Briefing 5 – Conscious Leadership in Social Housing


Presence in Leadership

I’m increasingly noticing myself asking a particular question when working with small and large social housing clients when debriefing and working through a problem or issue that requires some kind of turnaround. It particularly relates to crisis points, and when mistakes have been made or when performance has fallen significantly.

The question relates to decisions made that led to, or contributed to, the current situation coming into being.

The question is: How present were you went you made that decision/those decisions ?

This is question that can be addressed to an individual or to an entire management or leadership team. t can also be asked by trustees or the board of governors.

We go back in our memories to the moments surrounding that decision and explore the quality of presence that was in the room at the time.

Here are some aspects of it:

1. To what extent was your decision based on present circumstances sensed by you accurately, and to what extent were they influenced by fears and worries about past and future?

2. How present was the information you acted upon? How up to the minute were reports? How much of your data and information was historical and perhaps a bit out of date? How much of the information was filtered through people not in the room making the decision?

3. How actively did you listen to input from others in the room, or those offering input into the room where you made the decision? Were you “yes, and…” or “Yes, but” biased? How much did your attitudes towards others distort your decision? Were you able to recognise a good suggestion in that moment from someone who maybe made a suggestion in the past you didn’t agree with?

4. To what extent did your organisation truly have its senses sharpened when it made the decision. How clearly in the “now” could it see the consequences of its decision? How “in touch” was it with its environment? How well could it hear challenge and criticism? How self-aware was it in terms of its biases and holes in information? How well did it track its decision in real time in order to adapt as needed?

There were other questions but all of these, from an improvisation perspective, feel as if they are just that – applied improvisation.

Of course, it’s easy to ask such questions after the fact and, in a crisis, they could demotivate and depress. I ask them in order to focus on creating a better ability to be “Present” in the organisation, and I equate presencing with at least one aspect of consciousness. Being present is needed when situations are impacting in the “Now” that are of significant risk to the business. We come into the present when we are in “survival” mode. But we also come into the present when we are “pro-acting” – making decisions and taking action in the now in order to ensure certain outcomes in the future, for example, the prevention of an accident.

A lot of social housing organisations carry the baggage of history and there can be a valid fear of “blame”. But this isn’t about blame – it is about responsibility. It is about ensuring that we are more present, more aware, that we can prevent future problems. It’s about raising awareness by learning, not only from the past events, but also learning from our lack of consciousness during those events. Often social housing leadership teams overload themselves and their staff with busyness – mistakenly believing that moments of calm are a luxury we can’t afford. Yet without calm, we can never truly be conscious in our decision making – we need time to pause, to look up and look around, even to look inside ourselves. And, most of all, at the heart of personal and organisational learning is reflection.

Being “present” in decision making, feels to me as much about being an improviser as being a leader.

A conscious leader is a present leader, encourages organisational behaviour that is also able to sense, proact and react in the moment. The conscious leader can sense in the moment and is able to improvise consciously. So too the leadership team.

Now, none of this is new. But it always strikes me how profound and “new” these questions seems to manager and leaders and organisations in “trouble”. Often the need to have been more present strikes them as a revelation.

Now I want to go a bit further. I believe that presencing is not only about being in the present, in the “now”. Being present also involves creating a “nowness” when imagining the future. This is when improvisation is not only reacting but is proactive. In performed “improv” on stage, such improvised proactivity helps the flow of the performance. Of course there is a danger that such proactivity can also structure flow in ways that stifle possibility.

Also one can be present in the past. Here one becomes conscious in the now of historical “flows of influence” – one can react to the past in the now, and one can also celebrate it, harvest it, and be inspired by it.

Often presencing is absent in leaders because, for them, when they become influenced by history, their behaviours travel back in time, perhaps allowing fear to return, or bad habits that didn’t ever die but lurked. Similarly, fear of the future – insecurity and risk adversity can prevent us being present in the future, enabling “now”-based imagination to take place.

Being present is an ability to improvise along the time line, both in a playfully linear way, and also by occupying all parts of it at the same time. Then a team can really self-organise its actions, drawing on past, present and future as a resource.

Some links:


About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

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