The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

What is leadership?

Working with colleagues, we were discussing a dashboard and the different statistics it made accessible. We had set up this meeting asking the provider to ease our understanding of their dashboard.

In preparation for the meeting, I reviewed our notes and questions and I asked myself what it was that was making it so hard for me to understand the statistics. In doing so I noticed that it wasn’t a question of couldn’t see; I saw that what I was looking for was the ability to see the details as related to their context.

The individual statistics all came with a short title describing what the graph was showing. But all the graphs were taken as if the others didn’t exist. There was no overarching description allowing us to see all the statistics as part of a whole. In the overall context, the titles overlapped, and the same denomination was being used to describe different things.

Once the person explaining the individual statistics to us tried to distinguish one from the other, she started to grasp our confusion. It allowed us to search and find separate denominations for different information. Most of the questions that had been present before silently disappeared.

My preparation had been a simple initiative, one based on seeking to understand the base of our confusion. But I knew that it wouldn’t be sufficient if I understood statistics, I wanted others to find them accessible too. I wasn’t interested in coming into the meeting with a solution. I had tried to find what it was that could be changed and enhanced, but I needed the conversation with the other participants. Otherwise, I would have missed information and the opportunity to make sense of what I couldn’t know on my own.

It helped that I’m not the leader of that team. I didn’t need to think about traditional ideas of being a leader. I was reminded of Edgar H. Schein’s description of the biggest inhibitors of leadership. He suggested it to be “that people in leadership positions don’t really know what they want to do that’s new and better.” As an alternative, he offered that their “view of what will be new and better is not based on testing with colleagues and direct reports, and proves not to be implementable at all.”

Ed Schein’s definition of leadership in a complex environment is very simple “Leadership is an activity in pursuit of something new and better.”

However, it does require knowing what they want to do, and how that is new and better.

In our case, it was to find a way to help our service provider see our confusion. It serves as a path enabling them to change the dashboard for the better.



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