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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.

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