Rebel with(out) a cause


Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.

I don’t know about you, but to me lightbulb-moments often occur randomly when seemingly unconnected things all of a sudden connect so clearly. Recently, for me, three things were in the mix.

Which type are you?

First connection: So I saw this paper by Francesca Gino titled: ‘Let your workers rebel’, years after it was published in Harvard Business Review. I was really struck by the heading.

Many loathe the idea of stepping out of line to speak for others or for themselves. While others thrive in being a maverick, they like to be seen as a lone wolf in their business with an own independent mind-set.


Second connection: And then this request came along from a large newspaper: Compare and contrast the one politician in everybody’s mind with other world leaders! And then it clicked between this and the above. Do we see a type of rebel behaviour here? Is it a rebel with or without a cause? Or with a cause, yet for whom in particular? And maybe this ambiguity is what make people globally nervous or excited?

What does that mean for you and your organisation? Particularly if rebellion is outside the norms and rituals of your organisation. How do people interpret your behaviours and real intentions? To what extent do they think those reflect your purely individual interest or do they have good faith in your commitment to the shared agenda and collective aims?

Collective orientation

Third connection: And then this other new study by Benson, Hardy and Eys on followership appeared in my inbox. It looks at attributes of effective followership behaviour – in sport teams from the perspectives of the coaches. One facet stood out to me: Collective orientation, which is a bit like identification with and importance of shared aims and agenda.

So can we look for a rebel with a collective cause? That sounds quite different? Still it depends on the cause and for which collective it is a pressing issue– and for which NOT… As we currently see in the US and Europe likewise.

Try this.

Who are your rebels at work and in your other crucial spheres of life? How do you react to those rebels? Why? Do they rebel for the good of the organisation? Do they create the disruptions that many organisations so much long for?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

A game changer for leadership practice?


A few weeks ago I read the Guardian and was drawn towards the following headline: “Police need to drop ‘boss knows best’ leadership, says Met contender” . The Guardian had interviewed Sara Thornton, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council. She is considered for the post of Met commissioner, Head of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, and becoming the successor to Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe.

In the piece Thornton called for a change of culture, in my world leadership culture, in the police that moves away from assuming that the higher ups have the appropriate answers to all tasks and activities. For situations and challenges that are complex and I would add, ambiguous, maybe new or unknown, she was cited with saying that “we need to bring everybody’s views to bear on how we solve these problems”.

This a fascinating development and in my experience a process that many other organisations are going through or will go through – affecting culture but also day-day-practice and how managers see themselves as leaders.

This also resonates with my earlier post on ‘FREEDOM TO SPEAK UP – MANAGERS’ CHALLENGE OF LISTENING?’.

Often the opposite comments in my leadership workshops

Interestingly in my workshops participants mention with a sense of longing and awe that in the military or police ‘command-and-control leadership’ is outstanding. Yes, it probably is. And it works in specific situation of police work. However, the interview sounds like we as observers probably hugely oversimplify the different demands the police and other forces are dealing with – and as such in addition new forms of engaging leadership, inspiring higher ups and peers, might be needed to match the reality of the challenges these institutions are facing.

Try this.

When did Command-and-Control last really work well in your organisation? For whom? With which results? I would not be surprised it worked, but maybe in different circumstances than imagined…

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Leadership, Donald Trump, and inauguration – might be worth a thought or two.


Last week in a Henley MBA cohort we had a heated debate. This leaves no one indifferent.

And it is a difficult one. We can easily focus on the person only – and condemn or applaud. I am more interested in the system of leadership relationships and how we react to the phenomenon.

Commentators have focussed on the person characteristics they decoded: Ascribing the phenomenon only to a person’s inherent individual characteristics, style, values, sense of identity or world view is cutting too short. Well, in non-academic terms it also a ‘cop out’ for others involved. Leadership research is pretty clear about that. We might call it charisma, or else, nevertheless it is not working like a light bulb that you just switch on for yourself and everyone is attached!

Instead people decide if they see something in you and endorse you. That is why many commentators have focussed on sections of society of distinct characteristics that supposedly have endorsed Donald Trump and are the key for the success. Might be.

How long those relationships will last is an intriguing question. We can differentiate between leadership as deciding/taking action and leadership as mobilising people around a shared purpose. What happens when the actual decisions will not match the purpose for which people got mobilised? Many might have projected their fears or dreams into the person. What if those are not being fulfilled? Will we see more disappointment and separation which initially might have been the reason for the strong bonds and certain votes?

And the contribution to the current dynamics of the people who have not voted for the person or not voted at all?

I increasingly think about non-action as a key ingredient of leadership consequences. Normally research looks at laissez faire shown by managers. I am as much interested in laissez faire behaviour of followers – or here observers, collaborators …
Refer to your organisational experience – when large numbers of people are not content with the development of their organisation. However, they never speak up. Or always assume that someone else is stepping up to prevent the developments they really do not like. Have we seen in many a sense of being superior or being correct by default? And thus not considering to take enough action or to start thinking? Because it cannot happen, can it?

You could conclude from this and ask

Who is actually detached? Those who are not involved and seemingly do not benefit from societal developments (as presented often by commentators)? Or those who are involved and benefitting from societal developments but do consider it worth to contribute to make it sustainable for other communities?

Try this.

You guessed it. Two aspects of leadership I have not touched, but for many might manifest lines that have been crossed: The relevance of personal values of a person, and the overall purpose: how will the link between the individual purpose and ambition and the shared purpose a person is answerable to play out? Nice one to discuss at the lunch table.

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

Thinking Brexit as a leadership learning event


You might think: ‘Please don’t!’ I think: Yes absolutely! The Brexit campaign will go down in history as an, probably unwanted, gigantic and live leadership learning event – for politicians, top and senior managers, and for everyone in society and organisations. Now that the dust has settled a bit from the whirlwind of activities that happened, we can harvest some conclusions, probably independent from the actual decision. I think this as an Extra – or Reflective Practice.

In contrast…

In contrast to some of the earlier posts I actually focus on leadership at the top, knowing that this is a positional and so limited view about leadership. But let’s go for it this time.

Let’s look at positive learnings…

Many have written about the negatives in this about leadership. However, the series of events around the Brexit vote has shown that people at the top of institutions in society or organisations HAVE real influence. While for good reasons we see a surge in thinking and practicing shared or bottom up forms of leadership, or proactive followership, Brexit revealed that people nominated and probably endorsed at the top have real instruments that influenced, engaged, motivated and energised millions of people.

We could observe and experience that the top can set the rules of the game, shape our sensemaking processes to the strategies they aim to pursue, influence the lived culture of such events (and maybe beyond), specify the quality (or not) of relationships they, and overall role model their very own leadership style. If you think about it quasi objectively – this actually seems to have worked out successfully.

However, for all the aspects above you can ask one more question? While all these things definitely set the public scene, what was the quality of these ingredients and what was and will be the collateral of this…? Questionable might be an appropriately open response!


There is real influence at the top, to an extent that we, and them, might not always realise. And as a learning for all people engaging in leadership: Think about your influence, it might actually work and then might hit back at us, if we do not think very carefully about how you engage and the meaningful purpose we really pursue!

Let’s add one facet: Accountability…

This is a difficult one. What is the consequence of accountability? Seeing through decisions that you have initiated, although the outcomes were not the expected? Or accountability as stepping and making space?

Try this…

Reconsider a leadership episode when in hindsight your means of leadership where questionable, but you had massively influenced your network, team, and performance. Did the quality and ethics of leadership you showed actually match the purpose you had in mind?

It would be fascinating to explore with colleagues and collaborators from that time…

Happy engaging – stay tuned…

Unleashing leadership practice. What are the ideas for our leadership learning?


Have you ever thought about ‘What is the absolute relevant scope of insights and practices for a leadership workshop that stimulates ongoing leadership learning?’ For people who venture towards becoming senior managers? You know of at least four real blows that prevent an easy answer:

  • Participants probably already participated in various leadership trainings! Everyone has his or her own journey of developing leadership capacity.
  • Most can read well and can be online. Most concepts, ideas, practices, or thought provocation are at our fingertips. And think about the massive bookshelf for leadership books.
  • We are thirsty for new stuff! However, there is so much helpful ‘old school’ thought and advice about leadership written up over centuries. So while the context in which we live and work currently changes at a fast rate, do we as humans, our functioning, change as much, or are we to an extent stable so that many existing insights and practices are still helpful? And is the new stuff really helpful and insightful for the next 30-50 years?
  • Some also say it is all about the adult learning process not the ideas, while this might only be one side of the same coin.

So not an easy one to make decent choices for the direction in the leadership learning relationship.

To help participants stretching their muscles of leadership thinking and practices, we, for now (!), elicited seven crucial blocks, in elaborate process with internal and external people.

However, while nice and neat themes, these were once core insights. The beauty and challenge lies probably in the perspectives that cut across the key themes such as:

  • How leadership plays out differently at different levels of an organisation;
  • Which main directions of influence can managers engage with in their leadership relationships;
  • Whether leadership is ‘done’ by individuals, shared or is sourced from many in collectives, events or key episodes such as change and transformation;
  • And for what do we do leadership and work in general, and why? The starting might be the purpose of leadership (see recent blog).

Try this.

In hindsight of your manager experience, what would be your core ideas, practices, hunches that you would include? Because they changed dramatically or helped to evolve your personal leadership practice and leadership identity? How about sharing with the people in whom you aim to instil leadership capacity?

And when was the last time you spend time on finding leadership inspiration?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.


Revisiting the difficult terrain of purpose in leadership


To again find your voice after a pause is an interesting process, moreover, when current incidents at least challenge the meaning and overall contribution of one’s own work.

Well, yesterday I had a light bulb moment while attending an event, thinking the following topic could do to reconnect with you all. Various speakers referred to purpose in their talks and stories. Purpose of individual people but also organisations.

The ‘invisible leader’

That reminded me of a quote that I wanted to mention and explore for a while: ‘Leaders and followers are both following the invisible leaders–the common purpose’, by Mary Parker Follett, an extraordinary scholar way ahead of her time (just search the internet for some of her writings).

Both words are critical: ‘Purpose’ with a focus on the content of an organisations mission. But also ‘common’; Our research showed that a shared obligation and connection amongst people, employees, or managers is key to making an organisation’s purpose a powerful invisible instrument.

Mark Cuddigan, Managing Director Ella’s Kitchen, referred to the role that the company’s mission plays for decision making, particularly for ambiguous situations or dilemmas they face. In those moments Ella’s Kitchen’s mission of ‘Good for tiny tummies. At Ella’s Kitchen, our mission is to create healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime’ really develops its strengths for guiding the business.

Finding, identifying, developing, shaping purpose – a journey!

Exploring the overarching purpose and core of an organisation is a deep and exploratory journey for institutions. Julia Rebholz, previously Head of Strategy at Centrica and now on secondment as Practitioner in Residence (I really like this) with A Blueprint for Better Business, invited the audience to reflect along the lines of Why do people like your company? If you are going to do that, this will be intriguing for at least two reasons. For the responses you get, but also, for finding out if the organisation has the courage to actually ask.

Sacha Romanovitch, CEO Grant Thornton UK, shared an experience that could be another starting point. How about asking something alike: If we would not exist as an organisation, for which reason would we start our business today?

Don’t get me wrong, organisations, managers, and employees have other aims and objectives to consider. No need to ignore that, but we can ask what is holding it all together

Try this.

It is difficult for yourself to start as a person again! But you could ask If you would start your paths of career, life, again, for which reason would you begin your journey?

And for your team or business? I would explore with your colleagues the questions above. That should be inspiring.

Happy engaging – stay tuned.

What a privilege for Henley to host leadership development conference


Two weeks ago we welcomed around 100 academics and practitioners at the Henley Business School for the 7th Developing Leadership Capacity Conference. A great event for our Henley Centre for Engaging Leadership’s to be a platform for challenging leadership thinking and practicing.

The theme? ‘Pluralistic perspectives of leadership and leadership development.’ Not really surprising when you follow this blog and our work at HCEL…

A very personal choice.

What did I take away from participants, countless conversations, close to 50 presentations and five keynote speakers?

We like our stability (back)

Complexity science is surely a topic for which most humans get up at night excited to learn more – not! However, I have to admit there is something to it. Simplifying Mary Uhl-Bien’s talk in a horrible way here one of my insights.

Organisations and managers throw rigid solutions at complex, multi-facetted, evolving leadership challenges. Those administrative solutions do play a role. However solely creating stability maybe less helpful when it is about creating agility.

Ever done by you? Responded to a growth and innovation challenge with more regulation and control. When did you respond to ambiguous situations instead with more freedom for people?

Unlearning! Really? Isn’t learning tough enough?

Again drastically simplifying, Mike Pedler shared unlearning as an ingredient to develop leadership. In a nutshell: What do you have to leave behind as a manager from your leadership behaviour, habits, attitudes… Want an example? In a room with 35 managers I recently asked: Who really trusts their people? About more than half raised their arms! That is helpful, isn’t it! It means for instance we can provide managers with tools to empower and create autonomy for their people, yet it ain’t happening – as long as the manager is not trusting. Here unlearning comes to the fore. How can I unlearn the long road to trust people? Can we at all?

Then there was this one conversation.

Typical, over a coffee, a few academics, managers, trainers… The topic: Are we connected enough to new forms of working, collaborating, new demands of people at all ages? Point taken! To answer with Jonny Cash: ‘We’ll meet again’

Try this.

Back to unlearning. Write a list of things helpful to unlearn in your personal leadership practice! Take this list to one or more of your peers and employees. What do they think? Anything on their list but not yours?

Happy engaging – stay tuned.