Leadership is a system

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I was prompted to write this blog in response to a request by one of my UNDP colleagues for ideas on investing in UNDP Country Office leadership.

Since coming to Kosovo three years ago I’ve become progressively more certain of two things about leadership:

  1. I don’t know what I’m doing and that’s, in fact, a good thing; and
  2. It’s all connected.

Let me explain.

In the past, leaders were indeed expected to know what they were doing.  And—given the static and rigid nature of bureaucratic structures under their leadership—they could perhaps make a decent argument that this was sometimes true.

In today’s organizations, especially ones like UNDP that are tasked with addressing ever more complex problems (i.e. “wicked messes”, a term I very much like which describes problems with both high behavioral and high dynamic complexity), the notion that woman or man at the top of the organizational chart knows everything about what she or he is doing is not only completely unrealistic, it is downright dangerous.

Yes, as UNDP Resident Representative, I am ultimately fully accountable for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) in my office. But I cannot realistically be responsible for everything.

What I need then—and what I believe UNDP needs to survive and thrive in dynamic and complex environments—is to work within a leadership system. This is different from the concept of a traditional leadership team, in the sense that the leaders assume responsibility not just for their individual unit or project.  Instead, they exercise collective responsibility for the health of the whole organization.  Members of a leadership system are committed to understanding how the different parts of an organization—its processes, functions, capacities, etc.—are connected. They focus on the whole system, witnessing how it works or doesn’t, and, on that basis, assume collective responsibility for making corrections when necessary.

How do we go about creating and nurturing such a leadership system?

In Kosovo I’ve tried to do this by various means, beginning by working with the UNDP Office of Human Resources and its Management Consulting Team to strengthen the leadership competencies of the mid-level managers within the Office who constitute my leadership system. We worked with them on developing emotional intelligence, helping them to understand that great leaders are—at heart—the servants of those they lead, and by creating creative connections amongst individuals and teams in the service of a common mission and on our client’s needs.

By focusing on importance of connections (I often use the metaphor of a spider’s web), I also try to encourage the members of my leadership system to pay close attention to the quality of their communications.  One model that I use for talking about talking is the “fields of conversation” matrix developed by Otto Scharmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

The diagram below tries to capture the evolution of conversation within diverse groups, starting with ‘Talking nice’ in the lower left quadrant, moving through ‘Talking tough’, ‘Reflective dialogue’, and, finally, ‘Generative dialogue’.

fields-of-conversation

The bottom two quadrants are the most common fields of conversation and are primarily concerned with ‘re-enacting patterns of the past’.  Another way of describing these kinds of conversations is that the participants are simply ‘downloading’ their standard points of view.  Movement up through the other two fields of dialogue is far less common and depends on the ability and willingness of participants to let go of existing mental models and become open to new opinions and possibilities.

The upper two quadrants are thus less about defending past positions than about thinking about future possibilities. In addition, the creators of the diagram had realized that the two left-hand quadrants share a common emphasis by the group on the primacy (and well-being) of the group as a ‘whole’, while the two right-hand quadrants both represent fields of conversation that give preference to the primacy of the ‘parts’, i.e. to the opinions of the specific individuals within the group.

What I found most familiar from my own experiences was the idea that individuals with different perspectives tend, in general, to follow a path that begins with politeness and then, if the process goes any further, often gets stuck in unfruitful debate. Participants end up either trying to force others to agree with his/her point of view or withdrawing from the conversation altogether. But if they are willing to stick with the process and work through their differences, then a more reflective dialogue can emerge.

By focusing on the quality of even the most mundane of everyday conversations, all staff—but especially those middle managers upon whom I rely so much—can prevent conflict. Or, when conflict around the many “wicked messes” that we so often contend with occurs, they can intervene in such a way that staff feel safe enough to stick with feelings of discomfort associated with the problem. By letting go of their standard reactive postures, more creative solutions can emerge.

Ultimately, for me, the goal is to bring to bear the gifts and talents of everyone—young and old and regardless of gender, ethnicity, or formal position in the organizational chart—in addressing the wicked messes we encounter every day in Kosovo: corruption, unemployment, a weak civil society, discrimination, pollution, etc., etc.

In this way, I can confidently say: we know what we are doing.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from a UNDP Res Rep who kind of looked like Santa Claus

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It is not an exaggeration to say that I would not have become a UNDP Resident Representative if it wasn’t for Lars Franklin.

Who was Lars?

Here are the basic facts:

  • UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Guatemala from 1995-2001.
  • He served in the same role for a few brief months in Colombia, before dying at the all-too-young age of 55, the result of a tragic accident.
  • His death in 2001 cut short a lifetime dedicated to peacebuilding, beginning in the 1970s with his work with the Swedish NGO Diakonia in El Salvador and Guatemala, followed by a 12-year stint in the Swedish Foreign Ministry overseeing Swedish cooperation in Central America.

I’ll never forget when Lars first walked into our conference room in the UNDP Guatemala Country Office on his first day on the job. We knew he was different. He was very tall, somewhat overweight, with a big white beard and a white hair and had a huge smile plastered on his face. He was also not alone. His wife was standing right beside him, smiling too.

At that very moment, I decided that Lars was probably the best thing that had ever happened to me in my professional life. (By the way, I still feel that way).  All my career I had been searching for role models and mentors who were not only great managers and leaders but who were also nice to people.  I wanted to believe that you could be a great leader and also a nice person but, until that point in my life, I hadn’t come across too many examples of this combination.

And so the learning began.

In that first meeting he taught us that one’s profession was not something separate from the rest of one’s life. His wife’s presence was his way of saying this to us: to live a life of integrity, you cannot be one person in the office and another one at home. And he wanted us to know, to truly know him, we also needed to know his family.

It was during that first meeting he talked to us about the importance of service. This was the first of many times he would remind us that his primary role as our leader was to serve us, to help us achieve our potential and make the most of our individual gifts and talents.  And, in turn, our job was also to serve others.

He also made his first reference to the need for “animo”. In one Spanish word (with many meanings) he summed up his philosophy of work and life: “Cheer up! Have courage! Be thoughtful! Be connected! And, while you are at it, why not be happy too?”

Every day I spent with him I was moved by his profound humanity, humility and passion for bringing people together for a higher purpose. He wasn’t always smiles though. He had no patience whatsoever for hierarchy, mediocrity, or mindless bureaucracy. He took risks and encouraged us to take them as well.  He created safe environments for his staff to speak their minds and where human rights advocates could sit down and plan the future with those who had tortured them. He saw how simple conversations could transform even the most divided societies, like Guatemala.

Here are a few Lars stories to illustrate what I mean:

  • When, during the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, in December 1996, the UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali left the ceremony early to take his private plane back to New York to attend to other priorities, Lars was furious. Afterwards, he sat down and wrote a personal letter to the incoming Secretary General, Kofi Annan, saying that he hoped that he would be more courteous than his predecessor and encouraging him to take an active and genuine interest in supporting the peace process.
  • In April 1998, the Catholic Church released its report on the victims of the Guatemalan conflict, Nunca Más! Two days later, Bishop Juan José Gerardi, who oversaw the preparation of the report, was attacked in his garage and beaten to death. The next day I watched as Guatemalans from various walks of life came to the office to share their grief with Lars. After they left, Lars joined a group of us for lunch. He was smiling. We asked him how in the world he could smile given what had just happened.  Very gently, he told us that it is during their moments of greatest despair that human beings are capable of seeing beyond their petty, daily problems and can begin to grasp the longer, larger processes at work. He said that Gerardi’s death was in fact the beginning of a new phase, that his killers would be brought to justice, and that this was the beginning of the end of impunity in Guatemala. His many friends had come today not just to grieve but to plan for a better future. Then he turned to us and said “And you too are a part of this better future – entonces, animo, mis amigos!”
  • Even in the weeks just prior to his death, Lars was still teaching me. He had just begun the job and was returning from a field visit when his car was stopped by FARC guerrillas. They announced that they were kidnapping his travelling companion, a former Governor of the region. Lars immediately placed himself physically between the ex-Governor and the armed group, arguing with them for almost an hour to convince them that this was not a good idea, only desisting when it appeared that weapons would be fired.

This was his final message to me and to all of us who followed him and loved him: Don’t ever be afraid to fight for peace.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Lars and what I learned from him.  In fact, when I turned 49 (the same age Lars was when he entered that conference room that day back in 1995), it was Lars’ voice that whispered in my ear “ok Andrew, it’s your turn now – Animo!”

And here I am, almost three years later, serving as RR in Kosovo, and, in my own small way, honouring Lars as I continue the fight for peace.

Lars_and_family

(Lars and UNDP-Guatemala Country Office Staff on retreat in 1998)

Building peace in the Balkans, note by note

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Earlier this week, at a conference on international law and human rights, Bekim Blakaj of the Humanitarian Law Centre made a reference to the importance of contact in sustaining peace and in reducing the potential for recurrence of conflict among members of different groups.

The reason contact works so well as a peacebuilding tool, according to Thomas F. Pettigrew and Linda R. Tropp-who undertook a meta-analysis of intergroup contact theory involving more than 250,000 subjects in 38 countries-is that it works primarily at the emotional level.

In other words, at the individual level, I may still hold certain prejudices or stereotypes about members of the other group, but regular contact means that I may feel better about the group as a whole since I have had the opportunity to know and perhaps even grow to like specific individuals.

I thought about this again last night as I watched the interactions of the members of an inter-ethnic and inter-generational group of top-notch Kosovar musicians that had gathered at the Hotel Ulpiana in Gracanica at the end of a long day of discussing the role of the artist in creating the conditions for a more peaceful future in Kosovo.

Music is, in my opinion, an especially effective means of contact, as it is a non-verbal, highly emotional form of communication that transcends notions of nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc.

So, on that note 🙂 let me stop here and simply share a sample of this particularly effective form of contact:

Hanging out in Skopje got me thinking about David Bohm…

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I had the great pleasure of hanging out in Skopje yesterday with graduate students in Prof. Blerim Reka’s course on international relations and diplomacy at South East European University. Quite a challenging experience and one that got me thinking about David Bohm, my favourite quantum physicist of all time.

Let me tell you why.

During a rather intense, two hour discussion we kept coming back to the challenge of how to move forward in situations where things are so obviously going from bad to worse.  I had a very hard time responding in specific terms beyond saying that in these situations we would benefit from a greater capacity to stand back and look at the emerging whole as something more than a collection of individual parts.

In other words, what happens today in Skopje is connected to what happened in Pristina yesterday and what will happen tomorrow in Brussels…

But too often we miss seeing these critical connections.

David Bohm describes this challenge much more eloquently than I ever could:

“The notion of a separate organism is clearly an abstraction, as is also its boundary. Underlying all this is unbroken wholeness even though our civilization has developed in such a way as to strongly emphasize the separation into parts.
David Bohm, The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory

So, what to do?

To end this illusion requires insight, not only into the world as a whole, but also into how the instrument of thought is working. Such insight implies an original and creative act of perception into all aspects of life, mental and physical, both through the senses and through the mind, and this is perhaps the true meaning of meditation.”
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order

This may help my colleagues to understand why I am such a yoga fanatic…

Of course, as much I would like it to happen, I don’t think we can expect everyone around us to take up meditation or to suddenly understand that these lovely boundaries and divisions (cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious, national, etc.) that we spend so much time and energy cultivating and defending so passionately are in fact just abstractions. But we could start at least by thinking a bit more about how we think.  We would all benefit from paying more attention in these difficult situations about how our own thinking too often gets in the way of moving forward.

I’ll give the last word on this topic to Dr. Bohm:

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely
rearranging their prejudices.”