leadership is conversation

After sitting with the question of “the nature of leadership” for some time, I find myself moving toward a very simple understanding.  Is leadership is about conversation. 

Leadership has less to do with the clarity of vision, and much more do to with the quality of conversation. 

Rarely does a stated vision mobilize a person/community to live into a new reality however the quality of an invitational conversation which dynamically shapes the ethos of codividuals can and does alter the present and future of codividuals.  Influence is dialogical.  Leadership which stands apart from the led may be a “Type-A myth.” 

How one fosters conversation is everything.  Bringing self to the table, creating open space, speaking, naming, surrendering the need to be right, etc.  Hidden agendas, unstated vision, passive aggressive needs to control, and rigid categories are just a few of the many ills ready to subvert conversation.

Peace, dwight

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  1. i liken our conversation to the phermone trail left by ants. it has the potential to alter behavior of those who come in contact with it and paths could be altered because of it. its our feedback loop whereby we are formed. in the spreading of the conversation to others around us it acts as a means of hubbing.

  2. so true. and it seems that conversational leading focuses on relationships, wheras in "type-a" leading individuals tend to fall through the cracks of this church-going-somewhere.

  3. Each era has its own dominant metaphors, pictures that describe and define the essence of, say, leadership to that group of people. Those metaphors find their way into our way of looking at things because they jibe with people‘s experience at a given moment. So, for example, it made sense as the electronic age kicked into high gear to look at the brain as if it were a kind of computer.

    Every metaphor helps us to see something more clearly by engaging our imagination, but those same metaphors simultaneously place boundaries on our imagination in crucial ways. No metaphor can adequately encompass everything that needs to be understood about something. Again, with the brain example, at some point our emphasis shifts and seeing the brain as a computer doesn‘t adequately explain what we think we know about it.

    The point to this rambling comment is to ask a question. We see, pretty clearly I think, the value of leadership as conversation, so what are the pitfalls? The conversation as a metaphor for leadership works right now because it speaks, I think, to the cultural mood and a particular longing people have. Still, there are aspects of leadership that don‘t fit well into the conversational model, so I‘m wondering what you all think those deficiencies might be and how we might address them. Or, for that matter, do you agree with my question in the first place?

  4. Dwight, I like the metaphor because it connects for me to meaning making.. people need frameworks of meaning in which actions make sense. In times of discontinuous change, old frameworks no longer work, and we need a new imaginative architecture in order to move forward. I believe new architecture is created and given in conversation.. and conversation can take place through so many media, though face to face is often the best.

  5. Dwight, Your view of leadership feels full of permission for me to embrace what I must believe to be true of leadership but never really have the courage to name as true.

    I guess it is exactly what Len has said for me, a framework of meaning in which actions make sense.

    Please keep preaching, my friend. And do you hear that encouragement as invitation to more relationship? 🙂

  6. I wish what you wrote were true, and were essential. I love conversation, but I\‘m not so sure that my conversations are impacting people as leadership. Maybe that is to say that the quality of my conversation is lacking. And, maybe that is to say that leadership has many dimensions, and that more than conversation is required for leadership in certain structures, organzations, and/or contexts. Conversations are great for influence and persuasion, coaching and mentoring, but there is also the whole operational side of getting certain things done. (assuming that some things do have to be done, and that I cannot just hang out at my local Starbucks 24/7 having great conversations; yes, that\‘d be my picture of heaven)

  7. Hi Dwight,

    I actually wrote a book for Group Publishing on this very idea. It flopped. 🙂 Of course as the author, I think it flopped becasue of marketing faux pas. But, alas that sounds like a whiny author. Anyway, I have taught the concepts in the book at a number of places, including emergent this past year, and named it "Conversational Leadership." People really resonate with it.

    I’m thinking of retooling the Group book under a different name. I believe dialogue is such an untapped potential in an organization or community. We are still at the level of debate in our society…e.g. left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, etc. Little dialogue occurs. The beauty of dialogue is that it creates a third way; one that cannot be discovered without the inter-formation that occurs through the conversation.


    Dave Fleming