The reason we have interest in Next Generation Leadership is that the last generation of leadership interpretations was inadequate. They didn’t deliver the goods of enabling actual leadership and leadership results, however captivating the leadership framework and stories.
Leadership is a field that needs some clarity and usefulness where we outgrow our appetite for “next generation leadership” because the last generation didn’t produce satisfaction and effectiveness. We need an understanding of leadership that is fundamental, clear, observable, necessary, executable, rigorous, and learnable. We need an interpretation that brings us closer to the “eternally valid aspects” of leadership, regardless of culture or historical era.
Leadership, as with any other field of human endeavor, is a field of distinctions, practice, and discourse. As a discourse, leadership shows up for us based on what story and distinctions we have for it, and these shape and enable the actions we take as leaders. Our personal discourse of leadership may be rich and enabling, or sparse and remote. For many people “leadership” is just a word that names something that is not clear, a bit mysterious, but seems important. They lack the distinctions to see, learn, or carry out effective leadership, though they do experience occasional moments where it seems to happen anyway.
Leadership draws tremendous attention to many books, programs, and approaches, as we try to explain, show, inspire, and enable effective leadership. The wide diversity of interpretations and approaches is also a symptom that we don’t have a clear shared interpretation of what it is. We don’t have, for example, such a wide diversity of interpretations for basic chemistry – it’s pretty settled as a field of understanding, interpretation, and practice. We still lack such a foundational understanding of leadership. The diversity of approaches to understanding leadership is reflected in a wide diversity of business leadership programs, business management courses, executive leadership programs, and offers of leadership coaching.
What is Generative Leadership?
“Generative leadership” is the name of the field that has been focused on developing just such a fundamental set of leadership interpretations and practices, to find identifiable fundamental structures and regularities of the ways that effective leaders observe, act, and generate results. We don’t believe that generative leadership is the only, final, or right interpretation of leadership, but rather that it provides a fundamental and permanent dimension of leadership interpretation that addresses what is missing in the mainstream common sense. It provides a focus on what is fundamental and non-discretionary about leadership and also provides a framework which allows for variations in style, culture, situation, and historical moment. It acts as a foundation and cross check on other interpretations to increase the value they can provide by addressing the generative aspects of: what is observable, executable, learnable, and produces leadership outcomes.
The roots of generative leadership extend back into a discipline called ontological design, developed by Dr. Fernando Flores, and it is related to the field of ontological coaching, developed by Julio Olalla. The discipline draws from many other fields including neuroscience, linguistics, somatics and embodiment, cognition, biology, psychology, and emotions.
Developed by Bob Dunham since 1981, generative leadership comes from the original questions of “what is action?” and “how do human beings produce action and coordinate action?” These questions are so fundamental that they also provide powerful new answers to other questions including:
- What is leadership?
- What is management?
- What is a team?
- What is an organization?
These generative answers – which mean ones that are observable, executable, learnable, and that produce the outcome that is named – are based on focusing attention and action on phenomena that are not part of our mainstream awareness. These include commitment based management and coordination, the power of conversations to generate action and results, the role of care in producing passion and ownership, and practice-based learning. Some of the key areas of focus of these interpretations include the role of emotions, body, and language in generating action, the role of care in value and satisfaction, and the essential aspects of coordination that underlie effective team performance.
In generative leadership, acts of commitment, like requests and promises, produce the generative power of language and conversation. All action is understood to be preceded by conversations that shape and determine its outcomes, both through performance and coordination and through the assessments of the outcomes. All conversations produce some kind of commitment that shapes future action, and the impact of every conversation is based on the coherence of its language, emotional tone, presence, and body language. What people listen to when others speak is based on their history and background. Leaders know how to connect to the historical listening and the care of others, and to provoke commitment for future actions.
The point about these distinctions is that they are all generative – observable, executable, learnable, and always are part of generating the results. This is the power of the generative way of “observing.” This way of being an observer – of what one sees and pays attention to – enables being an actor that takes different kinds of action based on these fundamental aspects of human communication, coordination, leadership, management, and teamwork.
Although these distinctions are not yet part of our mainstream education and training, they address phenomena that are always present and in which we are always moving as human beings. We are in a situation similar to medicine hundreds of years ago when doctors didn’t know or study anatomy, but anatomy was always there determining what was happening as a result of their actions. Physicians became more effective once they became aware of and skillful with what was already there – anatomy, biochemistry, and the systems and dynamics of the body.
Bob Dunham’s Leadership Work
We believe that leadership and management face a similar historical moment: that practitioners are conscientious, hard-working, and dedicated, but are blind to the anatomy and dynamics of their domain of action, which is there all the time and determining their outcomes whether they pay attention to them or not.
To address this, Bob Dunham founded the Institute for Generative Leadership in 1998 based on work that he and his colleagues had been involved in since 1981. The Institute has trained hundreds of executives, business owners, managers, and professionals through the Generative Leadership Program (GLP program). Bob’s experience includes being an executive in multiple companies, including as Vice President of Motorola Computer Systems, Vice President of Business Design Associates, and Chief Operating Officer of Action Technologies. He actively consults with client companies in management and leadership development.
He is also co-author of the book The Innovator’s Way, the Essential Practices for Successful Innovation with Dr. Peter Denning, published by MIT Press. He designs and delivers multi-year programs in leadership in the US and South America, including the Generative Leadership Program (GLP). He also delivers the Coaching Excellence in Organizations (CEO) program in a joint venture with Newfield Network, one of the leading schools of coaching in the world. He is a guest lecturer in the Executive Certification Program for Presidio Graduate School and in the Leading by Design Fellows Program for the California College of the Arts and was Adjunct Faculty, Executive in Residence, in the Presidio MBA program in Sustainable Management for three years. Bob has also been published with a chapter in the book Being Human at Work, edited by Dr. Richard Strozzi Heckler, as well as in numerous publications, including Communications of the ACM, Training Magazine, the International Journal for Coaching in Organizations, and the Center for Quality of Management Journal.
The intent of the GLP Program, the CEO program, and others that are in development is to provide generative leadership training that enables people to become more self-generating as leaders, managers, team members, and human beings. These programs provide what is not currently available from other forms of traditional and mainstream education and development: as an MBA leadership program, providing a new dimension to current forms of management leadership training, management development, and organizational performance development. We believe that we provide an essential element to what may someday be a degree in leadership that offers actual leadership skill, not just leadership studies. The results of the programs are being demonstrated by our GLP participants and graduates and our CEO participants and graduates that now number in the hundreds.
Our ambitions and purpose for generative leadership are not just to be thought of as next-generation leadership, but to go beyond the next generation as an important foundation for future developments in leadership. We believe that it is now possible to have leadership be clear, observable, executable, and learnable with appropriate practice and feedback. The world is calling leaders to new levels of challenge and our understanding of leadership must provide generative foundations for leadership action and learning.