Four Stages and the Acupocalypse, Pt 4

A lot of people believe that leadership means making decisions. Humans are hardwired to desire and benefit from autonomy, we love to feel like we’re in control (for more about this, see Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness) -- so from that perspective, leadership sounds great because it means getting to be the one who makes the decisions! Right?

Not in my experience, no.

If you believe that leadership represents maximum autonomy, of course you’ll think leadership represents perks and rewards. My own experience with leadership made me think it was anything but; however, it wasn’t until I came across the Four Stages model that I could understand why. I knew that leadership was work but until I saw the actual tasks listed out, I didn’t understand how much leadership is not, in fact, primarily about making decisions and how a lot of the time, it’s actually the opposite of autonomy.

I think autonomy, at least in terms of work, maxes out at Stage 2 of the Four Stages model. Appropriately named Independence -- personal leadership, leading yourself; central activity, independent contributor. An acupuncturist in Stage 2, running their own business, has as much autonomy as you can get in this business. Stage 3 and Stage 4, which require contributing through other people, are downhill from there in terms of autonomy. WAY downhill.

Leadership is less about making decisions and more about making things happen, with and for and through other people. Contributing through other people creates interdependence and requires surrendering some of your independence and autonomy -- which a lot of acupuncturists really don’t want to do. This is one reason why we have so few functional acupuncture organizations. If you want an organization to work within, the trade off is that everybody in it has to accept some degree of interdependence; ideally everyone is growing their leadership skills so that the work of leadership can be shared.

On that note, let’s look at Stage 4: Exercising power. Central activity: shaping the direction of the organization. Leading through vision -- organizational leadership. “Sponsor”

As described in The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders, by John H Zenger and Joseph Folkman, a person at this level:

identifies and helps quickly resolve ill defined, complex problems that cross organizational boundaries; defines what kind of results are meaningful and then makes sure the organization gets them; maintains and utilizes relationships outside of the company through which they can generate resources or information; builds and/or supports mutually beneficial relationships with other organizations and community contacts; actively and generously shares their network of personal contacts to accomplish organizational goals; influences or leads organizational efforts (like succession planning) that support employee development; identifies and sponsors developmental opportunities for others that help them gain wide exposure and experience; sets and articulates a compelling vision for the organization; continually communicates highest priority strategic initiatives to keep people (and other leaders) focused on the right things; ensures all systems are aligned toward achieving overall strategic goals; ensures that the organization has people, skills, and resources to meet the strategic challenges of tomorrow.

Stage 4 people (there are statistically not many of them) create the overarching vision for the organization; define strategic direction; serve as the “antenna” to the outside world, collecting information and scanning the horizon for change, translate strategic direction into personal goals for both themselves and other people.

People in Stage 3 look around, see what needs to be done, and communicate, interface and develop other people as much as they have to in order to make it happen; people in Stage 4 do a lot of that as well, but in addition to looking around at other people they look around the organization itself to see what it needs (separate from any individual human within it) and then they look around to see how it fits into the landscape of other organizations -- and communicate, interface and develop the organization in order to make things happen. Stage 4 is about taking care of the organization itself so that other people have a structure to work within. This involves taking on a lot of risk and a lot of responsibility.

At this point there would need to be serious, focused, constant Stage 4 activity in order for the acupuncture profession to have a future, and I just don’t see it happening. Not only because there isn’t enough money in the field to adequately pay people to do it, but because acupuncturists generally don’t want to do this kind of work -- sometimes because what they really want is only found at Stage 2 (where you get to do your own thing and not worry about anybody else), and sometimes because there are too many social costs to developing into Stage 3 and Stage 4.

Recently I was talking to someone who’s been working on their leadership skills in an acupuncture context, and they described how a note of suspicion and resistance had crept into some of their relationships -- including personal relationships outside of work. It seemed that some acupuncturists had come to see them as THE MAN. This person isn’t in a role where they supervise anybody, so it wasn’t about how they were managing anyone. Part of their job is coordinating a team, which means they’re practicing their Stage 3 skills of clarifying vision, mission, values and long term goals for others. Their team thinks they’re great. Some acupuncturists outside their team, however, have made it clear that simply by taking on the responsibility of a leadership role, somehow this person has crossed a line and done something disloyal, maybe even oppressive. Obviously this doesn’t make their actual learning curve, for the actual work they have to do, any easier, and it certainly doesn’t make their role look appealing to other potential leaders.

Nobody can learn to lead by reading books or sitting in a classroom -- there have to be opportunities to practice leadership skills. If we want stable organizations capable of responding to change or crisis, we need a pipeline of leaders, which means we need people willing to take the risk of learning how to lead -- which inevitably includes making mistakes in public. That’s painful enough on its own but it’s worse if you’re greeted with suspicion and resistance just for volunteering to try.

To develop leaders it really helps to have a leadership-positive culture, in the same way that if we want more safety we need a safety-positive culture. And just like safety, to cultivate leadership we need to be able to talk about leadership skills without shame, without judgement, enthusiastically and in a lot of detail (thanks, Dalton, Thompson and Price!).

As noted in an earlier post: part of a culture of safety is the sense that we don’t have to hide our mistakes, and in fact we don’t want to; what we want to do is learn from them, together. We expect that everybody will make mistakes and so our mistakes represent a kind of collective project we’re always tinkering around with (and nerding out on). Nobody’s going to use anybody else’s mistakes against them, because we’re busy trying to use our mistakes FOR each other. Can you imagine how different the acupuncture profession would be if we took a supportive, realistic attitude toward leaders who are on a learning curve? (Which is all leaders -- it’s not like you’re ever done).

The whole point of the AERD is to share a learning curve around safety. The AERD is itself an example of Stage 3 and Stage 4 work related to safety, and the amount of resistance it’s gotten from the acupuncture profession continues to amaze me. I feel like people’s reactions to the AERD are a litmus test of their attitudes toward both safety and leadership. What’s the point of THAT and I don’t have time for THAT, right up through Who do you think you are and HOW DARE YOU (you’re making us look bad)!

So, yeah, the acupuncture profession doesn’t have a leadership-positive culture for a lot of the same reasons it doesn’t have a safety-positive culture. We like fantasy better than reality and we like attacking things more than we like building things. We want security but we don’t want anybody to tell us what to do. This is not an environment conducive to cultivating new leaders. And that, more than anything, is why we’re looking at an acupocalypse.