Four Myths About Conventional Leadership

Why is conventional leadership not working?

By Susanna Carman originally published in Meta Integral Academy


Last week I sat in on a ‘culture session’ for a business made up of entrepreneurs facing constrained revenue growth. An external expert was brought in to facilitate communication amongst key stakeholders. The session enabled an array of angry, disappointing, frustrating, blaming and despairing feelings to be expressed. As the day unfolded a common theme emerged: why isn’t this working?

The search for a single source to explain disconnects between intent and outcome had created a ‘viscious loop’. Individuals took turns articulating what they believed was the problem: a lack of cultural alignment, unsustainable structures, sound structures that hadn’t been well-implemented, failure at a systemic level, self-serving behaviours, poorly set boundaries, recruitment without consideration, a vision that lacked heart, a vision that had heart but wasn’t understood by all, etc., etc.

Throughout the session a key tenet of conventional leadership theory was present; in a world assumed to be knowable, the use of control mechanisms is required to achieve a desired future. Four of these mechanisms had been employed by the leadership team, but were failing to achieve a desired future: Influencing others toward desired goals, motivating others to achieve task objectives, ensuring efficient and effective production, inspiring commitment and alignment to organizational objectives.

According to Nick Petrie, Senior Faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership, conventional control mechanisms aren’t working in today’s leadership landscape. Leaders today are facing the volatility of rapid change on a large scale, the uncertainty of predicting future outcomes when small adjustments in one space may have cumulative consequences in another, the complexity inherent when multiple, interconnected components don’t respond to simple, one dimensional solutions and the ambiguity on the meaning and future impact of events.

In his white paper titled, Sane Leadership in a Crazy World: Essentials of Complexity Leadership, Barret C. Brown, Ph.D. of MetaIntegral Associates, discusses four myths of conventional leadership which underpin these control mechanisms. The following is a summary from that paper:

Myth #1 – Leaders specify desired futures

Conventional leadership worldview defines strong leaders as those able to hold true to a vision and chart the course for the whole organisation toward that end. They do so by designing right action and removing obstacles.

Modern leadership paradigm understands the unpredictable dynamics amongst agents within an organisation. Charting a future from the top down does little to leverage the interactions of an organisation’s members, which are not controlled by its leaders. The key to modern leadership is to create the conditions for ideas, feedback and adaptation to occur as a way of enabling desired futures rather than designing and controlling them.

Myth #2 – Leaders direct change

Some conventional leadership theorists contend that the purpose of leadership is to lead change. In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment, leading change requires one to be sensitive to the impacts fluctuations in initial organisational conditions may have on future outcomes. In other words, small changes in a system can lead to massive, unpredicted consequences that may not align with the leadership’s original vision.

Current leadership trends suggest a careful monitoring of patterns that emerge following incremental change. This enables flexible, effective responses to adapting, dynamic, complex and interdependent systems.

Myth #3 – Leaders eliminate disorder and the gap between intentions and reality

Another myth about leadership is that leaders need to influence the behaviours of others in order to achieve objectives. This includes maintaining harmonious and stabilising relationships across organisations.

Brown suggests that the role of leadership is to manage the polarity dynamic between stability and instability rather than seek to constantly stabilise an organisation. In fact, leaders acting as destabilisers who encourage disequilibrium and disrupt existing patterns of behaviours are more likely to create the conditions for new ideas and innovation.

The key here is for leadership to hold the tension between stability and instability, create grounded conditions for others and actively respond when emergent ideas arise.

Myth #4 – Leaders influence others to enact desired futures

The ability to influence is considered an essential characteristic of great leadership. Influence assumes that a leader knows what needs to be done and how best to influence the behaviour of others to make it happen.

Organisations, however, are composed of members who exist within dynamic, interactive systems of exchange. To assume that one individual knows the answer discounts the potential for collective, generative and collaborative agency to influence relevant outcomes.

“It’s impossible for one leader to know and prescribe to others what to do. Instead, members of the organisation or system often help leaders to find directions out of confusion and uncertainty.” Barrett Brown, from

The key here is for leadership to focus on process and allow its members to determine outcomes.

In the knowledge era, today’s leaders need to cultivate relational, emotional and mental capacities to navigate and thrive amidst, “mostly unknown, future states.” Particularly in the case of our business of entrepreneurs, the source of constrained revenue growth isn’t one thing, but rather an interconnected, dynamic web of multiples influencing the system as a whole.

The real challenge for this organization’s leadership team will be to cultivate a mind-set and way of being that embraces VUCA whilst remaining grounded amidst the disequilibrium, tension and instability it inspires. For those who can hold this context, desired futures will exceed expectations.

To learn more about the future trends of leadership, stay tuned for the next installment of… lead before you leap.

Permission to republish granted by the author.

Featured Image/Graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.