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Two Ditches of Innovation Leadership

Written by: on April 5, 2021

While power and control are key elements within leadership, understanding the ego is key to seeing the route to undefendedness. In his leadership trilogy, The Undefended Leader, Simon Walker connects the ego, power, control, and conversely empowerment. While there might exist a temptation for the leader to minimize their insecurities or believe the lie that they don’t largely impact the emotional environment of the organization, both Walker and Edwin Friedman not only disagree but put the self-differentiation of the leader as the crux of their theses. A self-differentiated leader doesn’t need the innovative success of the organization at an identity-forming level. She isn’t justified by the output of those below her. This secure sense of ego frees others to risk, experiment, and even fail.

Two Ditches of Innovation Leadership

Many facets of leadership attempt to walk between two ditches. Leaders often find themselves falling off on one side or the other. Furthermore, other leaders, out of fear of falling off one side, unknowingly traverse consistently in the other ditch. In the case of innovation, one of the ditches is anarchy. Each individual, like at the end of the book of Judges “does as they see fit.” Experiments and new ideas have varying connectedness to the organization’s mission causing the leader to wonder if an organization has mission drift. As a result, or out of fear of anarchy, leaders overcompensate and fall into the other ditch of micromanagement. Control suppresses these “wayward” experiments and attempts to align innovations to a highly controlled set of ideas and values.

A Vicious Cycle

A vicious cycle exists within an unhealthy or stagnant organization. Leaders, out of a sense of fear, anxiety, and obsession with their ego, observe new endeavors as threats or unfocused activities. As a result, or to prohibit anarchy, the leader clamps down, controls, micromanages, and squelches anything except the tried and true, the safe, and the known. As a result, followers find a sense of rebellious, sideways, and insubordinate ways to experiment that don’t have the vibrant DNA of the organization. And so it goes.

A Virtuous Cycle

Walker suggests that emptying ourselves, particularly of the need for control, will release in others great power. He finds the locus of identity in unconditional approval which is marked by being accepted, being understood, being known, and being held (101). This allows the leader to be free from failures, fears, and mistakes. Friedman would describe this same concept as “self-differentiation.” The sense of self is different than the organizational impact or output. In this virtuous cycle, the leader “finds a source of unconditional approval that is not jeopardized by [their] performance,” which fosters trust with others and gives genuine freedom to others (Walker, 103). Followers sense this trust and freedom and “test the waters” by small experimentation and find small wins. These small wins only encourage the leader all the more to trust and empower, causing larger and larger risks, more robust experimentations, and large-scale innovation.

I appreciate Walker and Friedman placing the impetus of change on the leader, not primarily on how to move others along in that journey. Fostering creative imagination, moving beyond imaginational gridlock, and lifting others’ eyes to an alternate future reality begins with the leader’s own sense of self.

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Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (New York, Church Publishing: 2017)

Simon P Walker, The Undefended Leader (Carlise, UK, Piquant: 2010)

About the Author

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Shawn Cramer

6 responses to “Two Ditches of Innovation Leadership”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Anarchy and micromanagement…love how you teased out finding the middle ground via self-differentiated leadership. In your research, what other sources have you found to be helpful for leaning into transforming ego? It seems Walker and Friedman both talk about ego, but I find their solutions for overcoming, embracing, or transforming ego to be minimal.

  2. mm John McLarty says:

    As I’ve explored Walker’s different strategies of leadership this semester, ego is definitely a factor in all of them to varying degrees. I think the challenge really comes from a leader’s own self-awareness, having the emotional intelligence to understand which strategy is most needed in a certain season, how to effectively deploy that strategy, and how to maintain a sense of self in the midst of it all. Have you had any experience with a leader who could do this well?

  3. mm Dylan Branson says:

    How have you seen the two ditches at play in your work with Cru? Have you found that people typically get stuck in one ditch over the other?

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Shawn,
    As I read your post I began to envision that the two ditches may very well be the deep ruts that many leaders need to escape. Being an old 4 wheel drive enthusiast the hardest thing to maneuver are the deep ruts that other vehicles have left behind. The deeper they get the harder they are to escape and the easier it is to high center. Even when the ruts are escaped a new route eventually creates new ruts. How can leaders avoid the old ruts without creating new ruts that eventually create the same level of stagnation that the first ruts did?

  5. mm Jer Swigart says:

    There’s a frustration that became a bit clearer for me as I read your piece. It’s that many conversations (books/resources) about organizational leadership are about the employees finding the right ways to please their leader such that the leader becomes more confident/secure in his/her employees. The leader, in turn, is more generous in his/her trust & empowerment. This seems to result in an inescapable centering of the leader and his/her ego and turns many employees into servants of the leader. That is, in order to do what they really want to do, they have to have successfully catered to the ego of the leader.

    Is it self-emptying leadership if we as leaders still need to be centered before we respond with generosity toward our employees?

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Being self-differentiated and undefended seems to be the easier way. So, how long does it take? How long will it take for us to lean into it 🙂 unless, the perception of the leader is off, inaccurate as being undifferentiated, etc.

    Could the way of anarchy a Lone Ranger way?

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