I'm thinking about...
(originally published on LinkedIn)
A move from a competitive model to a collaborative model of service delivery is a cultural shift. This shift necessitates the right type of leadership, new approaches to problem definition and decision making, as well as a move, across the system, from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets. Nazanin Jenkin
Public Servants & Servant Leadership
The New Zealand Public Sector “Spirit of Service” seems to embody a collaborative approach; and, there appears to be a call to once again capture the heart of being a public servant. Last week, I was delighted to see that "14 public servants from around the country were acknowledged for their outstanding spirit of service to NZ" - these were the inaugural recipients of the State Services Commissioner’s Commendation for Frontline Excellence. Well done! This sort of service is the underlying ethos of public service, where employees are known as public servants, and this should once again steer us towards the principles of “servant leadership”, a concept coined by Greenleaf in his now famous 1970 essay. In that essay Greenleaf said, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” Yet not so long ago I had the opportunity to work with a group of senior mangers from across agencies and a number were not familiar with the phrase "servant leadership". It took me by surprise, so if it's new to you, I highly recommend a quick google search. In summary, it is well acknowledged that the primary characteristics of a servant leader include: “altruism, empathy, humility, service, spirituality, and stewardship”. Anyone can be a leader anywhere in the organisation.
Understanding Complexity & Decision Making
Collaborative leadership necessitates an empowering approach, a comfort with ambiguity, and an ability to learn from failures. This appears to be particularly tough in an environment with a dominant “fear of failure” and a reward system that appears to favour “known knowns”. Here I am referring to David Snowden et al's work with understanding complexity and specifically the Cynefin framework (pronounced ku-nev-in), which is a Welsh word that signifies the multiple factors in our environment and our experience that influence us in ways that we can never understand. I am no expert on complexity theory, but it fascinates me, so along with a small group of other enthusiasts I signed up to one of Snowden's all-day masterclasses when he was visiting NZ; I am on an intentional learning journey!
My take is that leaders across the system have to approach the problem definition and subsequent decision making approach differently; and, whilst it may be complex, it doesn't have to be complicated. A flock of birds is a magnificent example of complexity in nature, each individual bird and the flock together, adapt and adjust to respond to the environment and circumstances. Whilst traditional problem solving tools can still add some value, in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, we need new tools for decision making that enable the right action. Again, if you are a starter on the subject, I recommend looking it up and you may find Snowden and Boone's 2007 HBR article "A leader's framework for decision making" a good starting point.
Moving from Fixed Mindsets to Growth Mindsets
Moving forward it appears we now need leaders with a new mindset – Carol Dweck of Stanford University calls this a “growth mindset” (as opposed to a “fixed mindset”); others have talked about “adaptive” behaviours and leadership. Growth mindset characteristics include: embracing challenges; seeing effort as a path to mastery; persisting in the face of challenges; learning from criticism; and, finding lessons and inspiration in the success of others. These characteristics then guide our behaviours and language. In reality it's a spectrum and we each may operate with either mindset in any given situation; it's about learning to be aware of our own behaviours and responses.
So if collaboration and collective impact are the desired outcome, then there is opportunity to re-assess the capabilities needed in those contexts. In this environment, leaders take on the role of mentors and coaches more readily, and are comfortable with sharing knowledge to empower others. Dweck talks about the power of believing that you can improve - so if you're a natural, that's great; but, if you aren't, there is hope! She says, "in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn't define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.” On a personal note, I have found the practices of mindfulness, thankfulness and yoga, and working with a mentor/coach, to all add significant value in my development. Here is a simple practice Dweck suggests - if you/your team or someone you know is not good at doing "x"; add the word "yet"..."I am not good at "x", yet". That moves the fixed mindset statement to a growth mindset statement and recognises we are all on a change journey. Find what helps you and invest in developing the discipline(s).
Shifting the Culture
Changes in the cultural status quo can be difficult and are rarely (if ever) achieved through large scale re-structuring. A move to collaboration necessitates a gentler culture nudge and shift, which necessitates a reliance on champions and the right people dynamics (giving consideration to communication, power dynamics, building trust, information and knowledge sharing and so forth). We can’t move forward if we don’t put the end recipient at the centre of all that we do - that's our shared interest. To serve fully we need to approach our service delivery collectively for collective impact.
And, in the end, we each need to take time for deep change and make the choice to lead in line with our values, and remember that “there is nothing permanent except change” (Heraclitus) – so let’s try not to make it too complicated, but take the right steps forward individually and support each other as we journey together collectively.
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Nazanin Jenkin is a Persian Kiwi - a Persian by descent and a diaspora by circumstance. She lives in New Zealand; along with her husband of thirty years and two surviving, adult children.