Pervasive Leadership in 2014

After chewing on it for a couple of years, this year I’m taking the Pervasive Leadership model I’ve been working on to a broader audience.  This is a leadership model for truly agile organizations, and while you will find here some similarities to other leadership models being considered by the business community, you may find something additionally useful here.

I first introduced this model in this blog in January 2013 and then at an agile gathering in February.  I have continued to test it in my own practice.  It is an extension of the facilitative leadership series and “Effective Conflict Engagement” course I have provided to clients the last few years and also owes much to the “Collaboration for Cross-Functional Teams” course I have taught at three universities over the last ten years.

While I realize this model is demanding both for agile managers and for teams, my observation is that many if not most of the problems which blunt agile adoptions I’ve observed or consulted in are really leadership problems.  These problems, frankly, occur across the organizational structure, and teams have as much to learn here as the management or nominal leadership structure.

As I was discussing with a friend the other day, I am always interested to hear people say that “people need leadership” or “people want to be led.”  I’m interested to hear what’s behind that.  My observation is that we often are not and do not step up to leadership even in our own lives and that this has become such a serious problem that it now has broad cultural implications driving public policy which will economically impact my grand nephew’s and niece’s generation.

One of the most intriguing quotes from literature that comes to my mind at times of great difficulty in teams or larger organizations comes from Dicken’s The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield the Younger.  In fact, it is the first line of that novel and informs the whole:  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

It is an interesting question the author presents to us.  When taken in whole, how many of us can claim to be the hero of our own lives rather than simply the protagonist?  This question can also be asked of organizations, especially for profit and non-profit organizations.

This year, as never before, this blog will consider the nature and utility of Pervasive Leadership, how to enact it, why to enact it, what its precursors are, and where its cousin approaches to leadership live.  Watch this space.

Showing 4 comments
  • Gerald Weinberg

    Jean, I’m glad you’re doing this. A great way to start this new year. Thanks.


    • Jean Richardson

      Thanks, Jerry. There are, of course, many voices speaking to this topic these days. I hope that I will be able to help move the conversation forward. I appreciate your encouragement. This is, indeed, a great way to start the year!

  • Rony

    Hi Jean,
    That question is something that we, managers of agile (or wanna be agile) organizations, face all the time with every individual in our organizations and especially with every new hire.
    I not only don’t have an answer for you, but I have an additional question: how “heroes of their own life” are created ? is their own making ? is it situational ? were they given the responsibility to be heroes or did they take it by themselves ?
    I will be watching this space ….

    • Jean Richardson

      Rony, you have this habit of asking great questions . . .

      Joseph Campbell, of course, spent much of his life exploring and defining the Hero’s Journey, which he described most concisely in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In this process, the unsuspecting individual is created as a hero, a fire-bringer if you will. Though I would say the modern sense of hero may emerge to be more of a uniter than a defender of his people, which model was so revered in the past. Campbell’s model likely aligns with Dickens’ model of the hero.

      I’m sure you’ve met plenty of people who would not set foot on the path known as the “Hero’s Journey.” When they find it, they get off of it pretty darn quick. This modus operandi works for some but often leads over time, especially by middle age, as so clearly described in David Whyte’s work, to an accretion of desperation.
      Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” For many people, aligning with an authoritarian institutional culture—the dominant paradigm of the rapidly receding past—is what Dee Hock, creator of the chaordic concept, referred to as “retiring on the job.” Resignation. Confirmed, if quiet, desperation. In many cases, the human spirit cries out against this—or corrupts.

      So, yes, to your question: heroism can be of our own making and situational. For example, a team member who has never had to stretch herself so far as now but exceeds her own expectations to deliver on a commitment can experience at least a moment of heroism. King George VI of England, recently made newly famous for his quiet heroism through the film The King’s Speech was such a person: a king who never wanted to be king but who rose to the circumstances thrust upon him and led through difficult times. We may be born to heroism: for some people, their nature (and, perhaps, nurture) seems to incline them more easily to the rigors of being heroes of their own lives than it does for others.

      With regard to finding such people, and by “such people” I mean those who are not only heroes of their own lives, but people likely to become Pervasive Leaders, I will probably always recommend some degree of behavioral interviewing in any internal or external selection process. Additionally, a question that I think is very powerful when searching out people who are or are likely to become Pervasive Leaders is:

      “Given your understanding of the nature of organizations in general or our organization in particular, what do you think about how things were, are, are likely to become, and ought to be?”

      The question surfaces the individual’s perspective, or world view, with regard to organizations and the people who comprise them. From this point, you can probe about the individual’s stance as a leader and the degree to which they must serve or be served.

      Seek people who have a good sense of themselves, who are open, have a lively curiosity, are generous of spirit, and, as a preferred, not required, trait, have a keen sense of humor—even if it differs in nature from your own. Be cautious of anyone who seems inclined to lead or follow a mob. Attract those who have a rhythm of their own making but are sensitive to context and have an interest in engaging with others, even if that engagement is limited by a need for time alone.

      You ask also whether such people “were given responsibility to be heroes” or took it upon themselves. I would phrase it differently. I would say such people realized their natural accountabilities and did not shirk them.

      — Jean

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