I was working with a group on strategy planning, and we had spent the morning talking about some of the assumptions and methods that staff bring to the exercise in many organizations. So, in this case senior managers had described their last strategy as ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’: it was a ‘step change’ in the way they were doing things. It had developed a ‘change agenda’ which would need to be ‘driven through’. We spent sometime in the morning talking about why it was that strategies need to be ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’. Clearly being excited about what you are doing is an important component of having job satisfaction and feeling that you are making a contribution. But what does it occlude? What kind of leadership does it suggest?
In the afternoon we got an opportunity to revisit this question of excitement and how we mediate this in groups, and the very process of making plans together. It was a sunny day and we had been working inside all morning. A group member suggested that we work outside in the garden for the next session. Two or three people in the group of 14 decided that this was a good idea and turned to me, presumably considering me to be the temporary leader since I was facilitating, and asked if I minded.
My only response was to say that I was up for it if people felt they could work outside. On the way from the meeting room to the garden we met a small group of senior managers and the CEO who were straggling in to the meeting slightly late, who were then swept up with the group heading for the garden. We sat round on cast iron chairs in the bright sunlight and began talking. Planes roared overhead and people had to lean in to the centre of the circle better to hear each other. The sun burned down, and people began to shift places according to how comfortable they were with this. Eventually someone broke into the discussion by saying they were finding it hard to hear. Others then spoke up about how uncomfortable they were in the hot sun. As the revolt grew it became clear that there was a movement to go back into the meeting room as a couple of people stood up saying we should go inside.
Back in the meeting room we reflected on what had happened. A number of people said that they had been swept up with the excitement of the invitation to go outside. Others had simply followed along. No one challenged the movement to the garden. Once outside, we were all sitting with various degrees of discomfort until someone articulated them – because there was a resonance with what others were feeling it was possible for a new decision to be made.
We began to see parallels with the way we strategies and make plans together, how something can seem like a great idea and how others can get swept up unthinkingly in the moment. We also began to question how often we are prepared to speak up, to look out for each other when we see each other in an uncomfortable position, and who exercises leadership in such situations. How often do we catch ourselves in the middle of what we are doing, and ask ourselves: ‘is this such a great idea?’ When we get carried along by excitement it clearly motivates us to do new things, but at the same time, what does it prevent us from doing?
And what does it mean for strategy processes which set out to be ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’? How easy is it then to resist plunging headlong into all kinds of commitments which are then not easy to back out of? When we retired from the garden there was no harm done, and it only took a few moments to get back to where we were. But if we commit the resources, and the time and efforts of colleagues of an organization to something we are excited about, it is harder to untangle. There are clear implications for leadership and mutual accountability, of understanding leadership as a group responsibility as well as an individual one, and of the need to give an account to each other of what it is we think we are doing and why.
One of the things that I think the appeal to ‘excitement’ and ‘ambition’ potentially inhibits is this ability to account to each other for what we are committing to: who would want to be publicly against putting forward ambitious plans for radical change? If we work in ways that constrain the possibility of exposing our ideas to being tested by others, which I am arguing is a kind of disciplining of these ideas, then we risk exposing ourselves and others to big commitments which are still raw and unformed. There is no way we can think through the consequences of all of our intentions, but the paradox of leadership involves being able to suggest patterns and possibilities in the circumstances that we encounter, at the same time as being open to understanding them differently through the insights of others.