129 – ‘Postformal’ leadership. Are you the leader simply because you, or others, say that you are?

Posted by Parkinson                                                                      700 words


Mattang image

Colin Weatherby posted a long read on three recent reports about leadership in local government. The first looked at research into best practice leader development, the second the results of leadership at a capital city council and the third at the role of leadership in preventing corrupt or inappropriate behaviour in council works depots. I don’t think anyone would argue that we don’t need good leadership, even though we seem to survive well without it.

A colleague recently attended a lecture by Australian adventurer and leadership researcher Earl de Blonville. The focus of the talk was ‘postformal leadership’,  a new way of thinking about leadership that he has developed from thinking in postformal psychology. de Blonville is critical of current leadership paradigms and what he calls the ‘leadership industry’. Some of his material is available on the internet. This post discusses some of the ideas with relevance for local government.

“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”

This is central to de Blonville’s ideas about leadership: it is forged in the face of challenge and risks in taking action.

Local government has become preoccupied with leadership. Councils have joined the throng of organisations requiring senior managers to have MBA’s and calling top management the ‘leadership team’. They are now supporting the leadership industry and debating the 40 theories of leadership and 1,500 definitions of leadership, and reading some of the 80 million+ leadership books published (half of them, according to de Blonville, were written by academics who had only ever led discussions on leadership).

de Blonville describes conventional leadership as being based on the radical behaviourism theories of Frederic Skinner, as adopted and developed by Harvard University from the early 20th century through their MBA program. He says that in 2012 business schools in the United States awarded 150,000 MBA’s. His main criticism is that behaviourism focussed on observable behaviour on the basis that what can be observed can be managed. In this context, leadership was also seen as a skill that can be learned. This is where de Blonville and conventional leadership theory part ways. He says that:

“Leadership is neither born nor taught. It is circumstance calling forth a champion.”

de Blonville says that unless there are the right circumstances, people will go to their grave with their leadership potential intact. He also believes that learning leadership is difficult because the variables in any genuine leadership circumstance will be unpredictable. The best you can hope to do is develop yourself as a person, not train as a leader. He describes nine qualities of postformal leadership (and elaborates on some in his online material):

  • Reflexivity – knowing who you are and are not, being deeply self-reflective.
  • Dialogical reasoning – working collaboratively, not competitively, to co-create.
  • Imagination
  • Creativity
  • Higher purpose – without higher purpose, you have no purpose at all.
  • Paradox
  • Complexity
  • Integration
  • Intuition – the most powerful quality you can have; the conscious mind taps into the unconscious.

It is an interesting view on leadership as society starts to question some of the traditional tenets of leadership. de Blonville suggests that Generation Y, or the ‘Millennials’, will prefer leaders who seek consensus, collaborate and focus on feelings.

I believe that his belief that without higher purpose you have no purpose, is very true for local government. If the public service does not have a purpose beyond the efficient delivery of transactional services, why does it exist? Surely the private sector can deal with those needs. Yet you seldom see a vision or mission written for a council than goes beyond the simple platitudes of making life better or keeping everyone healthy or looking after the place well.

These are important things to do, but the question on my mind is whether that is really all that we are about? What about social justice, equality of opportunity, each person being the best that they can, and as the progressive political thinker and scholar Roberto Unger says, ‘living a larger life’ and ‘only dying once’?

Footnote: Earl de Blonville uses the mattang to illustrate the translation of shared knowledge to action. The mattang is a chart representing major ocean swell patterns and the ways the islands disrupt those patterns. Individual charts varied so much in form and interpretation that the individual navigator who made the chart was the only person who could fully interpret and use it. The charts were studied and memorized prior to a voyage. Navigators used their senses and memory to guide them on voyages by crouching down or lying prone in the canoe to feel how the canoe was being pitched and rolled by underlying swells.