Revisiting the Five Literacies

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In 2007 I published my third book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, after ten years of intensive practical research. Several critical discoveries in this work overturned conventional wisdom. Yet today – a further ten years down the track – nothing has appreciably shifted in terms of how most people think about leadership.

The art of leading, the practice of leadership, and the development of potential leaders are all interpreted in much the same way as they were over a century ago. Prevailing business school definitions of leadership remain obstinately intact – immune from alternative models. As a consequence, mainstream assumptions concerning leaders have not changed one iota. Nor have our expectations regarding what we want leaders to deliver.

We are still attracted to the idea that the leader is an exceptional individual – typically an Anglo-Saxon male of intrepid character, appointed or elected to pursue bold goals, his confidence and charm embodied in the number of followers he inspires. Recently, albeit grudgingly, we have admitted women to that elite club. At the same time, we have diligently avoided promoting a more diverse range of leadership qualities (omitting more feminine traits in particular) lest they intrude on the myth of masculine virility and vision.

Although our technologies have evolved dramatically over the past century, changing almost every aspect of our lives in an escalating parade of innovative enterprise, our beliefs about governance and the exercise of power are rooted in antiquated myths and obsolete models. The “great leader” syndrome is one of those myths. And a dangerous one at that.

We still desperately cry out for leadership. But what do we really mean by that? And why, when we actually get closer to what we yearn for, does there seem to be such a deficiency of moral fortitude – what might be referred to as working for the public good – aimed at benefitting humanity as a whole rather than fragments of self-interest? Surely there is more to life than making money, growing the economy, and grinding competitors into the dust? Combative in principle, the old model perpetuates separation, cosmetic quarrels and intolerance at a time when empathy, cooperation and concord are urgently needed.

When reviewing the current literature on leadership I am dismayed by the ease with which popular anecdotal evidence is uncritically accepted and used to refute almost any challenge to convention. In that context, I am obliged to return to my own work.

The idea of a leader needing to be psychologically and intellectually literate, together with positioning the work of leadership within a broader (global) context was not new of course. But it had the virtue of pointing out obvious flaws in the inherited paradigm – particularly the constraints, competitive culture, negotiated value, process myopia, and self-serving goals, that are expected and acceptable in a management context but contrary to effective leadership. And so, by challenging preconceptions, particularly West-inspired notions, of what constitutes effective leadership, and examining this phenomenon from outside and beyond familiar constraints, we were able to lift our thinking out of the quicksand of material banality.

Of course, the philosophy of a leadership praxis based on specific literacies was novel. Upon reflection, it was possibly a mistake to be so definite, or to choose just five – the latter borne out by the need to add additional, different, literacies today. I also doubt that qualifying the term leadership, by using the term global as I did, served any useful purpose. I now believe that defining African leadership, technical leadership, or even transformational leadership, as distinct varieties of the same phenomenon, complicates matters unnecessarily. Within the context of change, at least, leadership is leadership.

Returning to fundamentals in order to design from first principles, it became clear to us that the appeal for more effective, better leadership, is invariably a plea for change and renewal. It is not, nor indeed has it ever been, a call for incremental improvement or preservation of the status quo – which is the role and responsibility of management. Back then we regarded this as a critical factor – especially as most of the literature, including any assumptions used as the basis for developing leaders in corporate life, was still framed and comprehended as a management discipline.

The truth is that many so-called leaders, designated as such because of their manifest or symbolic status in a specific entity, are managers in all but name. There is no shame in the separation of managers from leaders. They are distinctive, requiring profoundly different operating modes and behavioural ethos.

Management demands profound knowledge of a system, timely information, and a range of decision-making skills and people-centered competencies that can be learnt and applied in particular situations. Necessitating a professional and disciplined manner, both aptitude and appetite for managing are nurtured by experience and developed over time. The seeds of leadership are to be found in a deep-seated yearning to change things for the better, which is a desire to be found in the soul of every human being. The aptitude and appetite to lead can be triggered in an instant, emerge fully-formed, and needs no development as such – at least in the conventional sense.

One of the most difficult issues facing humanity is that we are subjected to management on the pretext that this is leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politicians patch up the present in desperate attempts to avert our gaze from their incompetence. Corporate heads posture and preen with all the courage of canaries in a gilded cage. Both camps are dogged by fear. Fear of change – except in very small doses. Fear of a future over which they have no control. Fear of being found wanting.

Admittedly the impulse to lead is often represented as the desire to achieve a vision or end goal. But that is misleading. It is actually much more than that, beginning as a subconscious reframing of reality within the context of our relationship with others and the environment. In a sense the urge to lead is deeply coevolutionary. Only the early tasks of interior inquiry and incubation can be done in isolated solitude.

Consciously seeking an expansion of one’s own ethical code, for example, invariably leads to insights – alternate ways of seeing and thinking about reality – that are more advanced and seem to make better sense. In this way, a new intelligence of belonging and purpose starts forming. Gradually alternative possibilities begin to appear. Some fresh ideas are incubated, possibly over many months or even years. Others are cast aside. Though hidden in full view, decisions take a different shape. Ultimately different actions are taken and at that point the leader becomes both visible and redundant. With others engaged, change now becomes inevitable.

Because new behaviours are the first visible signs of our intention to change they are often mistaken for the original impulse. This is a huge error. It goes some way to explain why we structure leadership development programs around behavioural characteristics. But it does not excuse the fact that, by and large, behaviour is an unsuitable starting place.

While actions remain the visible tip of the ontological iceberg, what occurs in the deepest recesses of our consciousness, as a preliminary reaction to external stimuli, is a vastly more accurate guide to our intentions. Thus, true leadership development starts in the undetected liminal moments of the evolving mind. And although the impulse for change can be sparked by one, or possibly two individuals, the actual praxis of leadership is inevitably a collective, shared phenomenon. It can only result from the coherent objectives and actions of many.

The surrounding social ecosystem is therefore a significant factor, if frequently downplayed. In fact, all leadership is context specific – it arises from explicit needs within a group that are not being met by other means.

Although the conventional “great leader” syndrome is one most commonly associated with contingency (the ability to control a situation) or charismatic (the ability to influence and inspire) theories, the most effective leaders arise from, and merge with, their social group, often to the extent that they become indiscernible to outsiders from others in the group.

This notion of social identity explains a lot about the apparent vacuum in leadership today. For example, if leaders distance themselves from society, by crafting an elite persona, or by feigning superiority in some way, they risk resorting to old-style leadership models that have been proven to be the problem.

This is why, when writing The Five Literacies, we concluded that authentic leadership is a shared and highly emergent phenomenon, intimately entangled with the dynamics of the social ecosystem in which it flourishes. Unlike management it cannot be planned. But its outcomes can be predicted with high levels of certainty.

Perhaps these are the reasons we still cry out for leadership. As long as designated leaders continue to manage, rather than to lead, our cries will continue to echo into the void and those massive changes we actually need in the world will elude us.

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