At the end of my presentation, I looked over the rows of young military officers and I realised that I had failed to convince them that I could offer them anything new on the subject of leadership. I had failed to create that moment, an opportunity for them to think about leadership in a different way. That was a blow. I had been studying leadership in one way or another for my whole working life, three decades. I was thinking of moving into the world of leadership development full time. But if this was anything to go by, nobody was going to buy it. Although I received letters of thanks from the students of the Joint Services Staff College and the lecture had gone OK, I knew I had not done the subject justice.
This moment, although painful, was a critical time in my life-long exploration of leadership. It was when I realised that I was not at the end of my mission to understand leadership, but at the beginning. I had begun in the energy-sapping horizontal rain of Dartmoor in 1989 as a Midshipman at the Britannia Royal Naval College (Dartmouth), on a gruelling leadership assessment. Before this we learned about John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership. I had not won any plaudits for my leadership, but passed after a lot of hard work. That left me with a strong desire to crack this mystical ability called leadership. I had done enough to get through but it was obvious to me that some people found it much easier than I did. Ultimately, I grew up and I realised that at sea (as in other workplaces) leadership is rarely about taking charge. Sometimes it is, but even this only becomes possible after one has built up respect. I learned this kind of leadership on the job, and it served me well over my 29 year career. But still, I was interested in theories and models of leadership. I studied leadership for my MBA and then continued whilst working towards my PhD. During this journey I had learned about every leadership model under the sun. From Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man to modern ideas that leadership is, in fact, dead.
As a Hudson Fellow at Oxford University, I returned to those bleak moors to observe officer cadets from Dartmouth conduct their leadership training. Nothing there had changed and I was convinced that leadership research can help organisations to keep developing their leadership practice. The purpose of my presentation at the Staff College was to discuss the value of leadership theory to practice. I really wanted to make the case for the study of leadership. But why should we study when we can learn, as I did, on the job? The point I wanted to make is that we all use leadership theories, but that we test them, adapt them or reject them. Understandably, we are biased towards our practical experiences and we forget completely that the models we use ultimately began as a theory. If I had figured out SWAN at that time, the presentation would have been better. So what is SWAN?
Start With Another Narrative (SWAN) is a tool to help leaders in the Information Age. Simon Sinek tells us to start with why. He gets straight to the point with an elegant and extensible meme. In other words it is simple and applicable in most, if not all situations. It is, without doubt, a work of genius. But I have often worked with organisations where the ‘why’ is fully understood. Many organisations are often rife with narrative fallacies: “This is why it doesn’t work; it is because of the customer; it is because of the government” I find that the content of my research (leadership theories and models) cannot help because the organisation believes the problems are unsolvable. This is becoming increasingly the case as the limitations of classical strategy and top-down leadership are becoming better known. The problem is that the complexity of the Information Age becomes an excuse for being unable to solve problems. The power of narrative fallacies to do harm is explained in Matthew Syed’s fantastic book “Black Box Thinking”. A good way to escape this trap is to Start With Another Narrative and test it to destruction.
Working in these companies I found myself drawing not on my research but the methods I used. Very loosely I would call this data science. Scientifically speaking, it is the use of empirical methods to dispute and challenge current theories and replace them with new models. I found that lots of businesses collect vast amounts of data, but only a few use it to their advantage. I found myself naturally, by dint of my experience, using data to falsify narrative fallacies and develop alternative narratives. The analogue of this sort of work in organisations is business analysis. I found that this kind of activity was valued by my clients more than my knowledge of leadership.
This was a blow, because I was determined to be a leadership guru. The problem is that there is no such thing. But I realised the ability to refute narrative fallacies and unravel complexity was a key skill that enables leaders to emerge, especially in the Information Age. The way leaders often do this is to test new theories, to allow failures as long as we learn from them. In other words, the methods I used in my research were actually leadership in practice and more important than leadership models. Start With Another Narrative is a simple way to practice this leadership. Be sceptical about the narratives you find in your organisation: test alternatives, fail and learn. This is how businesses will survive in the Information Age. SWAN is a practical leadership tool which is easy to understand and apply, I wish I had thought of it before I spoke to that group of bright young officers, but failure is the only way to learn.
Learn more about SWAN
Systematic business analysis