What’s your story about leadership?

I’m struck by how narrow the narrative is around organising and leading. A whole raft of experience of what it means to be a human working with others is left out. The focus is on skills and knowledge.

My questioning of the story we tell about leadership was triggered by a poem I read this morning which talked about ‘learning to fall’, in the sense of accepting our fallibility and vulnerability. Does this figure in our teaching about leadership? Not enough. The typical set of leadership competencies relates to some super-human figure I rarely meet: falling or failing is not typically part of what gets talked about. It’s for this reason that I particularly like Adam Kahane’s book, Power and Love, A Theory and Practice of Social Change with its chapters on ‘Falling’, ‘Stumbling’ and ‘Walking’ which speak directly to the struggle of personal and collective change: the setbacks as well as the successes.

How we talk matters. We lead through language as well as through action. Notice what gets talked about in your organisation, or if you are a consultant notice the tenor and content of your conversation with clients, including what is not talked about.

The stories we tell ourselves and others set the parameters for what is possible and what is considered valuable.

Be a radical: expand the conversation. What do you care about that is rarely said?

I was part of a story-telling session the other day with colleagues about what had shaped and was shaping our organisation. One colleague observed a thread in the stories – the qualities of forgiveness and welcome – words I rarely hear used in organisations, and yet central to human relationships of all kinds. What qualities of human relationship need to be named and cultivated in our organisations? In the context of the NHS in England, I wonder what qualities have been absent in the Hospital Trusts and Care Homes that failed patients, residents and their families?

Talking about what’s been lost and forgotten and what needs to be regained is an important and courageous conversation. This is particularly so because it’s personal, and includes us in what we’ve lost, what we’ve forgotten and what we want to regain.

Changing the conversation we are in may be the first step in changing the world, one conversation and one person at a time. This much is in our influence.


7 Responses to What’s your story about leadership?

  1. Stuart Reid says:

    Hi John – I read your blog post on the same day that I watched this TEDx video: http://youtu.be/cXuD2zHVeB0

    In the video Matt Smith shares the ‘failure bow’ as used by improvisers and trapeze artists – a gleeful celebration of failure. Reading about it or even viewing the video isn’t the same as doing it – something joyful is released in the body when making the action of taking a huge bow to celebrate a mistake. Try it.

    Our organisations would be very different I think if failure *felt* like it does when one performs the failure bow. One reason I do improvisation is because failure is treated as part of the process and celebrated: that’s good for my practice as a consultant (and for the rest of my life too, as I’m a recovering perfectionist 🙂

    Best wishes,

    • John Watters says:


      I love the idea and practice of the failure bow. It’s new to me. I’ve just done one and a smile appeared on my face. Embracing failure as part of the human condition, now that’s radical.

      I love the way that he focuses on embodying the move not just talking about it as a concept.


      • Stuart Reid says:

        I’m glad you like it 🙂

        I also came across this today:

        “The art of music, since it can only be conveyed through its interpreters, depends on expressive performance for its lifeblood. Yet it is only when we make mistakes in performances that we can really begin to notice what needs attention. In fact, I actively train my students that when they make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, “How fascinating!” I recommend that everyone try this.” Taken from: The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander, Penguin Books, 2002

        Very similar, and the same embodied movement and smile. Lovely!


  2. Mark Withers says:

    John – another thoughtful blog. Thank you. Some of my recent reading resonates with your thinking and, if I may, here some further reflections on your theme.

    Today, Sarah Crompton’s column in the Telegraph uses the Pistorius situation to reflect that we want to see a flawless super-human heroic figure in those we champion and that we have an unrealistic expectation of who people are and what they actually need to be. These people do a job – and leading in business is a job where real and flawed people are involved.

    It might not be particularly popular reading these days but in this season of Lent some of my reflections have taken me to the Psalms. Here we see King David in all his rawness – a great spiritual, military and political leader … but a truly flawed character. Self examination, thankfulness, anger, repentance, forgiveness, love, mercy … are all laid out for us to see very publicly. There is an honesty here we very rarely see in leaders (or indeed more generally).

    Similarly, I have been reading biographies of Lincoln and Wilberforce. Great leaders – but human and flawed all the same.

    I think you touch on an area that goes far deeper than trying out things and failing. Imperfection is part of our DNA – we will not only fail at doing things, but fail as human beings. Being able to acknowledge this failure and to take steps to make good broken relationships or poor decisions are surely characteristics we would like to see, not only in leaders but in the way we conduct ourselves generally.

    I read this week ‘if we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance and care’.

    • John Watters says:

      Thanks for this. I agree – the tyranny of perfection is a hard one for many of us to live up to – including positional and celebrity leaders.

      Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have a great chapter in their book, Leadership on the Line, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading called Manage Your Hungers. What I like about this book is their rounded sense of what a human being is and how they translate that to a practical framework for leading.

      I used to work for one the big four consultancies and my biggest concern with their models for change at the time was the shallow and impoverished view of the human condition implicit in the frameworks. Their maps, if that’s what models are, just didn’t feel accurate or useful.

      Accepting our fallibility is a part of leadership and being human.

      A Recovering Perfectionist

  3. frances says:

    Hi John
    Read with interest. Turning this on its head when the “leaders” /”managers” /”Clinical consultants” monitor recovering mental illness patients 24/7 and record all and any “failures” as defects, there is little scope for your approach …

    • John Watters says:

      This piece isn’t advocating a particular approach other than to draw attention to the narrative of whatever is happening.

      I agree that we need to look squarely at who is defining the story, whose story get told and whose story gets marginalised or ignored. In care situations where there is limited visibility and very unequal power dynamics, such as mental heath care where people are under section, care homes for frail elderly people, homes for people with learning disabilities, it is beholden on us to design in very robust levels of accountability and transparency. We know from decades of social psychology research that people’s behaviour deteriorates in ‘closed systems’. This transparency and voice for the patient/resident need to built in institutionally but also in the everyday practices of each team/institution.

      Where teams and institutions act in ignorance or denial of unhealthy power dynamics, it is very easy to tip unawarely into oppressor-oppressed. In mental illness the focus on the patient becoming well become lost in a the unhealthy relationship of oppressor-oppressed whose basic modality is prescription: “Every prescription represents the imposition of one person’s choice upon another, transforming the consciousneess of the person prescribed to into one that confirms with the prescriber’s consciousness.” (Paulo Freire).

      Power or rank is a key issue; nothing intrinscially wrong with either, it’s how they are used that matters. Rank is not something you see in the mirror; it requires self-awareness and relational awareness to see how it is playing out in situations. Rank used unawarely can be very destructive. Rank is also like a drug, the more you have, the less aware you are of how it affects others negatively.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: