The Unleadership Movement: Living with the Unknown – Giving Ourselves Permission to Act Anyway

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The Unleadership Movement is a growing collaboration of practitioners and scholars from public, private and voluntary sectors. The movement seeks to reflect upon leaderly practices that have been illuminated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Its mission is to establish how this learning can be taken forward by participants to make an impact in their organisations and communities. In this month’s blog we focus on living with the unknown and exploring the creative potential of imperfection.

Under traditional leadership understanding, it is taken for granted that leaders must always seek perfection. In order to achieve this, leaders must always be in control. They must be bold and dedicated to creating strategies where grand plans are enacted by willing and engaged followers. However, leaderly acts, particularly during the Covid pandemic have revealed that this quest for leadership control in pursuit of perfection can have unintended consequences. Whilst formal leaders sought to create complicated plans to deliver PPE or to craft testing strategies based on evidence, they continued to be almost paralysed in their quest to make and execute the always perfect leadership plan. Their quest proved to be illusionary and unrealisable; and resulted in costly delays and hindered timely action.

Meanwhile, another type of leaderly practice was emerging. Communities, organisations and individuals picked up the mantle during this impasse and took spontaneous action to make a difference. Volunteers printed 3D plastic visor parts; chefs prepared food in their home kitchens for vulnerable people; organisations mobilised individuals to assist with the making of scrubs. These “unleaders” had no clear vision of their destination point but were driven by a clear purpose. They courageously acted into the unknown without securing ‘perfect’ knowledge and certainty. They admitted to unknowing and their actions evolved as they celebrated success and learned from failure. They did not seek to become the epitome of “leadership”. They did not seek to command and control events. They simply acted by paying attention to what was needed in the moment.

This does not underestimate the complexity of the problems and challenges that were faced, and are still faced in organisational life. Instead, we’ve been reflecting on how we can free ourselves of the quest for leadership perfection and operate by delivering “good enough” solutions. The last thing a complex problem needs is a complicated solution, which is only likely to increase the uncertainty! Instead, by empowering ourselves to be “imperfect”, we can move forward and take timely action, adapting our actions according to the response they receive. We’ve explored a number of different activities in workshops with our collaborators and will share two possibilities here that can be used as inspiration to embrace imperfection. Use individually as a personal reflection or discuss with trusted colleagues.

The first activity is to consider the leaderly challenges we face against Ralph Stacey’s (1996) agreement and uncertainty matrix to reflect on our actions and responses.

Uncertain situations can make us feel unsafe and anxious and our natural instinct is to try and make ourselves feel safer by creating a sense of certainty. But this is really an illusion. An alternative might be to try to make uncertainty itself feel safer – perhaps by reflecting upon our responses and understanding of it. If we can achieve this, we are able to pay attention differently and potentially learn more.  Using the outline above we discussed different aspects of uncertainty and agreement in the real-life challenges faced by our workshop collaborators.

Positions of perceived high agreement and high certainty can lead to simplistic or technical conversations that sometimes get stuck by repeating the same loop – an example was discussed such as “we simply do not have enough resources to deliver this”. Other situations discussed drifted further away from absolute certainty where some form of surface harmony existed but wasn’t explored too deeply – such as managing multiple stakeholders’ expectations during a service delivery change programme.  Moving further away from agreement things can also get political – such as individuals waiting to act or refusing to take action in certain scenarios. If we end up rather too far away from agreement and certainty we may also end up in a chaotic situation where we are tempted to put our heads in the sand.  These places will be different for all for us depending on how we feel and who we are but if we reflect upon each challenge we face, we may be able to see a different perspective which will allow us to take different action.

A place where creativity and change can really happen is the sweet spot between agreement and certainty. If we can operate within this bounded instability, we can pay attention to the complexity we face – we can navigate changing policies, manage different stakeholders and find our sense of place to take leaderly action – acknowledging and accepting imperfections. We can only simplify so far in complex situations, inevitably there will be contradiction, dynamism and iteration. We need to carefully pay attention to context and allow ourselves to be spontaneous, not introducing more complication but embracing the complexity and going with the flow. Through reflection and discussion of the leaderly challenges we faced, we were able to gain a greater confidence and understanding of how we could take action differently.  

The second activity involves challenging ourselves to be creative! We used erasure poetry to help our collaborators feel more confident about being creative and embracing the idea of imperfection. Each person used a text to delete and add their own words to create a poem about the challenges of imperfection in leaderly practices. This was an opportunity to retell the challenge in a more constructive or reflective way. We used a text written about the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi  – an approach to life which is based on accepting imperfection and embracing the beauty of the impermanence and incompleteness of life. We picked this text because we thought it offered a refreshing contrast to mainstream leadership rhetoric where there is more of an obsession with creating perfection, and being the perfect, heroic leader. Any text would work equally well. Some very creative results emerged! Here’s one for inspiration

The beauty of this activity was the variety of poems produced, all unique, thoughtful and individual creations. All embracing the idea of imperfection and beautifully imperfect in their own ways!

As English (2016: 8) puts it, “imperfection of experience is what makes it so valuable.” Let us know about how these activities helped you to embrace imperfection, or others you’ve tried. We can all give ourselves permission to embrace imperfection in our leaderly practices so that we feel able to act into the unknown. You are all warmly invited to join our movement and contribute to the conversation!

Join us next month for some thoughts on Catching the Wave – how do we know when to take action?

Kay Galpin, Hugo Gaggiotti, Carol Jarvis & Selen Kars-Unluoglu

LinkedIn: The Unleadership Movement

Twitter: @unleadership_


English, P. (2016) Imperfection: Embracing Wabi-Sabi. Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 12(4): 1-9.

Stacey, R.D. (1996) Strategic Management & Organisational Dynamics. 2nd ed. London: Pitman.

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