29 November 2021

My fraught relationship with the idea of ‘leadership’

Where did this start?
As a teenager I had a real issue with the term leadership. It made me anxious, and I felt deeply insecure with the idea of being a leader at any point.

My family had been under extreme stress, and as a 13-year-old I was often the one who was stepping up and trying to keep the wheels on a very unstable unit. This was not healthy, or appropriate, but hey – that’s life sometimes. So, right from the get-go the concept of leadership to me…was if I found myself in a leadership position, then as a family we were in the sh*t.

As I grew older, I started to seriously doubt some of the grown-ups in these so-called ‘leadership roles’, as I witnessed the deceit and ineptitude of people in power having an adverse impact on my distressed family. This is a story all of its own, and rather than expand on it here, I just want to give a little context for the starting point where my thinking on leadership has evolved from.

Reclaiming the word ‘leadership’
Over the past few months, I’ve been on an accelerated journey – crystallising nearly 50 years of discomfort and distilling the fog that has been disturbing me all this time.

Many things have collided this year to help me gain clarity on my views on leadership.

Our desire to build a new vision to guide development of the Collective Intelligence community has really stretched me. We started the journey with our own Impact Team intervention in March – working with staff to distil where we needed to go, followed by many members generously contributing their views on our future direction. All the while, our wonderful Advisory Board has been at my side, as we move through the process of defining what our future holds and what we can achieve.

But it is Mother Nature who had the biggest influence to date on helping me get to this point, and I’ve already written about some aspects of this. And yep…I’m that person who has read heaps of literature and thought about this topic of leadership for like, ever. I’ve poked at it, toyed with it, tried it on for size but never been comfortable with it. This crazy idea of a single person ‘leading’ others is just spooky. Do they know the way? Yeah right!

And then…I took a pause this month and some time out.

Lessons from nature on leadership growth
Our Collective Intelligence Base-Team took some time away from the office to go walk-about. We headed to the ngahere (the forest) at Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre at Mt Bruce in the Wairarapa and went for a morning hīkoi (walk), with their fabulous Pou Kaiarahi – Everlyne Chase. Here, deeply immersed in this special place and learning via a new lens about something I thought I knew a little about (trees), something shifted for me.

We walked and we talked with Everlyne about the Te Ao Māori worldview of the forest and the connections between land and people. I got to see and build a picture for myself of what true leadership growth could look like if we use the analogy of our temperate rainforest as a starting point.

It made real sense to me, so let me try and explain using the stories of a couple of trees from the Pūkaha ngahere as an example.

Harv and Everlyne and Koro Rata

This first photo (above) shows the base of an ancient 300-year-old rata and Everlyne greeting ‘her koro’ as she does every day. At the top of the image, you can just see the start of what is probably a community of thousands of small plants and other seedlings (not to mention critters) that this enduring forest leader supports and is interconnected with.

A gnarly tree

This next photo (above) shows a well-developed gnarly tree that I snapped a shot of as we went into the Kiwi House, near the end of our hīkoi. It summarised beautifully for me what we had just learnt indirectly on our walk about what leadership growth could look like in action. Growth that is enduring, layered, interconnected, made up of a range of ‘less-than-perfect’ organisms that are reliant on each other, and who work together to nourish the next generation. It’s messy and beautiful and makes sense now (to me at least!).

Regenerating totara

A thicket of regenerating Tōtara seedlings in a section of bush that I helped protect via a QEII convenant (on the Mangatainoka family farm of my childhood).

Making leadership more than a word
The other part of my ‘collision process’ was being introduced to Professor Brigid Carroll of the Auckland University Business School, by member Felicity Lawrence. I have yet to meet Brigid, but my research of her brought up this article from 2016, and I thought, “I wish I had written this!” I have also ordered the book that Brigid co-wrote at the time.

Why do her words resonate with me so much?

Back in 1994 when I was first trialling the concept of Collective Intelligence, I was motivated by frustration. Frustration that I had in seeing that sending CEO’s off to one-off ‘leadership courses’ didn’t seem to make any real difference to their development. There was no accountability and no long-term process to support their ongoing growth. Often it was just all about hanging out with other people of status and looking good. What a colossal waste of time and money!

Off you go – attend a motivational speaker session, do a course…and then head home back into the maelstrom of life and ‘bam – it’s all dissolved in just a matter of weeks, or at best, months. Our professional athletes train far better than most of our country’s professional leaders. They do long, slow, continuous, incremental training that compounds over years.

It’s pretty obvious that if leadership development worked, the world would be humming right now! But there have been trillions of dollars spent on leadership development since World War 2 and yet, humanity has gone backwards in so many areas. We’ve produced some of the most unsuccessful companies the world has ever seen – think Facebook, Amazon, Trump Inc etc. All lead by people who are making the world worse, not better. Their investors are doing just fine, but not so humanity or the planet. So much western leadership has been focussed on short-sprint goals. KPIs and quarterly profits. We now need to focus on 50 to 100-year impacts to gain better alignment and set a new, regenerative trajectory.

The monoculture of leadership development
The old model of leadership development looks like this to me:

Pine plantation monoculture

This does not work in our increasingly complex world. Science has proven this. Monocultures do not regenerate our environment, or any environment, be it human-centric or plant-based.

The magic of biodiversity in its broadest sense needs to be better understood on every level and instilled in us at the earliest age. Leadership growth is a beautiful, messy, evolving, continuous process.

Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth

Pertinent sign on the wall of the Kiwi House at Pūkaha – Mt Bruce.

For the first time in my career, I am willing to embrace the concept of leadership but I’m viewing it in the context of a whole new paradigm.

I think the Collective Intelligence ecosystem is now primed to expand our role in developing a new breed of leaders, nurturing a new way of being leaders; one that disrupts all the traditional definitions and multiplies the glorious effect of biodiversity.

2022 – bring it on!

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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