Changing our Approach to Leadership

How can leaders do better? Martin discusses the importance of embracing diversity, increasing your interpersonal awareness as well as how you show up with others. Changing our approach to leadership by focusing on quality of collaboration may be a key to solving some of our challenges.

Why is it, that despite everything we know about leadership, all the books, events, training and coaching that is available, leadership still fails? This post addresses how this could be improved.

We will discuss this question with a group of thought leaders at "Violating Earth - Violated Earth” hosted by the Institute of Advanced Studies (IESP) of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, in the context of sustainability. Drawing from different professions and perspectives, I’ve been asked to contribute based on my experience in this domain.

At RISE, we work with a wide variety of clients to support their senior teams in managing and leading their organisations in the midst of uncertainty. Of course, whilst leading a company is complex, it doesn’t match the complexity of, say, Global Sustainability, our work with clients might provide some insight into how we collectively address these larger challenges.

Our clients are approaching us with various puzzles that leaders are grappling with, knowing that they are hindering the effectiveness of their organisation:

  • Conflict amongst the leadership teams and beyond
  • Inefficient collaboration between different areas of the business
  • Leaders feeling uncertain about how to lead their organisation due to changing market conditions and shifting external and internal environments.

These come up frequently and are difficult to address due to the interpersonal dynamics that are happening at any time between people in an organisation. Below are three ideas about how we can change the approach to these challenges in order to come at them differently

Being open to changing your perspective

Conflict is relational. It often starts with two or more parties having a difference of opinion. For example, if an engineering department requires a specific technical solution and the finance department believes this solution is too expensive and would prefer a cheaper alternative. The engineers believe this could create more problems down the line. 

One way of orienting towards this lies in conversation. If these two parties get into a deadlock where they each become so attached to their perspective that they are unable to attempt to understand the other, collaboration is lost. How do leaders move to a place where they can hold their own judgments and assumptions more lightly in order to really listen to the perspectives of others?

Asking good questions, refraining from using judgmental language and being open to difference of opinion is key, yet when we feel judged or at risk we often revert to defensive, attached behaviour. It’s only human – what neuroscience would refer to as “fight or flight”. So what is required to communicate more effectively? Presence of attention and self-discipline to model what we would like to see in the organisation is key. We need to cultivate curiosity and respect for the opinions of others and a willingness to engage in conversation with one another even when it feels uncomfortable. Only by doing this can we increase understanding and potentially see a possible next step in the situation.

Understanding the inter-relational dynamics in our interactions

Engaging in conversation is one thing but acknowledging and understanding what is happening between us ‘in the moment’ is another. There are many factors at play when we are in communication/conversation with others; power dynamics, prejudices, assumptions, diversity of experience, to name a few.

Take power for example. Power is relational. People don’t just have power – it is given to them or they take it. Think about how challenging it is for employees to give honest feedback to their boss. People will choose to 'play nice' and do what is expected of them, rather than upset the status quo. The problem is, in not speaking truth to power we are setting a pattern of behaviour which allows for blind spots in leadership to occur. If our leaders receive feedback, or worse, false feedback, how do we expect the leadership of our organisations to improve?

We often see leaders requesting everyone to participate equally, yet everyone knows that in reality, the leader's suggestion will be the one taken forward without much consideration of others. This is disempowering and potentially hinders innovation and quality decision making.

We all have different behaviours and personalities. Some of us enjoy action-orientated conversations whilst others prefer digging deeper into the ‘why’ behind what we’re doing. These two propensities can often be in conflict; the action-orientated can become irritated with the slower pace and the inquirers frustrated by the need to rush to a decision.

While these patterns cannot be avoided, if we are able to speak up and name what we are seeing and observe how this is shaping the outcome of a group we might be able to enter into a different type of conversation.

Taking responsibility for how you show up as a leader

Leaders are significantly shaping the flow of interaction whether they like it or not, whether they are aware or not. We can’t expect an organisation to shift if leaders don’t see themselves ‘as part of the problem’. It starts with taking responsibility for how we show up, developing a strong sense of self-awareness, which is gained through thoughtful reflection and acceptance of feedback. It also requires the commitment to developing our habits and practices for collaboration; our ability to ask good questions, listen and take perspective, name what is happening in a group and provide a sense of direction. Only then might organisations be able to have the conversations they really need to be having in productive ways.


The opening question in this post was questioning the failure of leadership despite everything we know about it. While this is a complex question with many influencing factors, one answer may lie in the underestimated and underdeveloped level of collaboration within teams.

In our work with our clients we see that the quality of collaboration amongst its members is increasingly a competitive factor. This is an interpersonal endeavour. Gaining the self-awareness and building the habits and practices for effective and efficient collaboration, makes the difference to faster learn from experience, avoid mistakes, sense opportunities and achieving the joint goals at maximum potential. In summary;

  • Embrace diversity in order to gain access to the bigger picture.
  • Read the room. People sometimes react less to the content of a conversation, than on the behaviours and expressed emotion of one another. It is worth considering how these may be a reflection of our own way of showing up.
  • Take responsibility for your own way of showing up. Each person in a team should continuously work on their habits and practices for collaboration. It takes time to see change and is a life-long journey.

Changing our approach to leadership by focusing on the quality of collaboration in our team may be a key to solving some of our leadership challenges and reaching our goals efficiently and effectively.