For as long as any of us can remember, leadership development has primarily been focused on individual leaders.
We have developed:
- Personality profiles.
- Competency frameworks.
- 360-degree feedback processes.
- Countless training and development programs to build leadership skills.
- Myriad different models and frameworks, seeking the answer to what makes the best leader.
Then we have spent hours and hours coaching individuals to work to their strengths and address their limitations (or bad habits).
But have we been barking up the wrong tree?
Developing leadership capacity
Most organisations today are led by a collective – an executive team, usually composed of domain leaders — the CEO and the heads of the various business units. Yet, as Trina Soske and Jay Conger pointed out in their article, The Shifting Paradigm of Executive Leadership Development: Moving the Focus to the Collective, “The leadership development field perpetuates a longstanding romance with the great man/woman theory of leadership”. They go on to argue that we could get much better payoffs if we shifted the focus from the individual to the collective.
Yet, the need for wise leadership teams, although strong, is unmet:
- Executive teams often don’t provide collective, united leadership.
- Research shows that top management teams frequently make poor decisions.
- They spend a lot of their time on trivia.
- They often have no clearly articulated purpose.
- They don’t know how to get along with each other.
- Many top teams could be better described as foolish rather than wise.
The very structure of management teams sets them up to struggle as:
- Teams Tend to be ‘under-designed, under-led and under-resourced’.
- Membership is frequently too large, can be vague and may not include representation from critical areas.
- Top teams tend to waste time on information-sharing and trivia.
- People won’t openly talk about the power and authority dynamics that are in play
- Strong, shared leadership can be especially unlikely in teams that are themselves composed of leaders.
- Inattention to results.
If you then overlay the five dysfunctions of any team as described by Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable — absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results — you have a scenario where the odds are stacked against effective leadership at the top.
Efforts to shift this scenario and to help make teams function more effectively have tended to focus on what we know about team stages, team-building and team dynamics. While this work frequently leads to some improvements in how the team operates and gets along, usually there is a failure to make this work stick, with the team reverting to old practices fairly quickly.
Complex dynamic systems
Teams can be viewed as complex dynamic systems with collective wisdom. A unique feature of complex dynamic systems is their sensitivity to initial or starting conditions. Even small changes in these starting conditions can have significant results that can influence how the top team develops and evolves. These are:
- Clear boundaries.
- Stability of membership and interdependence.
- A compelling direction or purpose.
- Resources and support from the surrounding organisation.
- The availability of competent coaching in team dynamics.
Enabling team wisdom
Teams who want to enable wisdom to emerge need to be mindful of:
- The natural tendencies in groups that can lead to factions, divisions or the demonising of external groups, stopping the team from imagining different possibilities.
- The group being lulled into a kind of false agreement, where dissension is discouraged and there is an illusion of consensus.
Both of these natural tendencies need to be constantly monitored and challenged.
So, by firstly creating the right initial conditions to ensure that the team can function well and secondly by using processes known to facilitate collective wisdom, top teams can be reinvigorated – set up to succeed, make wise decisions and have a positive impact on their organisations and their people.
In summary, no one disputes the importance of recruiting the best individuals to senior leadership positions. It is, however, equally important not to miss the opportunity to develop wiser and more effective senior leadership teams.
Collective wisdom at the top is possible — the key is to work on creating the right conditions and allowing wise thinking to emerge.