Ask ten people the question, “What is leadership?” and you will probably get at least 10 answers (some people will give more than one answer). Leadership is a complex set of skills and that makes for a wide range of understanding and therefore wide variation in definitions. This is partly because leadership is both a science and an art. It’s a paradox.
This variation in the understanding of leadership causes poor communication which can lead to wasted time and poor performance. I believe we must align on the key definition of leadership if we want to be successful people and lead successful teams and organizations. But, how can we begin to clarify this paradoxical challenge? I believe we can start by acknowledging we are in a new age, i.e. an age of knowledge. In the knowledge age one of the most important roles of leadership must be how we accumulate and utilize knowledge. I believe many of us often leave out “accumulating and utilizing knowledge” as a major responsibility of leaders.
I just attended a leadership conference. The purpose of the conference was to introduce a yearlong leadership development program for new young leaders in the organization. The organization clearly appreciates the importance of leadership development and the program is a proactive way to develop new leaders and to facilitate succession planning.
The conference was a series of team activities which involved solving challenging problems. These were mostly fun games which required high levels of communication and cooperation. The subtle message was,
“If you want to be a leader in this organization, you must be able to deal with uncertainty and unpredictability. You must be creative and be able to solve complex problems and you must engage others to help you. Furthermore, you must be able to manage change and help others to manage change as well.”
It is important for leaders to understand how they and others might behave when faced with challenging problems and uncertainty. It is a powerful learning experience but it’s not enough. A leader’s job is to solve problems but, his/her job is also to create a safe learning environment so everyone can optimize their performance. Some people are able to more effectively handle (or even thrive on) uncertainty and problem solving situations. When chaos occurs they rise to the challenge. I call them the “dominant creatives.” But, is dealing with chaos the most important skill of a leader and do we need to run and find a “dominant creative” when we are faced with chaos?
The missing piece is the skill (or process) of learning which can help us prevent chaos and therefore prevent the reliance on the “dominant creative.” We have this piece but we often ignore it. It seems we place a high value and the ability to deal with chaos. We admire how these “dominant creative” respond so well. It’s like they are the heroes (or heroines) of change. I say “wait a minute!” Relying on heroes and heroines will hold us back from achieving the optimum performance. Let’s instead rely on the learning cycle process and teach everyone to use it to either resolve a chaotic situation or to prevent one from occurring.
The learning cycle Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) can help us. The PDSA Cycle is a series of steps for gaining knowledge for both solving problems and for continuous improvement. I believe leaders can be effective only if they are familiar with, use, and teach the PDSA Cycle. It is the missing piece in most leadership definitions.
The Plan step involves identifying a goal or purpose, formulating a theory, defining metrics and creating a plan to carry it out. The Do step is when the components of the plan are implemented. The Study (check) step is where the team evaluates the success of the plan using the data collected. This helps the team to answer “what progress and success was achieved?” Was it expected or a surprise? Can it be duplicated or changed? The Act step closes the cycle, accumulates the knowledge generated by the process, and enables the team to align on any change to the goal, the methods or the theory. These four steps can be are repeated over and over and anyone can use them.
With PDSA we don’t need to rely on heroes and heroines. We don’t need to wait for a “dominant creative” to come and push us toward action. The problem solving is more predictable, less wasteful and repeatable. If we want to teach leaders how to behave during chaos we must also teach them how to prevent the chaos. Otherwise, we continually depend on leaders who thrive on chaos and that can hold back the team. Don’t leave out the PDSA cycle when you have a leadership conference or when you define leadership. PDSA can help create a safe learning environment so everyone can be a leader for improvement and a preventer of chaos.