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Leadership is about conversations that matter

In March, I attended a three-day meeting on ‘participatory leadership’ and ‘conversations that matter’, organised by The Art of Hosting. With a group of students, consultants, social entrepreneurs and teachers we explored how, in times of change, the collective intelligence of a group of people can be mobilized and put to use. And we asked ourselves the question what type of leadership is needed in our world today. We were joined by Peter Senge in a very inspiring webinar. In this blog, I will share some of my key learnings.


New challenges need new leadership

Traditionally, leadership is associated with hierarchical position and focused on one person. As one of the most-used words in business today, leadership is often linked to certain positions in the organization. Something that emerges at ‘the top’, attributed to bosses and related to hierarchy.


But we can feel this way of thinking about leadership shifting. In the world we live in nowadays, organizations face complex issues that call for a different approach. As Senge puts it: “we face fundamental challenges for which hierarchical leadership is inadequate”. Solutions cannot be found in one singular person. One person, states Senge, cannot change a system. President Obama is a good example, as it becomes more and more clear that he is not able to change the US system by himself. We should no longer have a singular focus on certain people and let go of the overemphasis that we have put on individuals when it comes to leadership. “The confusion between position and leadership is a very profound mix-up nowadays,” says Senge.


To lead is to show courage and step ahead collectively

What then, is the type of leadership that is needed in current times? Tracing the original roots of the word is quite interesting. The English verb ‘lead’ comes from ‘leath’, which in turn means; ‘to step across the threshold’. To do so, requires courage. And position and hierarchy are really irrelevant when it comes down to showing courage and take a step!


Another important ingredient of contemporary leadership is the collective. Senge describes leadership is as “the capacity of a human community to shape its future”. So, it is not just one person being courageous and stepping ahead. It is about a group of people who want something to change or emerge, who create alternative realities. It is collectively that creative processes take place. We need the bigger picture of the so called ‘collective intelligence’ when strategic change or transformation is needed.


Leadership is about shifting energy

A very relevant thought Senge shared about the future of leadership is about the role of energy. “One of the areas where a lot of knowledge about leadership will develop is in the area of energetic intelligence”. By this, he means being aware and perceptive of the energy in a group or an organization. Or even in society. And being able to shift that energy towards creating a desired future and toward taking influence. Away from reactiveness and helplessness, towards hope and possibility.


So how do we get to this new type of leadership that underlines the collective intelligence, I subsequently wonder. How can we as advisors, consultants and researchers initiate, support and facilitate this energetic shift in corporate settings? Since leadership is collective and non hierarchical, it starts with a group of people, who need one another to get something done. In order to achieve what needs to be done, people have to start to really meet each other. Start listening to each other, ask questions, reflect and articulate what it is that matters to them and they want to achieve. In other words… having a meaningful conversation. If done right, conversations have the power to shift energy in a way that enables a group to lead.


The art of conversation

Having meaningful conversations is one of the important elements needed for the new type of leadership to emerge. If sustainable solutions to current challenges lie in the wisdom between people, we should invite individuals in organizations to step in and share their perspective. In other words; to show leadership by having conversations to make meaning together, build relations and invite collaboration.


This takes time and attention, curiosity and listening without judging. The art of conversation is about slowing down to speed up. It is about showing leadership in order to nurture the collective intelligence. The type of leadership, I feel, that is needed in our world today.


Read about Peter Senge’s thoughts on leadership and energy: The Necessary Revolution (2008).


The Art of Hosting is an international community of practice that is engaged in learning, self-organization, participation and the role of collective intelligence in developing solutions to all sorts of problems and challenges people, organizations and societies face nowadays.