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Conversational Leadership

December 5, 2019

In between. That’s where the magic happens.

Whether it’s a dialogue between two people, or the interplay between the players of a sports team—greatness emerges from the interactions between the parts. The magic lies in the betweenness.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re always giving and receiving with what’s around us. We’re in a continuous dialogue with other people, other beings, and other things.

Life is a constant conversation—between you and the world around you.

Leadership is a conversation, too.

Unfortunately, too often we forget this basic fact.

The outdated model

Most people view leadership as telling, controlling, and fixing.

This perspective assumes that people are robotic machines. Just give them the right inputs, and they will spit out the correct answer and act according to plan.

In this industrial worldview, every problem demands immediate repair and maintenance. Like a dead battery in a car, problems need to be fixed, fast. If you repair and replace the parts quickly enough, then everything will be OK.

Leadership, in this industrial and robotic world, is more of a monologue than a conversation. It’s a one-way street that force-feeds and deposits inputs, orders, and expectations into its robot armies of people.

This relational stance is confrontational at its best, and demeaning at its worst. If leaders are expected to control their teams like armies of robots, then they will always fail to meet those expectations.

Leaders and employees are human beings. And human beings aren’t machines.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when both leaders and employees find themselves tired, burned out, and deprived of purpose.

These are all symptoms of lifelessness.

That’s no way to live, and no way to lead.

The conversational nature of reality

Conversational leadership takes a very different stance.

It embraces the conversational nature of reality.

Our attention, perception, and relationship with our surroundings creates an ongoing conversation with the world around us. We shape it, and it shapes us. We affect and are affected by the conversation we hold with the world.

As a conversational leader, you deliberately engage in that continuous exchange—between you, your team, and the world.

You are in constant dialogue with what’s happening around you, and you adapt and shape your surroundings in turn. Nothing is fixed, everything is in flux, and you ride the dynamism like a bird in the wind.

Since you know that everything changes and that people aren’t robots, you play in the interactions between you and your team. You don’t deposit and force-feed knowledge into people, and you don’t shy away from difficult situations. You play in the betweenness—gently guiding and helping others to uncover their own solutions, without always knowing where you will end up.

Conversational leadership is a practice in not knowing.

This might sound frightening, unfeasible, or downright wrong. A leader should know, right?

Wrong. Engaging in the conversational uncertainties of leadership—between yourself, your team, and the world—is to work with reality, rather than struggling against it.

Here are three key themes of conversational leadership.

1) Conversational leadership is improvisation

Dancing and conversing have a lot in common.

When you dance, you sense into the rhythm of what’s there. You sink into the beat, and play off your partner to move forward in a common direction, without knowing where the end will be.

You dance with what’s in front of you, one move at a time. The only thing you know is that you can never know what comes next.

It’s all improvisation.

Conversations are the same. They are improvisational by their very nature: we don’t know—we can’t know—what will come next. If we did, we wouldn’t bother speaking in the first place.

The same is true for conversational leadership. It’s all improvisational.

Like great improv actors, you don’t pretend to know what’s coming next. You respect the ever-changing nature of reality, so you let go of the false sense of security that comes from pretending to have all the answers.

The only thing you know is that you can’t know everything. And since you know that you can’t know it all, you welcome everything that arises.

You’re not blinded by your own ideas and your own answers. Sure, you have ideas, opinions, and suggestions—but you hold them as hypotheses to be tested, rather than unquestionable truths.

You’re open. You listen and you improvise. You embrace the constant exchange of leadership, one fleeting moment and one interaction at a time. You listen and respond, and listen and respond again.

Leadership is not knowing everything yourself.

Leadership is an improvisational, relational conversation.

So how do you take on the improvisational conversation that leadership is?

2) Conversational leadership is not fixing

In great conversations, you’re not trying to fix anything. You’re exploring.

Sustainable and transformational change happens when people explore the issues—together.

If you immediately try to fix someone’s problem, you deprive the situation of the air it needs to breathe. You might solve the surface-level issue, but the real, underlying core of the challenge will remain.

Every time you lead by solving someone else’s problem, you’re perpetuating the very problem you’re trying to solve. You’re depriving the other person of the opportunity to find the solution on their own terms. You’re blocking and denying learning.

The urge to fix—to problem-solve, to find a solution and an outcome now—seems like it comes from a good place. The intention appears to be to help.

But more often than not, fixing is a way of avoiding the discomfort of being with the problem and looking at it. If you’re desperate to fix, it means you don’t trust the other person—and you don’t trust yourself—to sit and uncover the real issue, slowly but truly, together.

Like in epic conversations, conversational leadership is an exploration. And like any explorative adventure, you will only succeed if you believe and trust that you will find your way.

Conversational leadership demands patience and trust—in yourself and in others—to let other people find the solution themselves.

Leadership is not about solving other people’s problems.

Leadership is an explorative, curious conversation.

So how do you create a space of trust for the explorative conversation that leadership is?

3) Conversational leadership is presence

Conversational leadership is a practice in being present.

Only when you’re really “there”—when you’re attentive to what’s going on within you and between you—can you play in the conversational space between you and your counterpart.

When you’re present and immersed in a conversation, you’re not thinking about the laundry or the about taking out the trash. You are there, engaging with the other person. You rest in what’s unfolding, fully present to what is happening between you and within you.

If your head is elsewhere, you won’t be able to respond and explore what the moment is calling for.

And so to thrive in the difficult, high-stakes moments of leadership, it demands being present. To be able to respond effectively, you need to be aware of what’s going on in front of you and within you.

You need to be there.

When people talk about being present, they often talk about meditation, mindfulness, and other spiritual productivity hacks. But these techniques are pointless if they don’t help you to be present in daily working life. Sitting on the meditation cushion is all for nothing if you still panic in the heated, difficult moments of leadership.

It’s in those razor’s edge moments where you show your true colors as a leader. So, when you feel threatened, do you drift into panic or fear? Or do you take a breath, see the situation for what it is, and respond in the most helpful way you can?

Presence is the gateway to conversational leadership.

When you’re fully present, you’re able to process to what is happening when it is happening. You don’t reactively flee from pressure—instead, you use the razor’s edge to trigger you into higher states of focus and impact.

Leadership is not reacting blindly.

Leadership is a present, responsive conversation.

So how do you stay present to the conversation that leadership is?

Turning together with

The original Latin root of the word conversation means to dwell with or to turn together with.

Conversational leadership is a practice of turning together with each other into the unknown.

“Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken,” writes poet David Whyte, “and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation.”

Your life and your leadership are the result of how you hold the conversation between yourself, your team, and the world.

Leadership is a conversation, whether you like it or not.

The question is: What type of conversation do you want it to be?


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