A 6-month crash course in 21st Century leadership
This article is written as an exit reflection from my role as an Enspiral Catalyst this past six months. It outlines the challenges, journey, learnings and thoughts on next steps in growing catalytic leadership in a distributed network and why I think this is relevant to leadership challenges at large in the 21st Century.
To state the obvious, the past 6 months have been intensely challenging.
In February, with a lot of [naive] confidence, I put myself forward for the position of one of three Enspiral Catalysts. I’d been involved in the Enspiral network across various roles and companies for almost three years — enough time to have built a solid foundation for myself in our unique organisational environment. I though I could stand in the middle with ease and effectiveness. I was pretty wrong.
The role was created as an experiment to increase the leadership capacity at the core of the network — to unleash more potential into the system and bring focus to executing our collective strategy.
There were a number of inherent challenges to this
- The role description was a mile wide and we had just 20 hours split between the three of us each week to work on it. We spent a lot of time trying different things to actually figure out what was valuable action in this space given the time constraint.
- Enspiral is no ordinary environment to have a leadership position in. We are collaboratively prototyping a system of work designed to enable people to focus their energies on what is most meaningful to them and in line with this we have a pretty un-traditional org structure. Enspiral is strictly non-hierarchical which means that leadership positions come with no authority attached. No one in the network has a right to tell anyone else what to do, so making any organisational developments requires a lot of social manoeuvring — building credibility and collective motivation behind your initiatives.
- While outside the core the system looks pretty stable, the closer you get to the middle the more you see that the organisation is changing and evolving every day. You can’t take a lot for granted as being fixed in place. So contextual knowledge is something that needs to be continuously updated. An added challenge to this is much of what is evolving in the organisation isn’t documented — a lot of it happens informally. Making sense of it all enough to direct our efforts intelligently takes up a lot of cognitive real estate.
These challenges require a vastly different set of leadership capabilities to a traditional organisation
- When you don’t have authority, you need to become influential
- When you have limited time resource, you need to figure out how to discern the points in the system that are the highest leverage to intervene in, and activate more acts of leadership (be catalytic)
- When little is fixed, you need to be able to take an adaptive and experimental approach rather than taking anything for granted
- When your boss is not one person but a network of over 260 people, you need to be able to act in your own authority (at the same time as embodying what the group needs)
My journey in growing these capabilities went a little like this :
- March : Optimistic, confident, understood what I was going to do. 8 hours a week felt abundant.
- April : Lots of revving, little traction. Reality of cognitive load hits. 8 hours a week felt like a drop in the ocean.
- May : Burned out and lost. We Catalysts were given an updated job description which goes like this — not allowed to do work, allowed to issue invitations, run experiments, publish intelligence. Confidence in leadership ability hit rock bottom. The three of us had a really depressing retrospective.
- June : Took the month off being in this role in a paid capacity in order to rediscover what I love about this work and what my strengths are that I can play into. Wrote a blog post about this which results in a big discussion in the network about the risk burnout poses to our success. Traveled to Montreal as one of the core team putting on the Next Edge Festival.
- July : Got back on board with a new approach to how I operate in this role and renewed commitment to being there. Started pairing with Loomio Co-founder Rich Bartlett on some work. In the middle of the night in Detroit I have an epiphany that changes it all.
- August : The work started to feel like a gift rather than a burden (oh joy!). Had confidence that I am doing valuable work.
- September : Reflected on the Catalyst experiment — understanding the value that was created and designing possibilities for next steps. Developed greater conviction in my voice at Enspiral and consciousness of the ways I’m showing up in the network (and not).
…there was a greater thing that the network was investing in; growing the number of people who have the strategic oversight and leadership capability to operate at the core of Enspiral — and at the core of any organisation with the same decentralised ideals…
Wisdom from the journey — strategies for navigating this leadership environment
- Understand how you lead — what is your unique leadership style?
I observed that every effective leader in Enspiral does so differently — so what is my contribution to this diversity? I realised my strengths lie in understanding the experience of others and how that is affecting the organisation as a whole, using those insights to start prototyping a solution to problems discovered, and then inviting others in to lead the ongoing development. I think of this as ‘creating space’. It’s about initiating things and then making myself disposable as early as possible.
- Understand what the conditions are for you thrive in work.
I reflected on what are the times in my recent working life that I’ve been super happy and super productive and pulled out three key commonalities. Understanding this enables you to consciously create them around any project or initiative you’re involved in to great effect. Mine were :
1. Feeling like my contributions are valuable and useful — getting feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of what I’m doing to continue to hone improvement.
2. Decision-making being shared — I have a say in decisions that affect me, and I’m not burdened with having to make decisions that affect a group on my own.
3. I feel part of a team — I have people to involve in my creative processes and an environment of mutual support around me.
- Pair with someone else who has found their groove.
Nothing gave me more of a confidence boost in navigating this complex social and political environment than working with someone a few steps ahead of this from where I’m at. Having someone who can feed in more context, who I can sense-check with and trust to be unfailingly honest with me (back me up, but also call me on my BS) made a huge difference.
- Understand what is most meaningful to you and focus on that.
Living in the tension between what’s most meaningful to me and what’s most valuable for the network became a bit of a pitfall. Enspiral exists to create meaningful work and whenever the job description strayed from that my performance suffered. What was much more effective was finding someone for whom these tasks were meaningful to, then continuing to stretch myself towards enacting the most meaningful work for me in this context (generally this is the work that feels like a gift — you would do it even if you weren’t being paid — it’s that intrinsic motivation right?).
Reflections on the Catalyst experiment
The value that was created :
Going into this role the frame I had for the value we Catalysts were creating for the network was in the work we got done. So I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to make all these magical things happen. My middle-of-the-night epiphany in July was that actually there was a greater thing that the network was investing in; growing the number of people who have the strategic oversight and leadership capability to operate at the core of Enspiral — and at the core of any organisation with the same decentralised ideals. You’re a Catalyst at the end of the the six months, not the start.
This value will live on long after this first Catalyst experiment completes. The question is, how does the network harness it in the most effective way?
Growing the core without the baptism of fire :
In a way, the Catalyst could be viewed as an leadership programme for Enspiral — an internal MBA for the network. So what is the most effective way for growing high performance leadership in an organisation like Enspiral?
One thing I’ve observed again and again in my years in the network is that everyone who comes into the core ends up going to a baptism of fire — a kind of leadership existential crisis which results in weeks of near inertia, a whole lot of balls dropped, frustration, doubt, and other bad feels.
So is it possible to design around this? As a newly graduated Catalyst, this is what I’m going to be focussed on next. My hypothesis is that if we tailor an experience designed to bringing out the best in fledgling Catalysts — giving them enough support, challenge and inspiration — then this baptism of fire can be avoided. The idea I and the other Catalysts are working with at the moment is to create a Catalyst Community within the network made up of Catalyst Interns, Graduates and Enspiral Elders who work on internal projects together in mutually supportive way; learning from each other as they go. Interns will be challenged to find their most meaningful and impactful work, Graduates and Elders will transfer practice of how to operate well in this environment and provide institutional knowledge. They will in-turn learn from the Interns’ fresh eyes and unique perspectives.
This challenge of how to create leadership capacity in an adaptive, boss-less organisation isn’t just relevant to Enspiral.
It’s relevant to the whole movement of the future of work. We need more leaders who can operate with uncertainty, responsiveness and influence built through generative social conduct. We need more leaders who understand how to unlock the potential of groups, how to live through collaborative purpose, how vulnerability is a strength, how collective intelligence is culturally enabled, how the core success of a human-shaped organisation is in it’s ability to care.
Enspiral will continue to share our insights here and hope that others will do the same so we can collectively grow this leadership capability.