February 9, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
How are your sense-making skills – your capacities to look at a complex situation and understand what’s really happening? If you expect to lead well and powerfully, your answer to that question could be the key to a long and strong career.
Sense-making is the difficult art at the heart of leadership. We’d all like clarity about the complexities that we face in resolving the problems we encounter or in leading our organizations forward in a competitive world, but we are rarely that fortunate. The world is filled with ambiguity, and all leaders face the task of making sense out of what they find. They get in trouble when they assume that what they see and understand is the same reality that others see and accept. That just ain’t so.
We all bring our own ways of interpreting what we see as we step midstream into organizations and groups that have evolved distinctive histories, cultures, and traditions. Even our ideas about how to lead – and what leadership is all about – are based on tacit and deeply-personal values and belief systems about what’s important and how things work.
A key challenge for any leader is how to make accurate sense of complex circumstances, recognize available choices, choose the best path forward, and convey all that to others in a compelling manner. Whether we call this wisdom, executive judgment, reflective practice, or learning from experience, the lesson is clear. Effectiveness requires untangling the conundrums of the organizations we seek to lead and the realities of our current situation and translating both into sensible choices and actions for self and others.
We lead best when we understand the organizational cards we’ve been dealt: who has real power, what gives them their influence, how are things done around here, where do the sacred cows and landmines rest, where (and why) will change be welcome, and more – and when we recognize that others around us have their own answers to those same diagnostic questions.
Organizational sense-making is never as easy and straight-forward as we would wish. In our recent book, Reframing Academic Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2011), Lee Bolman and I tease out why. Subsequent posts will explore those reasons.