Acts of leadership
September 22, 2023

Acts of Leadership (understanding leadership as a verb) – part one

By Ty Francis

Most leaders with whom I talk (mainly in data & analytics roles) aim to demonstrate acts of leadership. Alongside their technical prowess, they want to develop their leadership skills.

Yet many of these fine people and those earlier in their careers aspire to leadership as a role, a noun, a status to achieve. To overcome this classic misconception, I am delighted to welcome back Gestalt leadership coach & filmmaker Dr Ty Francis.

Readers of this blog may recall Ty has shared with us before, from his extensive experience of coaching leaders & helping teams navigate change. He shared previous posts on addressing systemic issues, use of filmmaking for change projects and adaptive leadership. In this post, Ty explains what he means by the term Acts of Leadership and why it matters.

Explaining Acts of Leadership

Part of any business transformation requires that people at every level of the operation look again at how they see leadership…

In most people’s minds, a leader is someone with special skills, abilities and experience. Someone to whom they turn for answers and whom they expect will keep us and the business ‘safe’. This is a fairy-tale, Business School model, that is out-dated. In these disruptive times, such a superhero leader does not exist. So what constitutes effective leadership now, where there are no easy answers? 

“Leadership is not about knowing the answers! It is the capacity to release the collective intelligence and insight of groups and organisations.”

from “Living Leadership” by George Binney et al

In this post, I want to introduce you to two big ideas: 

  1. The first is, that leadership is a special kind of action, not a special kind of person.
  2. The second is that everyone, at every level of the operation, has to commit ‘acts of leadership’ every day, to ensure the continued success of the enterprise.

Why projects need a 3-point checklist

So rather than waiting for some superhero leader to swoop down from above and sort everything out, people need to use their personal initiative and creativity, and also collaborate and trust one another more. What does this mean in more practical terms? 

We have all been part of ‘the project from hell’ at some time or another in our working careers! Think of times when you have been involved in projects that are deeply unsatisfying, that stress you, that drag on forever or even fail… 

Research has shown that when things go wrong on such projects – and in other aspects of organisational life – there are usually only three underlying issues: 

Meaning missing

There is a lack of MEANING: The why is not clear. People need to understand the rationale for what they are being asked to do. They need to understand why something should or should not be done. If we are not clear on the why – the purpose, the objectives, the goals, the bigger picture information – we cannot give our best. 

Not Valuing one another

There is a lack of VALUING one another: We all need to feel that our work, our contribution, our efforts, are noticed, acknowledged and appreciated. We all need to feel included, involved, and that we are part of the team. We all need feedback – even critique is better than nothing! If we feel we are not seen and do not matter at a very basic human level – we cannot give our best. 

Problems with the Structure

There is an issue with STRUCTURE: People usually need a clear framework in which to operate. This means clarity about roles and responsibilities, about resources, timescales, milestones, budgets, meeting agenda and more… Sometimes there is too little structure. Sometimes there is too much structure (no-one enjoys being micro-managed!). But other times there is simply the wrong kind of structure. Either way, if structure is an issue – we cannot give our best. 

Spotting when you need to use that checklist

This is a very simple and effective three-point checklist. I hope it’s a practical ‘diagnostic’ for when you are getting signals that something is not working as well as it might be. We all recognise the signals that things need attention on projects:

  • People feeling stressed.
  • Blame being assigned
  • Team members checking out emotionally
  • People playing with their smartphones instead of listening to what is being said in meetings

The list is endless, but I expect you get the point. 

What can you do with Acts of Leadership?

First, we need to NOTICE when something is not right, not working optimally, not being attended to, or when colleagues need something. 

Next, we need to DECIDE to do something or not to do something. If we have read the situation and weighed the consequences, and consciously decide to do nothing (out of professional judgment rather than fear) then that is valid. 

Finally, we need to ACT. It is this last point that makes the difference. When we act, we commit an act of leadership and it will make a difference. These acts of leadership do not need to be grand gestures. On the contrary they can be as simple as saying (for example):

  • I don’t know why we are being asked to do this…
  • I noticed you’ve been working harder than usual over the last two weekends to deliver these figures – thank you!
  • I’d like more clarity about the project scope and timescales

The main thing is that your acts of leadership contribute to the need for meaning, valuing and structuring. 

Where could you start to notice, decide & act?

Many thanks to Ty for sharing that challenge and very pragmatic advice. I hope you found he touched a nerve for you or helped you identify a situation that is calling for you to make an act of leadership. It could help for you to identify just one situation where you could act and p learning in practice there. Just one small change first is more likely to help you get started with this transformation.

In part two, to be published next week, Ty builds on his advice above by helping us identify actions to take. He also shares a simpler, five point, understanding of leadership. So we can all keep learning.