The leader as poet

By Andy Logan
The leader finally reaches the summit of the hill. All their years of business experience, all that time on management and leadership development, has finally got them there. Now they’re on the hilltop, the leader is expected to have the vision, the oversight, to be a military general commanding the high ground, to drive the organisation forward to one success after another.



Unfortunately the view isn’t going to be what they expect, no matter how high the leader climbs. In the 21st - century, all they’re going to see is a mess, or what’s known as a ‘VUCA world’ - referring to an environment filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s an acronym that came from the US military, used by perplexed leaders in response to the relentless challenges posed by operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, but embraced by management thinkers as a reflection of the extremity of the changes being faced.

For a new leader the hill can look more like a cliff. All their working life so far has been about gaining more control of business processes, through broader knowledge, deeper insights. Suddenly the leader becomes responsible for the intangible, the woolly vision and values, the responsibility for moving forward into a void.


Too many leadership development programmes offer a ‘happy ever after’ outcome from learning general principles and nurturing particular qualities.


It’s no longer possible to just develop yourself into a ‘great leader’. Too many leadership development programmes offer a ‘happy ever after’ outcome from learning general principles and nurturing particular qualities. Trying to be a traditional great leader is going to lead to failure eventually, there are too many threats to businesses of all shapes and sizes, that will come together and too quickly to be avoided. There aren’t always going to be clear answers, let alone good answers to VUCA problems. So we need new kinds of leaders. They need to be flexible and resilient - as they have always needed to be - but to an even greater extent.

They need to avoid the traps of demanding only success in everything, of relentless positivity; to be more accepting of negative events and critical perspectives, not seeing them as something to be hidden away from view but as part of the organisation’s journey. This sounds defensive, a retreat.
There are other and more important new qualities for leaders, to help them be as effective as they can be in this hostile environment, and these are around being creative, being able to keep make the business from scratch - not always looking to follow rational rules and market imperatives, because they may no longer exist or be a reliable guide. If the world can’t be relied upon, if we don’t really know what’s happening or trust what’s going to happen, then we have to start making it up for ourselves.


...leaders need to be able think of themselves as a kind of poet.


In other words, leaders need to be able to think of themselves as a kind of poet. The term ‘poetry’ derives from the Greek ‘poesis’, which meant something like ‘calling into being what didn’t exist’, giving meaning to what was previously a void, unclear or meaningless. And this is where the real opportunity is for leaders, for getting more from the difficult role of leadership as individuals, for making it possible to be successful on a range of levels. At the same time it’s the chance for creating an organisation and environment that’s more rewarding to work for, or be connected to, for all the stakeholders involved. The leader as poet looks beyond narrow interests and the constraints of financial expediencies to a different level of what’s important, what’s ethical, good - learning to see beyond own personal interests (trade war), no winners in that situation, none of this is easy. It might also sound eccentric. Yes, this kind of different approach takes courage, but being a leader has always been about courage. Prospering in the VUCA world means shaking off conventional, sometimes staid and narrow-minded business thinking.

What we do on the High Performance Leadership programme at Cranfield is to help leaders and prospective leaders to do more than just stand on a hill and expect the landscape to make sense. Leaders can’t just re-invent themselves or pick up some new skills to cope so they can just do a job. The complexity of business means we’ve gone past that stage. Leaders need to be confident about who they really are, find there individual ‘genius’, which then allows them to keep on creating the organisation and what it should be, making it meaningful, so that there can be real co-creation with all the followers involved.



About the Author

Andy Logan is a Visiting Fellow for Praxis at Cranfield School of Management.

Tags: leadership, article

High Performance Leadership