Last week a friend told me a story of a colleague she’s been encouraging to spread his wings and take on a bigger role. As a chap suffused with a healthy self-awareness he was doubting his ‘fit’ as he’d ‘never done half the things the role demanded’. He lamented that he was nowhere near as accomplished as she was. My friend burst out laughing and let him into the secret – half the time she’s winging it. And so are so many of the ‘accomplished’ leaders around them.
She went on to describe to him all the things she doing when she’s ‘winging it’. She talked about first recognising this task or practice is something new to her, something important and something that demands attention – the ‘crikey!’ moment. Deciding what to do about it. In her world this was usually either ‘do a load of research and find a way forward, or, if there’s no manual, work it out and if needed, bring others and ask a heap of questions’. Then test and try, hold her nerve, pay critical attention and be ready to course correct or scrap it and start again if needed – and get over feeling like an eejit.
My response to this story: ah, you’re doing leadership then! To me ‘winging it’ is just a different shorthand for some of the stuff of leaderful practices. Consider:
‘Not done that before!’ could be a problem with a known solution that requires a known response or something novel that requires innovation. Being able to recognise this difference is at the heart of the much-feted adaptive leadership approach. And of the much older ‘tame – wicked’ problem divide.
Recognising we don’t know (how or what), recognising that others might know and valuing this, and being open to both asking and receiving know-how. What some call intellectual humility.
There’s the ability to create and ask excellent questions, what some say is a sign of deep expertise.
The capacity to get deeply uncomfortable and sit with this feeling.
And winging it is fundamentally a series of Notice – Decide – Act – Reflect practices. Not in that order – or any order – mostly all together. What some call the core practices of leadership. The leadership stuff that keeps our organizations and other systems moving and healthy, keeps us purposefully engaged. Keeps us from getting stuck.
So, here’s to winging it!