There is a lot of talk in the Public Service about leadership.
We say we need it. The question we don’t ask, however, is
“who is responsible for leadership?” Moreover, if we
stop and reflect, we recognize that leaders don’t lead without
the commitment of those who follow and that uncommitted followers
can destroy any leader no matter how talented or sincere. Leadership
can be a solution to many problems, but it is a solution ONLY IF
we are committed to a different future and take responsibility as
leaders and learn to empower those we follow.
The key to this idea being more than rhetoric is in understanding
that responsibility is about how we relate to the circumstances and
is not a judgment of who is to blame for the circumstances. Responsibility
is about ownership of the way things are; it is a state of being-in-the-world.
No one can legislate responsibility or any other human quality… but
responsibility can be learned and it can be coached and it can be
the foundation for building a culture of leadership in which all
of us share in creating the future.
From the point of view suggested in the CCMD course “Coaching
for Breakthroughs and Commitment”, responsibility is a declaration
of “who one is” in a situation. The word literally means ‘response-ability’….
the freedom to act. When we take a stand, we bring ourselves forth
as committed in a manner that is not subordinate to the circumstances
or the conventional wisdom of what is and is not possible. For example,
if we say “this is my country, my government, my organization,
my circumstances and my issues” then we might also say that “I
am responsible” for everything in my environment — not as
an admission of wrongdoing or having created the issue, but as a
declaration that opens a possibility of choice and action. If we
aren’t responsible individually, then there is no possibility
beyond continuing to cope with circumstances that are bigger than
we are, pray for better times and do what we can to survive.
Whatever the future, we can safely assume that it will be the product
of action taken today…right now. This idea that the future
is a product of action seems obvious whether we are speaking of making a date for coffee with a friend, planning an individual’s career or creating change in the Public Service. What is less obvious is that all of us are acting to the best of our ability based on the
way we observe our circumstances, and our observations are a function of our historical stories of how the world works and what we believe to be possible. In other words our actions are normally responses to our explanations and justifications for what has happened in the past. We assume that ‘the system’ is more or less cast in stone and therefore we normally commit only to what we think is reasonable and feasible. Actions based on this view however, will always lead to more of the same based on the past and reinforce the cultural and circumstantial status quo. Perhaps this is what George Bernard Shaw had in mind when he said:
Reasonable people adapt themselves to the circumstances
Unreasonable people adapt the circumstances to themselves
Progress (leadership) depends upon unreasonable people
What if we were committed to being unreasonable? What if we stopped blaming the system, or the politicians or the media or our workloads for whatever we consider negative in our current situation? What if we transformed the idea of leadership from being a solution to a problem to being an expression of each individual’s responsibility for creating the future? What if our actions were based on our commitment to and responsibility for a future worth having… a vision of service to Canadians through mutual respect, straight talk, full and open cooperation, and a culture in which we value individual differences?
To have these ‘what ifs’ become ‘why nots’ will
require we take different actions than we might ordinarily take and
challenge some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of
our ‘reality’. If we accept the premise that our actions
are already correlated to the past, then it follows that to have
a different future, we will require action that is a correlate of
the future we are committed to creating. Our leaders need to stand
for this possibility — not for reasonableness and not for excuses
of why it is hard to achieve our dreams in the current circumstances.
Becoming a leader and being responsible begins by accepting that
whatever we consider to be ‘real’ is always and only
an interpretation. For example, in a recent speech, the Clerk of
the Privy Council challenged all of us to create a workplace that
was more ‘open’ to human values and creativity. This
can be heard cynically as a reality in which he is merely ‘cheerleading’ or it can be heard as a reality in which he is calling for new forms of expression, new conversations about who we are and new action consistent with what we say we want. The question isn’t what is ‘reality’, it is what interpretation of reality are
we committed to and given that interpretation, what actions are we
Another notion we should challenge is that one needs position, authority or control to have power and to make a difference. In our history we have seen countless examples of individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Pierre Trudeau or groups like Amnesty International and Greenpeace taking a stand for what they considered to be right. While many might not agree with everything they espoused and sometimes they have had to pay a price, even their lives for what they stood for; they also shifted the larger conversations and interpretations for the rest of us and created a new reality based on a concern for
the well-being of the whole society and future generations. These
acts are always unreasonable; they always go against the prevailing
wisdom and even sometimes against common sense. Yet these are the most powerful acts of leadership imaginable; they are acts of individual human beings being responsible for their situation and moving forward from a deep sense of trust for their vision, other human beings and a willingness to risk what is necessary to make a difference.
We can also challenge the idea that leaders are special people with
some innate capacity that allows them to become leaders. A more powerful idea is that leaders are ordinary people who make extraordinary commitments.
In addition, leadership doesn’t happen inside an individual,
but in the context of relationships and in the coordination of actions
and practices in a community. In this sense it is a social phenomenon
that is as much a product of those who follow as of those who are
recognized and acknowledged as leaders.
In conclusion, we should constantly remind ourselves that the future
doesn’t happen ‘out there’ and the future isn’t
a problem to be solved or a ‘fixed’ reality waiting
for us to arrive. The future is always a possibility and when it
arrives it will always be a function of our individual and collective
actions…today. Whether we are waiting for a great leader,
aspiring to being leaders ourselves or simply seeing leadership
as missing in our current circumstances — our choice is whether
we participate and be responsible for bringing leadership into existence or whether we wait and watch and assume that someone else is responsible.
If we choose not to be responsible, then we are powerless and may
end up with a future we do not want. On the other hand if we can
be responsible and participate in creating the future then as Mahatma Gandhi said, we are “being the change we wish to see”….
We are being responsible for leadership and working together to
transform our difficult circumstances into the raw material with
which to create a future worthy of who we are and what we stand