Leading Posthumously: Required Learning for Leading in Complexity

by Brian Brittain on January 16, 2013


It is difficult to find a unique angle on leadership these days, or even a justifiable reason to write about the subject. I would, however, like to try the following on for size: Navigating and guiding an organizational ship through an increasingly turbulent world, demands a leader to lead posthumously. Simply translated, to lead posthumously, is to lead as if you had already died. However, a more applicable definition (and the one I am using for the purpose of this paper), is to lead as if no one is watching. Leading posthumously is leading as if the usual constraints of corporate life, along with the resulting trappings of a leader’s ego – career aspirations, personal power, pleasing the boss, and the year-end bonus – are simply nonexistent. When leading posthumously, a leader effectively has no concerns for how he may personally feel or benefit from his acts of leadership. Instead, the posthumous leader’s actions are informed and motivated exclusively through both reading himself, and reading the air.

The idea of the posthumous leader is borrowed from a speech delivered by the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides to a group of young writers who had just won the 2012 Whiting Award. He was warning them not to let this award interfere with their ability to write naturally and spontaneously. He in turn had borrowed the idea from Nadine Gordimer, a South African Novel Laureate, who said, “A serious writer should try to live posthumously.” The same basic tenants apply to any professional acting posthumously; when living posthumously there is no requirement to market, maintain, or improve one’s reputation. In the case of a posthumous leader, he simply feels into a complex situation, and by doing so, his true nature directs the organic emergence of the behaviour required to effectively manage the situation.

Posthumous also implies a merging with the earth, no longer being separate from the environment. From earth we come, to earth we go. There is no more “me” and “other”. A leader thinking in this manner lives somewhat paradoxically. While he is true to his nature – not easily swayed by doubts or what he believes others think should be done – , he is also very much attuned to the environment wherein he is playing a leadership role. The posthumous leader’s identity is deeply grounded inside him, however it is constantly calibrated and fine-tuned by the people and situations he interacts with. His identity and leadership actions are both forming, and being formed by, the environment he is part of. Therefore, the leader’s primary responsibility is to spark the fire of the leadership process and the emergent leadership behaviours and actions in a particular situation. and create the necessary conditions for leadership to emerge.

The leadership point of view implied in the metaphor leading posthumously, is required to create an image of the structure, tension and collective behaviours required to deal with the current complexity of corporate or organizational life. Circumstances and changes emerge very suddenly and unpredictably for those in leadership roles. There are many variables that need to be addressed and dealt with and the relationship between cause and effect are not obvious or linear. How does one lead in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment? The leadership process required for dealing with a VUCA environment is not a direct or solo one. It is not about creating a plan with defined strategies and tasks that hit the problem head on, with known and prescribed solutions. The leadership process implies a more indirect or oblique approach to managing the opportunity/problem. The leadership process also implies recruiting maximum leadership help from others in the system. The problems are often too big or complex to be addressed on one’s own. Individual heroic leadership is from a different time and usually not useful in the current and future world(s) we live in. Today’s problems often require a collective and integrated response, that may be less about solving and more about managing the problem until the solution emerges. An effective leader must be deeply aware and present in who he knows he is, while simultaneously profoundly connected to, and integrated with, other key internal and external stakeholders, as well as his environment.

Being deeply present in yourself requires both self-knowledge (an understanding and appreciation of your natural motives, values, strengths and limitations) and an ability to pay exquisite attention to your environment. From this secure and grounded sense of his capabilities, with minimum ego distractions, a leader is positioned to respond and adapt appropriately, and apply himself to external environmental needs, rather than internal personal needs. This two-prong combination allows a posthumous leader to put in place the leadership process necessary to create the adaptive environment required to facilitate an appropriate response to VUCA situations, whether they be opportunities or threats. The posthumous leader has a mature sense of what can be done by himself, and where he needs to reach out to others for help in order to complement or scaffold his capabilities. At this level of leadership, the leader is simultaneously grounded in his deeper authentic self, while also seeing his identity as part of a collective ‘we’.

A leader’s realization that his identity is profoundly integrated with others is a much more subtle and deeper sense of connection than what we have traditionally called “good teamwork”. A leader who operates at a posthumous level of development knows that he is not separate from what goes on around him, and he constantly evolves as a function of the impact of his relationships and interactions with his environment. Organizational and Environmental impact happens as a result of changes in specific behaviours within these relationships and interactions.

Organizational transformation occurs when a changed behaviour reaches critical mass. As a leader’s behaviour evolves, a ‘domino’ effect occurs through his own and subsequent multiple local interactions with those around him; his individual changes are mimicked by those he encounters and consequently transferred to others. Change within the greater organization begins through social infection, and then leads to sustainable system change. This system change will then cycle or spiral back to local interactions, affecting their quality at another level or iteration. This is an ongoing dance where the leadership process is designed to stimulate local interactions that are intended to produce behaviour change that will hopefully lead to favourable outcomes.

These outcomes are not always precisely predictable or even able to be planned for. There can be a general sense of what a good result would be, but given that the route isn’t direct and singular, but rather oblique and multiple, it is quite challenging to predict how that good result will come about. Both the leader’s and the group’s evolving identity are impacting and being impacted by changes emerging from multiple local interactions. Both the internal relationships with each other and also the emerging relationship with the stakeholders in the environment are part of this ongoing dance.

For years we have operated within a leadership paradigm that has been about developing individual leaders in a horizontal manner. Developing in a horizontal manner means to help leaders develop a bigger or more complete toolbox of skills, technical and interpersonal, to maximize that leader’s positive impact on his subordinates and environment in his current role. This type of leadership development existed in a more stable and constant world where we believed we could predict where we were going, understood what problems would potentially surface, and had known solutions for overcoming those problems. Horizontal leadership development existed in a world of individual leaders planning out desired outcomes, and then executing their plan through mobilizing others toward its accomplishment.

Robert Kegan wrote a book a number of years ago called In Over Our Heads, which was about how complexity in the world was outstripping our individual capacity as leaders to deal with the complexity. The problems leaders encountered were changing, and their toolbox was not the right toolbox to solve the level of the problems that Kegan saw emerging. The kind of capability Kegan outlined as necessary to deal with the complexity of their world and subsequent problems was not horizontal, but instead a kind of vertical capability.

How do we help leaders get bigger than the scope of the problems they are faced with in this VUCA world? How do we help them gain perspective on unpredictable events or problems? Rather than being subject to these problems, can we help them step above them and objectify them? How do we help them create agile, adaptive systems to dance with these VUCA environments, leading to organizational and societal benefits? There are two primary ways by which this can be done.

First, today’s leader needs to develop a more complex notion of who he is within the various environments he acts in. In this way he can increase his ability to get on the balcony, and out of the weeds in order to “see” the problem in its entirety. Today’s leader should not see himself as a hero or separate entity about to act on his world(s). A leader needs to see himself as part of these worlds, and understand that his job is to create an environment with enough creative tension to enable or prepare it to quickly adapt to the unpredictable events that will face. Today’s leader must lead posthumously.

Second, a leader can grow vertically through continuously recognizing and improving upon his capabilities, but also through understanding when he requires support beyond his skill set and needs to ask for help. One of the elements of knowing oneself intimately is to know one’s limitations and how to effectively scaffold those limitations with the right complementary resources within the leadership process or environment. Dealing with complexity requires a coalition of leadership. An effective leader understands that leading posthumously is a leadership process requiring more than the individual leader

Years ago, when I was a young man studying Tai Chi in Vancouver’s Chinatown, our master showed us an old scratchy film he had brought over with him from China. It was of an old Master of his, who was blind, sitting in lotus position with flat stones in his hands. He was surrounded by swordsmen who would attack him from all sides. The blind master was able to deflect the slashes of the sword, through blocking the slash of the sword with one of the stones. He was demonstrating uncanny ability at anticipating, or feeling into his environment, reading the air, and responding to those unpredictable events as they occurred in the moment. He was able to do this for two reasons. His sense of himself was both deep and centred in the here and now, while simultaneously feeling a part of everything around him. He was not acting alone, but saw himself as part of a process that was there to deal effectively with life as it presented itself. The Master was operating posthumously.

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