Showing posts with label Toastmasters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Toastmasters. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What are the ingredients of good leadership?

As I contemplate leadership failures in some major organisations, in Australia and elsewhere, it strikes me that the people responsible for those failures have not been meeting the norms of behaviour expected of responsible adults. For example, it doesn’t seem like responsible adult behaviour to persist in charging customers for services that they haven’t received.

That has me wondering whether the prevailing emphasis on inspiring organisational leadership rather than efficient administration could be responsible for a decline in the quality of senior executives. It seems to have become possible for some people to rise to the top by learning how to present a vision and flatter stakeholders, without acquiring management skills and business ethics along the way. Perhaps we are seeing a shallow leadership culture displacing the long-standing management culture that encouraged business leaders to take pride in being trustworthy.

Should the gurus who began promoting an emphasis on organisational leadership about 30 years ago be held responsible for the shallowness of leadership in some modern organisations today?  As that question arose in my mind I decided to revisit a book that I had read about 30 years ago - On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, a famous leadership guru. I had a vague recollection that Bennis argued that organisations need leaders, not managers. 
My recollection was correct. The book contains a heading: “Leaders, Not Managers”. Under that heading there is a list of differences between leaders and managers. For example: “The manager administers; the leader innovates” and “The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon”. I don’t see recognition that organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.

However, the concept of leadership that Bennis advanced is far from shallow. He can’t be held responsible for readers who think leadership just involves mastering jargon about visions and stakeholders.

Bennis presents the view that “leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully”. He explains:

“The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world, and the key to understanding is learning – from one’s own life and experience”.

Bennis lists the ingredients of leadership as: a guiding vision; the passion to pursue that vision; integrity (encompassing self-knowledge, candour and maturity); trustworthiness; and curiosity and daring.

Those seem to be characteristics that would be displayed by any flourishing adult. As noted in an earlier post, human flourishing also requires alertness to the new opportunities emerging in changing circumstances.

That makes me to wonder whether there is any difference between the characteristics of a good leader and those displayed by any flourishing adult human. Toastmasters International, an organisation dedicated to assisting members to acquire leadership skills, as well as to improve communication skills, suggests one possible difference: “Great leaders inspire others to follow them”.

That difference is probably not important. Flourishing adults tend to display attributes required to attract followers, even when they don’t seek to be followed. They can’t avoid setting an example of behaviour that some others might choose to follow. As implied in the mission of Toastmasters clubs, the development of communication and leadership skills results in “greater self-confidence and personal growth”.

Perhaps I should try to sum up. It does seem possible that recent leadership problems in some major organisations are attributable to a shallow leadership culture. Some of these problems might have been avoided with a more conventional management culture - less emphasis on public relations and more emphasis on maintaining efficient and ethical management practices. Leadership gurus, such as Warren Bennis, might have contributed to such problems by downplaying the importance management skills. Nevertheless, the ingredients of leadership identified by Bennis are characteristics of flourishing adults - people who act with integrity. Organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.

 One question which I have not addressed is whether it is possible to identify intermediate stages in acquiring leadership capabilities. Do you have to learn to think for yourself before you can be a leader? Does Robert Kegan’s concept of self-authoring represent an intermediate stage in development of leadership capabilities?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What is to be gained by listening to opposing viewpoints?

It is comforting to listen to people espouse views like our own. Perhaps it makes us feel that our views are being validated.

Listening to an opposing viewpoint can feel challenging. There are several reasons for that. There may be times when we are not in the mood for the intellectual stimulation involved in considering the merits and demerits of an opposing viewpoint.

A more deep-seated reason for feeling challenged arises when we identify strongly with views that are being attacked. We may even feel offended. That has traditionally been seen to be likely when views on politics, religion and sex are being criticized. Ethnicity and culture should be added to that list. People also tend to be highly offended if anyone casts aspersions on the sporting teams they support.

However, taking offence is optional. Many Collingwood supporters, and many people of Irish and Scottish descent even seem to be able to see the humour in some of the jokes made at their expense.

From my childhood memories, in the farming community in which our family lived in the 1950s, there seemed to be greater willingness to listen to opposing political viewpoints than exists anywhere today. There seemed to be widespread acceptance that you need to listen to opposing political viewpoints if you want to argue against them effectively. People steered clear of discussion of religious differences and if anyone had views about sex and marriage that were at variance with conventional morality they didn’t discuss them openly.

The civility of the participants is obviously an important determinant of the amount of heat generated when contentious political issues are discussed. From my own experience, and limited discussions with others, I have the impression that in the 1950s people were generally more intent than they are now on maintaining civility when participating in political discussions. It seemed common for discussions to end in a meeting of minds on some points and respectful disagreement on others. Occasionally, when one of the main participants was intent on giving offence, discussions would end in an exchange of insults, or worse.

Have people become more open to listening to opposing views on other contentious issues since the 1950s?  A few years ago, I would have argued that the shibboleths had diminished as the major religions had become more tolerant of each other and a revolution in attitudes had caused many people to moderate their views of sexual morality.

It now seems that the old shibboleths have been replaced as new issues have become politicised. When issues become politicised it now seems to be much more common for people to parrot the views of the leaders of their political tribe and to refuse to consider opposing viewpoints. The art of listening seems to be disappearing from the public realm.

Steven Pinker has an interesting discussion of the politicization of issues in his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. He refers to research by the Dan Kahan, a legal scholar, who argues that bitter public disputes over science are now “the exception rather than the rule”. The exception arises when certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. To help make this point Kahan refers to recent U.S. history regarding vaccines for Hepatitis B and the HPV virus (a major cause of cervical cancer). Both vaccines prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Hep B vaccination has apparently been accepted without much opposition, but HPV vaccination has become a political firestorm because of fears that it would encourage teenage promiscuity. Kahan suggests that the difference stems from the way the two vaccines were introduced.  Hep B vaccination was treated as a routine public health matter, but the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine lobbied state legislatures to make vaccination of adolescent girls mandatory. Kahan’s view is supported by Australian experience of a voluntary HPV vaccination program being introduced successfully without the issue becoming politicised.

Issues often become politicized when they are taken up by political leaders. For example, it seems likely that by politicising the global warming debate, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth made it more difficult for conservatives to acknowledge the merits of any proposed policy action on climate change.

The media also plays a role in politicising issues by converting disagreement on public policy into a spectator sport.  In my view Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, is a major offender. The ABC’s charter requires it to inform and entertain, but unfortunately does not require it to encourage the reasoned debate and respectful disagreement necessary for liberal democracy to function effectively. In particular, the Q&A program seems to me to be designed to politicize policy debate. It entertains viewers by providing a forum for activist and conservative tribes to clash on totemic issues. Although some panellists and audience participants do their best to engage in reasoned debate, it would be difficult for any viewers to obtain a better understanding of alternative viewpoints from this program.

How can we have a useful exchange of views on issues that have become politicised? In a recent article on this blog I suggested that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings. That is rarely straight forward, of course, because interpretation of experience is not immune to ideological bias. But it is still good advice!

It can also be useful to ask people to explain views you disagree with, rather than asserting that they are talking nonsense. Steven Pinker notes that when people are asked to explain an opinion they often realize that they don’t know what they are talking about and become more open to counter-arguments. That is more likely to occur when they are aware that someone is listening intently to the answer they are giving.

This view is consistent with Leah Goldrick’s conclusion in a recent article about the know-it-all syndrome. On her blog, Common Sense Ethics, Leah writes:

“Thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. This is why doubt, not certainty, is so important. Doubt is the starting place that leads us to question the assumptions that have lead us to a particular conclusion, and doubt is what drives us to learn more if we will humble ourselves enough to consider that we may be wrong. Constant learning, from a place of humble confidence, rather than a place of arrogance, is the antidote to know-it-all syndrome”.

You are more likely to have useful exchanges of view if you “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. That is one of the rules that Jordan Peterson lists in his recent book, 12 Rules for Life (recently reviewed on this blog). Peterson suggests that we remain threatened by disease, self-deception, unhappiness and many other causes of suffering because we are too ignorant to protect ourselves. There is always potential for us to improve our own lives if we respect the personal experience of our conversational partners.

Some of my readers may be wondering whether there is any organisation they could joint to help cultivate a listening culture and improved communication in the community in which they live. A few weeks ago, the realisation dawned on me that for the past 16 years I have been a member of an organisation whose founder believed that “in bringing improvement in the way of better thinking, better listening, better speaking to individuals we are contributing to the improvement of the society which is made up of these individuals”. The quote is from an article by Ralph Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International, which appeared in the February 1958 issue of The Toastmaster. (The article, entitled, ‘The Toastmasters Club … Its Meaning and Values’, has been reproduced in Personally Speaking: Selections from the Writings of Dr Ralph C Smedley.)

The mission of Toastmasters is to develop communication and leadership skills of individual members so that they can achieve greater self-confidence and personal growth. The benefits that can bring to the lives of individual members are obvious but, as Ralph Smedley maintained, members of Toastmasters - now numbering more than 352,00 – also have an opportunity to contribute to “the building of a better society made up of individuals who must act in groups”.