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The paradoxes of the modern leadership challenge

Steve McGuirk is the former County Fire Officer of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, and Chairman of Warrington and Halton Hospitals FoundationTrust.

This blog is written in response to Clore Social Leadership’s reports about third sector leadership development. Read report 1 here, and report 2 here.

It has always been tough leading change in a challenging world, but there are an increasing number of factors that support the idea, ‘it’s never been like this before’.

This presents a huge number of paradoxes for people in any leadership position trying to figure their way through this complexity – but I think there are added layers for those leading social change.

For despite the millions of words written and advice offered by gurus and consultants, there are no tailor made solutions. Each person (leader) and each organisation is unique; there is no unilinear solution to change.

Nevertheless, I think it is helpful to play around with some of the paradoxes of modern leadership – I talk about three here - if nothing else to provide a sanity check.

First, and I think most significant, is the paradox of the ordinary versus the extraordinary.

What I mean by this is that the last twenty or so years has seen the evolution of a much more technocratic, engineered approach to people management and organisational development. Whilst, in many respects this is vital and positive, the approach has also resulted a complex and vast set of expectations of leaders, wrapped up in the language of competences, values, emotional intelligence and so on. Each dimension is inarguable its own right, but collectively they represent a huge personal challenge with an anticipation that those who eventually make it ‘to the top’ will be some kind of upgraded version of our species – Human Beings 2.0 if you like. In the charity and social enterprise sector there is the added aspect of judgement around the ethical and moral compass of the leaders concerned.

The paradox, though, is that the majority of those leaders don’t ‘feel’ extraordinary – they just see themselves as ‘normal’ with all the insecurities and anxieties everyone else has to deal with.

But this first paradox is further heightened by the second, which is the paradox of the speed in making decisions versus the need for thoughtfulness and reflection.

There was a time - not that many years ago – when the decisions of leaders took time firstly even to be noticed, then to filter through an organisation and have an impact. That is clearly no longer the case as the immediacy of communication pervades every dimension of life (closely linked, of course, to social media).

The paradox here, though, is that figuring out solutions to the wicked problems we face requires time and more considered analysis than the 140 characters available on Twitter. Yet that thinking space and time is more compressed now than ever before. In fact, it’s virtually disappeared.

And, as if that wasn’t enough to contend with, the third paradox kicks in.

So, this is the paradox of the clamour for rapid and transparent decision making – only possible by using instinct and intuition (often built upon experience), but against the backdrop of a society or constituency seeking to apportion blame for anything that goes wrong.

By definition, real innovation (the disruptive kind we need to generate social change) is unlikely to have a strong evidence base of its potential success. If it did, it would be improvement not innovation. The point here is that innovation is more about courage and a leap of faith – the difference being now that every aspect of that leap will be visible and open to the analysis of everyone and ‘there’ on the Internet forever more.

So, where does this leave leaders going forward?

As I have indicated, there are no answers to these paradoxes and there are many other paradoxes that could be considered.

The best leaders, therefore, don’t agonise about trying to be superhuman or find elusive answers.

Instead, they use their ‘ordinariness’ as an asset to engage people at all levels and they are savvy enough to join or create their own leadership networks and safe spaces to experiment. But, most of all, they understand the need to invest in their own learning and personal development because if one thing is certain, it is that the world will continue on its change trajectory which will result in more, rather than less, ambiguity and complexity.

We are keen to hear your views about this blog and our reports either by submitting blog ideas for Leaders Now, commenting below or joining the conversation on Twitter @CloreSocial. You can contact Steve on Twitter @gmccfo.

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