Viral Leadership by Jon Davidge

Dandelions by Saad Choudhry on


The concept of the ‘R’ number, or basic reproduction rate in epidemiology, has become widely known over the past few months.  The alarming notion of exponential growth, an R of 2 or more, has also become clear to anyone interested in the characteristics and impact of viral spread.  Getting the R number as far as possible below 1 has become a key priority for the governments and peoples of the world.

When it comes to leadership, however, increasing the R number well beyond 1 is a terrific idea.  Indeed, it is one of the key objectives of leadership development.  A foundation of our work is for leaders to create more leaders rather than followers, to echo Tom Peters.  We intend for our clients to ‘go viral’ in their workplaces with the ideas and practices of effective leadership that they have engaged with, and shaped to their needs, during our experiential workshops.

Our colleague, the writer James Scouller, says that the number one purpose of leaders should be to “ensure that there is leadership.”  This phrase, odd or even paradoxical at first sight, summarises the popular theory of ‘distributed leadership’ very well.  Formal leaders, those with seniority and vested authority, cannot deliver on their own.  They cannot be expected to know best about everything all the time.  In practice, this mad expectation is widespread.  The charade is sadly alive and well because it offers comfort to those who regard themselves as ‘mere followers’ and plays into the hands of those whose authority has metastasised into hubris.

It is a comfort to fall, often unconsciously, for the blatant lie of ‘infallible superiors’ because then we have someone else to blame or, perhaps, someone who will protect, defend and save us.  But this is not a mindset suited to high performance, resilience, engagement, success or even corporate survival itself in the months and years ahead.

It’s little surprise to people that an environment of ‘high challenge and high support’ works best for performance.  What is less obvious is that, in highly performing teams and organisations, high levels of challenge and support flow upwards and sideways as well as downwards.  Having the courage to challenge well is only as important as having the courage to be challenged well.

At our leadership development firm, which is profoundly influenced by the theories and practices of Special Forces and elite sport, we focus on fostering leadership throughout the system.  We work with clients on the disciplines, routines and mindsets that are necessary to make that happen and work well.

Lately we’ve been experimenting with ways of doing so using distanced, online methods as a substitute for our traditional (and currently outlawed) face-to-face workshops.  This is not proving to be easy as the webinar form is better suited to telling and explaining rather than facilitating personal discovery.  Telling and explaining improved leadership performance works no better than telling and explaining how to hit a reliable cross court backhand with heavy topspin.

However, with lots of effort, many trials and an occasionally dispiriting error rate, we are getting close to a way of recreating the kind of ‘intensive experiential development’ that makes a difference without being ‘socially proximate’ to our clients.

In the short to medium term, these new methods will keep our clients and us in the game.  Yet there looks like being a greater long-term prize for us all.

Investing time and money in leadership development can only ever really pay off if new ways of working and relating are put into sustained practice.  Our greatest fear is not that clients don’t ‘get it’ or only take negligible learning from a workshop.  On the contrary, it’s that they get breakthroughs in their beliefs about themselves and their capacity for leadership and then fail to act on their parting commitments.

There are plenty of reasons why this happens; inertia, cultural resistance, lack of challenge and support and ‘tall poppy syndrome’ being just a few of them.  The uncomfortable truth is that where the R rate of leadership is below 1, the impact of leadership development is at best short-lived and at worst terminally demotivating for the expensively and extensively developed few.  Their eyes may have lifted to new horizons, but their new energies are highly vulnerable to being snuffed out by an often unwinnable clash with the status quo.

New and distanced methods of development will, we believe, provide a powerful antidote to the challenges many of our clients face on their return to their ‘real world’.  It is difficult to imagine a well-formed programme design without a blend of intensive face-to-face time and continual remote support in the future.  With a leadership R more reliably over 1, our clients can look forward to improved engagement, performance and outcomes from their investment in people development.

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