Leadership and Stickability

By Chris Chittenden

“There is a profound difference between information and meaning."

… Warren Bennis (b. 1925) US educator, futurologist, adviser & writer

In our work, leadership is generally defined as “managing what could be” and effective leadership as the creation of “willing followers”. In other words, more effective leadership involves the engagement of people rather than the control of them. What makes the concept of leadership as “engaging” rather than “controlling” more valuable? The simple answer lies in the amount of energy that followers will invest if they do so willingly rather than through compulsion. As a result, these willing followers will generally be more focused and give more of their discretionary time towards the desired vision and outcomes.

If leaders are to create willing followers then, at some level, they have to start with a certain premise. This premise is that, as leaders, they are not controlling an organisational machine rather they are creating a community. A community where people feel they belong and are not simply connected to each other because of where they work. Willing followers want to part of something that matters to them and they see their community and its vision and direction as a means of creating a positive difference in that domain. Willing followers need to have meaning and direction such that they feel that sense of belonging. That is not to say that everyone in an organisation will feel or even want to have that sense of community but the more people who feel they belong, the greater the energy towards achieving the organisation’s goals.

So the challenge for highly effective leaders is to create community. The first stage in addressing this challenge lies in creating shared meaning within the organisation, for without meaning any direction or activity will not make shared and coherent sense. Hence creating shared and compelling meaning is the place for leaders to begin.

In his book, “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell referred to an idea he calls “the stickiness factor”, which is a unique quality that compels a phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of people and influence their future behavior. When we look at creating community, we must look at what might be the compelling ideas for that community and what is their “stickability”. In the WordWeb dictionary, “stickability” is defined as “enduring strength and energy”. In other words, these ideas not only have to be compelling, they also need to hang around.

This is not a new idea. Many people have been using the idea of stickability for a long time. For example, politicians, people in advertising and marketing, and those in public relations use stickiness all the time. They do so by creating a simple theme and repeating and repeating and repeating it. The want to connect people to the theme such that it sticks. This presents an opportunity for leaders who want to create community. Develop a clear theme for the community and make it stick.

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© 2010 Chris Chittenden