Going Meta to Appreciative Leading with Sheila McNamee - PS115

Going Meta to Appreciative Leading with Sheila McNamee – PS115

Contrary to what I originally intended with this Season, in this episode, I'm going meta to the topic of Appreciative Leading. I owe this wonderful conversation with Professor Sheila McNamee to Dawn Dole, the Executive Director of the Taos Institute.

Going Meta - Sheila McNamee
Sheila McNamee

Social Constructionist's Perspective on Appreciative Leading

As Season 3 on the topic of Appreciative Leading winds down, it was excellent timing that I could invite Sheila McNamee to go meta to this topic. Sheila is Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire and co-founder and Vice President of the Taos Institute. Sheila offers us the social constructionist's perspective on appreciative leading – what leading means as a relational process rather than as an individual's characteristics, traits or skills.

This is what I had been seeking to bring to life in my interviews during Season 3, namely, it's about the act of leading and not about the expertise or status or power, or authority or specialized knowledge or skills of an individual. And while I thought I wanted to steer clear of academics for this Season, I came to the awareness that going meta – stepping up and back from the day to day activities of leading – having a theoretical base to help us reflect on how we think about and feel and act around “leading” would be a perfect way to bring this Season to a close.

I was delighted to be reminded there is never one way to experience life. We need multiple perspectives. That wasn't a surprise to me. It was a great relief and I loved coming full circle and relishing the wholeness of this topic.

Life in the Middle as a Connector

Sheila jumps right in talking about relational dynamics from a very young age, being a middle child in a large family. She continued to find herself in the middle right through her academic studies and in her managerial role in an academic institution. As most of us do, she found herself in the middle of different political and ideological battles in her professional life.

Leading is a Relational Process

Sheila thinks about leading not only as a process, nor something a person does or has, but she also thinks of it as attending to what we can't avoid in our world today, which is complexity in difference. So that notion of being in the middle is a way that allows people with very different beliefs and values to create a space where they can come to appreciate difference rather than fight against it or judge it or assess it. This is why the notion of relational leading or appreciative leading is important.

Appreciative Leading to Avoid Potential Conflict

Going Meta to appreciative leading

Sheila: To me the appreciative approach is to not immediately go to our knee jerk response of judging, evaluating, critiquing, trying to oppress and win the day, but rather to just be curious. For me, leading is very much attached to issues of complexity and diversity. When we're talking about diversity and complexity, we're talking about the potential for conflict. So all of those things come together when we think about leading processes.

And the most important thing I think is to ask how can we create a space, a conversational space where different kinds of conversations can transpire. Not the same old me against you sort of conversation, but the kind of space that invites very different ideas into the mix. And from that we can together appreciate our differences and maybe be changed by each other as well and open ourselves to a more collaborative way of going on together.

Golden Nuggets of Quotable Quotes

I urge you to listen to the full interview with Sheila. You will be entranced. You will hear many golden nuggets of wisdom. You will be provoked to think anew and you will come away with ideas and actions that you can immediately implement across all your relationships. Below are some choice quotes to whet your appetite.

Sharing Stories brings people into relationship

  • Try to get inside the other story to grant it some coherence. One thing I have to say is when we grant a different perspective coherence, that doesn't mean we're saying it's okay or it's right.
  • If we only critique people and tell them what they're doing is wrong, we invite the response of self defense.
  • If we enter into a conversation with just curiosity, like, “Gee, you know, I just don't see the world that way. How, how did you come to this?”
  • People like to share their story. They like to share how they came to certain ways of being. If you've asked another person, they are likely to ask you the same. Before you know it, from a constructionist perspective, you are in relation. You are in conversation and the possibility to create new meaning and new understanding together is there.

Be willing to be changed

  • Another part about appreciative leading is being always open to learning and always open to being changed yourself. A lot of traditional leading or leadership is about changing other people, but ostensibly the leader remains unchanged. But (in relational leading) you enter into interactions hoping and anticipating that you will be changed.

We are first and foremost relational beings

going meta to appeciative leading
  • I can't be me without you and you can't be you without me.
  • We're born into relationships. And so any sense of individuality or specificity that we have of ourselves emerges out of those relationships. So we owe all that we understand ourselves to be to others.
  • What relational being from a constructionist perspective really is saying is that we turn on its head the tradition of individualism that says first and foremost we are all born as self contained individuals.
  • Who we are is multi beings, not singular individuals. We can be so many different things by virtue of many different relationships that we participate in. This is really significant when we come to talk about leading because we have so many resources for action, thanks to the many, many different relational communities that we are all part of.
  • My feeling is we don't need to teach people how to lead. We need to liberate people to realize that they are multi beings and that provides them with enormous resources for acting. If they can just grab on to that recognition that, oh gee, if I was talking to my family member right now, I wouldn't at all be talking this way. So could I use that way of talking, and that might have changed the way this relationship is unfolding right now.

Radical Presence – humanizing our practice

  • This idea of humanizing is allowing that multi being – yourself – to be vulnerable to act in a way that might step, sidestep or step out of completely the expertise role. And in so doing, you really are being attentive to the others.
  • This idea of radical presence is being really there. It's not just being aware of who the other is because the other is many things, but it's being aware of what we are doing together and what's emerging from that.
  • There's nothing more important than the interactive moment and we don't usually attend so much to what's happening and unfolding in the moment.
  • By taking the stance of radical presence, we're constantly engaging in this inner dialogue. If I say something to you and you respond in a way that surprises me and maybe disappoints me, instead of thinking there's something wrong with you, my inner dialogue is going to be asking, how did I invite that response?
  • The most critical questions that we can ask ourselves all the time came to me from a mentor Barnett Pearce.
  1. What are we making together?
  2. How are we making it?
  3. Who are we becoming as we do this?
  4. How do we make better social worlds?
  • From an individualistic perspective, we don't allow ourselves the do-overs because it's done. You've acted. But there's always a chance, if we recognize that every action that we take is an invitation to the other. If we see it that way, it's not a cause and effect. It's an invitation.

Relational Responsibility – what are we making together?

  • The social constructionist's perspective that relational responsibility – meaning what we are constructing together – invites us to be more attentive to the process of relating. It's nobody's fault. We, together are creating this. It's a shift from blame, and cause and effect language, to this relational language.
  • It takes being able to recognize patterns and not just recognize patterns that other people are responsible for, but seeing your own part in contributing to it and trying to interrupt it.
  • I call it relational reflexivity because it's a way of questioning if this is the right way to be doing this now.
  • One of the things I think is also interesting to hold onto is that there's a difference between preparing and planning. You can prepare to enter into a certain context, a certain conversation; but if you plan, then you're going to do the first thing and then the second thing and then the third thing, and you're not going to be responsive to the other. So what I say is: make a plan and then throw it away the minute you start interacting with someone because you have to improvise where you have to be responsive.

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