What can a teacher suspended from teacher training (and repeatedly admonished throughout his subsequent teaching career) teach today’s business leaders? Despite these setbacks, Professor Welby Ings went on to win a prestigious teaching excellence award, achieve New Zealand’s first PhD in Creative Practice and his films not only screened at Cannes and Berlin but were short listed for the Oscars. I was intrigued.
After seeing an interview with Welby Ings on television1, I contacted him to find out his advice for today’s business leaders. One of the architects of New Zealand’s technology curriculum and an international creativity advisor would surely have relevant advice for those leading in the digital era.
This article focuses on disobedient thinking while Prof Ings’ views about leadership and performance assessment deserve further focus in upcoming articles. It is inspired by our discussion as well as what I took from his book: “Disobedient Teaching”2. (The article was approved for publication by Dr Ings and improved from his feedback.)
There is something ‘start-up’ about a mind that:
- Challenges the status quo
- Is unimpressed with title and status
- Sees opportunity everywhere
- Is inspired by intrinsic human value (distinct from people as ‘human resources’)
- Questions and probes to advance thinking
- Knows when to stop, breathe and simply connect with people
Welby Ings is quite clear about what he means by disobedient thinking. Disobedient thinking is not a walk in the park. What I took away from both his book and our discussion is that being disruptive (long before disruption became THE thing) takes a bone-deep belief in the extraordinary potential of ordinary people. I recall Charles Garfield’s reference to the actualized person as “not an ordinary person with something added but an ordinary person with nothing taken away.”3
Some key themes recurred during our discussion and throughout his book that have direct relevance for today’s leaders.
Doing What Needs Doing When You are Blocked From Doing It
How do you fulfill an organization’s purpose when the organization keeps getting in the way? I meet people all the time struggling to simply do what they have been told is their job. This conflict between what must be done and what they can’t do (for a range of reasons that make no sense) is stressful – actually harmful – to the human psyche. Something in me wants to lash out at the wrongness of this, but that is not what Prof Ings means by disobedient thinking.
He is not for indiscriminate disobedience. Even though he was constantly blocked from doing what his professional radar told him was right for his students’ education, Prof Ings sees the inherent value and opportunity within the current education system that brings people together in one place for a significant period of time.
He successfully met learners’ needs using creative ways to fulfill system requirements – some of the time; much of his time was spent either negotiating or coming up with working alternatives. Does this not describe perfectly the committed individual in many organizations? Certainly it does for many of the people I come across in business.
An example of his ‘work arounds’ were the letters he wrote to parents and students to provide meaningful commentary when blocked from writing more detail on the standard report. This was so valued by parents and students that it became impossible to block. That is productive disobedience.
Self check: as a leader, what ‘work arounds’ are your staff doing so that they can do their jobs, that you may see as annoying, disruptive or challenging authority (i.e. disobedient)?
A ‘disobedient’ person is often seen as a trouble-maker. Is it a type of alternative thinking or could it be a response to something? (Truth be told, some people do seem to get a kick from being ‘contrary’, right?)
Two things to consider:
- Welby reminds us that people have a powerful ‘B.S. detector’. They can tell when a leader is not being genuine or is being hypocritical – not walking the talk. Some react by ‘undermining’ that authority figure but that is never as powerful as incrementally putting in place effective alternatives (no matter how small). In my experience, people have a low tolerance for being put down and organizations and/or managers unwittingly minimize people in so many ways. People with agency do something about it.
- The ‘cynic’ who loses hope not only surrenders their own agency but tries to get others to give up theirs too. It is far easier to keep repeating a story than to meaningfully contribute.
Prof Ings’ ‘post-heroic leader’ is deeply perceptive about people’s need to be seen and heard. Spending meaningful time with a genuine effort to connect with those being reactive can make all the difference – take a walk in the park (literally).
Self check: as a leader, what time do you invest in your most important asset – people? How much quality time do you spend seeing the world through their eyes i.e. those whose work determines the organization’s success?
Given the rapid evolution of customer demands, the pace of product obsolescence and market (and/or funding) uncertainty, I wondered how much more important it is today that everyone throughout an organization is productively disobedient?
There has to be a better way than appoint a ‘Czar of Bad Systems’ (See4. “Does your company need a Director of Getting Sh*t Done?”). Perhaps Ryan Holmes (CEO of Hootsuite and author of the article) hasn’t considered that staff working throughout an organization are best placed to identify and act on flawed processes. In fact, people experience a lot of stress from seemingly arbitrary decisions made by someone ‘up there’ who doesn’t have to deal with the fallout.
As people are typically blocked by flawed systems and inappropriate procedures every day, they are best positioned to ‘repeal and replace’ these with more appropriate approaches to ‘get sh*t done’. An agreed ‘deconfliction’ route (safe from cross-fire or collisions with tradition) would encourage everyone to iteratively make the organization more fit for purpose (or call on the most appropriate person within their area of influence to do so.)
Commitment to Productive Disobedience
From now on, when I find myself in a ‘flawed hierarchy’, I will remember that I contract my services to this system but this doesn’t change who I am and it doesn’t diminish my agency. As a resourceful human being, I can assess the situation and work out how best to act. I can resist the slide into cynicism and commit my daily work to making a positive difference to the organization achieving its purpose.
This is profoundly validating but doesn’t detract from the stress that accompanies conflict. People need to know someone has their back. (“In Search of Excellence”, as far back as 1982, described how autonomous and entrepreneurial thinkers often need the equivalent of a ‘godfather’ or at least an ‘executive sponsor’.5)
Self check: as a leader, whom am I supporting to ensure our organization is successful? How do I spot where people are struggling against a flawed system to be successful in their role?
It became clear from speaking with Prof Ings that the fact that our organizations, and even leaders, are flawed (hereby diminishing returns to both shareholders and customers) is no excuse for surrendering who we are. As human beings, we are intrinsically creative and resourceful. If our environment doesn’t encourage this, and we don’t have a kindred and wise spirit to encourage our positive contribution, we can remember why we are there. If we can’t cultivate a strong enough commitment to keep adding value (while still preserving our mental and emotional health), perhaps we have crippled our ability to influence and change the world in which we live.
While the discussion was deep and reflective, I was left with renewed optimism and a spring in my step.
1 “Why we need disobedience in schools.” http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2017/03/why-we-need-disobedience-in-schools.html
2 Disobedient Teaching. Welby Ings. Otago University Press. 2017. http://www.otago.ac.nz/press/books/otago638465.html
3 Peak Performers. Charles Garfield. Avon Books. 1987
4 “Does your company need a Director of Getting Sh*t Done?” by Ryan Holmes, CEO Hootsuite March 27, 2017
5 In Search of Excellence. Tom Peters, Robert H. Waterman Jr. Harper & Row, New York, 1982
About the Author:
Cherri Holland is a performance and change specialist whose focus over the last 20 years has been a ‘partnership approach’ to business success. Influenced by leaders running successful staff-driven businesses, she has moved hundreds of groups past entrenched ways of working into self-leadership, high performance and flow.
Described as commercially-savvy, engaging and inspirational, her clients have consistently said their high expectations of change outcomes have been exceeded.
Cherri has sat alongside leaders undertaking organisation-wide transformation to develop a staff-driven, high performance culture. She co-designs solutions with people which avoids the natural resistance to externally-imposed models (leading to costly failure of change programmes). Drawing on both neuroscience and neuromarketing, she mobilizes unused reserves for a positive response to market pressures and/or technology disruption.