6/11/2019

Beyond a reductive view

Who among us isn’t in search of the easiest way to solve our problems? The question is, is the easy way really the way1?

I just closed an email I received from a professional network offering a session with a facilitator that promises to help master 21st century leadership.” I’m sure it’s a fine workshop, and I’m sure there’s value to be found in it. I have no doubt that there are tools and strategies that I could use in places in my work. While all of this is true, the title, and description, of this workshop tell me one thing: it’s another example of reductive thinking.

Mind you, I don’t think this is the fault of the person who put it together. No, she’s doing what she can to 1) help consultants learn from what she’s learned (I assume) and 2) make a living. I won’t make any assumptions about what order those are prioritized for her. I’ve never met her.

Spend any time on LinkedIn and you will find that the world is full of these kinds of workshops. The Seven Secrets to Modern Leadership. Five Keys to Leading Today. Three Leadership Secrets for Success. None of these are real. I made them all up just now, but they sound real, don’t they? There’s a reason for that: the world is full of workshops just like them.

Here’s the thing. The fact that they are everywhere isn’t an indicator that they work. It’s an indicator that we think they will work. Rather, that we hope they will work. Again, I’m sure many of these workshops have value2. Some value isn’t the point. The real point is that we tend to look for simple, clear solutions to the problems we face. We want to be given a key, a secret, something that will allow us to step into a situation and change it. Fix it.

The problem is, that’s not really possible.

It can seem like it is on occasion. We can get a hit from these new skills and start finding places where they align. But, as the adage goes, when all we have is a hammer, nails abound.

How do we master 21st century leadership? I’m not sure we can. I’m really not sure it’s the best question. How do we learn to navigate incredibly complex and messy situations with grace, humility, vulnerability, and integrity? That feels closer. What does it mean to enter into emergent situations of great complexity, volatility, and ambiguity? How do we develop the capacity for agility through uncertainty?

These questions point to a level of operating that moves beyond the reductive view that we have been told we should occupy. Yes, it means more work. Yes, it’s harder than simply applying the 5 Core Leadership Strategies for Today’s Leaders. Yes, it’s deeply uncomfortable. And, yes, at the moment, it’s much harder to market.

It’s also possible that this kind of learning is what’s really behind the reductive titles that we tend to see. Meet people where they are,” is a common piece of advice given to those who are looking to make offerings. I get it, I really do. At the same time, I worry that if we don’t actually stand up and say, Enough. We have to get honest here. There are no quick answers. There are only shape shifting issues for us to navigate. How can we best learn to do that?” Than we’ll never get past this.

I’d hate to be stuck here forever.


  1. Another question could be: are we sure our problems are really our problems?

  2. At the same time, I’d venture that most don’t.


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