Céline Schillinger, Dare to Un-Lead
The art of relational management in a fragmented world.
Céline is a friend I’ve known so long I can’t recall where and when we met. When I learned that she was working on a book, I was excited to read it (in galley form!), and asked her for an interview digging into Dare to Un-Lead, which will be available in the Spring of 2022 (available for preordering).
Brave and of breathtakingly vast scope, the emancipatory ideas offered in Dare to Un-Lead deserve to be read by all.
An Engagement Leadership thinker and practitioner, Celine Schillinger has been recognized multiple times for her innovative engagement initiatives in the corporate world. A global engagement influencer, Celine runs We Need Social, a consultancy firm helping organizations and leaders create value through Engagement Leadership: the active mobilization of internal and external stakeholders, at the interplay of technology, management research, and living systems thinking.
Here’s our dialogue.
I think our organizations, and more generally our society, are sick – they make us sick. This is because of a noxious leadership that we continue to perpetuate, revere even, despite all the evidence that it doesn't work.
| Céline Schillinger
Stowe: I've had the chance to review your Dare to Un-Lead, but I never saw an explicit definition of unleading or unleadership. I read your comments about traditional leadership, however, where you say 'What is still revered as leadership is often a noxious set of obsolete behaviors that harm individuals and societies, and that must be reinvented.' Could you share a definition of unleading, and how it differs from traditional notions?
Céline: The term "unleading" came rather late in the writing process while thinking about the title of the book. You may see in it an ironic counterpoint to the arch-known "Dare to Lead", but it’s a very respectful one. However, “unleading” came to me as an obvious idea, capturing the essence of what I explored in the book.
I think our organizations, and more generally our society, are sick – they make us sick. This is because of a noxious leadership that we continue to perpetuate, revere even, despite all the evidence that it doesn't work. We keep putting leaders on a pedestal, attributing to them singular virtues, linked to their charisma or to the way they demonstrate a "natural" authority, which places them in our minds – and in organizational charts – above others.
This view of leadership is a toxic ideology. It hurts people, it hurts organizations, it hurts the planet. It is time to "un-lead": to realize that leadership is first and foremost a collective capacity to be cultivated, whose basic constituent is the relational and emotional fluency, which is served by a very different set of behaviors, including effacing oneself in the collective rather than standing above it. This requires not less effort than the traditional conception of leadership, but more. It is worth it. Un-leadership creates sustainable economic and human value, unlike the extractive model we are used to.
Stowe: There must be many facets of the change you envision, to move away from toxic leadership. A simple division suggests itself: we have to get current leaders to relax their hold on the reins of power -- or wrest them away -- and today's rank-and-file need to come to terms with a reworked model of leadership, what I call emergent leadership, or perhaps what you call unleading. In later questions, I will ask you about corporate activism, but first, can you expand on the preconditions for this sort of change in thinking?
Céline: It is crucial to pay attention to systems – for Barry Oshry, system sight, as opposed to system blindness, is the key to emancipation. From there, we can identify how our individual behaviors perpetuate the systems we’re in, or on the contrary, make them evolve.
It's not easy. Some people prefer to ignore the extent to which we are caught up in systems, preferring to believe in their own free will or in the saving power of this or that leader; others imagine intentionally hostile systems controlling the world: either no system at all, or a fantasized "supersystem”.
The reality is more complex. To see it, one needs curiosity (in contrast to fear, or the will to control); humility (doubting one's own certainties is a very healthy routine); and generosity in human relationships. Another condition to make this change possible: we need many, many more women in positions of power. It’s been proven that collective intelligence increases with the number of women because relational intelligence then gets higher. We need to move away from a "win/lose " mindset. A more gender-diverse collective is better for everybody.
I have a distrust, even an aversion to frameworks, which I find more often harmful than useful. They sustain an entire industry that diverts attention and resources from fields where effort would be more beneficial, but above all, they maintain the illusion that a "recipe" can solve problems. A recipe is necessarily a simplification of reality.
| Céline Schillinger
Stowe: The organization of the book around what you say are 'the three universal principles' of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, a phrase that arose in the French Revolution and is now the national motto of France. Do you see those as a foundation for business, or as a rallying cry for a revolutionary movement to reform business culture?
Céline: At the outset of this book, there is the search for a simple way to collect, to synthesize my experience of work and leadership; and to structure my thinking. I was not going to develop a "model", and especially not one that could be trademarked, which is a common weakness among thought leaders. I have a distrust, even an aversion to frameworks, which I find more often harmful than useful. They sustain an entire industry that diverts attention and resources from fields where effort would be more beneficial, but above all they maintain the illusion that a "recipe" can solve problems. A recipe is necessarily a simplification of reality. Models transposed from one field to another, regardless of the specific context and identity of each organization, hinder the possibility for its members to build their common destiny together. In my opinion, this is a major flaw that limits the capacity of individuals and organizations.
This is why I have chosen to think along three major values, as pathways for reflection and action: liberty, equality, and fraternity. These values are simple, known to all, and obviously not trademarkable. They leave the reader free to consider their own path. It so happens that these values have been celebrated by my country, France, since the 1789 Revolution; I was not insensitive to the symbol, nor to the cultural grounding. Nevertheless, these values are not French, rather universal aspirations, and they’re not even revolutionary – they were allegedly formulated as this triad by an archbishop in the late 1600s. But it is true that, compared to the reality of work in a large majority of organizations today, the notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity can seem provocative.
Provocation can be stimulating, but that is not how I approach the subject. During my career, I have witnessed and contributed to the realization of these values at work. I have seen their many benefits, and I know that it is possible – and not so difficult – to make organizations evolve towards a way of working that is more modern and more fruitful for all. In an increasingly fragmented society, the workplace can be where we rebuild an exciting, cohesive, and powerful human collective. This is what I would like to show with this book.
Stowe: I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr's invocation of Theodore Parker, 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.' How long does it take a person, an organization, or the world of business to adopt these ideas?
Céline: In truth, I don't know if the arc bends toward justice in the long run. I hope it does. We've made a lot of progress, but the fragile state of American democracy today exemplifies how progress also generates deep and lasting resentment. The powerful are getting more powerful, inequality is getting greater, and even a global crisis like Covid has failed to shake that up. But I remain optimistic that at the level of the workplace, we can build authentic and fruitful human connections, a healthy collective that allows everyone to move forward.
How long does it take? It's a dynamic process that has no end, but to get started you just need to engage in different conversations: with different people from those you're used to interacting with, on new issues, in new ways. Change can be started in 5 minutes. Then it takes work and persistence.
Corporate activism is a remarkable antidote to organizational fragmentation, operational silos, employee disengagement, and bureaucratic ossification. Activism allows for the mobilization of large numbers of people much more effectively than communication or injunction.
| Céline Schillinger
Stowe: You quote Camus from The Rebel, who wrote 'I rebel, therefore we exist', and you build on that by saying 'Rebellion pulls us away from our singular circumstances, bringing us into the collective experience. In effect, rebellion is the fundamental reality of our lives, because it creates the human community.' Could you expand on the role of the activist in business? And a follow-up: How did you arrive at that understanding?
Céline: The activist is a familiar figure in society, mostly associated with political and social issues – human rights activist, climate activist, etc. – sometimes acting as a counter-power to businesses. But the dynamic of activism, in my opinion, has enormous potential for the positive transformation of organizations. We can leverage it to improve the way we work together; to achieve better, faster and more sustainable results.
Corporate activism is a remarkable antidote to organizational fragmentation, operational silos, employee disengagement, and bureaucratic ossification. Activism allows for the mobilization of large numbers of people much more effectively than communication or injunction. Trust arising from joint activism in service of a common cause enables communities of intent and impact to thrive. As we know, community is an ideal space for sharing, learning, and self-expression. It is a crucible of fraternity, a powerful driver of performance and collective resilience. Today’s leadership (or “unleadership”, as mentioned before) must focus on the development of communities of intent and impact. It can do so by fostering the logic of activism in the workplace. It takes engagement and courage from leaders, because it is a less-traveled path, and not one they can “control”. But it is so much more rewarding, individually and collectively.
I was introduced to this field almost by accident, when a minor act of rebellion, which went viral thanks to the corporate social network, led to the emergence of a collective united by the willingness to modernize a corporate culture. That was more than 10 years ago now. Since then, I've been exploring the field, learning, and applying this logic of activism in different configurations and for different purposes. Each time, it has yielded extraordinary results. This book has allowed me to go further in my understanding of why it works.
About Camus' Rebel: I had read some of Camus' books as a teenager, then nothing since. While writing Dare to Un-Lead, I went back to it. The Rebel is a dazzler. Camus describes with mastery and grace an ethic of rebellion. Rebellion is, according to Camus, an individual act that allows access to the collective. When something seems intolerable to us – for example, an archaic work culture – and when, instead of remaining silent, we act, we rebel against a condition that also affects others. This is why, through rebellion, we reach the universal. This sentence, "I rebel, therefore we are", touches me deeply. We need more activism in the workplace, for the betterment of business, of workers, and of our whole society.
When something seems intolerable to us – for example, an archaic work culture – and when, instead of remaining silent, we act, we rebel against a condition that also affects others. This is why, through rebellion, we reach the universal.
| Céline Schillinger
Stowe: What is holding us back? Lack of activists? Active opposition by entrenched interests? Fear? And if fear, fear of what?
Céline: Active opposition by those satisfied with the current system, certainly. The effects of a consumer society, that has fostered our narcissism and passivity. Fear of the unknown. And a terrible lack of imagination.