Inviting Leadership is Real Work

Inviting Leadership is a commitment to movement, toward something that matters, in spite of everything.  It’s open, engaging and aligning.  It’s grounded in purpose, but willing to allow new and even surprising things to emerge. This can take leaders beyond the comfort of their position and the crutch of authority.  

On the inside, for those in positions of authority, inviting might feel out of control. When Inviting Leaders call their people (co-workers, neighbors, fellow citizens, etc.) to work together, they give them a challenge – but also a choice. Engagement is voluntary and self-directed.  So Inviting Leaders need to tell a good story – clear and true and compelling – or the people won’t show up and nothing will happen.    

On the outside, in practice, authority and control come to rest in the shared passion and common commitment to the story. The work moves forward because the people who care, the ones who do show up, pull together.  It works because people are purposeful – and can be ideal-seeking. We’re wired to care and to chase what we want.  Inviting leverages that.

Not Mechanical

Spirited high performance, breakthrough innovation, the safety of genuine community, personal and organization transformation are aspirational not mechanical. The trappings of these things might be coerced in the short run, but they won’t be sustained and bear fruit.  They can flourish, however, with surprising power and ease, when actively and skillfully invited.

Inviting is something leaders can practice and get better at, but it’s also something to aspire to be.  It’s not about the magic phrase, “I’d like to invite you to…”  It’s about knowing the work well, articulating what’s most important, and being willing to unleash people within the bounds of a challenge.  Doing that inviting can be quick and easy, that’s what makes it powerful.  Being inviting, holding the space, is real work.  

But it’s worth it.  

The choice offered by invitation is an essential pre-requisite for people to feel good about their work.  That’s the basis for good learning.  Then, a momentum of learning enables us to tell the truth about where we are, because we know we are getting better.  Telling the truth is essential to meaningful plans, which are essential for real commitment and delivery.  Reliable delivery feeds adjoining work groups and ultimately customers.  And at every level, all of this feeds back on everything that precedes it, strengthening or eroding it. 

In both Agile and Open Space, we actively invite people to put all the most important issues and opportunities, features and tasks, and everything else on the wall. And then, iteratively, a few at a time, we do the work in self-organizing (more or less autonomous) groups. These approaches work in otherwise hierarchical organizations because they invite and support exchange: Managers trade control for active engagement, workers trade transparency (exposure) for autonomy.

A Productive Exchange

A good invitation puts a clear, purpose – an attractor, in complex adaptive systems terms – at the center of the work system. The invitation allows managers to step back from control, having given the work priority and direction. At the same time, it calls forth everyone else to learn and contribute as much as they can toward the larger, shared purpose.

In this way, Inviting Leaders challenge the whole system to get better.  They invite people to take direct, personal responsibility for the things they care about – while leaving them room to figure out for themselves how to manage their own effort and engagement.  This is what I’ve seen play out over many years of facilitating work in Open Space.  When the people understand that the river is rising, they come running with shovels and sandbags. And more. Be prepared to be surprised!