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Leadership beyond Power

I started reading Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership. While an admittedly heavy read, it has confirmed and stretched some of the key insights of the Perspectives on Design & Leadership report I released earlier this year in a few key areas.

Traditionally, when we think about leadership, we think about people in functions inside organisations or communities. At its core, leadership in the current dominant narrative is tied to an individual exerting influence by leveraging their position of power within an system. I find this notion not just limiting to those who 'lead' but also disempowering for everybody else who is then supposedly 'just' following that leader. Instead, I believe leadership to be a modality that we can intend to embody and apply based on our unique position within the system. Let me explain.

Going back to my current favourite definition of leadership* which is 'the ability to see a different future, and take steps towards that future', I can see three levers we have at our disposal to show up in a leaderly way:


Contrary to dominant beliefs, every position - and every person occupying a position within a system has the potential for leadership. But how this shows up, is 'position' dependent. Meaning, the way I drive change differs, dependent on if I have a formal mandate for it, or not; if I have a high level of social capital, or not; if I am well connected into the ecosystem, or not; what beliefs and mental models I hold, what my go-to practices and craft modes are, what principles and philosophies I hold dear, etc.

None of these precludes being able to envision a future that is different from today nor my ability to take action. What it does influence is the unit, direction, scale and flavour of change I am able to channel into my change efforts. Rather than seeing our position in and to the system as a barrier or limitation, we can choose to embrace it in its unique composition to contribute to, participate in, or initiate a journey towards a different future.


At the moment, we hold a very binary view of leadership: that someone is a leader, or not. And for those 'appointed' into a leadership function, we often imply a sort of omnipresence of leadership. If a person leads a team, they must surely lead the meeting. If a person is a senior leader in a certain field, they must certainly be a subject matter expert in all areas pertaining to that field. My boss, who is a designated leader in my organisation, then is also responsible for (read 'lead in the area of') my career development. But what if, leadership was not a continuous designation, expectation or attribute but an event or moment in time?

This reframe is powerful because it offers us a set of new questions to embody and explore our own leadership: What are the events or moments I am well placed to lead in? During which moments or events will I hold space for leadership of others to emerge? This view also takes off a huge amount of pressure off of designated leaders who often have high 'omnileadership' expectations of themselves. So what leadership moments can we let go off, to distribute agency, to democratise power or simply because intentionally stepping away from the leadership helm during that moment in time will give us a better chance at moving closer to our collective goal?


The third element that the authors of this book and research contributors of my report have offered is the idea that leadership happens in the spaces in between. Between people, between people and things between things and systems... Leadership as a change practice is a team sport. We cannot journey a group of people towards a new future without them being part of that journey, without them having a role and interest in, the direction and mode of travel.

So organisations and communities that desire greater (read, more distributed) leadership need to invest in the relationships and spaces between people, things and systems to manifest the pathways for leadership culture to permeate their organisations or communities.

If we accept the above levers as true, then the really interesting question becomes not 'who leads' or 'how should I lead' but what conditions will create collective leadership moments in our organisations and communities to help us journey further towards the outcomes we seek?

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*This is a definition taken from a conversation with Jade Tang-Taylor quoting Louise Marra during the research for the Perspectives on Design & Leadership report. You can download a free copy of the report from my website.

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