Our Immunity To Change
Bray Cohen has returned from Harvard University where he worked with Robert
Kegan and Lisa Lahey to understand the 20-year research and the Immunity to
Kegan and Lahey give the keys to unlock our
potential and finally move forward.
Bray wants to share the learning about this process
in a persuasive and practical half-day workshop.
Bray will share his learning about the process and
facilitate you through a ‘real life’ challenge to a change you have been trying
The process pinpoints and uproots our own
immunities to change and supports in a process to bring teams and organizations
The workshop will deliver the tools you need to
overcome the forces of inertia and transform your life and your work.
Leadership into Complexity
Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host
Margaret Wheatley with Debbie Frieze ©2010 published in Resurgence Magazine, Winter 2011
For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to
be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out.
Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones
who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an
enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make
it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant,
trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her. Somewhere…
Well, it is time for all the heroes to go home, as the poet William Stafford wrote. It is
time for us to give up these hopes and expectations that only breed dependency and
passivity, and that do not give us solutions to the challenges we face. It is time to stop
waiting for someone to save us. It is time to face the truth of our situation—that we’re
all in this together, that we all have a voice—and figure out how to mobilize the hearts
and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.
Why do we continue to hope for heroes? It seems we assume certain things:
• Leaders have the answers. They know what to do.
• People do what they’re told. They just have to be given good plans and
• High risk requires high control. As situations grow more complex and
challenging, power needs to shift to the top (with the leaders who know
what to do.)
These beliefs give rise to the models of command and control revered in organizations
and governments world‐wide. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy submit to the
greater vision and expertise of those above. Leaders promise to get us out of this mess;
we willingly surrender individual autonomy in exchange for security.
The only predictable consequence of leaders attempts to wrest control of a complex,
even chaotic situation, is that they create more chaos. They go into isolation with just a
few key advisors, and attempt to find a simple solution (quickly) to a complex problem.
And people pressure them to do just that. Everyone wants the problem to disappear;
cries of “fix it!” arise from the public. Leaders scramble to look like they’ve taken charge
and have everything in hand.
But the causes of today’s problems are complex and interconnected. There are no
simple answers, and no one individual can possibly know what to do. We seem unable
to acknowledge these complex realities. Instead, when the leader fails to resolve the
crisis, we fire him or her, and immediately begin searching for the next (more perfect)
one. We don’t question our expectations of leaders, we don’t question our
desire for heroes.
The Illusion of Control
Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a
world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently
uncontrollable. No one is in charge of our food systems. No one is in charge of our
schools. No one is in charge of the environment. No one is in charge of national
security. No one is in charge! These systems are emergent phenomena—the result of
thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with
properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to
them. These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by
working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes. And certainly they cannot be
changed by the boldest visions of our most heroic leaders.
If we want to be able to get these complex systems to work better, we need to abandon
our reliance on the leader‐as‐hero and invite in the leader‐as‐host. We need to support
those leaders who know that problems are complex, who know that in order to
understand the full complexity of any issue, all parts of the system need to be invited in
to participate and contribute. We, as followers, need to give our leaders time, patience,
forgiveness; and we need to be willing to step up and contribute.
These leaders‐as‐hosts are candid enough to admit that they don’t know what to do;
they realize that it’s sheer foolishness to rely only on them for answers. But they also
know they can trust in other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done.
They know that other people, no matter where they are in the organizational hierarchy,
can be as motivated, diligent and creative as the leader, given the right invitation.
The Journey from Hero to Host
Leaders who journey from hero to host have seen past the negative dynamics of politics
and opposition that hierarchy breeds, they’ve ignored the organizational charts and role
descriptions that confine people’s potential. Instead, they’ve become curious. Who’s in
this organization or community? What skills and capacities might they offer if they were
invited into the work as full contributors? What do they know, what insights do they
have that might lead to a solution to this problem?
Leaders‐as‐hosts know that people willingly support those things they’ve played a part
in creating—that you can’t expect people to ‘buy‐in’ to plans and projects developed
elsewhere. Leaders‐as‐hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from
many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and
possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most
people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders
know that hosting others is the only way to get complex, intractable problems solved.
Leaders‐as‐hosts don’t just benevolently let go and trust that people will do good work
on their own Leaders have a great many things to attend to, but these are quite
different than the work of heroes. Hosting leaders must:
• provide conditions and good group processes for people to work together.
• provide resources of time, the scarcest commodity of all.
• insist that people and the system learn from experience, frequently.
• offer unequivocal support—people know the leader is there for them.
• keep the bureaucracy at bay, creating oases (or bunkers) where people are less
encumbered by senseless demands for reports and administrivia.
• play defense with other leaders who want to take back control, who are critical
that people have been given too much freedom.
• reflect back to people on a regular basis how they’re doing, what they’re
accomplishing, how far they’ve journeyed.
• work with people to develop relevant measures of progress to make their
• value conviviality and esprit de corps—not false rah‐rah activities, but the spirit
that arises in any group that accomplishes difficult work together.
Challenges from Superiors
It’s important to note how leaders journeying from hero to host use their positional
power. They have to work all levels of the hierarchy; most often, it’s easier to gain
support and respect from the people they lead than it is to gain it from their superiors.
Most senior leaders of large hierarchies believe in their inherent superiority, as proven
by the position they’ve attained. They don’t believe that everyday people are as
creative or self‐motivated as are they. When participation is suggested as the means to
gather insights and ideas from staff on a complex problem, senior leaders often will
block such activities. They justify their opposition by stating that people would use this
opportunity to take advantage of the organization; or that they would suggest ideas that
have no bearing to the organization’s mission; or that people would feel overly
confident and overstep their roles. In truth, many senior leaders view engaging the
whole system as a threat to their own power and control. They consistently choose for
control, and the resultant chaos, rather than invite people in to solve difficult and
Leaders who do know the value of full engagement, who do trust those they lead, have
to constantly defend their staff from senior leaders who insist on more controls and
more bureaucracy to curtail their activities, even when those very activities are
producing excellent results. Strange to say, but too many senior leaders choose control
over effectiveness; they’re willing to risk creating more chaos by continuing their takecharge,
command and control leadership.
Those who’ve been held back in confining roles, who’ve been buried in the hierarchy,
will eventually blossom and develop in the company of a hosting leader. Yet, it takes
time for employees to believe that this boss is different, that this leader actually wants
them to contribute. It can take 12 to 18 months in systems where people have been
silenced into submission by autocratic leadership. These days, most people take a waitand‐
see attitude, no longer interested in participating because past invitations weren’t
sincere, or didn’t engage them in meaningful work. The leader needs to prove him or
herself by continually insisting that work cannot be accomplished, nor problems solved
without the participation of everyone. If the message is sincere and consistent, people
gradually return to life; even people who have died on the job, who’re just waiting until
retirement, can come alive in the presence of a leader who encourages them and
creates opportunities for them to contribute.
Leaders‐as‐hosts need to be skilled conveners. They realize that their organization or
community is rich in resources, and that the easiest way to discover these is to bring
diverse people together in conversations that matter. People who didn’t like each other,
people who discounted and ignored each other, people who felt invisible, neglected, left
out—these are the people who can emerge from their boxes and labels to become
interesting, engaged colleagues and citizens.
Hosting meaningful conversations isn’t about getting people to like each other or feel
good. It’s about creating the means for problems to get solved, for teams to function
well, for people to become energetic activists. Hosting Leaders create substantive
change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment and generosity. They learn
from firsthand experience that these qualities are present in just about everyone and in
every organization. They extend sincere invitations, ask good questions, and have the
courage to support risk‐taking and experimentation.
Are You a Hero?
Many of us can get caught up acting like heroes, not from power drives, but from our
good intentions and desires to help. Are you acting as a hero? Here’s how to know.
You’re acting as a hero when you believe that if you just work harder, you’ll fix things;
that if you just get smarter or learn a new technique, you’ll be able to solve problems
for others. You’re acting as a hero if you take on more and more projects and causes
and have less time for relationships. You’re playing the hero if you believe that you can
save the situation, the person, the world.
Our heroic impulses most often are born from the best of intentions. We want to help,
we want to solve, we want to fix. Yet this is the illusion of specialness, that we’re the
only ones who can offer help, service, skills. If we don’t do it, nobody will. This hero’s
path has only one guaranteed destination—we end up feeling lonely, exhausted and
It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not
alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too
have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems.
Truth be told, they never wanted heroes to rescue them anyway.
Parts of this article are excerpts from Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into
Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. Margaret Wheatley & Deborah Frieze.
Berrett‐Koehler Publishers, Forthcoming April 2011.
Why Authentic Leadership?
The Authentic Leader
Authentic leaders genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership. They are more interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money, or prestige for themselves. They are as guided by qualities of the heart, by passion and compassion, as they are by qualities of the mind.
Authentic leaders are not born that way. Many people have natural leadership gifts, but they have to develop them fully to become outstanding leaders. Authentic leaders use their natural abilities, but they also recognize their shortcomings and work hard to overcome them. They lead with purpose, meaning, and values. They build enduring relationships with people. Others follow them because they know where they stand. They are consistent and self-disciplined. When their principles are tested, they refuse to compromise. Authentic leaders are dedicated to developing themselves because they know that becoming a leader takes a lifetime of personal growth.
Being Your Own Person
Leaders are all very different people. Any prospective leader who buys into the necessity of attempting to emulate all the characteristics of a leader is doomed to fail. I know because I tried it early in my career. It simply doesn’t work.
The one essential quality a leader must have is to be your own person, authentic in every regard. The best leaders are autonomous and highly independent. Those who are too responsive to the desires of others are likely to be whipsawed by competing interests, too quick to deviate from their course or unwilling to make difficult decisions for fear of offending. My advice to the people I mentor is simply to be themselves.
Being your own person is most challenging when it feels like everyone is pressuring you to take one course and you are standing alone. I remember readingThe Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Initially I did not relate to the film’s message, as I had always surrounded myself with people to avoid being lonely. Learning to cope with the loneliness at the top is crucial so that you are not swayed by the pressure. Being able to stand alone against the majority is essential to being your own person.
Developing Your Unique Leadership Style
To become authentic, each of us has to develop our own leadership style, consistent with our personality and character. Unfortunately, the pressures of an organization push us to adhere to its normative style. But if we conform to a style that is not consistent with who we are, we will never become authentic leaders.
Contrary to what much of the literature says, your type of leadership style is not what matters. Great world leaders—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, John E. Kennedy—all had very different styles. Yet each of them was an entirely authentic human being. There is no way you could ever attempt to emulate any of them without looking foolish.
The same is true for business leaders. Compare the last three CEOs of General Electric: the statesmanship of Reginald Jones, the dynamism of Jack Welch, and the empowering style of Jeff Immelt. All of them are highly successful leaders with entirely different leadership styles. Yet the GE organization has rallied around each of them, adapted to their styles, and flourished as a result. What counts is the authenticity of the leader, not the style.
Having said that, it is important that you develop a leadership style that works well for you and is consistent with your character and your personality. Over time you will have to hone your style to be effective in leading different types of people and to work in different types of environments. This is integral to your development as a leader.
To be effective in today’s fast-moving, highly competitive environment, leaders also have to adapt their style to fit the immediate situation. There are times to be inspiring and motivating, and times to be tough about people decisions or financial decisions. There are times to delegate, and times to be deeply immersed in the details. There are times to communicate public messages, and times to have private conversations. The use of adaptive styles is not inauthentic, and is very different from playing a succession of roles rather than being yourself. Good leaders are able to nuance their styles to the demands of the situation, and to know when and how to deploy different styles.
Being Aware of Your Weaknesses
Being true to the person you were created to be means accepting your faults as well as using your strengths. Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic. The problem comes down when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates.
A highly directive leader shared with me recently
“I too have struggled in getting comfortable with my weaknesses— . Only recently have I realized that my strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. By challenging others in business meetings, I am able to get quickly to the heart of the issues, but my approach unnerves and intimidates less confident people. My desire to get things done fast leads to superior results, but it exposes my impatience with people who move more slowly. Being direct with others gets the message across clearly but often lacks tact. Over time I have moderated my style and adapted my approach to make sure that people are engaged and empowered and that their voices are fully heard.
I have always been open to critical feedback, but also quite sensitive to it. For years I felt I had to be perfect, or at least appear that I was on top of everything. I tried to hide my weaknesses from others, fearing they would reject me if they knew who I really was. Eventually, I realized that they could see my weaknesses more clearly than I could. In attempting to cover things up, I was only fooling myself”
Capitalising On Complexity
A great study by IBM across all sectors and over 1500 leaders
What is the answer to Capitalising on Complexity in the 21st Century
Take a look: