The Ease and Hazards of Pervasive Leadership

by Jean Richardson on January 31, 2014

Lately, every day seems to bring new opportunities to meet someone somewhere doing some form of experiment with leading differently. Sometimes, though, it seems like what I see is the same old thing with a new set of labels on it. That, of course, won’t work any better than doing the same old thing with the same old labels on it in the long run.

I get lots of challenging requests to explain what I mean by “Pervasive Leadership.” “Tell me in 250 words—or less.” “Make sure I can scan it using no more than a sixth grade reading level.” “What’s your elevator speech on this?” “Keep it practical. Really—how do you do this?”

There is a moment, of course, at which all leadership is idealistic—aspirational. Simon Sinek and his golden circle tells the world that the most effective leaders are clear about—and make clear for others—the why behind all the doing and making. And, the why’s he uses as examples are often remarkably idealistic and aspirational.

But, I have slaved away trying to meet the needs of those who need the data, those who need to know the academic grounding, those who need examples and cases, and those who need the elevator speech. For those who need the simplest, tips and tricks approach, the least you need to know about Pervasive Leadership, here it is:

• Change your mental model of I and Thou.

• Act locally; think wholistically.

• Enact empathetic stewardship.

There it is. Easy, right?

When you understand the data, the related research, the social psychology, the business drivers, and have scrutinized the cases of similar attempts at leading, it becomes clear that a facilitative, not a directive, approach is going to lead to better results in terms of operationalizing this approach. A facilitative stance indicates the need to get yourself out of the way while leading. That doesn’t mean becoming a martyr. It does mean realizing you and those so close beside you (as Roethke would put it) cause each other to become. In that light, social ascendancy based on rank is a pretty funny and archaic concept.

A couple of months ago I was at a board meeting. Board members do tend to think of themselves as leaders. These leaders were thinking about taking a bold step and creating a new program of service for their organization. It turned out that the program was in the space of the emerging leadership paradigm. One of the more outgoing board members made what was, for me, a remarkably memorable comment: “Everyone wants to lead, but no one wants to follow!” Hmm. That says a lot about what many people, and that person in particular, thinks leadership is.

It occurred to me that I needed to start speaking up more clearly about what I—and many other people—think about what leadership is. Leader does not require follower.

We use the phrase leading our lives very often, but do we understand what that means? In order to lead our lives, do we need a follower? And, how is it that, the moment we go to work in an organization leadership becomes someone else’s problem, a set of responsibilities transmuted to culpability that engenders an organizational game of Chutes and Ladders, a set of complex attempts to avoid culpability?

One of the hazards of the facilitative operational approach in Pervasive Leadership is that facilitation tends to be more about others—whether it’s facilitating someone to success or failure. When things go well, who gets the credit? We all want some of the credit, right?

Last summer I had a conversation with three women who are good facilitative leaders. They talked about the hazards of their approach to leadership—which none of them were interested in abandoning—when it came to searching for their next job. I assured them there was plenty of evidence that successful experience in setting a context for the achievement of others generates future success for the context setter.

All of them are now in jobs that are better than their last jobs. To my knowledge they have better compensation, and they have each secured a position that allows for further growth on their part. But, for that brief, frustrating time last summer, their facilitative styles, while effective, seemed to make it challenging for them to use the usual chest pounding language of resumes that attract the attention of hiring managers looking for fire-bringers to make their problems go away.

Now, back to those concerned, intrigued, and skeptical questioners who want the elevator speech, the tips and tricks, the underlying research, and the cases on how to do this aspirational form of leadership. Introduction to Pervasive Leadership is 25,000 words closer to reality. The weekend ahead has just rearranged itself in such a way that it could be 40,000 words by Monday. Wish me luck!

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