Leaders Create New Meaning

Fools & Leaders Question Meaning

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about. Oscar Wilde

When it comes to serious challenges in life, Oscar Wilde & Neil Gaiman have a point. A key advantages of humour is that it allows for the lightheartedness and irreverence that lets us reconsider our understanding of our circumstances. The fool in a medieval court was the one who could speak new truths because he could play with meaning and context.  

Great insights and opportunities for change come when people rethink the meaning of their circumstances and their actions. 

Philosophical issues like meaning and sense are not popular topics in the halls of business. Ask a manager to unlearn some common practice and you will get a blank stare. Often those who start conversations that question the sense of commonly accepted practices and beliefs are quickly categorised as fools.

Managers find it hard enough to embrace the time for reflection in the midst of the pressures for constant action. However, we need leaders to go further and find new meaning to realise the value for their businesses and the potential of the future of work. Creating change and new value depends on the ability to make new sense out of circumstances and opportunities and translate that new sense to new behaviours.

New Thinking Needed

Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought. – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Spend time with the creative, the innovators, the entrepreneurs and the change agents and you discover that they specialise in looking beyond typical thinking. Making new sense of their circumstances and translating that to new action is a speciality of those who create change. The inspirations from a new sense of possibility is where they find the opportunities to act in new ways and to break through the perceived limits and institutions that have constrained others.

In some cases, this new meaning is a denial of constraints. Roberto Unger described what he called ‘negative capability’ as ‘denial of whatever in our contexts delivers us over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion’. Many entrepreneurs and change agents refuse to accept the currently accepted options presented for a problem or practice.

Finding another creative way beyond the frustratingly constrained choice between insider (who is constrained, muzzled & influential) and outsider (allowed to be unconstrained, confrontational & excluded) is critical if we are to see greater change. What matters in many organisations is not the loudness of the talk, what matters is meaning and action.

In his book Opposable Mind, Roger L Martin described one positive capability to break the accepted meaning as integrative thinking, a capacity to take a wider view of the systems and outcomes and find new paths forward. We need to ensure that the creation of new sense is a valid management activity if we are to leverage its creative potential in the future of our work and our organisations.

Lead Sense-Making

A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.- Antoine Saint-Exupery

As managers adapt to a rapidly changing world, they are going to need to accept new uncertainties. We will need to help build the capability to still manage.

The best way for managers to deal with the rapidly changing circumstances we find in the new networked economy is for them to lead the process of making new sense of why organisations exist, the value that they can create and how. The future of work is the future of leadership and human potential.

This change in leadership will require managers to break with the comfort of current approaches to the understanding of their organisation and roles. Incrementalism which is by definition grounded in current meaning will not deliver transformative changes. Managers will need to explore new meaning, experiment with its application and convey that meaning to others through stories and action.

Sense-making is a critical foundation for a responsive culture. We already see sense-making as a characteristic of success in the use of new forms of collaboration. Sense-making is also a critical component of personal knowledge management in an era with an abundance of information and stimulation. Instead of a once-and-done exercise in understanding leaders will need to embrace a continuous learning and sense-making to find new and better opportunities for change.  This ongoing process will need to be a part of people’s work widely across the processes and interactions in the Responsive Organisation.

People make new sense of themselves, their roles and their position in the world as they choose to adopt new behaviours and create new value. We need to explicitly design our processes and roles to allow for sense-making. Only through leadership of this work will we find the new ways to change the culture & practices of our organisations

Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviors – Clay Shirty