As a Leader how do I know what to do?

Leadership is an improvisational art. You may have an overarching vision, clear orientating values and even a strategic plan, but what you actually do from moment to moment cannot be scripted.

At Said Business School, University of 0xford, I often reflect on the broad questions leaders raise on our executive programmes. It is often the goal of how to be better at something, driving some complex change or lead an innovation. Behind all these worthy objectives is the essential philosophical question –

how do I know what to do?”

In many of my interventions with leaders I ask them to reflect on their personal leadership story and experience and then to link it to the story of the firm they are a part of. Patterns often emerge of how a leader has forged her leadership style, often influenced by childhood patterns, early leadership opportunities and helpful and unhelpful role models. Every day we are faced with endless choices of how to lead and we make choices, often unconsciously, that are then described by others as our leadership style.

Heifez and Linksy give us some clues to the ‘how do I know what to do?‘ question in their insightful book ‘Leadership on the Line’:

Leadership is an improvisational art. You may have an overarching vision, clear orientating values and even a strategic plan, but what you actually do from moment to moment cannot be scripted. To be effective, you must respond to what is happening….. you have to move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor over and over again.”



It is easy to conclude that if we are just the result of childhood patterns and subverted role models the opportunity to change can be limited. I however have more reasons for optimism as I have seen managers change and exercise leadership in an effective and inspirational way. One exercise, and experiment we run at Oxford is the opportunity for managers of organisations to conduct a choir. Peter Hanke, Paul Hedley and Musica Beata expertly lead the session. I have observed this experience many times and insights have emerged into the question of ‘how do I know what to do?’ that chime with Heifetz and Linksky.

The first volunteer is faced with standing in front of a choir and is asked – in their own time to start. The volunteer often looks a little bemused and raises a hand and starts some form of conducting. The feedback from the choir is immediate, on a range from clarity of beautiful singing to uncoordinated sounds. The conducting is supported with micro observation and coaching from Peter Hanke, who suggests small changes based on the managers pre-existing natural approach. These small changes often have big impact on the way the manager changes her conducting.

This activity reminded me years ago of rehearsals for actors. One exercise was simply to enter a room of other actors, and without speaking, reassure the room. This exercise was all about presence and how the impact of one’s presence creates a constructive (or destructive) impact.

So what are the lessons for leaders who grapple with the question – how do I know what to do? The key seems to be to find a way to access feedback at the micro and macro level, getting on our own balcony to observe how we act in the moment. You can do this by simply asking for feedback on your leadership style from your team and peers, engaging in a reflective practice such as journaling or trying something new and out of your comfort zone, simply askingWhat did I learn about myself?

  1. Chumbawamba – The Boy Bands Have Won, and All the Copyists and the Tribute Bands Devendra Banhart – Oh Me Oh My… the Way the Day Goes by the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit

About author
Steve Mostyn Associates, Associate fellow - Said Business School
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