is crucial as they will always signal underlying stressors. Talking them over openly will generate the advances required.

So whether you’re a leader new to the role, or looking to take more leadership in your existing role, actively attending to these five core leadership functions will help you mind your work system and move it forward progressively.

Read original text by Anton Obholzer, Chapter 9 in The Systems Psychodynamics of Organisations (Karnac Books).

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Conservative Leadership Relations

In the context of our specialism in relational practice and leadership, the Conservative party’s leadership contest absolutely intrigues me. These two powerful politicians, May and Leadsom, are highly experienced, top quality MPs – who also happen to be female. One must ask, how exactly did the Tory party and hence the country suddenly, and indeed out of the blue, acquire itself the sure chance of electing a next woman prime minister? There are after all only 20% female MPs in the conservative party!
It seems to me that the driver may be around us being in the middle of some massive relational splits - decision to walk away from our EU colleagues, guilty political departures of the highest level and party fractures as a result of referendum messages that were subsequently found to be heavily flawed. Maybe, our strongest need now as a country is to access a bit of looking after for ourselves and an encouraging helping hand to get everyone to talk nicely to each other again. From all our upbringings, we know and understand the power of a uniting female/mother figure, and so, my hunch would be that the subconscious of both the party, and by association, the country worked at a furious rate to firstly demand and then subsequently secure this crucial outcome.
Clearly the skills to get people reunited through talking, generating positive interaction through appreciative encouragement and above all, listening well, are just as accessible to males as they are to females. However, given that the political world is mostly male (in fact nearer 70% across all parties in the House of Commons) this gender balance can sometimes reinforce the more stereotypical male characteristics of authoritarianism, dominance and power in determining how the country is run and how decisions are made. Unfortunately, the bitter Brexit fights and fall out we’ve recently witnessed through the high level resignations can be a negative consequence of this non-relational process.
And so the female leader is subconsciously called from stage left to ideally reunite. In fact, last week, Andrea Leadsom was welcoming the 9 week campaign process as a chance for ‘real engagement’ with the country. Then, as if by magic, motherhood becomes a huge point of contention in the race, with Leadsom playing it as a trump card, and May insisting it is so not the point. This somehow feels like the country voicing its cognitive dissonance on the extent to which it really needs caring for. One thing is for sure, though – neither the Conservative party nor the country will welcome an over-relational mothering process of ‘talk to me, let’s see what’s wrong, what do you need, how can I help you most’. And something tells me that neither of these strong leadership candidates are anywhere near this end of the scale!
It feels like we are in a good position though, where it is likely that a new form of relational leadership (Uhl-Bein, 2006) could emerge. It is perfect timing to move towards a relational practice (Fletcher 2010) form of leadership – one of honesty, openness and authoritative direction setting in strong connection with colleagues, creating positive fluid conditions in which good work can be done.  
As I finish writing, news is just breaking that Theresa May will indeed be the new Prime Minister as Leadsom withdraws from the race “in the interests of the country” she says, as in reality she’s unlikely to draw more support. Quite rightly, now is a time for quick yet fully considered decisions which can speed the country towards forward-focused unison under its new, hopefully relational, leader. May can make this happen through encouraging tone, appreciative, supportive language, and building positive trusting connections with key others - most importantly, the EU, as we embark on negotiating the most productive exit we can imagine.

Fletcher, J.K. (2010). Leadership as relational practice. In K Bunker, K Kram & D.T.Hall (Eds), Extraordinary leadership: Addressing the gaps in senior executive development. San Francisco, CA: Josey Bass.
Uhl-Bien, M. (2006). Relationship Leadership theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing: The Leadership Quarterly, 17(6), 654-676