Archive for Rhizomatic Leadership

Letting Yourself Lead

I recently had a coaching conversation with a newly promoted leader who was feeling frustrated. Her team was not performing to the degree that she thought needed, and she constantly felt like she had to step in and take the reins in order to keep project meetings on track and the projects themselves headed for success. By the end of each day, it seemed she had little time to work at her own job, often finding she had to stay late to answer emails and follow up on her commitments. Her energy was spent and the frustration with her team depleted much of the joy she had for her job.

I asked her a question that encouraged her to step back and reflect a bit:  “What do you want?” She thought about it for a minute and then answered: “I want my team to do what I want them to do!”

Now we really had something to explore.

Many times new leaders (and, at times, seasoned leaders, as well) get securely attached to their own ways of performing a job; their way is the right way because, as their personal experience demonstrates, it’s those very skills and techniques that got them into the position they now hold; it’s because they did a great job.

But here’s where leaders might get derailed. If they hold fast to what they know best, their expertise, they squander the opportunity to truly lead.

Rooke and Torbert (2005) suggest that great leaders are not differentiated by their personality or management style, but rather their “action logics”—how they react (or act) when they step (or are pulled) out of their comfort zone. People, according to the model, fall into one of seven of these action logics, which include such groupings as achievers, experts, diplomats, strategists, and individualists. When we allow ourselves to step back, reflect, consider others’ perspectives or ways of doing a task, we ourselves grow to be more inclusive and relational in our leadership capacity. And, by doing so, we can also transform how our organization develops across teams by modeling the same behaviors and, by extension, enriching the environment for others to also develop.

Rooke and Torbert (2005) further suggest that most of our working population rests within the action logic stage of “expert”—actually 38% of the working population—someone who may be well-suited as an individual contributor due to his or her technical expertise and, possibly, less suited to be the developmental leader needed to grow others.

Here’s the opportunity.

When leaders are willing to practice new habits of letting go, and allow their team members to try new things (and, perhaps, perform tasks that might not map directly to what they would have done), amazing and wonderful things happen – for both the leader and the team.  In Rooke and Torbert’s (2005) “action logic” language, this behavior demonstrates a later stage of development called the “achiever” stage (30% of the population), which occurs when a leader expands her capacity to focus on team development and team goals, rather than on personal expertise and personal goals. As you might imagine, as adults expand their capacity to let go, step back, and enable others to take more responsibility, make more independent decisions, and deepen their capacity to “lead in place” (Wergin, 2007), this leadership growing pattern becomes more challenging; leaders must be able to enter into the unknown and trust others’ capacity to lead. This leadership development process enables teams the opportunity to step up and take the lead on projects, and to learn from both their successes and mistakes. The leader, in turn, gets to learn new ways of doing tasks and, by extension of the willingness to let go, deepens the loyalty and trust across the team.

My client decided to give it a go to let go and see what would happen. She decided to let herself lead. What she noticed was enlightening!  Her relationships with her team members became richer, their creativity soared, and they began to make decisions independently. She then gained more time to work on her own tasks, thinking and planning strategically (and was able to answer her emails in time to get home to her family at a reasonable hour). She grew as a leader and gained the respect of upper management as her team achieved results that exceeded expectations.

A simple shift of thinking can make all the difference as we commit to growing ourselves as leaders and growing our teams. Letting go of what we know and letting ourselves lead can be that simple shift.


Rooke, D., & Torbert, W. R. (2005). 7 transformations of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 83(4), 66-76.

Wergin, J. F. (2007). Leadership in place: How academic professionals can find their leadership voice. Bolton, Mass: Anker Pub. Co.


Expecting Spring

Here it is, March 27, 2014, and here in southern New Hampshire the bitterly cold wind is once again blowing up a storm. It’s technically spring, but you wouldn’t know it by going outside, where frozen tree branches sway dangerously over tired power lines.

Though I anxiously await the first popping crocuses and daffodils, before that can happen more than a foot of snow needs to melt enough for those shoots to turn their faces toward the sun. And before that can happen, the sun needs to come out. And on and on it goes.

When I hear the word “spring,” this isn’t what I expect. Ever. My naïve expectation is that once the vernal equinox passes through, Mother Nature should begin again to grace us with her warmer, sunnier days. But things don’t always work that way.

Expectations. We all have them.

Often my coaching business provides me with the privilege to work with leaders who wish to shift from being the expert in their craft or skill, to enabling the growth and development of others. This is a situation in learning to let go—of the way they think things should be done, of a self-imposed perfectionism, and of expectations about how they believe others should perform.

This can be hard. These changes in expectations can often create messiness. But it’s in this mess that learning happens, diversity is embraced, and creativity blooms.

Making the shift from the expert to an enabling leader is hard work, work that requires time, reflection, practice, and even occasional failures. Our expectations of ourselves—especially when we are perfectionists—has a tremendous impact on the expectations we have of others, and of their expectations of us. If we are committed to growing as leaders—as enabling leaders who provide the environment and means for others’ growth and learning—then we enter into a space of learning how to change our own expectations and our expectations of others. Wheatley (2005) suggests “As leaders ensure that the organization knows itself, that it’s clear at its core, they must also learn to tolerate unprecedented levels of “messiness” at the edges… Leaders have to be prepared to support diversity, to welcome surprise, to expect invention, to rely on highly contributing employees” (p. 69).

The winds of change in the way we lead, and in the way we enable others to show up and contribute their own flavors of accomplishment, are long overdue. We, as leaders, have an important role in shifting our focus to enabling others, allowing them to flourish in their work and become leaders in their own place.

This is the soulful work of leadership.

How might you enable those around you to grow and develop, be creative, and learn to lead in their own place?


Wheatley, M. J. (2005). Finding our way: Leadership for an uncertain time. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Liminality, Learning, and Leadership

I am living in liminal space.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen,” meaning “threshold.”  Liminality shows up in anthropological, religious, and societal contexts and, for me, conjures up an image of standing on the brink of newness ready to step off a cliff into new, yet-to-be experienced space.

I was first introduced to liminality at my church during Lent. Adrian Cole, the priest at All Saints’ Church in Peterborough NH , spoke about liminal space, the space we all enter when we are in-between how we were before and what we are becoming. The concept started me thinking about learning and leadership and about where I am on my own learning and leadership path.

Those who are close to me know that I have landed on an intriguing topic, a new concept that I’m coining for my PhD dissertation: Rhizomatic Leadership.  Rhizomes—and their wayward ways—are well known to gardeners and landscapers. They are hard to manage; their roots spread perpendicular to the force of gravity and new shoots sprout up from the middle of those root systems, extending the plant in whatever direction nature describes. The root systems of rhizomes are antithetical to a tree’s root system—horizontal vs. vertical, multi-directional vs. unidirectional. Think bamboo, lily of the valley, irises, asparagus, and ginger. Bottom-line: a rhizome is always “in the middle”—an intermezzo—as it grows and extends.

Rhizomes are more than just types of flora, however. According to Delueze and Guattari, who adapted the concept as a revolutionary methodology, rhizomatics allow “for non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” This concept of horizontal and multi-directional growth has now expanding, encompassing myriad disciplines—most notably, modern educational theory where it has been dubbed “rhizomatic learning.”

Perhaps, I thought, people might not only learn this way, but lead this way….

In rhizomatic learning, the belief is that learners come to their learning from diverse experiences and perspectives, that a traditional, linear approach to learning (what some, if not most of us, experienced) does not provide learners with the opportunity to build-upon each other’s learning “in the moment,” flexing and connecting to ideas rather than rote remembering for the purposes of assessment. As Dave Cormier describes in his blog, “I want my students to know more than me at the end of my course. I want them to make connections I would never make. I want them to be prepared to change. I think having a set curriculum of things people are supposed to know encourages passivity. I don’t want that. We should not be preparing people for factories. I teach to try and organize people’s learning journeys… to create a context for them to learn in.”

For me, life-long learning has always been a quality of the best leaders. Would it not make sense, then, that there would be rhizomatic parallels in leadership? That there could be a belief that leaders come to their ways of leading through similar, non-linear approaches and that, by exercising such a leadership style, would promote innovation, development, growth, and success rhizomatically?

Back to my liminal space.

I am at the brink of pulling together the philosophical concepts of rhizomatic learning as they relate to the way we lead. Nascent questions that are emerging for me are: What types of environments and cultures might we enable that will encourage our employees to make innovative connections, in-the-moment and outside-the-moment, tracing their own imprint on the experience? How can our organizations increase adaptability so that leaders and followers can function as “directions in motion” rather than unidirectional, hierarchical containment? Where have I experienced rhizomatic learning and what influence does it have on future leadership possibilities?

More to follow as I further develop Rhizomatic Leadership. I would be interested in your comments and thoughts as we take this leap together!

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