Participatory Leadership and the Nature of our Conversations

We are in a world that is connected, but not communicating
Tariq Ramadan

The world is changing faster than ever before, and organisations today are facing complex challenges never experienced before.  Yet we are not creating conversations that matter and are not harnessing the collective wisdom of our sociality.

Creating an alternative future rests in changing our thinking about how organisations transform from mechanical entities to living systems. It depends on the nature of our conversation and on generating the wisdom of the group through harnessing their participation.

The human species is by nature sociable and we all increasingly want to participate in the choices that affect our lives.  We want to make a difference, and leaders across all sectors and communities around the world are being called upon to engage people in a more collaborative way. In order to create organisational cultures based on participation and creativity, where people can tap into their collective intelligence, this requires a change in the nature of the conversation and in leadership philosophy.

The reason for this ‘global mind shift’ in a new era of conscious co-evolution of the power of collective intelligence, is because any group itself has the wisdom and creativity needed to deal with any complex  situation. The only things needed are the context, holding a safe space, focusing the group’s insights towards a specific topic, and crafting powerfully question.

This of course changes the prevailing conventional belief system where the task of leadership is to set a vision and gain ‘buy in’ from others.  Additionally, the default culture and assumptions that underpin most leadership training need to change, shifting away from:

  • Leader and top are essential. The future destination can be blueprinted.
  • The work is to bring others ‘on board’. More measurement produces better results.
  • People need more training.
  • Rewards are related to outcomes.
  • What worked elsewhere can work here.
  • The future is a problem to be solved. Leaders should be a role model.

(Block, 2007)

As Otto Scharmer and many other thought leaders call it, shifting from an Egosystem awareness to Ecosystem awareness is the essence of ego to ecoleadership of our time. Since the research suggests that in groupes  “where one person dominated, the group was less intelligent than in groups where the conversational turns were more evenly distributed” (Wooley, 2010),  in order to tap into the power of collective intelligence, the role of leaders is to create conditions in which everyone can participate.

This notion of participatory leadership challenges the conventional thinking which holds that leaders are the role models that everyone should follow. Such a philosophy represents a form of parenting, and the alternative is to move away from parental dominion. Leadership in the twenty-first century needs to function as a form of partnership. This assumes that the role of the leader is to invite people, focus their attention on certain issues, ask powerful question and design conversations that will harness the collective intelligence of stakeholders.