Remembering the basics – leading skilfully in a confusing world












In recent weeks I’ve been reminded of the complexity, contradiction and paradox at the heart of organisational life. I’ve also noticed my fear and ambivalence of engaging with what seems like a mess and my impulse to withdraw (leave them to it), blame (another good defence mechanism) or criticise (myself and/or them). Barry Oshry says the first law of organisational life is Stuff Happens. It’s how we engage with Stuff, our own and others, that makes the difference.

I’m working with a global firm at the moment that has ‘leading self, leading teams and lead organisations’ in a series of expanding circles as their leadership framework. Nothing particularly unusual in that combination. I notice it’s easy to be inured to what this signifies; the cynical part of me says yet more words on a power point slide – blah, blah, blah… The corporate wheel turns yet again and I’m part of the whole ritual. I’m sure this cynicism is mirrored within the organisation, as in many other organisations whether private, public or not for profit. It’s important to notice the cynicism, both our inner voice and when it’s voiced by others, most often in the informal space of organisations. This cynicism is triggered and reinforced by public narratives about change and leadership that are often incomplete and one-sided, and at some basic level don’t describe the lived reality of the organisation, its history or its possibilities.

As human beings we are paradoxical and contradictory; organisations too are a mixture of light and shadow. As leaders and facilitators of change we need to acknowledge our capacity for light and dark; that way we are less likely to project it unawarely onto others.

So back to the leadership framework: ‘leading self’ is the starting place for being or doing anything useful.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA said: “the first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self – one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts. It is a never-ending, difficult, oft-shunned task…It is ignored precisely because it is incredibly more difficult than prescribing and controlling the behaviour of others”.

This is true in all settings: if you want to have a vibrant, healthy family life; or if you want to create a productive, innovative, high performing organisation. As human beings we are permeable boundaries – continually impacting others and being effected by others and the wider world – and leading self is the basic leadership practice from which all others flow. 

I recommend a simple, mindfulness breathing practice as a way to strengthen awareness: our capacity to see ourselves, others and the wider system more clearly. My own practice is intermittent but I know the simple act of taking some quiet time each day, breathing consciously and stilling the mind with its repetitive, chattering stories creates the space for new possibilities. If we want to be effective leaders and facilitators an awareness practice is basic and foundational.



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