I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, it’s probably been formulating in some way or another since I decided to leave my last job (a year ago), initially it felt too raw and too personal, then it felt too risky, then it felt pointless, and then this week it felt necessary again. It’s a blog post about leadership, management, connection and self – feel free to jump off now if that’s not your bag. This week three key things influenced my thinking:
1) Terry Dunn, a manager at Wigan Council, caught the headlines due to his unique email style. Terry who has worked for the council ‘man and boy’ since starting twenty years previously as an apprentice, now as Head of Environment, was communicating with colleagues about staffing restructures and also commented on his weekend plans and forthcoming wedding. A spokesman for the council said that Terry was ‘acting on feedback from employees that said they wanted to know more about senior managers’. A union spokesperson compared him to David Brent, we’ll come back to that in a minute.
2) I watched Ken Loach’s film Spirit of 45 a stunning documentary made using archive film and recent interviews, it charts the phenomenal achievement of the post war Labour government who established the Welfare State, the NHS, national infrastructure for transport and so much more. The most striking impact for me came from hearing people describe the power of the collective, the shared vision, the wish and want for a better existence, ‘The Spirit of ’45 hopes to illuminate and celebrate a period of unprecedented community spirit in the UK, the impact of which endured for many years and which may yet be rediscovered today’.
3) Finally, I started reading The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. I’m not sure why I started it this week, I’ve had it for months, but I decided to start it on a flight home and I couldn’t put it down. The basic premise of the book so far (I’m forcing myself to take the second half more slowly because I don’t want to finish it!) is that Godin is laying the challenge to his readers to identify what their art is and treat work as such, the opportunity to create art. The title draws on Icarus who disobeyed his father, flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death, ‘The lesson: Play it safe. Listen to the experts. It was the perfect propaganda for the industrial economy. What boss wouldn’t want employees to believe that obedience and conformity are the keys to success? But we tend to forget that Icarus was also warned not to fly too low, because seawater would ruin the lift in his wings. Flying too low is even more dangerous than flying too high, because it feels deceptively safe’.
What does all of this have to do with leadership and management I hear you ask? As someone who has held several management positions over the past ten years, I’ve been thinking a lot about my fit with a management role. Considering myself, my skills and attributes, what drives me, what drains me, where I’ve come from and where I might be going. I’ve also been thinking about what I admire in others, especially quiet leaders and the power of introverts. Anyone who has read this blog before will know that about twelve months ago I quit a job I’d loved dearly, with no certain path for the future. My father’s (long anticipated) death coincided with my last working weeks, a perfect storm in some way. Since then many hours have been spent considering the future, I’ve established myself as a freelance knowledge transfer consultant, which has afforded me the opportunity to take more time deciding where to focus my energy and to pick and choose my work, the novelty of which has yet to wear off. It also affords me the freedom to structure my time and effort, to spend time working for love not financial reward, whether that is supporting the development of Social Care Curry Club or taking photos of the Rowcroft Hospice Choir, and it also allows me to work anywhere with a decent wifi connection.
One thing I’ve come to realise, helped this week by the three influences above, is that while I don’t think I was a particularly bad manager, in fact if I’m completely honest I think I was an alright manager, it still didn’t drive me or satisfy me enough. The act of managing people just doesn’t resonate well with me, shepherding people to conform and obey, and neither does the notion of being managed either if I’m completely honest. There’s a line in Godin’s book where he says ‘Just because you’re winning a game doesn’t mean it’s a good game’, twice in my career I’ve taken a job with less responsibility than my previous one, a significant pay drop to boot, and on both occasions I’ve climbed up a ladder quite quickly to end up with managerial responsibilities. It would be easy to start applying for management jobs again now, but just because I can be a manager doesn’t mean I should be.
Leadership however, that’s a related but different game. I love leading and I love being led, I seek out leaders all the time and I love watching people lead others. I particularly enjoy watching leadership on social media. One of the things I love most about social media is it’s flat structure, I love analysing communities and discussions and watching people lead, from within the network. The flip-side can be watching people who think they know more, the self appointed gurus, stumble around offering approval and advice, some of which seems to me stuck in an old school management culture. For all the talk of digital leadership, what we seem to be too often stuck on (at least in discussions around social care) is digital management – issues of access, barriers, permission, control. Trying to shepherd people into conforming and using the right platforms, the right hashtags, fitting in to some pre-arranged mindset.
I’ve already raved about Dan Slee and colleagues work on Best by West Midlands, but the more I have thought about one element, the discussion around barrier vaulting, the more I’m not sure I agree with the observation that it’s harder to take a JFDI approach in 2013. If people wish to remain in their organisations, their silos, then yes, social media is much more above radar now, but if they really want to make a break, to change the status quo, to do it differently then I think they absolutely need to take a JFDI approach, if they can afford to live with the consequences. They could be inspired to harness the Spirit of 45, to consider a different future, a brighter future, to expect and deliver on that. They need to dig deep and find their grit!
Grit is the enemy of the industrial age! The industrialist prioritises conformity and obedience to ensure efficiency at all costs, the last thing they need is grit clogging up the machines, or scratching their goods. To quote from Godin ‘Digital smoothness is the antithesis of grit’. I wonder in our discussions of digital leadership whether we are focused on ironing out the grit, creating a digital smoothness, when instead we could be releasing true individualism, encouraging people to stand out, supporting outliers and creatives. Instead it seems that the focus is subtly on control, external motivation and approval as a weapon to ensure compliance (hence the obsession with Klout scores and other measures of influence).
Where does this leave us then? I think we have a workforce that craves connectivity with their managers, who wish to know about them as people, and we have managers with the best of intentions getting it wrong. How does this happen? I would hazard a guess that HR had informed the management team that staff when surveyed had indicated a desire to know more about their managers. Of course they do, because staff aren’t robots, they’re not machines, they wish to be led, they crave connectivity, they want to know that their managers are as human as they are. There isn’t a management text book that will successfully teach you to care authentically; I don’t know but I’d reckon that Terry Dunn is hampered by his environment, a man who does genuinely care about his colleagues, but whose sincerity is lost in translation in that email. Personally I think staff ‘wanting to know more about their managers’ is code for ‘staff wanting to feel connected and trust their managers’.
Which brings me back to Godin who argues that the future lies in the connection economy. One that rewards the leader, the initiator and the rebel, where value is directly related to the information we produce, the trust we earn and how often we innovate. The future he paints is one where we each need to identify a journey with which we wish to commit our heart and soul, one where we are willing to speak up, to speak our truth, not to just conform and perform, he defines grit as ‘the attitude of someone who realises he has the power to care and is intent on doing something about it’.
I’m not sure where my personal journey will take me just yet, I’m taking my time to figure it out, but I intend to continue to carve my own path, to not buckle to conform to fit in with the crowd. I’ll not apologise for it either, I am that irritating piece of grit in the bottom of your shoe, I am the lump of grit that clogs up your smooth efficient machine and asks the difficult questions, I have no manager to rely on to motivate me, I will motivate myself and not give that responsibility to someone else, and better still I will not seek the crowd’s approval. For once if this post gets no hits, no comments or reaction, I’ll not assume it’s because it’s not good enough, or didn’t resonate, I’ll not try to identify the lessons for next time so I can change my style so it gets more attention or hits. I’ll accept it for what it is, I’m creating my own tune, not seeking to dance to someone else’s, this is my view and that’s ok as it is. It doesn’t need the crowd to approve, in the words of the management guru David Brent, I’m riffing: