Leadership and new ways of working – the piece that’s mostly missing

Carl Erik Herlitz Carl Erik Herlitz December 15, 2020

There is a lot happening today in the world around leadership and how we work together in our organizations. New progressive ways of working are being explored more and more, and we continue to wrestle with what leadership is, and should be, going forward. Many would say that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift, where we, on a large scale, are moving from more traditional hierarchical top-down ways of working to less hierarchical more bottom-up self-directed or self-managed ways.

As much as this shift is or might be happening, in the sense that many proclaim an intent to change ways of working and that many organisations also embark on these changes, we see that there is usually a crucial piece missing in order to get this to work, a piece which most of us are unaware of. And not only this, we are unaware of our unawareness. [see e.g. Martin Broadwell, Teaching for learning, 1969] In this article we will try to say something about how we see this missing piece, what it is, in what way it is vital to any attempt to develop our ways of working and, finally, something about how it should affect leadership training.

We have, given the aim of this piece, decided not to cite and include research, books and articles.

Apps

Perhaps, to use a common metaphor, most of what we do and are supposed to be doing in our organisations (including structures and processes) could be called apps. Accordingly, everything new that organisations today are trying out, experimenting with and implementing could also be called apps.

New ways of working can be anything from deciding that everyone in the organisation have to work in open-plan office spaces (for, it is said, more collaboration) or implementing Agile ways of working (which has caught on like wildfire also outside of software development) all the way to different more progressive versions of self-management. Other examples are that many companies today send their leaders on training in for instance (new models for) coaching or giving feedback. And just now, amid this pandemic, we are concerned with how to run online meetings (and how to navigate in a landscape where we are working remote) so that engagement and motivation can be maintained.

In all this, the focus usually seems to be on how to DO things differently. 

The Operating System (OS)

Many of these new apps are good and in line with a modern, empowering, trust-based way of working and culture. We see, however, that they are not working as intended when, something you could call, the “Operating System” (the OS) is not “upgraded.” Neither open-space offices, Agile ways of working, self-management, nor training in coaching, feedback or how to run online meetings will work well when the OS is outdated.

The OS here is leaders’ mindset and way of BEING, plus a few crucial skills that one hasn’t developed in the traditional paradigm of leadership. What we see is that this mindset and way of being, as well as these abilities, are crucial to having ANY of these new apps working well.

“The changes in which we will be called upon to participate in the future will be both deeply personal and inherently systemic. Yet the deeper dimensions of transformational change represent a largely unexplored territory… this blind spot concerns not the what and how – not what leaders do and how they do it – but the who: who we are and the inner place or source from which we operate, both individually and collectively.”

Senge, P et al. in Presence. Human purpose and the field of the future, 2004.

In fact, today many “old apps” also require an upgraded mindset and way of being for them to work. In other words, also traditional ways of working and doing today require an upgraded OS for them to work well.

(Note that the metaphor of apps and OS is used frequently – especially by people in tech and around Agile ways of working – but not, as we have been able to find, in quite the same way. See for example Aaron Dignan in “Brave New Work”, 2019 and Nik Kinsley & Shlomo Ben-Hur in “Leadership OS; The Operating System You Need to Succeed”, 2019. We wish that we had metaphors for these things that weren’t tech or machine related, but it seems harder to find those allegories and we have found this metaphor to be helpful when trying to convey our distinction.)

An outdated OS

Definition

In the current traditional OS – the one we are claiming is outdated – any leader is walking around with basically one question in mind, one question that he or she is wrestling with a lot.

And that question is:

“How can I make X … (this or that)?”

X is then an object of the leader’s thoughts and activities and can be one employee, one team or department or perhaps an entire organisation. We might as a leader, in relation to a team, be thinking: How can I make my team more motivated, how can I make them by into the change initiative we’ve decided on, how can I make them faster, better, sell more etc. … or, when thinking about one employee; How can I make Peter perform better, how can I make him more motivated, less arrogant, more diligent and so on. And when a leader (or any person for that matter) is thinking and wrestling with these questions, the leader always becomes in different ways like a PARENT – and the employee often (in different ways), influenced by the “parent”, in different ways like a CHILD. The mindset, the way of being, and the dynamic going on, will thus always be one of parent-child, that is the OS running in the background affecting everything in the foreground.

(Note that the notion parent-child etc. is not here used in the way it is defined in Transactional Analysis – and Eric Bern’s books – although there are some similarities. Note also that when we use the term Child, it is not to suggest that all employees are children. It is more an attempt to capture the dynamic Parent-Child. Any manager is of course also an employee and thus in a similar dynamic with his/her manager.)

Not being ourselves

In parenthesis one could add that we as managers, in the outdated OS, often also have a tendency to pretend somewhat, to not completely be ourselves but rather (to act) in a role, being a bit or a lot “manager-y”, something we’re also always blind to.

“… in the ordinary organization, everyone is doing a second job that no one is paying her for – looking good, staying safe, avoiding vulnerability.”

Roberg Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey in “An Everyone Culture”, 2016

Different strategies, what we do

That the mindset is parent-child is true even though most leaders’ strategies or ways of trying to get X to do or be something might be different. Some of us are more driven, powerful, frank, perhaps, what you could call, more issues oriented etc. whereas others might be more compassionate, caring and relationship and people oriented. Thus, these strategies, as an example, are totally different, but they are both completely given by “trying to get X to …” and both BEINGS are someone being responsible, as a parent.

How it affects us

Of course, most leaders are responsible in the way we organize things, but that’s not what we’re getting at here. What we are saying is that leaders in the old OS have a parentlike responsible mindset and way of being. In this sense you could say that the problem is not so much that we are working in hierarchical organisations, and that hierarchies don’t work. Instead you could argue that a bigger problem is that people are being hierarchical. And so, when a leader tries, with good intentions, to work in new ways; to give feedback, to coach, to lead in Agile ways, to lead online meetings or tries to implement self-management, it doesn’t work well because there is a “parent” coaching or giving feedback. There is a “parent” doing all of this. And, how that person is being comes across so much stronger than what he or she is saying or doing. It simply will not work well.

Examples

A “parent” cannot, to just give a few examples, coach in a good way because that person’s tendency to be responsible always comes across, for instance in the way questions have a “hidden agenda” (there is a strategy behind the questions) or are cautious, as in “Have you thought about a solution to this?” Note that key here is the person’s being, the OS, when asking. If the being is parent, this question is not empowering whereas if the being is not parent, it might be.

Similarly, when someone’s being is “parent”, feedback mostly comes across as criticism irrespective of which model of feedback the person is trying to follow or how gentle the feedback otherwise might be. To take an extreme example, someone being critical (parent) might even have a hard time saying “What a beautiful shirt you have on” without the other person feeling criticized or at least suspicious of the underlying intent. The being and the OS always comes across.

Another good example of this is the surge of Agile that we are currently in. The origin of Agile, the Agile Manifesto [see http://agilemanifesto.org/], predominantly is a description of Agile principles and values, and thus, you could say, a description of an Agile mindset. It is more a description of how to see things rather than how to do things. This mindset is also, in many ways, in line with how we choose to describe an upgraded OS, although naturally many aspects of the Manifesto is only related to the development of software. Whereas the focus thus mainly is on the mindset side of Agile, most attempts to transform organisations to Agile focus too much or solely on structures and processes, in other words, how to do Agile. And that doesn’t work well. Both because one is not living and being the values of Agile, only doing Agile, and also because there is a “parent” being the Agile coach or the Scrum Master. There is an outdated OS running in the background and the new app accordingly doesn’t work well. Many times, it ends up being what´s known as “bad agile”. [See e.g. Cristina Moura Rebelo in “Agile’s worst enemy is not waterfall – is bad agile”, 2018]

We cannot do otherwise

It is important to say that the fact that this OS – part of a paradigm of leadership that was put together at the end of the 19th century when we created industries as well as the notion of a manager or boss – is not bad or wrong and it is no-one’s fault. It is simply not conducive to new apps and new ways of working. And when we today step into any leadership position, we do not have a say in the matter. The OS and the paradigm are everywhere, as for example in expressed or unexpressed expectations on us as leaders as well as in so many books on leadership and, still, part of so much leadership training. We simply step into a leadership position and automatically start to think about “how we can get X to …?” And the more we are in it, the more it will get hold of us, become deeply ingrained habits and ways of thinking that we are not aware of (and not aware of us being unaware). And, thus, we do not have a choice.

Has worked but doesn’t anymore

It is also important to say that this OS and this way of being a leader of course has, in many ways, worked well in the past. But it is also, for so many reasons, clear that it is not working well anymore. Apart then from the fact that, so to speak, new apps don’t work well with an outdated OS (as in Agile doesn’t work well with a “parent” leading), it suffices here to just say that organisations today need all its employees to be fully engaged, motivated and allowed and encouraged to be responsible, and to take an “ownership”, for the whole. We need everyone to be empowered to think (!); about problems, challenges and possible solutions. This is especially so in this day and age when problems appear to be so much more complex rather than only being complicated and when work is becoming less repetitive and predictive. [Cf. David Snowden’s Cynefin Model in e.g. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”, 2007] And, to make way for all this, is impossible, we say, when a parent-child dynamic is running in the background.

Also exist between others

This OS, this parent-child mindset and way of being, will and can occur between all people who are in any hierarchical relationship or dynamic with each other, not only between managers and employees. It often exists between an Agile coach and his or her team, between a project leader and team members, between a more senior experienced colleague towards an inexperienced junior one as well as between a teacher and a student, an expert and a person seeking expertise, a doctor and a patient and finally, you could say, between authorities and citizens. In all these relationships, when there is some version of hierarchy going on, we have a tendency to become like a parent in our way of being, and we are completely blind to it.

Apps also influence the OS

Admittedly, new (perhaps prescribed) ways of doing things (i.e. apps) can also influence people’s (and leader’s) mindsets and ways of being (the OS), which sometimes also is the stated intention. What we see, however, is that this usually is a very slow process and often cannot, so to speak, “win” over a strong and powerful old habit of thinking and being, an old mindset.

An upgraded OS

Different ways of describing it

An upgraded OS is a completely different mindset and way of being (coupled with some crucial skills). Different degrees of this mindset and way of being, and what you could say is part of a new paradigm of leadership, can be detected or discovered in a myriad of different schools of thought and attempts to describe and capture leadership in new ways. It would here carry too far to try to account for all these different alternatives. There is however a common denominator running through many of these versions of leadership. In trying to capture this, one can for instance talk about, as we have done above, empowerment and an empowering way of being. One might also describe it as a coaching way of being (as long as one does not confuse it with the act of coaching), and one might also describe the leadership style as for instance involving or trust-based etc.

Our definition

We will talk about it here, in line with the parent-child metaphor, as an ADULT-ADULT mindset and way of being as well as describing it as an EMPOWERING leadership style. An adult-adult mindset is to be (a way of being) that others are and can be responsible although we as leaders, if that is the case, might be ultimately accountable. It is how we would relate to our employees if we would see them as partners (in an enterprise); how we would talk to them, how we would be with them … if we were not, consciously or subconsciously, thinking about “how to get X to … ?”

A few cornerstones

When we at Tuff try to describe this way of being and mindset, we distinguish it with a few cornerstones that we believe, put together, embodies an adult-adult mindset. Here, we would like to use a few words to briefly delineate two of them.

To begin with, and key to this mindset and our ability to be empowering, is to:

  • Relate to people’s potential

This is to be, that others have capacities, abilities and potential and to be that, beyond how it might appear right now and beyond, mostly, how people see themselves. Although this, at first, may seem abstract and difficult to grasp, it is a way of being that we (and our brain) detects, feels and are strongly affected by. We sense when others are that we are ok, good, have potential, when others relate to that unknown, to that perhaps not yet seen in us, that which hasn’t, so to speak, “bloomed” (cf. the so-called Pygmalion Effect).

When one is being that others have potential, it not only strongly affects how others experience us, it also directly influences what and how we can do in relations to them. We mentioned above how difficult it is to coach or give feedback in a good way as a “parent”. If we have an adult-adult mindset, and specifically relate to others’ potential, we are able to, in coaching, ask tough questions like: “What are you going to do about this?” Asked by someone relating to our potential is and feels empowering, asked by a “parent” it feels disempowering. As noted above, someone not relating to our potential often also asks cautious questions, like: “Have you thought about any possible solutions to this?” This way of asking, from a “parent”, is not empowering, we sense the cautiousness.

Similarly, someone relating to our potential can give us feedback in a really tough frank way. Whereas a critical person cannot even, as we noted above, say “how nice your shirt looks” without us feeling suspicious, someone relating to our potential might say, for example, that “I think you are not competent enough”. And although that isn’t fun to hear, by a long shot, we are still able to take it in because it comes from someone being that we are good, that we have potential, someone who is for us.

Perhaps it is easier, as was alluded to above, to realize the strong influence it has when someone is relating to our potential if we think of the opposite, viz, when others see us as bad, or not good, when others are being critical towards us. Thinking about that, we know how much we pick up on that, how strong we (and our brain) sense this and how we become affected by it, as in being more cautious, unsure of ourselves, doubtful and afraid. And how this, in turn, of course affects our performance (in research referred to as the Golem Effect). Hence, the opposite is equally true; when someone is that we are good, have potential, we do and perform so much better. To relate to other’s potential is therefore at the very heart of having an adult-adult mindset and way of being.

The other cornerstone we would like to bring up is:

  • Not your (active) own agenda

This is, you could say, a corollary to not thinking about and trying to get X to … something. Because when we are thinking about that, and trying to get them to something, we are having (or, you could say, are in) our own active agenda about them, an agenda which is not theirs. It is us, trying to get them to. Accordingly, having an adult-adult mindset and way of being is to be working and relating to them in line with their agenda, on their, so to speak, “assignment”. This doesn’t mean that we as leaders cannot have an agenda but, if that is so, it needs to be theirs as well. If our employees, the ones we are leading, do not have an agenda, does not want something, well, then we need to have a conversation with them about the possibility of them choosing. And that choice can either be a choice “from many” as when someone freely chooses their own target or goal. Or it can be, so to speak, a choice “from one”, as when someone is given an opportunity to choose something which has already been decided by someone else. Continuing with the target example, this is the case when the target or goal has been decided and an employee gets an opportunity to choose that, or rather, his or her relation to it. Being able to have this kind of conversation with our employees, a conversation where they get a chance to choose something which is given, is in fact one of the more crucial abilities and types of conversations one can have as an adult-adult leader.

So, through choice in both these examples above (choice “from many” or “from one”), the employee, the other person, gets an agenda. Again, if it is only our agenda, well then, we are trying to get them to … something and we’re being our version of a parent.

It is not what you’re doing, it’s your being

Remember that we are here only talking about an upgraded OS, i.e. another mindset and way of being, and that this is not the same as what we are doing (which sometimes could be called apps when they are prescribed ways of doing). So as an adult-adult, empowering, leader we can choose to do different things depending on the situation and what we believe is relevant and needed. We can for instance choose to share our expertise, choose to give advice to someone (if that is asked for) or we can choose to coach someone (again, if that is asked for). And it is important to realize that the quality of what we are doing – be it giving advice or coaching – will be so much higher, it will work so much better, if we do it with a chosen empowering adult-adult mindset and way of being compared to an already given automatic parent one.

Choice and slowing down

And this deserves to be emphasized; choice and choosing are in many ways the most important words in all this! Because in order for us to move to this other “place”, to find this other way of being and mindset, we need to slow down, catch ourselves (in our automatic ways of being and doing), reflect … and make choices (more on this below). And if we as leaders (and human beings) dare to slow down and choose, everything changes. We become reflective, we are able to catch ourselves, and we are able to choose … to give an advice or to coach, to say something or not to say something etc. And irrespective of what we do, it and we become better when we choose.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.

Victor Frankle, Man´s search for meaning

We also become, only by this, immensely more comfortable to be near and will, in an extraordinary way, contribute to a safer place for our employees and colleagues. If we slow down, as well as allowing there to be moments of silence, everyone around us will appreciate it.

Here below is an attempt to show how our mindset and way of being affects everything that we’re doing and the move from parent-child to adult-adult. It thus underscores that a leader, in adult-adult, can choose to do anything, e.g. giving advice or informing about a change that’s been decided. As stated, we also assert that anything that we choose to do has so much more quality compared to when it “happens” automatically due to be OS we’re in. We however of course also think that the more adult-adult you are there are certain things that you naturally will start to do more of and certain things that you will do less of.

A few vital abilities

We have, when distinguishing the OS above, talked mostly about it as a mindset and a way of being. We have however also said that a few crucial abilities must be added to this OS. It should be noted that most of these abilities can be described both as an ability and as a way of being, perhaps being in the intersection of being and doing. Thus, relating to someone’s potential is viewed above as a way of being but could also be described as something we do. Similarly, when we describe an ability with the words “the ability to be”, the connection between being and doing becomes obvious. Some of the vital abilities that come to mind are:

  • The ability to listen – as in being able to hear what’s beneath the surface of issues as well as leaving the other person with an experience of being heard, or “gotten”
  • The ability to ask questions that place a problem or the responsibility with another person and move things forward (an ability at the centre of coaching)
  • The ability to be clear and frank in an empathetic respectful way (an ability at the centre of empowering feedback)
  • The ability to be non-reactive, to be with how it is, how things are … and to make choices
  • The ability to “be oneself”, not pretending or “in a role”, to be authentic

These are just a few abilities that we believe are crucial for being an effective powerful adult-adult leader. Maybe you could, with a sports metaphor, compare them to some basic attributes, like speed, strength and endurance. If you do not develop these abilities, you cannot be good at almost any sport. And the same is true with many of the abilities we include in the upgraded OS, such as listening, they are vital to any kind of good leadership.

Whereas you could argue that listening should be a key ability also in the old OS, many, if not most, of the more parent-child activities that we engage in are connected to parent strategies, like talking a lot, arguing, persuading, nagging, solving, taking care of, inspiring (i.e. trying to) etc. And as you can see, most of these activities are related to “getting X to …” (and there is usually a great deal of, what we could call, “broadcasting” going on). These are then the abilities that most managers and leaders train every single day and accordingly they do not (get a chance to) practice for instance listening. As we will come back to, many of these abilities or qualities that leaders develop are directly counterproductive to the new OS, as in the ability to talk a lot …

One challenge that we could note, when we talk about practicing (new) abilities, is that we don’t have enough words to convey differences. As an example, listening in the old OS compared to listening in the new is two fundamentally different activities and abilities. If we generalize, we predominantly listen for “the surface issue” in the parent-child OS (what is the issue, what is relevant for it and how can it be handled or solved?) whereas we, in the adult-adult OS, also listens for what’s beneath the surface (as in emotions, feelings, ways of being and mindsets etc.) as well as trying to leave the other person with an experience of really being heard, or gotten. But both are described as listening (the latter at times with prefixes such as “active” or “empathetic” etc.). Consequently, if we say that we all need to improve our listening abilities, and we need to practice listening, some will think; “I know how to listen, there is nothing wrong with my hearing (!), to train that isn’t worth the time or the effort”. In other words, it is hard to convey that “no, it is a completely different thing, something which you do not master, and which would give you completely different results!” Thus, the lack of words prevents us from realizing and being aware (as we will talk more about later). It should also be noted again that we use parent-child as a term for the specific dynamic (OS) we all tend to end up in any hierarchical relationship. It does not say that (real) parents cannot listen in a great way.

In summary, as we said in the beginning of this article, we see today an ambition to move away from the parent-child paradigm and way of working in many of our organisations and companies. If one generalizes, one can see this as two different trends. Either one tries to make structures and processes more in line with an adult-adult culture, i.e. implement new apps, or one can try to support people in finding a new mindset and way of being, i.e. to upgrade the OS, or one can do both. In the picture below, we have placed structures and processes (apps) on the vertical axes and mindsets, ways of being and cultures (OS) on the horizontal one. In that way, organisations may be placed in four different quadrants.

In the lower left corner are many old traditional companies and organizations. They have mostly parent-child ways of doing things (structures and processes) as well as a traditional parent-child dynamic between managers and employees.

As noted, we believe that many attempts, in creating new ways of working, are focusing too much on only the apps side of things, i.e. what we are doing or supposed to be doing (including then structures and processes) and too little on the OS side of things, i.e. how we are being and the mindset we’re having. Examples of this, in the upper left corner of the picture, are small companies, start-ups as well as many IT companies. In these organisations one often adopts or invents new ways of working as in different versions of Agile or moving in different ways towards self-management. Coupled with this, in many of these organisations there is also a strong distain for traditional leadership (sometimes looked at as “old boring top-down waterfall kind of leadership”) together then with an absence of any other kind of leadership. The result of this is that the traditional OS is nonetheless still running in the background influencing the effectiveness of the more adult-adult apps and ways of doing things that has been enacted. Or there is, which is frequent, a kind of leadership vacuum since one doesn’t know how to be a leader without being in the old traditional way. One does not, for instance, know how to “deal and talk with someone who is constantly late for meetings” without sounding like a “boring top-down manager”, which one wants to avoid at all costs. And thus, there is a leadership vacuum where the issue is not addressed.

Some more traditional organisations, that we are calling here Empowering organisations, are trying to shift the culture, and the dynamic between managers and employees, away from the parent-child towards a more adult-adult, although many of their structures remain parent-child. They’re thus trying to upgrade the OS within a parent-child environment, which also is challenging. A simple example of an old structural app thing is when we send out a leadership survey asking employees to what degree they experience their manager as being inspiring or motivating. That would then be a parent-child questions within an ambition to create an adult-adult dynamic between managers and employees.

Finally, there are progressive organisations which endeavour to do both, they’re enacting more adult-adult structures and apps as well as upgrading the OS with leaders (and employees).

Why it is so hard to learn

If we are to transform our way of working, if we want to take full advantage of new structures, processes and have them work really well, we need to transform ourselves, we need to acquire or “learn” a new mindset, way of being (together with a few other vital abilities). This however doesn’t have to be scary in the sense that there is a risk that we will, so to speak, loose ourselves (which by the way is impossible). Instead, it is more of an unfolding, us being able to choose more, being able to be more, being able to choose other ways of being and mindset, when we discover and see how much better it works. It is us not being on automatic, given by the paradigm and OS we’re blind to.

There are however several reasons why it is challenging to learn this, or, as we are saying here, to upgrade the OS.

Don’t know that we don’t know

First, as we have mentioned above, we are not aware of us having a parent-child mindset and way of being and there is thus no incentive to learn and change. For some it is because we do not think about, see or, generally speaking, pay attention to our (and others) way of being. We are so, what we call, surface issues (or apps) oriented that ways of being and mindsets, beneath the surface of issues, simply doesn’t exist, are none-existent.

Some also think – as research on for instance managers in Sweden has shown – that they are already like that, that they already have this empowering coaching leadership style and way of leading. But if one asks their employees however, they usually display surprise and asks: “Have you met him (or her)?!” To this point, research also tells us that what we (theoretically) believe in or agrees with is often also how we think we are and think we are doing. So, for us in training, the first step is often to take leaders out of their illusion …

In addition to this, the problem is that we do not know that we don’t know or, you could say, we are unaware of the fact that we are unaware. So, compared to other things that we might need to learn, where we know that we don’t know, this truly gets in the way of learning, because there isn’t a need, there isn’t a reason. We’re blind to it.

“We already know how to be good parents at work. The alternative, partnership, is something we are just learning about. Our difficulty with creating partnership is that parenting – and its stronger cousin, patriarchy – is so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory and armature that we don’t even realise we are doing it.”

Peter Block in “Stewardship”, 1993.

Goes against the current OS

Acquiring, and adding, a new mindset and way of being is challenging also because it goes against the predominant view of how leadership looks and should look like. So, when we try to be in a more adult-adult way people will often think that we’re not being leaders, that we’re not exercising leadership, because it doesn’t, in their eyes (and OS), look like leadership. Perhaps it looks weak to them, irresponsible, lacking drive or simply absent etc. And hence they will in different ways oppose, question and criticise how we’re being and what we’re doing. This reaction may of course come from “above” but can just as well come from our direct reports wanting a manager who is more “inspiring”, more “directive and clear”, providing more solutions etc. In essence, wanting a much “better parent”.

“There is a cost to an organisation committed to the freedom of its members, and that is the anxiety and seeming unpredictability that this carry. Managers would lose some of the hunting rights that parenting carries with it. We would have to confront our own need for control at a deeper level and, more important, confront our own lack of faith in the possibilities of the people around us. We are each afraid of our own freedom, and thus we are afraid of the freedom of those around us.”

Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block, “Freedom and Accountability”, 2001

“Ingrained in our muscle memory”

A third reason why it is so challenging to upgrade the OS is because, as Peter Block wrote in the quote above, the parent-child OS is deeply ingrained in our muscle memory. Not only are we blind to how much parent-child we are, it is also, even if we see this, immensely challenging to be and do differently and to, what you could call, unlearn something. That is of course because we for such a long time now have been in this way, it is what we have been practicing, it is what we are used to, it is part of our routines, pattern and habits and thus our muscle memory All this becomes stronger and stronger the more we’ve been being in this way, the longer we for instance have worked as leaders and managers. So, to do and be differently is hard, it feels strange, unnatural and, in addition, it is often difficult to see what good it does, because we’re used to seeing results in a certain way or because we underestimate the value it brings.

(When we say unlearn, we don’t mean that as in taking away something, or that that would even be positive, if it is possible, which it is not. What unlearning here represents is to add something, to add new ways of being, new ways of doing, and when these become stronger (as in the new OS), the old ways are no longer dominating.)

It should be noted that many of these abilities that we naturally practice in the old OS are those that we, and others, consider to be our strengths, our qualities. Remember when we said earlier that we are all in this parent-child mode irrespective of what strategy we might use to “get X to … something”. These parent strategies are for instance to be solution or result oriented, responsible, driven or, coming from the other direction (and perhaps less frequent), to be caring, helping and nurturing. These very qualities, that helped us, that we leaned on, that we’ve been rewarded for, made way for our career etc., are often counterproductive when we’re trying to be more adult-adult, especially when there is too much of them. Our very tendency to be, for instance, responsible or caring goes directly against our ambition to be more adult-adult. [Cf. Daniel Ofman’s model Core Quality Quadrants.] 

Change is pain

Finally, when we try to do anew, try to do things differently, to change, it is hard and painful. Painful because our brain is designed to keep us safe (and survive) and to do differently, change, not only requires and takes up so much more energy (than moving on autopilot) it is altogether something which the brain thoroughly, for our safety, wants us to avoid and thus send us continuously the signal that something is wrong … and that is truly painful and makes it hard.

“Much of what managers do in the workplace – how they sell ideas, run meetings, manage others, and communicate – is so well routinized that the basal ganglia are running the show. Trying to change any hardwired habit requires a lot of effort, in the form of attention. This often leads to a feeling that many people find uncomfortable. So, they do what they can to avoid change.”

David Rock & Jeffrey Schwartz in The Neuroscience of Leadership

Implications for leadership training

Any leadership training, we believe, that doesn’t include upgrading the OS, giving leaders a chance to find and develop an adult-adult mindset and way of being, doesn’t do the job. At least not if one is serious about, and has a real commitment to, change and to transform our ways of working. To reiterate, implementing new apps simply will not work well with an outdated OS, especially so, if those apps proclaim to adhere to adult-adult values and principles of self-management and self-leadership. Leaders and companies not “walking the talk” will often erode people’s confidence in the sincerity of the projects.

It is of course clear that it will not be enough, in order to upgrade an OS, to just understand the concepts theoretically, for instance what we are here trying to give away. This kind of leadership training cannot be traditional education delivered in a linear fashion such as when we learn a new language or software and start on a basic level and then move on to more nuanced complex aspects. This is teaching and learning in the domain of moving from “knowing what we don’t know” to “knowing”.

It cannot also be to simply give leaders new models for how to do things either. That would amount to teaching leaders new apps, like how to do Agile or how to coach and give feedback in new ways. Understanding how to do, simply will not suffice, especially since, as we’ve been saying throughout this article, the OS of a parent-child always will get in the way.

Leadership training then must include the OS, leaders’ mindset and way of being!

This kind of leadership training has to be a transformative un-linear learning and development journey where one is moving from, what you could call, “unconscious inability” (don’t know that we don’t know), to “conscious inability (know that we don’t know) to “conscious ability”. [Cf. Noel Burch’s Four Stages of Competency] Such training could include distinguishing, and setting the stage for, the two domains, paradigms and OS:s of parent-child and adult-adult, delineating in what way an adult-adult mindset differs from a parent-child. Thereinafter it would be all about practical challenging training, where the main purpose would be to “get” how one can be as an adult-adult leader! The question running through such training would be: “How can we be effective powerful leaders without being like parents?”

“When you think about practice in these ways, what type of practice comes to mind? Practicing a sport? A musical instrument? Meditation? It isn’t a coincidence that most people don’t think this way about their jobs. The culture of most organizations is not designed for practice; it’s designed for performance. Everyone is trying to look good, display expertise, minimize and hide any mistakes or weaknesses, and demonstrate what they already know and can do well. In a culture of practice, in contrast, everyone is learning and growing.”

Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey in An Everyone Culture 2016

It would be practicing in situations which are, for us as leaders today, common practical and challenging where we would try on and acquire new other different (and better) ways of doing things, ways of doing that are in line with an adult-adult mindset and way of being. Our way of doing that is to show and provide leaders with clear “steps” (or phases) on how to do things in an adult-adult way, for instance relating to a specific type of conversations. Listening is, to take just one example, a crucial “step” in every adult-adult conversation and, after having been shown how and when to do that step, leaders are then practicing and doing those steps and thereby, little by little, starting to get at sense of how an adult-adult mindset and way of being is for them. They will thus try out how to do it in an adult-adult way, getting accurate and clear feedback, and through this, and in parallel, discovering and realizing how they can be as adult-adults. Here is a picture of how this unlearning and learning might look.

It is thus not at all like learning a language, more like learning how to ride a bicycle or to windsurf, as when we don’t get it, don’t get it … and, suddenly, get “balance”. And getting it will then include how it’s possible to do things differently as well as, and more importantly, seeing clearly, and painfully, when we are being parent-child. Thus, we will begin to see our pitfalls and, one could say, have “them” – which gives us access to choice – rather than the pitfalls having us – when we are blind and have no chance of choosing anything outside of what we are used to, what’s in our muscle memory, what’s in the old paradigm and OS.

And from such realization onwards, it will be about us catching ourselves, slowing down, reflecting … and making choices. And bit by bit we will unlearn, relearn and form new pathways in our brains, new possible ways of being and doing things and, eventually, having new habits (what one could call, in continuing with the model, having “unconscious abilities”). And so, we start to be able to have an adult-adult mindset and way of being, the OS is upgraded … and many of our apps will start to function better. The missing piece has been found.

We believe that effective leadership training, training that actually has an effect on our OS:s, have some features in common.

  • The training is practical, challenging and transformative with continuous accurate revealing feedback. The trainers have an ability to give exact feedback also on leader’s way of being, their version of being a parent.
  • The training is over a longer period of time. It cannot be “half a day about leadership.” This is hard, so we all need to practice and be able to practice several times, revisiting it again and again … until we start to “get it”.
  • The training is done in a safe environment where we all dare to be beginners, dare to make lots of mistakes and dare to share how difficult, frustrating and challenging this is (we sometimes refer to this state, when it is all new and really hard, as being in an “incompetence coma” ?)
  • The training is, to begin with, off-site. It is almost impossible to upgrade our OS, our mindset and way of being, in an environment where everything calls us to be as we have been (an environment where we are all blind to our way of seeing leadership as parent-child). Thus, the popular notion of 70-20-10, where it is said that 70 % of learning, generally speaking, should be in our everyday work life, doesn’t hold true when it comes to learning new ways of being. Conversely, we need to be in a safe “bubble”, a bit away from our usual setting. After, when the seeing has shifted, when one is no longer unaware of one’s unawareness, then it will be all about taking this step by step into one’s everyday work-life. Online training, however, can work if one can “be away” (and together, on our respective screens) for a longer period of time.
  • And, finally, the training is usually generic in the sense that it is about our general mutual tendency to be in parent-child notwithstanding the details and specifics otherwise of our work, our responsibility and what line of business we are in. The “specifics” of our (current) situation can easily distract and draw us away from the main purpose. Here, it will be much more about how to find and develop an adult-adult mindset and being rather than how to deal with a specific situation and challenge we might find ourselves in (e.g. a specific change process that we are currently in). In this way one might even claim, provocatively so, that this kind of training often will look the same for everyone (because we, on a deeper level, are the same, have the same OS) and not be something “tailor-made” for our specific situation. Our presumption that “tailor-made”, something developed for our special needs, always is better is thus wrong. On the other hand, good training will also deliver extremely accurate transformational, and thus very personalized, feedback. And it will also be possible to train our “specific situation or challenge” if, and only if, the trainers are skilled enough to always and continuously extract the learnings in the context of parent-child vis-à-vis adult-adult.

In summary

  • There is often a missing piece when we try to enact new ways of working, a piece that we tend to be unaware of and we’re unaware of our unawareness.
  • Because of our unawareness, there is no need, no incentive, no reason to find and develop that which is missing.
  • We assert that without this missing piece nothing will work well!
  • If you want to, you can call what we are doing or supposed to be doing, in our organisations, apps. These apps are always, always, running on top of an Operating System (the OS) which is our mindset, way of being plus a few vital abilities.
  • It is the attention to, and the upgrading of, the OS that so often is the missing piece.
  • One way of capturing this (outdated) OS, that usually is running in the background, is to discover the question that almost all of us is thinking about and wrestling with, viz. “How can I make X … (this or that)?” And when we are thinking about that we become our version of a parent. We have, without having a choice in the matter, a parent-child mindset and way of being … and we are completely blind to it.
  • If we want things to work well, in this day and age, we have to upgrade the OS and find and develop an adult-adult mindset and way of being.
  • There are several dimensions to such an adult-adult mindset and way of being, but the key is to relate to people’s potential and be that people can and are responsible. And again, it is how we are being, how we show up, how we are experienced, more so than what we are doing.
  • This mindset, this upgraded OS, works well today with any apps and, you could say, with everything that we choose to do, like when we choose to give advice or choose to coach. It also works better irrespective of how we otherwise choose to organize ourselves, all the way from, say, McDonald’s (where everything that we do is according to a strict protocol or manual) to progressive self-managed organisations (where we have the mandate to decide most everything about our own work). These companies, you could say, simply have different apps.
  • Upgrading our OS, our mindset and way of being, is a huge undertaking. The old OS, how we have been being, is so ingrained in our muscle memory, as well as in our environment, that it requires commitment, courage, time and lots of training. But it is also fun and immensely rewarding as we discover how we can be a leader that truly empowers our employees and colleagues.
  • We believe that leadership development, as we have distinguished it above, is crucial for our organisations and companies in facing the challenges of the 21st

Sometimes when we talk about this kind of training, this “journey”, we say that it will be like traveling to this strange foreign planet. A planet where things are so different, where it doesn’t feel natural, where we often feel confused, uncomfortable, frustrated and perhaps, sometimes, will not be able to see the point. And we also say that this is the place, without a doubt, that we’re all heading towards. We better prepare ourselves.