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They're in Our Midst

September 10, 2016

I recently read an opinion piece in Training Journal ( written by Donald H. Taylor (@DonaldHTaylor), a UK-based L&D expert. I had never heard of Mr. Taylor before I read this--the article was shared on Twitter by a colleague who lives in the UK who respects him highly--so I am unfamiliar with his actual expertise and experience. I am coming from a position of zero knowledge of his work and I have no context into which I can place his words. All this to frame my response to what he wrote:


Mr. Taylor writes about an interesting conversation in which a learning director of a major consulting group described what she does in this way:


"My job is to inspire and negotiate."


He was struck by her succinct and descriptive phrase. She didn't mention learning, courses or materials. She described the nature of what she does. I agree with Mr. Taylor that too often L&D professionals talk too much about the nuts and bolts of their jobs and don't think about what it takes to sell new ideas and drive content usage. For me, though, the article devolves from there. The first thing he said that me me go, "Hm..." follows: 


"Leading is very different to doing. Sadly, the skills we need as leaders are seldom the ones we use in our daily professional practice." 


Other quotes that rubbed me wrong follow:


"The better a practitioner, the more likely he or she is to have deep skills that will be of little use in leadership. People are often drawn into the profession because they have great design or presentation skills, and sometimes simply because they know a lot about a particular topic. None of this helps much in leading a diverse team for a demanding employer."


"Yes, to be sure, a leader in any field needs to be familiar with his or her domain."


"L&D needs good generals right now, and sometimes I wonder where they will come from."

My initial reaction to this article was a bit more emotional than I expected, and I had to sit a while and think about why I reacted so strongly to statements that, quite frankly, most would heartily agree with. I decided that my biggest problem with these statements is not so much the statements themselves, but the whole perspective of the piece. It conjures up visions of a beehive, where L&D professionals are the worker bees. By Mr. Taylor's description, these workers are hyper-focused and specialized and are incapable of being leaders because it isn't in their nature. He seems to be convinced that leaders aren't part of the rank-and-file of the work environment. 


I believe that all of us, and especially those who are unfortunate enough to be employed in very traditional and restrictive environments, know this isn't true. Unrecognized, informal leaders are everywhere. I will repeat that: 


Unrecognized, informal leaders are everywhere. 


"But Gail," you're thinking, "there need to be recognized and formal L&D leaders. We need a handful of gods perched on pedestals to revere and worship as the pinnacle of knowledge and experience. Mr. Taylor is dead on. We need generals." Well, I cry foul. Formal hierarchy already claims to offer generals, and we all know how ineffective that structure is in the business world. Why, then, are we trying to impose this same hierarchy on ourselves in L&D? And if I've missed the point and we aren't talking about hierarchy, why are we using the language of hierarchy? 


I believe this is really the crux of the issue. The L&D community needs to stop saying things like "Leading is very different to doing," because that simply isn't true. We need to start framing the conversation, not in the way things "are," but in the way they "could be." If we want to drive this discussion forward, if we want to function in the Social Age, we need to stop using language that keeps us back. If traditional hierarchy doesn't work and everyone knows it, we should stop talking as if it does. "Manager" does not equal "leader."


When I use the word "leader," I'm talking about real nuts-and-bolts, I-can-help-you-find-the-answers leaders. I'm talking about the person in the office who always seems to have someone stopping by to ask their opinion or soliciting resources. They often aren't all that interested in becoming formal managers, but they do know how to manage a project or a team, how to problem solve, sense-make, help colleagues hash out a problem and get them to find the answers for themselves.You know who they are. Everyone in the office knows who they are. Maybe that person is you. 


Julian Stodd and others call this "social leadership." Social leaders are recognized for their expertise and their ability to guide, advise and share. "Social" doesn't refer to social media, but to society, culture, and community. This could involve (and often does) the use of social media tools to engage with others, but "social" and "social media" are not the same thing and shouldn't be confused--especially in this context. Simply engaging in prolific social media usage doesn't make someone a leader, any more than knowing how to cook scrambled eggs and doing it every day doesn't make someone a gourmet chef.


We can dance around this discussion, but the bottom line is that we live in a very different world from twenty, ten, even five years ago. Information is free, easy to access, and easy to disseminate. People turn more and more to their peers across the hall, across town, across the country, and across the globe. Groups from different countries "meet" online to discuss topics, to share their work, to get answers, to create, to learn. Formal hierarchy tries to quash these organic groups, and tries to interfere with social leaders because they are a threat to traditional power, but this doesn't mean those groups and leaders go away. They just go underground and continue to do what comes naturally to them--sharing, learning, working out loud, and driving things forward despite opposition.


There are still people out there whom we could recognize as "experts" and "leaders"--I would never deny that--but if you look closely you will see that even these people, perhaps especially these people, are plugged into global personal learning networks and participating in "work out loud/share your work" activities. And mostly, they want to engage deeply with others in the field, regardless of expertise or tenure. They come from a wide variety of work backgrounds and experiences, and are part of a global community from whom they solicit information and input as readily as they offer it. There is no hierarchy here. These people are simply recognized by the community as knowledgable and, perhaps more importantly, as generous sharers.


I think this is what Mr. Taylor is missing. He uses 20th century language for a 21st century issue and fails entirely to see that his question misses the mark. The question isn't "where will the leaders come from?" but should instead be: "why don't we recognize them?" They are already in our midst.

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