We need pioneers not edgy leaders

If you’ve read my blogs or tweets, you’ll know that I’m passionate about the School for Health and Care Radicals.  Its vision brings fresh hope to institutions and organisational cultures sorely in need of change and its pedagogy is an innovation in connected, event-based and collaborative learning.  It engages hearts and minds with genuine enthusiasm that is countering the malaise that often saps us of the energy to make things better for those we serve.

There’s just one thing about the SHCR which really bothers me.  What precisely does “leading from the edge” actually mean?  Until recently it was a phrase which seemed rather empty and meaningless to me, more like a slogan than a call to action.  That popular phrase if you’re not on the edge you’re taking up too much room is catchy, but as a clinician it means very little to me.  If anything I want to make more room for people, mainly my patients, their families and the colleagues I work with.

Leading from the edge implies you’re on a precipice, at risk of falling into dangerous territory at any moment.  Indeed, a quick Google search for this term took me to a book about stress management aimed at school teachers.  Whilst some may savour the adrenaline rush, this is not a concept of change management that I will ever feel comfortable with.  Or perhaps change agents should be “edgy” and stand out from the crowd?  In this case we could just as easily achieve the objective by dressing differently or making controversial statements – neither of which is what the SHCR is about.

Eco Leadership

Simon Western describes a non-hierarchical and distributed leadership discourse, which he terms Eco Leadership.  Innovation arising from the periphery of the team, organisation or community of practice is led by people in front-line positions, who guides it towards the centre.  If we compare the latter to Wenger’s community of practice, the traditional master-leader is generally occupying this central position. Hence leadership from the edge is vitally important for the development and sustainability of the whole group.  This push-pull concept of change leadership is one which holds more meaning to me than an image of tottering on a dangerous cliff-edge – though, of course, one does not necessarily exclude the other, depending on the politics at play.

Rhizomatic leaders

It was only when I discovered rhizomatic learning that I truly came to an understanding of how we can lead from the edge.  As a clinician-educator this is particularly relevant for me as a pedagogical concept (you can read the Higher Education Academy’s toolkit webpage to learn more).  Here  I argue that it’s also a helpful metaphor for making sense of  change in complex systems, such as health and social care.

Consider the rhizome – always reaching out and searching for the right conditions in which to take root and grow.  At the growing tip of the organism are microscopic pioneers; tiny cells which lead the way for the whole, often huge, highly complex and interconnected entity.  When we lead from the edge we become the pioneers, seeking fresh learning, discovering and creating new practices.  We test the conditions and, if fertile, signal back to the bigger team, service and organisation to which we belong.  We may be tiny but greatness is potentially following our trail.

A good venue for a Randomised Coffee Trial?   Image courtesy of Stan Shebs via Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA 3.o licence
We need pioneers not edgy leaders