GETTING STUCK IN: The dangers of authentic leadership in slow moving organisations

Where is this post coming from? Why now?

Recently I had a conversation with someone I manage and this conversation has acted like a moment of clarity for me. Clarified beyond feelings just how mentally stuck I had become. In this conversation, I was encouraging a colleague to apply to a very attractive job at another company. We enthusiastically discussed:

  • the opportunity
  • we talked through the person specification
  • we talked about the wage and the opportunities for growth.

I gave my opinion on what the recruiters priorities for that role might be and I stated that basically they were looking for me. Then a simple question was returned to me, ‘Why aren’t you going for this role? It seems perfect for you

Now in the past when I’ve had these questions I’ve laughed them off. ‘I’m too busy / trying to do something here / make an impact here’, I ‘feel like I can really make a difference’ or even more arrogantly ‘If its not me now project x will never happen’.

This time around I just didn’t know how to answer it. I had got used to living vicariously through the ambitions of my team, helping them get on and developing them as individuals. Bathing in their successes as if they were my own. The real reason I didn’t go for the job is it just hadn’t occurred to me that I could, that was something other people do. I after all was in the middle of a project …. wasn’t I? Wasn’t I??

Ed Tech Sisyphus

Sometimes at a slow moving organisations projects take a while.

How do you distinguish slow, painful progress from … well … fooling yourself that something is happening when its not?

One of the main reasons I’m still here is it takes so long to build a reputation and get to know how an organization works. I feel beholden to finish a lot of the work I’ve started here before I even think of my own desires and needs. Yet I realized in the above conversation that ‘finishing’ had become a forelorn dream. I am trapped into being a prisoner of my own desire for relevance and value. My own desire for all the bad elements of the job to amount to something. If I am not part of a larger process then why am I not looking at my career?

Now this is a genuinely peculiar situation I find myself in. I don’t have any intrinsic motivation to be a manager. I don’t have any intrinsic motivation to be a leader. I am in a leadership position due to length of tenure and gosh darn refusal to leave. I don’t have any ambition to go higher in the organization. I truly just wanted to be able to do the job I started in the organization but more professionally. Trying to do that has forced me to act up the ranks and in doing this acting you start to lead, then one day you are just a leader. De facto.

Some of you might recognize this behavior; whether it’s being a white knight or whether it’s just being a good employee I don’t know. How I have dealt with this position of influence is to be as authentic a leader as possible. Being inclusive. Being connected. Being values led. Being honest, even when if it is politically to my detriment.

I try to be an authentic leader in my post. I lead guided by my values, I try to build relationships and nurture those in my team and protect them from the wider stresses of working in HE. I invest a lot of time keeping different stakeholders onside. Not for any material gain but because we are on the same team. It’s nice to be nice. I take a lot on the chin to ensure others don’t have to and I like to think I act with my heart and to a certain extent with love. Yet part of being this kind of leader is having a purpose. In learning technology there is always a purpose you are always on some kind of journey to get to that purpose. So here is the theme of this post…

Can you authentically lead a team when you don’t ‘trust the process’?

Anyone who has followed American sports or even coached a sports team in the last decade will probably be familiar with the phrase ‘trust the process’. Trust the process refers to the idea that what you are doing might feel bad now and you might not see the point or the gains but as long as you engage with what you’re doing to the best of your abilities the endpoint will be worth it. This phrase is particularly associated with the Philadelphia 76er basketball team.

Now as a learning technologist we share similar experiences in our careers. Quite common will be the experience of fixed term roles or roles where you’re on a small specified project or initiative. More common recently is larger central roles that are quite wide in scope. Roles that are nominally powerful but can be beholden and sometime at odds with the Faculties or Schools you serve. Some of us may have or have had local roles, supporting smaller constituencies of practitioners. Where you are at risk of feeling disempowered to affect wider change but connected to your colleagues. A few of you may have roles like mine where you are Faculty based but get dragged into institution wide transformation. Or at the very least are exposed to the consequences of incomplete or failed digital transformation. From this disparate place there are still commonalities we share.

We have got into the habit of talking a lot about certain things that stem from these common experiences. Topics like impostor syndrome, topics like precariousness of employment and the tyranny of fixed term roles. Discussions about hub and spoke models. We talk about the definition of our roles constantly, insecure in our own place as a new cadre of professional. How we fit into incredibly change resistant and sometime hostile environments. We are comfortable talking about influencing up, about dealing with higher paid individuals and some of us are quite brave about talking about the strains of the job online. These are incredibly important. Yet there is another set of problems that we hint at quite often and that’s what I want to talk about in this post.

What happens if the process and the purpose become the same thing? When there is no end and no prospect of an end to bad situations? When there is no prospect to make things better and you have no faith left in the ability of others to deliver and how does this affect middle managers specifically.

Now if I’m honest I’ve got a pretty sweet deal I have a good budget, I have a well-resourced and capable team. We are well liked, connected to our Faculty and well respected in the wider organization. This is largely because we have delivered time and time again despite the context. Now this might sound like the person speaking from a position of privilege. I acknowledge lots of people in the sector would kill to be in that position to have security of tenure and a supportive environment.

Think me a tad ungrateful? I can see your point.

So I am ungrateful

It doesn’t mean that isn’t this isn’t worth dwelling on for a second, there may quite a few of you out there who will now be in the same position.

As a learning technologist sometimes you are asked to sit in a room and deal with issues that aren’t difficult. Dealing with issues that aren’t high faluting or complicated. In fact, a lot of learning and teaching things could be solved with quite simple and consistent application of resource or attention. We know the answers.

  • Better assessment feedback? It’s really simple when you think about it.
  • Good project implementation? Also simple when you think about it.

Walking the walk is harder but nothing is theoretically hard. None of the problems I’m experiencing at work are complicated or unknowable. In fact, I think everyone would be able to rattle off the issues and solutions within their organization relatively simply. Providing solutions, however, seem to evade us. We are asked to paper over the cracks and hope that in the background things will be being sorted.

As a manager of learning technologists you are the face of the organisation to your staff and constituency of academics. You are the sense maker, the confidence giver and the purpose provider. You have a lot of pressure to play happy families and act as if there was a higher plan at work. Generally this is wishful thinking and/or spin. Things happen because they happen, there is often little direction and meaning to them.

More often than not you have no idea what it is you are trying to achieve.

I honestly feel like my team is the best team of its type in the organization (I would think that though wouldn’t I?). I have an affinity with them. As you may have guessed from the paragraphs above, I am not without confidence. I believe I’m probably one of the higher ability learning technologists at my organization. I feel I have a good soft skill set with the means to make big impact.

Despite my own confidence and efforts my organisation is unable to consistently move forward with digital education no matter how hard it tries. So how do you deal with a lack of progress at an institution? How do you play happy families without undermining your authenticity and values?

Well you might justify to yourself ‘if I just work harder and do x it will get better’ or ‘if I do this project well enough, that will be done and we can move on’. For managers you are not an island, you also have to share that meaning to everyone and help them keep moving forward. You have to deal with push back on things you are struggling with yourself. You need to be Elsa from the first half of Frozen and look what happened to her. It’s hard. It is harder when there’s another question sometimes that comes to mind when you reflect on it:

Am I making it worse?

I am strongly against crisis managerialism. The idea that to solve a problem is to make it come to its worst point (or at least realize the risks) and provide the solution. It is antithetical to how my brain works. The upshot of this and probably the reason I’m given trust in resource is we get things done.  We keep the show on the road. This is a very attractive quality however you have to trust the process. That by doing this it eventually leads to a better tomorrow.

There is another side to this, “am making it worse or not?” might be an academic or self involved question. Maybe my existence at the organization is neutral . The real question could be if I’m here taking up this role is that not robbing someone else of the opportunity to do it? Am I squatting? Is my tenure illegitimate? i.e:

Am I ‘the baddies’?

Hans, are we the baddies?

How does one get to this place? Well in a word, experience.

It is the hope that kills you.

We often talk about hype cycles. A hype cycle for those that don’t know is a chart where expectation is plotted against time. It outlines the life cycle of a new approach and how the sector relates to it over the course of this life cycle. You start with the trigger, you reach a peak of inflated expectations and then are returned to a trough of disillusionment when you go into a slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. Now some might recognize that if we take the technology element out we can have a hype cycle of different institutional changes. Institutions go in cycles as well so if you’re invested institution and you stayed for a while you’ll see this cycle with projects, products or people.

I look back at the mental processes I have gone through in the last five years and it is a host of ‘it will be better if this / when this product is implemented properly’ or ‘when this website is finished’ or ‘when this unit is set up’ or ‘when that replacement unit is set up’ or ‘when this new VC starts / when their project manager they’ve decided to hire starts / when the new director roles starts’ and on and on. Jam always tomorrow.

If you invest hope in too many of these cycles then this burns you out. If I am honest, I have been shouldering too much, taking responsibility for things I can’t affect but also believing it will all be worth it. Whilst also being absolutely sure none of it will change. There is always one final change and we will have good foundations but knowing we aren’t going to see that change. Why didn’t I apply for that job? I am miserably stuck in my head and painfully aware of it.

What do I mean by stuck? The experience of being a manager can easily be exposing and lonely. It relies on you have a good team and set of managers heading towards shared priorities. Without that plan or trust in your manager squad you have to rely on individual resilience to not let set backs drag you down. That tank of resilience is not infinite. Being ‘stuck’ means being motivated to protect my team, feel connected to my team and build my team but demotivated by a sense that it is pointless to. We will always be let down. A sense that protected or not on the macro level, nothing productive will happen. The team is in itself is its only chance.

For all managers there are always times when you forget why you are frantically keeping the plates spinning. Times you look around you and you see no one has followed you into battle. You have gone out on a limb for something people no longer feel invested in. However, this is not that time. I am not afraid to say I am suffering from a tyranny of low expectations, a learned pointlessness if you will. Cruelly saddled with also caring greatly about that situation. Despite it being uncontrollable by me. You arrive at a state where…

Every failure feels like abuse, every new initiative that you don’t agree with feels like a sleight, every retread of a past failure feels like a sick joke.

I do feel a real sense of guilt everyday that I don’t try my hardest. This is mixed with a real sense of frustration that no matter how hard I try it doesn’t seem to ever make THE difference. This is indulgent and I know a lot of you are thinking, ‘why don’t you just leave again let me have a chance, let me have a shot’ but I think it’s something we do not deal well with as a sector. I think it’s something that is corrosive to our mental health.

You get stuck. You are in a constant tension with yourself as a human and as a manager.

This is not an indirect or direct attack on my colleagues, as I said before I have genuine relationships with people at work. I would like them to think of me primarily as a person and an irritant in meetings second. Yet most more senior learning technologists would have experience that moment when your brain says

‘Yeah, yeah I believed that would happen the first four times someone told me but now I am not buying it’.

if you believe that I have a bridge to sell you

This is bad enough but highly problematic if you are an authentic manager. The gap between your life and work is smaller. It infects your life. It outstrips your coping mechanisms. You are in touch with a wide network of people. You invest A LOT of emotional labour into your work networks and pride yourself on being honest. If you don’t trust the process for too long how can you be honest or connect with people?

Now I know I’m being possibly a bit millennial about this, possibly overanalyzing this by losing myself in thoughts like.

  • WHAT IF I am robbing other people of opportunities by not freeing up my role for someone with a better attitude?
  • WHAT IF by not causing a massive failure by leaving we will never have a reorganization with new opportunities being borne out of it?
  • WHAT IF I am just wasting my career here.
  • WHAT IF you’re still incredibly emotionally attached to the work and the place in which you are employed.

It may sound jaded and dangerous but might they all be a pertinent questions? I know it isn’t a healthy place to be mentally but when you have invested a lot of emotion in a role its hard to be rational.

When you feel like you are going nowhere how do conceive of being somewhere else?

What people who don’t realise about being a Learning Technologist is that we are an emotional bunch. We genuinely want to improve things. At times we get incredibly emotionally attached to the weirdest things, they represent the opportunity for progress and a social good. Therefore self worth. Lack of progress can equate to feeling like your role has no value and in HE there are enough actors trying to devalue you without you devaluing yourself. If you lead authentically you can carry this pressure for those you manage. If you are feeling the same it is a lot to carry.

How long can you think like that and be authentic without it harming your mental health or leading to unprofessional behaviours. What happens when that attitude is the logical response to most work based eventualities? What is a leader meant to do then?

It is almost like a break up. I don’t know the answer but I’m guessing a lot of you out there feel the same.

Why is this a problem? Well aside from unhappiness itself being an issue we have something of a crisis in this country. The crisis is leadership and vision. Stepping outside of the given reality and setting a new course rather than reacting to events. I know what good learning technologist savvy leadership feels like and it is really empowering. It makes such a difference. If we lose too many people from the management strata we compound this issue. We shrink the pipeline for good decision making in the future. Who would want to be a middle manager put in a hopeless position? I know I have had people tell me how unattractive it all looks. Research is great. Teaching is great. eLearning development is great. However, without clued up and resilient management everything is harder than it needs to be. This means we need to take issues such as this seriously. Give people tools, support and incentives to rise above this. Otherwise we will be creating a self fulfilling prophecy of pointlessness.

Sad comedy trumpets sound

Call it disempowerment, call it the downside of being an authentic leader but we probably need to talk more about middle manager things. Knowing the difference between an organisation being slow and an organisation being lost. How to rescue good managers who have been warped by not trusting the process and how we retain human capital healthy in such an erratic part of the sector. We might need to create new routes for support across the sector as it is hard to talk about these things internally. This can be for fear about progression or for not wanting to seem disruptive. As a manager you are seldom allowed to have flaws.

This is where the blog post ends. There is no puffing out the chest and a call to arms. Merely unanswerable questions and a new found fear of someone reading this and taking it the wrong way. Yet it is important to care, it is important to be honest and it is important acknowledge the dangers of authentic leadership in slow moving organisations. You may one day be managing someone as mentally stuck as me and you might need to recognise it. No idea how you fix it mind.