Business, Development, Leadership, Learning, Organisational Change, Organisations, Staying Curious

I like a Good Leadership Model….

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 06.03.54

I’m running the risk of getting myself in knots over this one, but let’s see how we go.

I’m thinking about Models and how we represent them.
Not the photoshopped gorgeous ones as seen in magazines, but the four box matrix/ swoopy circular/ linear process/ uppy-downy-graphy leadership/ management things we use (and by we, I’m particularly thinking of trainers/ facilitators/ lecturers/ teachers of all things management and leadership) to help folk get to grips with what it is to ask groups of other humans to get stuff done in a cohesive and relatively consistent way.

Broadly, I like a good model.
My preference is that it is backed up with some semblance of research or at least represents something that approximates good, simple common sense… and this is kind of where I want to hang out for a minute.

For instance, I quite like Situational Leadership as a concept: have some sense of the levels of ability and “maturity” ( hmmm… interesting word – I think they mean experience and ability …) present in the folk you are attempting to lead, and adjust your approach accordingly.

This works for me on a number of levels:
– it takes others into consideration ( always a winner, I find)
– It puts some responsibility on me, as a part of the situation, to manage and adjust my own behaviour (again, this strikes me as being sensible)
– It gives me some simple options to choose from (handy)

And it has its limitations. Situational Leadership assumes action – always. So, you can Tell or Sell or Coach or Participate or Delegate – but there is no option, as a leader, to observe for a bit and do nothing. (At the risk of mixing models, if you want an option to do nothing, I refer you to the Urgent/ Important matrix: delete, delegate, defer or do?)
The assumption within Situational Leadership also seems to be that you, as leader, will always be in control enough to choose one of four approaches (ask someone else who knows better/ differently is NOT an option here. You, my friend, are firmly leading alone)
It also doesn’t fully cover that in order to tell anyone anything you need a certain amount of good will and authority – that stuff is implicit.
Also – you kind of need confidence and conviction to tell or sell. You need to know your stuff, I’d offer… not sure that is fully evident here.

And that’s ok – it’s a model – it’s a four boxy, simplistic version of the complex situations we find ourselves in. It is neither the be-all, the end-all, nor is it the answer to Leadership Life The Universe and Everything.

My disquiet is that we (once more, by we, I’m particularly thinking of trainers/ facilitators/ lecturers/ teachers of all things management and leadership) often do that thing where we present the model without inviting folk to REALLY think about what they are seeing or being asked to swallow.

We show the model, explain the concepts, run some scenarios that (obviously) support said concepts. We might not mention that this particular model is part of a larger business designed specifically to promote and sell the said model… nor that this model has been around since the late 70’s and whilst it endures, it has not solved the conundrum that is leadership…

We might not mention that because we haven’t looked into why we are using this model, where is came from, if it still hold true…
We might not mention it because we have been running these things for years….
We might not mention it because it has been handed to us by clients or colleagues – run this for me, will you? And it’s a bit Awkward to say: er… this might be a bit of tosh, unless we put some decent debate around it.

Managing people and process and politics and organisational stuff is tricky. It can be rewarding, it can be headbangingly frustrating. (I’m thinking of one of my earlier change roles, where, on a night out, we were pondering if we shouldn’t just get T-shirts saying “Change you B+st+rds” to see if that would evoke a positive change response. We never did it…I still wonder….) What I’d like to see is a more honest acknowledgement of that trickiness when we take folk out to train them. Let’s not stand at the front of the room and act like this stuff is all smooth and easy. Let’s not be overly dramatic about it, either. Let’s just try to be level and honest about the context and situations folk actually find themselves in.
The best trainers/ facilitators/ lecturers/ teachers I know don’t absent themselves from their learners by hiding behind models as if these are shields to protect us from the uncomfortable truth that there is trickiness in the mix.

Models are a representation of the world around us – an approximation, an interpretation of our Leadership Life. They can help us hugely to wrap our heads around the strange and complex circumstances we find ourselves in when faced with a group of folk or a system to work with and the responses available to us, when this arises.

When I’m training (and yes, I call myself a facilitator, not a trainer. It’s an affectation. I own it, honest I do.) I want to be able to talk about what happens if/ when you are a git to your staff. The Situation that emerges if you are behaving as if those around you are lazy and/or stupid (believe me, they know you think that, they feel your contempt) and what happens to your ability to lead then?

I’m asking for fewer models more deeply thought through.
I’m asking that we, as custodians of the information we are putting out organisationally, have some clarity about the rigour, accuracy and relevance of what we are using and saying.
I’m asking for reality checks to bring that 4 box abstract approximation of the world into something more 3D and real for our leaders and Managers to grapple with and use.
I’m asking for intelligent design of programmes so we truly enable and develop our staff.
For now.. that would do.

18 thoughts on “I like a Good Leadership Model….”

  1. I’m nor a fan of models. I think they are a product of people feeling uncomfortable with being the little boy who points out that the Emperor is naked without also having a security blanket to offer him after exposing his nudity. Trouble is, the Emperor is still naked under that blanket. I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t much like doing the hard, complex human stuff that matters so much with a veneer of process and faux science.

    1. You surprised me with this… One of the things I like about models is they create picture – bound images, that help folk ( me) concentrate thinking on certain areas. As one with a rambling brain, the invitation to bring it down to 3/ 4 things can sometimes feel like sweet relief…..

      And yet I shudder, grumpily, when I’m shown a model that tells me there are 7 basic emotions. Or 6 ways to influence.. because my lived experience is that life, folk and being human is more complex than that…

  2. A knotty subject indeed Jools, and I like that your post has a few of those knots in it, any chance you could turn them into a new model for us by lunchtime please? 😉

    I’m not a big fan of models and frameworks though I recognise that for some people, they are a helpful place to begin a conversation. And my/your/their work is not about me/you/them, it’s about us, and so I think they have a use. Crikey – this is a knotty subject indeed! A challenge for all of us is that often – models are used (perhaps as Simon suggests – like a security blanket) to constrain dialogue rather than let it flow. Most models and frameworks don’t have a way out – they are enclosing rather than liberating, perhaps because many seem rather hastily drawn up for the benefit of the inventor in support of her/his next management book, rather than a helpful tool for the user. So – I’d like to be able to see the exit more clearly – a signpost from fourbox/venn/pie/MBTWhy to an open field. And like most things in life, ultimately the helpfulness of models and frameworks comes down to their application as much as anything. We have a choice – at least we should have.

    Have a great day – Doug

    1. I like this Doug – I like the invitation to look out from the bound model – EXIT THIS MODEL HERE!!!
      How lovely.
      And I’m keen – very keen – that when we use models with learners, we understand why we are using them ( what do they add/ illustrate) if they are robustly thought through & what the limitations might be – without rubbishing inherent value of the idea.

      (ps, as requested, I’m working on the new model about knots and models – you might not get it my lunchtime, though…)

  3. As always, you open up an interesting line of enquiry. I think models are useful when they are part of a conversation. “Ah, that makes me think of this! (insert…….)” an interesting alternative lense/framing etc. You never know what’s going to grab the attention help someone make sense. I think the problem can come when the model, or the theory is something to which we become attached, and to which we try to make everything fit around.

    I worked with a very creative client who was also very open. She gave me a scary book of models and framework and asked me to work with them to design a leadership programme. “I’m not a trainer I said, get a trainer”. The book of models and frameworks scared me. “Yes, I know” she said, as she fixed her eye on me.

    We gave the book to the participants and asked them to tell us what they thought about what they saw there, and invited them to tell us what else they thought and to research for themselves. That programme was the most energising piece of work; we facilitated conversations based on their research and thinking, and threw in some other frameworks, theories, tools etc that we thought rather interesting. We brought the real work into the programme and the invitation was – make your own meaning. Together. With us.

    1. Ohh Meg.. that’s made me feel a bit dreamy…I love it
      Co creation, collaborative sense making – yes – this is the territory I prefer to work in too and as it says above – I know the best of the trainers/ facilitators/ teachers/ lecturers incorporate this…

      And I know a bunch of folk who don’t.. so when we train & bring in new L&D folk – when we run Train the Trainer stuff – I’d love this to be right there: Models: Research, introduce and question them first before handing them out to groups

  4. I like models and frameworks. Its probably the engineer in me that I like structure and process. I wrote recently in my only blog that I was a “4 box addict”, and questioning who did it serve and I concluded it was me! The challenge therefore was to let go off that.
    Models do explain things, and we need to recognise that some of our clients will like them too. The theorists like to see where stuff has come from so I believe they are useful for that.
    Recently, I have found saying that they are just a model, a way of explaining something and its for them to decide it if works for them and to compare to their own experiences and knowledge.
    I am really comfortable with that approach.

    What resonated for me was the call to action amongst our profession. I am often dismayed by many in the profession who have “learnt the model” in a way we might have learnt to use a formula for a maths or science test. Theres no depth or breadth to their delivery, and its often delivered with a series of closed questions which constrain the conversation. Probably for them as they would feel uncomfortable going off piste, or even not knowing.

    There are some great models and frameworks out there. There is also some crap ones and some bollocks.
    Maybe our role is that of a curator, to guide and signpost rather than holding on to an expert base. That also requires a change from some of our clients too.

  5. I’m not a massive fan of models either, often adhering to the model takes priority over good common sense, people like the structure though I’m sure. I do like doing things based on the psychological contract though eg “we will provide” and “we will expect”, maybe with some “this is the way we do things around here” to cover behaviour? Sure it’s from the 60’s but as with much from that decade for me it’s stood the test of time.

  6. I agree with Meg that models are very useful if they start a line of enquiry. Where I get frustrated with them – and I get this a lot tutoring on CIPD courses – is that because a model appears it is seen to be “the way” of doing things and is accepted unquestioningly by students on the course. Models aren’t the problem – it’s blind acceptance of them that is. (Or, if you prefer, guns don’t kill people, people do).

    Love the critique of situational leadership – a true situational leader should recognise that there are times when to sit back

    1. I was pondering on creating a completely fake model, based on no research and just anecdotal tosh (if you follow @neurobollocks on Twitter, there is much debunking of “facts” to be done)
      If it was crazy-outrageous, would folk go with it or stop and say: Huh? Hang on? What???

      There is a contextual element to this, too – we design our “learning environments” to be conducive to learners receiving information – it’s a bit scary of participants start to ask questions – unless, of course, you have already asked yourself those questions & thought through what the consequence and reality of the model might be……

      So yes – the start of an inquiry…. but by no means the end

  7. Love it. Absolutely love your post, Julie.

    Our current view of leadership and management is something I’ve been thinking about a lot (often inspired by our conversations). Our understanding of the world should evolve with time, and in other areas that often comes with more complex and nuanced models. We’re starting to head that way with people like Kahneman & Tversky challenging preconceived ideas, but it’s the start of a journey.

    There’s pattern to progres we can see in other disciplines. We’ve seen it with our understanding of the world around us. Take the atom as an example. First we had Dalton and his snooker ball model, then came Thomson and Rutherford with a model that suggested a nucleus with orbiting electrons and then came Schrödinger and quantum mechanics with a weirder, probability based concept. Each step along the way, our understanding and accuracy of prediction increased, while the models became more complex. In some situations, we can still think in terms of Dalton’s model and get the answer we need, but if it was really important I’d rather check with the latest model. The computer I’m typing on wouldn’t be here if we still just thought of atoms as snooker balls. GPS wouldn’t work if we used Newton’s concept of space and time rather than Einstein’s relativity theory.

    We work in a complex field. The thinking should be getting more rigorous, more ambitious. Complexity shouldn’t be a dirty word. We can’t escape ambiguity. Sometimes things are just random. The minute we let go of the fantasy that is a four box, mechanic, tick-tock world we can start to really progress.

    I’m not just talking about us. I’m talking about managers and leaders. It’s a tough gig. It’s difficult to get right and gets harder as your span of control increases. If it could be solved with a four box model, we’d be getting it more right, more often.

    This is why it’s exciting though. Interesting things are happening 🙂

  8. Owen, I can practically hear you as I read this.. and you understand models of relativity & quantum physics that make my poor brain melt a little… And here I find if you could just give me a nice picture or a model to explain this stuff:


    this helps

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