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Sensebreaking Leadership

I recently stumbled upon a new term: sensebreaking. And specifically, sensebreaking leadership. Turns out I am a leadership sensebreaker.


I found this term when I was recently doing research for a presentation on leadership. I was away from home and away from my usual materials, so when I went to find my old standby book, I found, instead, the 2023 SAGE Handbook of Leadership (Schedlitzki et al., 2023). In the book’s introduction, the editors explain that the handbook is about both sensemaking, assessing where leadership scholarship is in the current reality, and sensebreaking, breaking with our traditionally held views of leadership.


Schedlitzki et al. call for a shift into viewing leadership as a collective process, and I’m 100 percent here for that. I have always been a skeptic. I have never been excited about the idea of a charismatic leader coming in to save the day. That’s not how things work. And yet, we hold this romantic view of leadership, focused on the person of the leader who will fix everything.


In the West, we certainly have a strange fascination with leadership. We all sit back and watch what the leader does, eager to pounce on imperfections and criticize their choices and processes. The way that we put leaders on pedestals and separate followers creates a schism. In his book Community, the Structure of Belonging, Peter Block called this schism a “cause and effect” dynamic.


…leaders are the cause and all others are effect… All that counts is what leaders do… They are foreground, while citizens, followers, players, and anyone else not in a leadership position are background. This is a deeply patriarchal agenda, and it is this love of leaders that limits our capacity to create an alternative future. (2018, p. 41)


In a forthcoming chapter in my co-edited volume, Leadership at the Spiritual Edge, I build on that idea of cause and effect, foreground and background, by arguing that this separation between leader and follower is a duality that may contribute to the rising numbers of people who are reporting that they feel lonely (Murthy, 2023). By spotlighting the leader, everyone else becomes inconsequential (Guenther, forthcoming).


The business arena is fraught with complex difficulties in our current moment. A churn-and-burn culture is pervasive, with a focus on results no matter the cost. A with that focus is a zero defects environment, where mistakes are intolerable, which brings about human nature in the form of covering, blaming, and finger-pointing. Additionally, creativity is stymied in risk-averse climates.


And coming back to Schedlitzki et al.’s sensebreaking, they posit that leadership is a collective process. Let’s break that down. According to Kelly (2023), there are two ideologies when it comes to leadership. The first is that leadership is a “non-linear shared processual activity,” and the other is that leadership is a “top-down causal tripod structure in which leadership results from the character or actions of the leader figure.” That tripod is leader-followers-goal.


Leadership as a process. According to Booysen (2013), leadership is a dynamic, generative element of an organization that changes with the system. And as a dynamic, generative element of a system, it is not influenced by one leader but instead by a process involving many people within that system. The process, then, is enacted by leadership practices and informed by leadership development (Booysen, 2013). Leadership practice is vital in this equation. According to Raelin (2016),


A practice is a coordinative effort among participants who choose through their own rules to achieve a distinctive outcome. Accordingly, leadership-as-practice is less about what one person thinks or does and more about what people may accomplish together. (p. 3)


Collectivity holds a central position in sensebreaking with the traditional view of leadership as something enacted by a single person. The energy of this lens is from “power over” to “power with” (Follett, 1995). I like to think of a circle of employees or members of any kind of organization or enterprise. Within the circle, different people step forward to perform a leadership function and then step back as someone else steps forward. It’s like a coordinated popcorn effect, with various circle members sharing their gifts and talents appropriately and inviting others to do the same.


Collective leadership may seem like a different kind of romanticized notion of leadership to my fellow skeptics. But I think this is where we are headed. I believe that the time is coming when everything is about harnessing the power of the collective. Alone, we cannot solve the intractable issues that we face. But we could make effective inroads with hive mind, OneMind, or our shared genius.


As we are now, collective action is problematic. As part of a year-long program I am doing with Alef Trust called Nurturing the Fields of Change, I attended a presentation by Jamie Bristow of the Mindfulness Initiative, during which he named the key challenges we face as collaborative action and relationships. We struggle with working together, collaborating, and getting along.


What’s to be done? I believe the answer can be found in individual and spiritual development; that is, we, individually, engage in long-term practice to truly know ourselves, cultivate our inner landscape, and build a capacity for engaging in the world and with ourselves mindfully. Additionally, intentionally developing toward each other is essential. We must get better at engaging with others, particularly those with whom we don’t have much in common. This development requires us to be willing to be uncomfortable, dance with our shadows, and be open to the unknown.


The first step is a commitment to our own healing and developmental process. The possibilities for the collective blossom with humans who begin to see themselves not just as a “me” at the center but instead as a “me” in relation to the “we.”





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