Changing how we lead

Blog post
By Pam Ashby | 24 August 2018

When Jenny Bailey asked Alan Furlong to join her for a webinar on Agile Leadership, she was confident it would result in an inspiring hour. Alan is a part of the Consortium’s Agile Culture and Leadership working group and is completely dedicated to furthering anything that helps human beings to flourish. The addition of his colleague Matt Roadnight, who joined the webinar by phone, served to enrich the conversation even more.

“We have to change the way we lead,” Alan insisted. He explained that organisations have traditionally been regarded as being mechanistic, with people thought of as being cogs in the wheel. If one cog is replaced by another, the wheel still turns. “It’s not that simple with humans.” he continues. 

Relinquishing authority

For Alan, one of the most important aspects of modern leadership is the ability to relinquish authority. This runs counter to the culture within which many of today’s leaders were brought up – “these inherited habits of leadership can be challenging to undo” he suggests. We’ve been used to a world with authority figures – parents, teachers, managers – and these people were traditionally thought to know the answers. This thinking led to the command-and-control environments that we now know can both constrain potential and build up stress. There is an increasing wealth of research from Peter Senge and other influencers to indicate that the key to sustainable change within an organisation comes from line managers rather than senior leadership. “Change needs to be driven through internal networks rather than top-down,” advises Alan, “This is how great things happen.” 

Psychological safety

When Google researchers set out to discover what makes a team effective at Google in ‘Project Aristotle’ – a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts"– they found that what mattered most was psychological safety. You can find out more about Project Aristotle from Google’s Liam Russell at the Agile Business Conference

Talking about psychological safety, Alan highlights the impact of the stress hormone cortisol “When we don’t feel safe, we’re running on cortisol” he explains, “A cortisol environment is one punctuated with politics, silos, and a lack of sharing. This is not one where human beings can thrive. The alternative benefits of an oxytocin environment, defined by safety drawn from friendship and human warmth, are now well documented.” Read Alan’s blog Collaboration and our Brave New World to learn more about oxytocin organisations.  

Inside-out leadership

His colleague Matt draws attention to the importance of emotions as critical signals. He emphasises that the role of leaders is not to have the right answers but to encourage the right behaviours. To achieve this, leaders need to understand other people better and the route to that is to first understand yourself. “You need high emotional intelligence to understand each other’s internal worlds. To relate to people as human beings and not just as professionals” says Matt. “We need to work out what gives people a sense of meaning and find out how we can use that.” He recommends you think about your best ever manager and consider what made you enjoy working for them. “When you ask people about this,” he reflects, “the answers tend to be things like ‘they listened’ ‘they supported’ ‘they gave me the opportunity to stretch my wings. These are the things that people remember.”

The problem is that when we’re under pressure, many of us revert to the command-and-control behaviours that are inevitably our cultural default. “We feel safer when we have a sense of control,” explains Alan. “We default to telling and not supporting.” It takes a lot of self-knowledge and emotional control to overcome this instinct; to first recognise it, and then to overcome it. This is what makes leadership an internal process, rather than the external practice it at first appears to be.

Ultimately, leadership is about creating an environment that allows individuals and teams to flourish, to innovate, and to be the best they can be. 

“An organisation’s defining critical success factor is its people,” Alan concludes. “When we stop treating them as robots, magic happens.”

Alan Furlong and Matt Roadnight are Directors at Sherpa People Systems and where they focus on translating the latest research findings into what makes us perform at our best – across practical tasks, habits and our daily business life.  Alan Furlong is an active participant in the Agile Business Consortium Culture and Leadership Working Group.



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