Friday, July 10, 2009

"Leadership Is the Art of Good Conversation"

In the best cases life does not imitate art. Take leadership. People learn to lead by first learning to follow. Once they have learned to follow they learn to lead by leading. Often they emulate those who are known to be good leaders.

Call this learning by experience.

But what about the person who is thrown into a leadership position without having had the requisite experience. Lacking the experience of being led; lacking examples to emulate; lacking mentors... he will imitate what he knows. If he has never seen effective leaders, he will fall back on fictional leaders he has read about.

He might try to lead the way Jack McCoy or Lt. Van Buren does on Law and Order. Or he might emulate the blustery executive on a movie of the week.

If he tries to make his life into an imitation of the artistic representation, he will likely begin with the belief that leadership involve giving orders to people who are obliged to do your bidding. He might look to develop the dramatic tension that occurs when people bristle at the orders they are being given.

Most executive coaching begins with disabusing people of these false stereotypes. And the same applies to relationship coaching and marital counseling. People who think that relationships involve one person bossing the other one around are not headed for lasting success.

Thus, I was struck by this statement by C. West Churchman: "Leadership is the art of good conversation."

John O'Neil quoted this line in an article on executive leadership. He offered this comment: "Think about it, he was right. Good conversation involves careful listening, shared learning, reflecting, building consensus, motivating, resolving dilemmas for higher order solutions. These are the right traits for excellent future leaders not greed and self-promotion." Link here.

One thing that is lacking in good leadership, as in good conversation, is drama. When conversations degenerate into drama and when your workplace is filled with dramatic confrontations... then there is a failure of leadership.

It's the difference between art and life. Leadership that cannot produce full cooperation has gotten something wrong.

Fiction and other forms of storytelling must create dramatic tension because they are trying to engage the interest of people who have no real stake in what is going on.

If there is drama, if there is a lack of harmony, you as a spectator or witness will feel that your help is needed or wanted... as though you were being called upon to resolve the drama.

The reason you are interested in what happens to Hamlet has much in common with the reason why you slow your car down when you pass a wreck. The accident engages you in a way that normal traffic does not.

A good conversation involves reciprocal exchanges of information and feeling. It seeks to find a middle ground, not to sharpen differences. If it works as it should, it will not be of very much interest to anyone outside of the conversation.

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