Friday, 24 April 2009

Leadership 2.0 and the CIPD HRD conference.

Two blogs in one day (and a third on the way).

Because of my interest in leadership development and forthcoming seminar with the ESRC and Scottish Government on the topic, I attended two sessions at the CIPD conference, both of which were good in some ways but worrying in others. To begin with the positive, they were both beautifully presented and contained lots of interesting material based on evidence and experience - no problems here. The first was on the global competences needed for tomorrow’s leaders and the second was on positive psychology and its applications (not necessarily leadership but could be). Both issues are highly topical, especially positive psychology in current circumstances of recession.

My worries, however, stem from passing of yesterday’s ideas as the future, and outlining ideas that are strong on face value and commonsense but weak on theory and in spelling out the limited assumtions on which they are based. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, all practice and commonsense are based on theories-in-use; all are also rooted in fundamental but partial assumptions about how the world works and how it should be. These assumptions need to be made explicit when placed in the public domain for them to be truly useful because a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.

I'm not being an academic purist here, just re-stating the precept that there is nothing so practical as good theory. For example, the attempt to glean a set of global leadership competencies has a long history and has been done many times before. For example the GLOBE programme has spent a lot of time researching these ideas, so why do we need another attempt that may no reference to this work nor states how it will improve on this excellent work? Perhaps more importantly, why are we still looking to leadership comptences rooted in the past? For, as we have pointed out before on this blog, it is those same leaders and leadership competencies that have shaped the current crisis of governance and performance associated with the recession and major corporate failures. I've just finished reading Paul Krugman's excellent account of how yesterdays leaders, many recently hailed as messiahs in their day, have been responsible for our current problems ( see 'The Return of Depression Economic and the Crisis of 2008'). So do we want to repeat the mistakes of the past, or should we be engaging in reflective learning of the lessons of the past to design a leadership 2.0?

Secondly, I couldn’t understand why I was sceptical of positive psychology until one of the seminar leaders gave the game away by stating that most of the evidence was based on the powerless (not her term but mine). As the presenters were taking about the attributes of positive psychology, I couldn’t help thinking that they fitted perfectly well with Fred Goodwin and his can do approach to leadership. So one person’s positive psychology and confidence to act may be another’s narcissism and lack of wisdom in not knowing their limitations or those of their ideas. The point I guess I am making is that arguments such as those made by positive psychology are context-bound; they may not apply and may even be positively dangerous in the hands of the powerful, especially if they don’t embrace the kind of self doubt that is necessary for the exercise of wisdom.

The presenters responded by claiming my understanding of positive psychology is limited; that it is not to be equated with positive thinking. May so! I may be guilty of creating staw men (or women), but they also might want to reflect on the merits of 'one size fits all' theory that applies equally to self-styled masters of the universe and the kinds of people for whom the assumptions underlying positive psychology might hold.

To return to the positive, I think that what we need more of at these events are evidence-based insights into leadership combined with rigorous examinations of the future. The latter could be done using scenario forecasting sessions as the basis for reflection along the lines of the Hamel and Birkinshaw exercise in previous posts. Readers may want to suggest other ways of delving into the future without repeating the mistakes of the past.

1 comment:

Greg said...

Thanks Graeme for making such an interesting presentation to our Symposium on HR in Healthcare at the British Academy of Management Annual Conference. It was great to catch up with you again and to learn more about your excellent work. Thanks again.
Looking forward to catching up again before too long, I hope.
Hope all goes well. Cheers....


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