Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to observe a large number of ‘fireside chats’: those events where a senior leader comes in and speaks with a group of up-and-coming leaders, usually in the context of a leadership development programme.
I’ve noticed two distinct approaches to how the senior leader will show up and engage.
The first is the traditional approach, which is to stand or sit at the front of the room. The leader is the focal point. The session proceeds to be a download of stories, lessons learned, and advice to these younger or less experienced leaders. It’s often entertaining, and there are always a few gems to be had.
This is the ‘sage on the stage’ approach to engagement. The leader is at the centre of things. Power rests with the person at the front. The interaction between people usually takes the form of a question and answer session, usually towards the end, where there’s a whole lot of back and forth, a bit like a tennis match. Questions get asked from the floor, and they’re duly answered.
As an audience member, it’s easy. We don’t have to do much except listen, and maybe think of a question or two. If the speaker’s any good, we’ll feel something, and maybe go and change something as a result. Maybe.
I reckon this approach doesn’t cut it for leadership development anymore. It perpetuates the hero-leader / passive-follower dynamic: “I am wise, listen to me, I have some answers for you.” The audience is set up to merely receive information from the guru, rather than asked to step up and shape ideas with them. When the world is asking for more collaboration, what we’re getting is just more information.
There’s got to be a better way.
The second approach is where the leader sits down with the group, and rather than deliver a presentation, they’ll host a conversation. They’ll kick things off with something like:
“This is what’s interesting to me as a leader right now.”
“This is what’s challenging me at the moment.”
“These are the questions I’m asking myself.”
“I‘d love to have a conversation with you about these things, because I think they might also be relevant to you.”
By leading off this way, there’s an immediate invitation to become a part of the conversation. When you put ideas and questions at the centre of the conversation, rather than the person, the leader becomes part of the conversation. The focus shifts from the person to the question.
Leaders that take this approach create a very different experience for those in attendance. People actively contribute to the conversation. Ideas are built on from every quarter. It’s no longer a tennis match. It’s more like a team sport, with everyone playing their part to take the ‘ball’ somewhere. The audience members become active contributors, rather than passive receivers.
This is a microcosm of the type of leadership that we need to experience more of in our organisations and society at large. Peter Block wrote a thought-provoking article called From Leadership to Citizenship where he challenges the notion of how we think about what leadership does for us. He wonders what would happen if the leader put down the microphone, came down from the stage, sat with us in the audience, and had a conversation with us about the challenges we face, together.
We need to redefine what it means to lead – which is, in the end, about inspiring hearts, engaging minds and catalysing deliberate action. We need to dial up the requirement for hosting conversations, and dial down the requirement for giving answers. Because good answers aren’t as easy to come by as they used to be.
So, if you’re ever asked to ‘present’ to a group, think about how you’ll design that experience. Do you want to promote passivity, or activity? People don’t want to be taught. They want to build something. Give them that opportunity. To promote more activity, first think of what you might like to build together.
And, if you ever find yourself on the other end of one of those one-way downloads, look for ways you can shift it to be more of a conversation. Ask the presenter what they would love the group to help them with. Invite others to contribute their perspectives. Ask a question to the group, not to the presenter.
When you put ideas at the centre, the conversation thrives.
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