In Praise of the Incomplete Leader

In Praise of the Incomplete Leader
By Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski & Peter Senge
Harvard Business Review, February 2007. Can be downloaded at HBR.

The authors of this exceptional article (all teachers and researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Leadership) have decades of experience working in diverse organizational contexts and declare, “It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: the person at the top who’s got it all figured out.” They go on to say, “Most leaders experience a profound dichotomy every day, and it’s a heavy burden.”

They are referring to that awareness we carry that we actually don’t know what to do or what is right – that is in tension with the belief that we should know what to do. In these times of increasing complexity many of us continue to hang on to the myth that we must figure things out and know what to do – but this is neither possible nor sustainable. They note that, “incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they understand what they are good at and what they’re not and have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.”

What I appreciate about this article is that it doesn’t just urge us to let go of the myth (how easy is that anyway!) but provides us with a framework that we can apply as an antidote to the myth. Their model of ‘distributed leadership’ integrates their research with many contemporary thinkers in the field and reveals four capabilities that effective leaders are attuned to. Leaders do not need to personally embody all four (this is extremely rare) but do benefit from nurturing the capabilities within their team and network:

  • Sensemaking = Entails ‘mapping out’ and making sense of the contexts and complexities within which we are operating, including sensing from different perspectives or vantage points and uncovering patterns.
  • Relating = Here the authors borrow ideas from Chris Argyris and Don Schon (who encouraged reflective practice work and learning through doing that many of you will know about). They suggest that it is vital to establish strong relating capacities within an organization or team, through inquiring, advocating and connecting. Inquiring is about suspending judgment and listening openly to genuinely understand the perspective of the other. Advocating entails being able to convey one’s own perspective clearly. While relating is about holding the 2 in balance – being able to listen to deeply understand as well as convey one’s own values, vision, etc.
  • Visioning = While the above two capabilities set the conditions for understanding what is called for and how to motivate and connect, visioning and inventing are more creative and action oriented. They “produce the focus and energy needed to make change happen.” Visioning is about “creating compelling images of the future…and produces a map of what could be.” It is not a static vision but one that unfolds in a “dynamic and collaborative” way with others in the team or organization.
  • Inventing = This is about finding new ways of doing things together to achieve the desired vision or state. They note that creating doesn’t have to be about large scale change: it can be about how tasks are distributed, or how meetings are conducted, or how information is shared. You might ask, ‘What are the creative ways in which the work can get done that is in service of our shared vision?’

“These capabilities span the intellectual and personal, the rational and intuitive, and the conceptual and creative capacities required in today’s environment.” In the article, the authors offer 4-5 concrete ideas for bringing to life each capability, as well as a framework to enable you to assess where you are with each. This could be used by a team to check in on the collective capacity of the group to support each other in working with the complexity and burdens of the work.