Making magic work part 3: Creating teal leadership

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 18 February 2015

For this month’s blog, I said that I would explore what it takes to create leadership that can work and lead at the teal level. Since I wrote last month’s blog, “Reinventing Organisations” author, Frederic Laloux, has spoken at the RSA and his research and insight seem to be generating big interest among communities at the leading edge of leadership and OD thinking.

So the question that has been buzzing in my mind is how do we create leaders who can operate in this teal space? What sort of journey and experiences create individuals who can lead in this new paradigm? And then, what does this mean for those of us in the development profession?

I decided to do a bit of empirical research among my colleagues here at DPA, a diverse group of amazing people who have experienced a wide range of formal and informal development, and thought a lot about not only their own development, but led major development programmes within organisations. A number of common themes emerged, and as I suspected, undertaking formal learning programmes was only a part. The main other themes were around life experiences, such as being a parent, living and working overseas, taking on challenging new roles, responsibilities and experiences, and working for or with someone who was themselves exceptional in their leadership. Also important, was dealing with hardship, the death of a parent at a young age, or dealing with a severely disabled sibling. What was common too, was having prompts or habits for high quality reflection. This enabled a sorting and codifying of their experiences, experiments and challenges along their way.

Stepping back to our question of how we develop teal leadership, as I think and read around this, three key themes keep emerging:

  • A strong sense of purpose
  • Being able to let go
  • Experiencing excellence.

Let’s take a moment to examine each of these in turn.

Sense of purpose is crucial. When you know that someone is essentially bound to what they are doing and leading, a courage and resilience comes with that. Developing that doesn’t happen overnight, and yet it can - significant events in our lives can be extremely catalytic. A challenge to identity and purpose is powerful here, often made by a trusted or respected guide. What this means for the design of leadership programmes is that the quality of relationship and trust between guides and participants, and between participants, is paramount for real development of this kind to take place.  Sometimes that sense of purpose is already there and just needs refining, redirecting or setting free. Sometimes it needs further shaping through engaging in life and the challenges that throws up. Nonetheless, a focus on purpose, on what it means and how it manifests, is crucial.

The ability to let go is an interesting one. Many describe the experience of parenting as a series of increasingly difficult lessons in letting go. From saying goodbye at the school gates, to watching them drive off on their own the day they pass their driving test, from dropping them off at Uni, or waving goodbye at an airport, the experience of giving others the space to make their own decisions is hard, emotional and demanding. Having supported many leaders who self-described as “control freaks” to learn to let go, I know that with support and the chance to reflect, to acknowledge and explore how it feels, this shift can be made, but it takes practice. The shift to letting go in the teal context, is another leap up. Society expects leaders to lead, not to “let go” to a bunch of self-managed teams – so being able to operate in that space demands time to reflect in an ongoing way on what leadership really means.

Finally, experiencing excellence. When I was supporting a team making radical changes to dialysis care, they took the opportunity to visit a revolutionary unit in Sweden who were offering self-care in a way unheard of in the UK. Visiting and exploring this way of working in a new paradigm was an incredible experience for the team, and helped them tremendously in formulating their own vision of the future. Knowing what good looks like, and experiencing “healthy”, are invaluable. Making study visits and experiencing environments known to be at the forefront are all highly developmental experiences.

So how can we make our leadership journeys fit for teal?

  • See it as a journey – make the development period run over some time, and include a variety of experiences within it
  • Include a strong focus on building clarity of purpose
  • Ensure high quality relationships between all parties so that there is trust, challenge, and support throughout
  • Identify and use any chance to experiment with letting go
  • Create space for reflection on experiences within and beyond the programme boundaries
  • Use every opportunity to get hands on experience with excellence.

Next month I’d like to continue this exploration to look at some of the tools and practices used to make “teal” work in practice. 

Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant at DPA 


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