Sustainable development is not a destination, it’s not a tick box exercise or a certificate that you can bolt onto your business. It’s a constant journey along a path full of twists, turns, consequences and complexity.
For this journey, we must equip our organisations with leaders that empower people to think for themselves, challenge the status quo and innovate more sustainable ‘ways of doing things.’
This article explores why the command-and-control leadership style is unfit for duty and offers a practical way to transform conversations, so they become opportunities to create, challenge and craft creative ideas.
In today’s businesses, organisations and governments many leaders still embrace a style closer to the command-and-control end of the leadership spectrum.
This is largely because they themselves were mentored by leaders cut from a Napoleonic cloth, and the command-and-control norms are deeply rooted in most organisational cultures.
This style is based on the principle of establishing and maintaining control over organisational processes and the creative minds of the people within them. Or put simply, the idea that leaders think and employees do.
This style may work (to some extent) with complicated tasks that can be broken down into parts, in closed and static environments such as an efficient factory assembly line that aims to produce as many cars as possible (of course, this linear business model assumes we live on a planet with infinite resources…).
The reality is we do not live or work in closed, complicated environments; we are part of a complex, constantly changing and interconnected world, a world the command-and-control style is not equipped for.
Additionally, organisations contaminated with a command-and-control culture can become rigid and tomb-like for two key reasons:
(1) Employees ‘on the ground’ engaging with critical information are not able to communicate this to decision-making roles quickly enough and by the time it does the opportunity has often gone, or the damage has been done.
(2) This style does not lend itself to gaining the diversity of thought and innovative ideas required to come up with sustainable solutions, instead organisations often end up grappling with groupthink.
Interruption is inhibiting innovation
We all have the potential to come up with innovative ideas. However, command-and-control cultures coupled with a hierarchical structures, can drive a belief that leaders have higher quality ideas than those lower down the organisation.
This limiting belief tends to manifest itself through not listening, not paying attention or worse, interrupting — when leaders have conversations with their team members.
Interrupting someone while they are thinking out loud breaks the alpha waves in their brain, meaning that a potential light-bulb moment or breakthrough idea that was about to emerge may never surface. So do leaders have better ideas, or are they interrupted less when they are thinking?
Furthermore, interruption can evoke anger and frustration which negatively impact the creation of new knowledge and innovative ideas (Fredberg and Pregmark, 2016). Instead, paying uninterrupted attention to someone when they are thinking out loud creates a sense of ease, joy and interest which are positively associated with the generation of creative ideas.
Brown and Brown (2012) support this from a neurological perspective stating that the quality of one’s response can be improved when they receive attention and uninterrupted time to think.
Leading like a gardener
The ability of businesses, organisations and governments to play their role in guiding humanity towards a safe operating space and achieving goals such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will largely be underpinned by the innovative thinking generated by the people within them.
If we want to catalyse creativity and candid conversations, as leaders, we must create environments where people feel psychologically safe to explore their ideas.
McChrystal (2015), author of Team of Teams, describes this as ‘leading like a gardener,’ where the role of a leader is to consciously create a culture for others to thrive and grow.
In turn creating an organisation that resembles the structure of a tree and not a tomb. Where leaders nurture the culture for employees to communicate, collaborate, break silos, share resources and act on emerging risks and opportunities.
So, pragmatically, how can we begin applying this form of leadership in our conversations to create, challenge and craft creative ideas?
How to play ‘thinking tennis’
Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking Dialogue’ technique, or as I call it — thinking tennis, can be a simple yet powerful way to explore, challenge and develop new ideas.
So, how do you do it?
Start by stating the question you are trying to solve (e.g., how do we cut our collective energy and water consumption as a remote workforce?)
Agree a timeframe for the dialogue (e.g., 30 minutes) and decide who wants to be Thinker 1 (T1) and Thinker 2 (T2)
T1 then starts thinking out loud about the question and explores their ideas. All the while, T2 is paying attention and not interrupting. When T1 has finished thinking out loud, they pass to T2 by saying: “Now what do you think?”
T2 builds on what has been said and explores their ideas, while T1 pays uninterrupted attention. When T2 has finished, they pass back to T1 by saying: “Now what do you think?”
This process repeats itself until the time is up or the conversation comes to an organic ending with key actions to move forward.
There is no set time for each response, people may think out loud for minutes or seconds. The point is, you have equal time to think and are able to explore your ideas with the attention of the other person and without being interrupted.
This may seem like an overly structured and simple way to hold a conversation but in a world where people often don’t actually listen, pay attention or assume their undiscussed ideas are better — employing this technique can have powerful results on the development of innovative and more sustainable ‘ways of doing things’ within organisations.
Sustainable development cannot be achieved without innovation and innovation is best achieved in an environment where people receive uninterrupted attention and time to think. The easiest place to start putting this into practice is in your one-to-one conversations.
Leaders of the 21st century must shift away from the old paradigm of ‘leaders think and employees do’ and instead towards the conscious creation of a culture where others feel empowered to speak up and are listened to. Ultimately we are faced with complex challenges and we need the creativity of everyone to solve them, after all:
“The integration of minds, can unlock far more complex solutions than a set of individual thinkers” (Stanley McChrystal — Team of Teams, 2015)
Brown, P., & Brown, V. (2012). Neuropsychology for coaches. [S.l.]: Open University Press.
Fredberg, T. and Pregmark, J., 2016. The Paradox of Innovation and Urgency. IMIT Research Report 2, [online].
Kline, N., 2020. The promise that changes everything; I won’t interrupt you. 1st ed. London: Penguin Life.
McChrystal, S., Collins, T., Silverman, D. and Fussell, C., 2016. Team of Teams. 1st ed. London: Penguin.