Feature Article: Engagement: Making It Real – Integral Leadership, Part 14

Feature Articles / April 2002

Engagement is the process of leadership in which the individual leader and collective leadership interact to achieve goals and build their leadership effectiveness. In engagement we can find the relationship between the individual acts of leaders and the collective acts of leadership in the organization and business. This is the realm of behavior.

For some years I have thought there is a parallel of leader behaviors with Bion’s functions in groups. (Wilfred R. Bion. Experiences in Groups. London: Tavistock Publications, 1961.) Bion suggested that there are functions that contribute to group performance and development, e.g., asking questions, providing information, making suggestions, relieving tension with humor, etc. Correspondingly, there are behaviors that distract the group from developing and achieving its mission, e.g., interruptions, using humor negatively, etc.

Parallel functions show up in the field of engagement. Here is where, at the individual leader level, the behaviors show up in the context of the leadership system. Examples are legion, but they could include the kinds of functional behaviors Bion wrote about, as well as making decisions, planning, empowering, dialoguing and a host of other behaviors. One need only to turn to the leadership literature to find many lists. An example of this may be found in Stuart Well’s book summarized below in which he identifies behaviors in relation to leader roles.

I cannot readily find models for collective leadership, short of going to notions about enpowerment (as in Gretchen M. Spreitzer and Robert E. Quinn’s A Company of Leaders, teamwork or workplace democracy. The work of O’Toole and others address the idea of leadership as a function that can be developed throughout a company or organization. However, the integral approach to leadership suggested in this series of articles offers some ideas about where to look when we are concerned with executive leadership in organizations faced with rapid change internally and in the environment.

What if we were to look at collective leadership functionally, that is, as a system? In the approach here we find a holarchy of systems. First there is leadership as a group. This is where leaders collectively advocate for their leadership purpose in relation to strategic objectives. The individual leader advocates for his or her commitments. It is in the engagement of behaviors related to commitment and purpose that the leadership group shows up.

In the spirit of Bion we could imagine that an individual has a commitment that is out of attunement with leadership purpose. This might result in behaviors that distract the collective leadership from clarity and advocacy about their changing purpose in relation to changing strategic objectives. The result would be confusion and mixed messages among themselves bringing to question such issues as belonging. On the other hand, the behaviors associated with attuned commitment and purpose would look quite different. There would be shared understanding and open articulation of what leadership was there for.

At the next level the leadership system would be the leadership organization and the individual leader would show up as a contributor. How an individual leader shows up depends on the attunement of individual competencies and the need for leadership resources in realizing purpose and achieving strategic objectives. As a leader I may bring a capacity for assuring that critical information flowed across organizational boundaries. This would support collective sharing of information to make timely and appropriate decisions.

Third, at the team level we find the importance of inspiration and individual capacity for innovation in relation to change. Executive teamwork is about engaging with change. The individual leader must engage in working with change as a player on the leadership team. The field of engagement is one in which effective individual innovation shows up to create inspired teamwork.

Fourth, the individual leader has the role of entrepreneur in a collective leadership enterprise. This system is about engaging principally with stakeholders: employees, customers, investors, etc. The entrepreneurship of the individual needs to engage smoothly with the collective enterprise in relation to stakeholders lest mixed messages, conflicting commitments and mutually canceling initiatives are taken. I suspect that failure to achieve this contributes to Peter Senge’s claim that 80% of organization change efforts fail and we don’t know why the other 20% succeed. Cherchez the leaders! And discover how they are attuned and able to demonstrate that through engaging in a concerted way with stakeholders.

In closing, the field of engagement is where behaviors, individually and collectively show up. These behaviors are the generators of energy that impact leader and leadership effectiveness. This energy fuels individual and collective learning. The individual engages with this through self-management, the collective through system evolution–the subject of the next article in this series.

> Russ Volckmann