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The source of leadership

A short and rather personal introduction to Frits Wilmsen’s Impeccable Leadership Approach

By R. David Cummins

When we hear the word “impeccable,” we think of something that is perfect. Something that has no faults or errors. Or someone who can do no wrong. And indeed, when we look into a dictionary we will see that the this word comes from a Latin root meaning “sin” and a prefix that negates it, giving us: without sin. Imagining a time before the “more modern” ideas of sin came into our collective consciousness, perhaps, we could interpret the root as meaning “guilt”, or “debt.”

ButI know from Frits that he takes the meaning of this word even deeper into our common past, where in the context of our communal interactions its root meant: separated, cut-off, divided.

Therefore “impeccable” for Frits means un-divided, not separate, un-broken, or with one syllable: whole.

Being whole. Connecting to the whole. Serving the whole.
Utilizing the wisdom of the whole.

Are we willing?

Do we even need leadership anymore? There is much talk about self-organized, hierarchy-free teams these days. Reducing hierarchy in organizations often goes along with getting rid of management positions and making decisions based on consensus. We don’t need bosses anymore — or do we?

The relationship between hierarchical positions and leadership is one that is often hard to unravel. There are good historical reasons for this. I have written elsewhere, that I believe that it is not a question of whether hierarchies are good or bad (they have gotten us far as a species and since even apes have them, they are probably in our nature as well). The question that is relevant today is whether hierarchies are, in their current forms, still useful. Or, in other words, whether there might be better ways.

Like many others I know, I also would like to untangle the concept of leadership from the ideas of management, control, and status. I would like leadership to be a role — or perhaps rather an activity — and not a position. Something anyone can act out, not just designated persons.

But what I have also learned is that we need to start where we are in the current reality. Often still it is the case that people do not lead without being called upon to do so.

We need people who are willing to take on leadership. Then we need to ascertain: are these people also willing to become whole themselves, connected to others, and caretakers of the whole?

They? We! Are we ready to serve the whole? And learn from the wisdom of the whole? And bring others into this leadership state and help them to do the same?

Without a few who are willing to learn, to go on this journey — an inner and outer one — we will not be able to grow as teams, organizations and society.

So yes, right here, right now we need leadership.

Not perfect leadership. Impeccable Leadership.

Frits defines leadership as the “ability to involve others in the process of goal achievement.” Notice the word involve. It has a different flavor than the words guide, steer, or push. The actions we learn to take with Impeccable Leadership may even at times feel counter-intuitive. At the same time its sources are in our human nature, which in itself seems paradoxical.

I say that the sources are in our human nature, because they are aspects that we naturally possess as social animals: to enter into relationships, to care for each other and promote the group for a greater cause.

They feel counter-intuitive because we have learned to separate parts of ourselves away from the collective act of getting things done in the interest of business. We have learned to be objective, to stick to the facts, and to keep feelings out of it.

We have been taught what we believe is professionalism. We have acquired ideals and values that guide behavior that keeps us separate and protected. Yes, perhaps this protection is what makes it seem paradoxical: it goes not against our nature, but rather towards what we fear.

We possess these abilities as human beings, but we are completely unfamiliar with doing this in a professional context and we will not be very skilled at it at first. It will take practice and experimentation and we will get it “wrong” some of the time. The leader and the team will be entering a vulnerable situation together. Therefore it is essential that the leader is willing to learn the skills needed for this role.

There is not just one kind of leadership

At the heart of Impeccable Leadership is a descriptive model that helps us see that teams are ever changing and that leaders need to adapt their roles accordingly—to serve the needs of the team. Teams can find themselves in different phases. They can be re-active, active or pro-active.

A re-active team is focused on protecting itself, making no mistakes, and not taking any risks. Members of a re-active team will do what they have to to, but they will have to be pushed toward goals and will not be creative and innovative, and they will not come up with new ideas. And they will also not enjoy what they do very much.

An active team on the other hand will have much more energy. The team members will bounce ideas off each other and take initiative. An active team will lose much of this energy, however, through unproductive conflict, by trying to get along with each other and by struggling with problems.

A pro-active team will be fully generative and in flow with each other and the “work” and will be operating in the interest of the larger whole (organization/society), and not just of the team itself.

The terms re-active, active and pro-active do not represent linear stages, even though our desire is always to move toward pro-activeness. They are states a team can find itself in at any time. It is always possible for a team that was pro-active to return to a re-active state. Natural causes of this, as examples, could be external crisis, changes in team membership, or the actions of an overly dominate leader.

It is important that a leader understands — is able to perceive — in which phase a team is at the current time.

Sometimes it needs an expert

Dependent on the phase of the team, a leader takes on a different role, according to what the team needs at that time and according to what would be necessary to move the team to the next phase.

A reactive team wants and needs an expert. The expert role (the closest role to the traditional boss of the command-and-control paradigm) is the one who knows the answers and can tell people how to do their job and what to do next. The expert is the one who makes the decisions. A re-active team needs this (and a clear framework about how to do their job), because the members are insecure, are concentrated on protecting themselves and finding their way. Until they feel secure they will do their best not to make any mistakes or take any risks.

The team needs an expert, so we give them an expert. But we don’t want to stay here, so we start looking at the next role: the coach.

At this point a leader starts acting counter-intuitively. In order to get to the active phase, in order to be a coach, the leader must stop telling and start asking. To do this, the leader connects with the individuals of the team. In other words, the leader moves away from the “content” of the work towards “relationship” with the members.

Following the coach role is the negotiator. This is a role that brings the team members into alignment, that helps them go from bargaining (who should win) toward win-win situations for all. As Frits explains, the negotiator enlarges the pie before it is divided. For me, this is the point where tension is no longer a loss of energy but rather a source of it. Now conflict becomes creative and productive. This role is also at the gateway to the pro-active phase, which follows when connection becomes commitment.

To get to the pro-active phase the leader takes on the role of a sponsor, the first role, according to Frits, that is truly “impeccable” because it is in itself wholeness and is concerned with the whole. And for this whole, we are lifting each other. We are acting in the interest of each other and the greater system. The team can become more than the sum of its parts and truly pro-active.

There are always very good reasons for behavior

Anyone who has tried to change behavior (of oneself or of others) will have had the experience of how hard this is. This is because behaviors always have reasons — good reasons, because at some point in the past they were of service and also because they are a product of values and beliefs that we hold dear (although perhaps subconsciously).

Impeccable Leadership not only gives us a descriptive framework that helps us understand how teams work, what they need and how to move forward, it also provides us with concrete tools that help us to inspect our dynamics (as individuals and as teams) and to get to the underlying beliefs and causes of our behaviors, so that we can really be successful at changing them and moving forward together.

One of these powerful tools is the “Transformational Process Model” and when we apply it together, we enter what Frits calls a structured team dialogue. TPM gives us a framework for a process of uncovering our tendencies and hidden dynamics. This works through answering questions individually or as team, exposing answers we didn’t know where there and seeing them in a context that facilitates understanding and awareness for connections we could not see before.

Frits utilizes insights from diverse fields and concepts: from social and cognitive sciences, psychology, management theories, such as dialog, the findings of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and gestalt theory, just to name a few. And he draws from a couple of decades of his own experience of working with leaders and teams and finding what really moves them forward and what leads to growth and productivity. Developed with a true curiosity and deeply felt care for human beings, Impeccable Leadership puts it all in a context that can be understood and more importantly it provides us with a way to apply the theories in a real experience of transformation — as individuals, as teams and as a society.

I have been fortunate to have had many conversations with Frits since we met a couple of years ago and have also been able to experience structured team dialogue led by Frits several times, individually, together with my business partners and as a participant of the Impeccable Leadership master class. Frits and I have spent a day walking the streets and traversing the waters of Amsterdam together and during the global pandemic, we have connected in many virtual sessions, some private and some we have recorded for the benefit of others (see videos below). Each encounter with Frits has moved me toward a better understanding of myself and others and how we can be in the world together.

In the context of the “Transformation Matrix” of the Creating Organization, which is one of my attempts to make organizational development more understandable, I see the offerings of Impeccable Leadership as models and methods at the individual/leader and team levels that help us see the world, learn about ourselves, develop our thinking and create more value together.

The Impeccable Leadership model and TPM have become essential tools in my own coaching and consulting practices both for individuals and teams, and part of our development practices at my own group of companies. Now in 2021 as a member of the ILS Leadership Team of the Generative Facilitation Institute, I am pleased to be a part of bringing the work of Frits more into the world to the benefit of even more people and organizations.

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