Leading, following and partnering: A personal reflection

Each of us has a number of behavioural ‘centres of gravity’ we use in day to day interactions with others. In the main, we tend to be largely unaware of them, and yet, they form structures, which affect the success of our contribution in more or less every context we find ourselves in.

As a leader, coach and interventionist I use ‘Structural Dynamics’ to diagnose stuck structures and take steps to change the nature of my own discourse so that I can be of better service to others and so that I don’t unintentionally do harm.

The importance of having an expansive behavioural repertoire is not lost on me and is never very far from my consciousness and awareness – and it is hard going! There’s so much to attend to.

Over recent months I have been working hard to turn down my propensity to be such a stuck ‘mover’ in conversations and in facilitation and teaching. A ‘mover’ sets a direction, something, which is a vital function in effective team interaction – but a ‘stuck mover’ overuses that behavioural propensity, often with unintended consequences.

In practical terms, I have been working on creating more space for others; making a conscious choice not to be the first to speak and avoiding embarking on long monologues or holding the space too long. What I notice when I do actually manage to do these things is that there are way more opportunities to provide perspective; to be quieter and more reflective, and when I do speak, to play back to others what I am noticing or seeing. Yet, even in those moments of ‘Bystanding’, there is a challenge that rises up to the surface because of the part hierarchy plays when I speak if I am the leader or teacher in the room. This takes me to a place of deep personal enquiry about what impact I am having no matter what vocal act I am expressing.

And then I remember the other two crucial vocal acts, available to me. The ‘Follow’ – providing support and completion and the ‘Oppose’, offering correction.

Our behavioural ‘centres of gravity’ are impacted upon significantly by our ‘story’ – the experiences that shape the behaviours we use most frequently and those we tend to underuse in most of our interactions. My own childhood story is one that led to underuse of the ‘Oppose’ in my behavioural repertoire. I also hold a powerful story in an organisational context during which I became a stuck Follower. I remember it as a time when I was probably about the unhappiest I have ever been, feeling completely and utterly disempowered in a team that was dominated by guess what, yep – a leader who was a stuck Mover through and through.

Structural Dynamics gives such a helpful lens through which to see and change the sequences and patterns we all fall in to. In addition, we need to amplify and employ the intuition, wisdom and insight that are essential to ‘knowing’ in the moment what to choose and how to choose it.

A dear friend and mentor of mine recently reminded me of the artistry of facilitation and leadership in which we need to discern when to Follow, when to Lead and when to Partner. We need to be aware of what is appropriate and have the ability to modify our behaviour and the position we take accordingly.

In some situations our role will clearly involve leading others either through a task or as “thought leaders”. Other times all of us are following and the way we relate to the people who we are following may be subtly different from the way we relate to people who are following us. Finally, there’ll be times when we aren’t leading or following and what we are really trying to do is collaborate with people as peers. We’d like to call this partnering. Again, we may have a different way of relating to partners as we would of followers or other leaders. As we move higher up the organisation it becomes important to be more aware about which of these modes we are in. It is not to do with our role in the organisation, but about us choosing appropriately which of these modes we want to be in at any given time and situation and then following through with exhibiting the kind of behaviour which enables us to embody what we espouse in any one of these.

  • How much time do you spend in each of these three modes? Is it appropriate? How might you like to modify it?
  • Take a few minutes to think about a problematic relationship. Which of these modes are you predominantly in for that relationship? How appropriate is it?
  • What would you would need to do differently in this relationship to unstick it?