What Makes Leadership Work?
by Robert Dunham

What do I do now? That's the question I asked myself as a software programmer, who suddenly found himself in the senior management ranks. I was now responsible for planning and coordinating the work of two hundred and fifty software engineers and their managers. I hadn't done this scale of managing and leading before. I had led platoons in the army, and had led the small Hubble Space Telescope onboard software team of four people. But this was a new order of management challenge.

I wasn't sure how to go about this, and after several months was still unsure about how I was doing and whether we were going to produce the products we were working on. I was anxious, uncertain, and straining. No one seemed to know what to tell me. I attended the meetings, we agreed on doing things, but I was tense with my uncertainty about what would happen, and exhausted from trying to get other people to act.

What happened in this transition to a new, larger scale of responsibility for the actions of others is a common experience for people who are promoted into bigger responsibilities in their careers. I discovered that I didn't really know what management is, and didn't find anyone who seemed to know better. Were we all faking it, working hard and hoping? What would good management look and feel like? This would become a driving concern for me in my life and career.

I've been on the hunt ever since to find ways to work with others, to manage, to lead with clarity, impact, and a sense of feeling at home. This search and what it has found was fundamental to my subsequent work as a vice president in several companies and ultimately led me to found a company dedicated to building a discipline to address these challenges.

Lifeless Management, Organizational Pain

That the current conceptions of management and teamwork are inadequate is clear by just observing most organizations at work. Even companies that have a healthy bottom line do not often have healthy organizations, people, and moods. There is tremendous human energy and possibility being wasted in all but the very best organizations. Organizational life is for too many people a place of hope, then disappointment, of ambition, then resignation, of energy too often unused or misused, voices ignored and a sense of disconnection. I say this from over twenty years of experience in line management, consulting to dozens of companies and executive teams, and working with hundreds of managers and executives to strengthen their skills in management, leadership, and producing organizational excellence.

Management is largely thought of today as a set of tasks and techniques, with a strong dose of problematic people issues. MBA programs teach a host of analytical skills, with perhaps some active projects and communication training. But the available education tends to suffer from our cultural intellectual tradition that has us abstract things, then try to understand them.

Get the theory, then apply it. But it's one thing to understand and be able to talk about, say courage, or generosity, or open listening, or team building, and another to do it. In fact, we may think we understand courage, but when the time comes for action we may find that we are not able to act in a way we consider courageous. We can't "apply" a theory for courage, we must be able to act courage, not think courage.

In all actions that we assess strongly as virtues and vices we act from more than our heads. We act from where we have to face our fear, our doubt, our tendencies, and our connection to or disconnection with others. We have to feel our way to courage. We have to find what being courageous is, as with love. We don't 'do' love. We find what loving is in our experiences, what its feel is, its breath, and energy, then we learn to go there, and going there is a continuous path of learning, and creating, what love is. In the same way, we must learn how to be leaders, managers, communicators, team members and collaborators with others.

For most, management and organizational life are contained in a language of tasks, things to do, and results to achieve. Too often we have no language, awareness, or practices for care, for commitment, ambition, or even passion. Our cultural common sense places us in a space of thinking of using people and ourselves as mechanisms of production, not sources of energy, possibility, and drive. Too often leadership is seen as directive behavior that doesn't connect people to their own concerns and energy, but emphasizes a sterile discipline of effort and obedience. We need a leadership of connection. Connection to what people care about most deeply, to their generative energies, and to each other and their capacity to create together.

Toward Generative Leadership and Management

There is already a mass of current interpretations about leadership and management. Yet there is a blind spot in this mainstream common sense. MBA programs, for example, expose people to leading thinking and frameworks for business and to functional skills like finance, marketing, and strategy. But what is missing is a more fundamental perspective on how people interact, create action and the future, since everything in business and organizational life flows from the interactions of people (what else are sales, marketing, financial transactions, customer service or projects?). What understanding does exist in the mainstream about this foundation is descriptive, not generative. By this I mean that someone can describe, or recognize, leadership or, say, effective teamwork, but they don't have interpretations or skills of how to generate them. We need a generative foundation for leadership and management.

The discussions of what happens in organizational life and business tend to be anecdotal in nature, for example, case studies or abstractions of principles. However, the abstractions leave out the foundation - what happens with people, what they really do, and how they really react. We wind up with ideas to talk about, but no insight into the moments of creation where people act and interact with other people.

My colleagues and I have developed what we believe is a generative foundation for leadership and management. Its results demonstrate a powerful and effective framework for answering the question "What do I do now?" This foundation is built on awareness and attention to language, commitment, and how they are embodied in the body. It is based on making distinctions where we have been blind, and enables us to generate new actions that are recognized as leadership, management, teamwork, and satisfying work life.

We cannot manage without the language of management and the body of management. Language that produces action, coordination, and shared commitment, which cannot happen without the body that connects to others, produces trust, can listen and be heard. These dimensions provide a generative foundation that is missing in our mainstream common sense of management and leadership. This foundation gives us new answers to the questions what is leadership and management, and how do we do them - answers that we can see, do, and learn. These answers, when engaged with in authentic learning for action, enable us to go beyond our current limits.

Overcoming Our Limits

Management, organizational life, and team involvement put us in contact with each other in ways that our actions and interactions have consequences - the consequences of social identity, group dynamic, and success or failure in career and business. Committing ourselves to leadership and management places us in a posture of responsibility for the actions and outcomes of teams, groups, organizations, and communities of people. We must face the "other" and interact in ways that produce something that will be shared. In doing so we must first face ourselves, our own limits, fears, anxieties, and resignations, and the impact of our energies, presence, and interactions on others.

Like marriage, family, and relationship, we share a part of our lives with desires, hopes, and commitments for positive outcomes. We act and produce outcomes in our interactions with others, and then live in our accompanying stories, interpretations, and moods about all of that. We find our limits, and may interpret these limits as the restrictions of external reality and the peculiarities of others, or we may look at the limits as products of our own ways of acting and being. When we look for the limits within us, we will find where we can shift our actions and ourselves to go beyond them.

There are some very common kinds of limits that I have found people have in organizational life. What makes these limits so common is that most people fall into a common narrative about themselves and what is, and is not, possible in their relations with authority and demand. The most common manifestation of this limit is the inability to say "no," or the inability to ensure that they only make agreements that they are confident they can fulfill.

A common excuse is that "My boss won't accept my saying no. I might get fired." This fear and expectation then lead people to overcommit, overwork, under-perform, lose any hope of excellence in their own or their organization's work, and ultimately leads to dissatisfied customers and unfulfilled promises. Yet the root of this dynamic is fear, distrust, and a lack of shared cultural standards for professional honesty. The result is organizations with a deck of cards of fragile commitments, withheld honesty, and resignation anticipating failure and impending blame. Overcommitment is an endemic disease in almost all of the organizations that I have worked with over the years.

Yet committing to what you are unsure you can fulfill, or sure that you cannot, is not a productive strategy for success. If we learn to counteroffer, to negotiate sincerely with a commitment to satisfy those we commit to, we can produce a different future for all involved.

In one of our projects we worked with one of the largest software companies in the world. They had decided to form an engineering group that would provide the software components shared by all their major products. This would reduce duplication of efforts, make shared services among their products easier to design and implement, increase the quality of the products and reduce costs dramatically. The team, about seventy engineers, was having severe difficulties. People were working eighty-hour weeks, yet they were delivering code months late, causing tremendous lost revenue.

Their code was delivered with numerous quality problems, personnel turnover was rising in the group, and the organizations they were delivering to were upset and angry due to the poor performance and lack of communication.

The problem was that the group managers were committing to more than the group could deliver in the impression that they "couldn't say no." First we had to enable the group managers to confront this interpretation, and the fear and resignation that it produced. In conversations we developed a different interpretation - that committing to more than you can be sure of doing is not taking care of those you commit to. This will lead to sure dissatisfaction and trouble. Instead, we opened conversations to produce trust, to demonstrate commitment to the needs of the requesters, and to educate them to the limits of capacity and of feasibility. Then in a mood of cooperative co-design, to figure out how to best produce satisfaction for the customer of the work within the limits of capacity, feasibility, and energy.

To interact with requests and demands in this way is more than a change of ideas, it requires a change in the body, a body that can be settled, clear, and connected with demand and not driven into fear and inarticulate collapse or acquiescence. It is a reappropriation of our capacity of choice where our smell of danger has us react. . We put the management team into exercises to explore how to avoid overcommitment while producing trust with their counterparts. We followed up with coaching in the team's working meetings, and in the group's meetings and conversations with their internal customers.

The group managers learned how to have a new kind of conversation, make a new kind of agreement, and shift their automatic reactions in a new direction. This was not an application of ideas, it was practicing a new set of actions, skills, emotional reflexes, and blending them with other people. As a result of learning to decline, counteroffer, negotiate, and co-design, as well as stay in regular conversations of taking care of their internal customers, the group produced a radical shift in their management practices and the results they produced.

Three months later, the group delivered its next delivery on time instead of late. The acceptance test found no software errors instead of hundreds of them. The group members were working with livable work loads, they hadn't had to borrow from the work being done on the next release to make this one, and the internal customers were satisfied and complimenting the group's management team.

This came from a new interpretation, new conversations, new practices, and new embodied skills in dealing with their own automatic moods, emotional tendencies, and inclinations. They had become more effective leaders, more valuable as a team, and produced a work life of achievement and fulfillment, rather than anxiety, exhaustion, and failure.

To do this, they had to learn new skills in communication, new ways of speaking and listening. But they had to get past the words to a new embodiment of commitment and action.

The Language of Action and Creation

We must first become aware of the power of the language we live in. We create our future in language. It lives in our interpretations, our expectations, and our commitments. These are all constructed in our conversations and language. We also create action in our interpretations and language. If we are the creators, the authors of our actions and future, why don't we do a better job of it? Why is there so much dissatisfaction, miscoordination, and unfulfilled possibilities?

Because most of us are blind to our capacity to create our actions and the future, and blind to the creating that we are already doing. Our interpretations are so potent that when we build a story of what is possible and what is not, that is how reality shows up for us. To be specific, we create the future in our stories built around certain judgments of what is possible and what is not, and in the commitments that we make based on those judgments. For example, if we say that we are going to become a physician, we create a story of the future in which we are becoming a physician, and our reactions to what happens will be based on whether we judge we are successfully becoming a physician or not. We have created a future of "becoming a physician."

We create this possibility through declaration, and if we really own our declaration, then we take actions based on it. We take pre-med courses, apply for medical school, study medicine, and decide on the field we will take our residency in. We commit to these actions out of our commitment to become a physician. These commitments shape the future we expect, future actions we will take, and how we will judge whether our future is turning out positively, or negatively if we don't fulfill our commitments.

We also create the future together. We may live in the interpretation that we will get married some day. We see other people as possibilities or not as partners in some future marriage. We find ourselves spending time with one, or several, people which we consider candidates for a lifetime partnership. We may invite someone to marry us, and make a commitment that changes our future forever, and if they accept, we are now co-creating a future together, in whatever story we build with the other. When we build a team or mount a project, we are also building a future with others.

Projects are bits of creating shared futures. What are we going to do? What are we going to produce? How are we going to do this? Who is going to do what? And so we create a future of purpose, action, and outcome.

We may be blind as to how we create the future, but we do so anyway everyday, moment to moment in our thinking, speaking, and interactions with others. When we enter the interpretation that we are creating the future, and learn to see the moves of declaration and commitment we make, we see our world differently. We see where we can become more effective in creating futures we care about, where we can move with more power, and where we can learn to better engage with others to create futures we share.

Leadership and management are ways of moving with others to create shared futures. To develop our abilities in doing so requires we become aware of what we are doing, imagine how to do it better, and enter practices that enable us to actually do what we imagine. We must alter our bodies, our embodied ways of listening, interpreting, acting and interacting.

Walter, for example, was considered a top-flight technical performer when he began to study management with us. As is often the case, his excellence in his field was considered to qualify him as a candidate for management, even though the skills of management and the skills of his technical work were largely unrelated. He arrived and seemed quite stiff and socially withdrawn. The projects he was being asked to manage were having trouble, the people working with him had negative assessments of his work with them, and the customers his teams worked for were not satisfied. Walter was a nice guy, but terse, literal, and technical.

Walter had a presence of remoteness, affability, and dry logic. He tended to go into his own logic when speaking to people and would lose them. He would argue for his points, but not connect with the concerns of those he was talking to. He asked his team members to do things, but didn't get commitments. His body was stiff and speech chopped. The contracted way he moved in his body led me to doubt the impact we could have with him in his learning. I thought he would be a "project," and take up to two years to loosen up and embody effective management skills.

We worked with Walter in group exercises, and followed up with regular coaching calls. We showed him how to explore communication, how to look and open to the dimensions that his technical information perspective was hiding from him. As we pointed out each new dimension to investigate, it became time to learn anew.

He practiced different kinds of listening and speaking, orienting to commitment in his action conversations, but interacting with openness to what his team members were saying, and not saying. He softened, learning to extend and connect. He negotiated with people to design next steps. His team's performance improved, his customers started reporting satisfaction, and his team members began to speak positively of him. The shift was fully underway in about six months, faster than I had hoped for. But the shift came not from Walter learning in his prior analytical way, getting ideas and then applying them. The shift came from Walter letting his body learn, from shifting his embodiment. Walter did not stay the same, and then apply new ideas. His practice shifted how he perceived, how he listened, how he spoke, and the energy of his presence. Walter shifted his embodiment, and with it his identity, results, possibilities, and his future.

The Knowledge of the Body

Our culture has had a schizophrenic stance with knowledge for thousands of years that hides true learning. We have two flavors of knowledge, the knowledge of what we know - understanding, and the knowledge of know-how - the ability to act. Leadership, management, and living well with other people, in other words creating a meaningful and satisfying future, have remained mysterious domains. We can describe them when we see them, but we aren't clear what to do in order to generate these outcomes. I believe two major reasons for this cultural blindness are:

1) we don't look in the right place to understand what is involved, and

2) what ideas we do have are descriptive, not generative.

What are the missing ingredients of our blindness? I have found two in our cultural common sense:

1) the language of action and creation, introduced above, and

2) the role of the body in skillful action.

What is the role of the body in skillful action? First, you don't have action without the body. This is a fact that we are blind to in our cultural common sense. Management, for example, is taught as abstracted principles like physics, or as anecdotes as though description is enough to produce learning. But we cannot embody abstract ideas, we must learn the experience of the idea, and translate concepts into the living shapes of our bodies in action. We must be able to articulate the actions, show the actions, practice the actions, and observe and assess the actions if we are to learn action, not abstracted ideas.

Janet, a director of marketing for a major product at a large corporation, is an example of learning new distinctions and practicing new actions that overcome obstacles and self-limitations. She was very frustrated with her manager, who didn't communicate in any regular way, gave no direction, was rarely available, and when he did get involved seemed to mess everything up. He didn't coordinate the various departments who reported to him that had major deliverables due to her. She grew increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated, finding herself blocked by her manager's actions and inactions at every turn. Her commitments would not get fulfilled in this situation, and her revenue based bonuses and job satisfaction were going down in her mind every day. She got to the point she was going to resign and find another job. She was filled with resentment and frustration.

Janet was coached to use the situation to practice new moves for herself. She could always leave and find a new job, but we invited her to see the opportunity for learning in the situation. She reluctantly agreed, and found her embodied frustration was preventing her from seeing any other option than being a victim of her boss's actions. We had her examine her tendency to fall into resentful interpretations, to withdraw, and to avoid having honest conversations about the issues with her superiors. She found calmly putting her attention on her breath, an exercise for directing attention, difficult for even five minutes. By talking through the conversations that needed to happen, and working with her managing her tension, attention, and sensations of fear, she was able to open the missing conversations with both her manager and her manager's boss. We worked with her to make clear requests and complaints to her manager, which at first she couldn't get herself to do. She learned to center herself and choose to take these actions rather than get lost in her resentment, anger, and fear. She found she could have conversations with her manager she didn't think she could have.

After finding that her manager would make agreements, but not keep them, she overcame another temptation to give up, and took a stand with her manager's boss to get what she needed to do her job. Her reporting was shifted to another manager, and she was given permission to coordinate directly with the organizations she relied on. She began a new practice of team meetings with these other organizations, focused on clarifying and managing the promises of them as a team. She became an effective team leader through practicing listening, connection, and the conversations of managing commitments and breakdowns.

The project went from apparent peril to a successful on-time product launch. The product exceeded revenue projections, received several industry awards, and Janet was given two other products to manage. She was able to do this without falling into overwhelm by building strong team practices and commitments. Through this process she went from a habit of long to reasonable working hours, and made the time to get married and have her first child while continuing to manage her team.

Learning's Shift of Ourselves

True learning is a transformation of our body, of our language, of our Self. It doesn't happen only in the domain of ideas, but in the domain of embodiment, where what we see and what we can do shifts, where our habits are changed, and our transformation shifts how we show up, how we see our future, and how we are seen by others. This is radical compared to the interpretation of learning as the acquisition of information, but it is a more accurate description of what is happening to us all the time.

Learning always involves a change in our bodies, our nervous system, and our embodiment. Our nervous system's structure is what enables us to see what we see, interpret what we interpret, and take the actions we can take. When we learn, we alter the structure of our nervous system; we see and interpret differently; and we can take actions we couldn't take before.

In other words, when we learn, we become different people than before we learned. We are transformed in our learning. The notion that we acquire information, or understand and then apply theory, leaves out the crucial elements of learning: that we shift ourselves in ways that shift what we see, what we interpret, what we feel, how we act, and what we can produce with the impact of our actions.

How do we learn? We learn what we practice. We are what we have practiced, and we become what we are practicing. Our practices shape our bodies and our minds, and have been for our entire lifetime. We learn as we practice and shift our awareness, attention, interpretations, skills and embodied capacity for action.

It is important to become aware that we can choose our practices. Because as managers and leaders we can practice connection and interaction that produces commitment, energy, and passion for a shared future, or we can practice our old habits. Or perhaps we learn to practice the common interpretations of management that turn people and ourselves into raw material and mechanisms for projects, turn communication into the transfer of information, and separate our work from our care and even from people so that our work becomes a place of sacrifice instead of fulfillment.

I have worked with a discipline of clarifying and engaging in the elements of language that produce action and satisfaction for over twenty years. It includes attention to acts of commitment, listening, assessment, moods, and how these produce action. In all the workshops I have introduced these linguistic moves, people invariably find it captivating, provocative, and intensely stimulating. People see a paradigm shift, see where they were blind before, and they are excited with new possibilities for their own action.

What I have found, however, in companies where we worked, is that after a couple of weeks we'd find that people would have returned to their prior habits, and the new learning and its value will have faded or disappeared. This is the symptom of intellectual learning, learning without the recurrent practice necessary to shifts habits, skill, and behavior. Most of our current common learning and education tend to be this way. We orient to feed people new ideas, and perhaps produce positive ratings for "edutainment," but don't produce competence in new actions and practices. The body will do what it knows, and without practice, it goes back to the habits that have served it for a lifetime. But this raises the questions of "what to practice?" and "how do I practice?"

We have since worked for many years in addressing these questions for leadership and management. We have learned that the approach of how to learn through practices must include: becoming aware of our current interpretations and practices, seeing what new ones are more effective, exercising in the new interpretations and practices to experience what has to be learned, then practicing in life and work with coaching feedback on how you are doing. The power of practice is demonstrated by executives and managers that have graduated from one of our programs - forty percent of whom are CEO's, vice presidents, or directors. Over a two-year period they produced on average an increase in income of over fifty percent, an increase in the number of people managed of over two hundred and fifty percent, and survey responses of significant increases in job and life satisfaction, as well as in leadership and communication skills.

The Future is Yours

We are the leaders and managers of our futures, more than we know, whether we work in business, or whether we have a title of "manager" or not. The skills of leadership and management are rooted in human capacities for action that we all share. Through practice we can access the possibilities of our bodies and being and become more fully ourselves in our experience of life and acting on behalf of what we care about. Through learning we can expand our ability to shape our world and our future together through practices that connect us to each other, to the wisdom of our bodies, and to our capacities to create the future.

(This article is a reprint of a chapter entitled The Body of Management from the book Leadership and Mastery to be published in 2003, edited by Dr. Richard Heckler.)

Robert Dunham founded Enterprise Design in 1993, an executive and management development company specializing in developing crucial skills that are not addressed in MBA programs and mainstream management development approaches. Inspired by the challenges he faced as Chief Operating Officer for a technology company, and as a vice president in Motorola Computer Systems and several other companies, Robert has developed a discipline of leadership and management based on action-generating communication skills, embodied learning, effective 'hands-on' management practices and individual coaching that enable clients to increase organizational performance and produce more meaningful and satisfying careers.

He is the designer and leader of the nation-wide executive and management development programs Action In Management (AIM) (see www.enterprise-design.com) and The Company of Leaders, as well as the life design program Coming To Life. He holds two degrees from Stanford University, and draws extensively from the work of Dr. Richard Heckler in embodied learning and leadership, from the work of Dr. Fernando Flores in the field of Ontological Design, and from other leading thinkers that illuminate how people communicate, coordinate action, learn, and author the future.

Upcoming Action in Management Programs

Enterprise Design offers the Action in Management program which is designed to fill the gaps in the foundations of traditional management understanding. New sessions are beginning in October on the East and West coasts. For further information: http://www.enterprise-design.com .

Many more articles on Creative Leadership and Executive Performance in the CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2002 by Robert Dunham. All rights reserved.

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