Today, public service organizations across Canada are embracing a community of practice approach to leadership development. My experience with communities of practice has taught me that this path to leadership begins with an invitation to build your leadership practice.
What follows is a roadmap of the path to leadership that communities of practice represent. This path has four distinct phases. For the benefit of my own understanding, I have found it worthwhile to analogize the building of a leadership practice to the artistic development of a musician.
Finding your practice
The first phase is the transition from leadership enthusiast to leadership practitioner. In a sense, it’s like choosing an instrument; except, instead of guitars and saxophones, you choose from a range of practices such as conflict resolution, engagement or, even, event photography. People often try a few leadership practices before they find one that’s right for them. In this experimental phase, the first few notes I played did not sound as I had intended. But, that’s okay. There wouldn’t be much incentive to practice if they did.
Building your practice
In the second phase, you build your practice through imitation and repetition. You acquire tools, techniques and behaviours much like a musician learns scales, songs and standards. Then, you practice them until they become internalized as second nature. Early influences are crucial. Eric Clapton would not have become Slowhand if he’d never heard of Robert Johnson. This phase tests the depth of your commitment. Joining a community of practice allows you to connect and practice with others who share your passion.
After investing significant amounts of time and energy in the second phase, you will have developed proficiencies that allow you to imitate the leaders you admire with precision. Many never develop beyond this point. Their efforts are not wasted, however, as the proficiencies they have acquired represent significant value added to their organizations.
From scales to jazz
The third phase encompasses a shift from imitation to variation. In this phase, the practitioner begins to insert elements from one tool or technique into another. This crossing over of elements is the first step toward discovering your leadership voice. In the music analogy, it’s a blues riff played in a folk song. Gradually, the variations become increasingly substantial until, eventually, you’re playing the melody of a classic jazz standard to a dance hall beat. I moved from scales to jazz in my facilitation practice when I added a Team Charter exercise to the beginning of a strategic planning session. Some incredible public service innovations are achieved by leadership practitioners in this third phase.
Your leadership voice
The fourth phase is the transition from building your leadership practice to discovering your leadership voice. Like the deep, honeyed tones of Louis Armstrong’s voice or the crisp, clean guitar solos of Queen’s Brian May, a great leader’s way of doing everything they do is unmistakably their own. Very few reach the fourth phase of the leadership journey. Those who do, however, become the authors of new standards and the inventors of new leadership best practices. In their time, they define and redefine their organizations.
The crucial role of imitation in the developmental process necessitates that you internalize the thinking of those that came before you. Generally, it is only once you have achieved this that you can begin to transcend the scales and standards of the tradition. In this way, I hope to discover my leadership voice.
Abram Deighton is the regional coordinator for the National Managers’ Community in Yukon and the Yukon representative of the Federal Youth Network. He also serves as co-chair of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s Yukon Regional Group.