As I write, it’s ‘Fat Cat Friday‘ in the UK. January 4th the day when the chief executives of FTSE 100 companies have already earned as much as the average salary of their workers.

Acclaimed author Yuval Noah Harari talks about stories as the ‘glue’ that holds our social organisation together and makes it possible for human beings to accomplish things that no other animal can.

When we believe in a story, we act as if it’s true. It becomes a ‘social fact‘ – something that is exists, and becomes part of the world that we deal with, because people believe it to be true.

One of the ‘stories’ that has made it possible for chief executive pay to rise to 133 times the average salary (up from 47 times in 1997) is the idea of the ‘Visionary Leader’ – the exceptional individual who has a vision of the future and can communicate it in a way that brings people along with them.

These individuals are few and far between (the story goes) so we have to pay them ever-increasing salaries in order to attract and retain them.

Of course, we only tend to hear about the leaders whose visions were successful. Luck plays a larger part than is usually acknowledged (even Winston Churchill, who has a strong claim for being the greatest leader the Western world has produced, would have been primarily remembered as the man behind the Gallipoli debacle, had World War II not come along and rescued his reputation).

In rapidly changing and complex environments, as Gervase Bushe points out in his must-read article Generative Leadership, companies following the singular vision of charismatic leaders are actually more likely to fail.

In addition, the pressure of trying to live up to the ‘heroic leader’ image, and of having everyone expecting you to know what to do in any situation, is going to make it harder for most people to be at their best. If they don’t feel out of their depth from time to time in complex, fast-changing circumstances, they are most likely suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

So if visionary leadership is a seductive illusion much of the time, what is the best way to lead?

The first essential is to be able to identify what kind of situation you are facing. Gervase Bushe, following RA Heifetz and DJ Snowden, identifies two kinds of problem, each requiring a different approach: complicated, technical problems, and complex, adaptive challenges.

Complicated, technical problems are those where it’s possible to define, at least with some work, what the problem actually is, and where causal relationships are discoverable.

These problems are solvable by analysing them and breaking them down into smaller chunks, then by applying best practice and what has been known to work in the past.

Complex, adaptive challenges, by contrast, are where you don’t know what’s going on. Causal relationships can’t always be identified, there is no best practice or obvious reliable remedy, and it’s even difficult to agree on what the problem is.

In this situation, your vision, however clear and however well you can communicate it, won’t help you, because you literally don’t know what’s going on. If you don’t know where you are now, you can’t devise a step-by-step to get from there to where you want to get to.

So what can you do instead? Gervase Bushe suggests using an approach he calls ‘Generative Leadership’:

“Essentially, generative leadership requires identifying the issue or problem that needs to be addressed and framing it in a way that will motivate the variety of stakeholders who are “part of the problem” to engage in coming up with new ideas. They are invited into conversations intended to stimulate many self-initiated, fail-safe innovations and see what works. Those innovations that do work are then nurtured and scaled up. As opposed to a topdown, identify and then implement the best solution strategy, this is a top-down-bottom-up learn as you go strategy.”

– Gervase Bushe, ‘Generative Leadership

So, invite people with different perspectives within your organisation to try things out – knowing that some of them won’t work. Keep and build on the innovations that work, and discard the rest.

With this style of leadership, applied when you face ‘complex, adaptive challenges’, the leader is relieved of the burden of being expected to have all the answers, and can unlock the creativity of everyone in the organisation.

There are dozens of well-established methods for encouraging people to talk to each other differently and change the ‘stories’ that led to the problems emerging in the first place. My preferred method is Appreciative Inquiry.

Bushe emphasises that Generative Leadership is a style rather than a description of an individual. Other styles, including visionary, coaching leadership, and even old-fashioned directive leadership, may be applicable in more straightforward situations.

In a future post we’ll look at the assumptions that you need to make Generative Leadership work.

Hands-on learningWould you would like to learn how to use Appreciative Inquiry? It’s one of the most powerful methods for changing your team’s story to something more positive and generative! Why not join the Practical Appreciative Inquiry online course pilot that starts on 27 January?

I’ve found it to be one of the most practical and useful courses I’ve ever been on. I use the skills and techniques I learnt regularly and get great results.” – Steven Houghton-Burnett, professional speaker on disruption and change

The course runs at a time to suit your time zone, wherever you are in the world! There are just a few places left – full details and how to book here.

The Problem With ‘Visionary’ Leadership

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