Performative leadership.

August 23, 2020. Filed under management 123

Earlier this year, I realized that I had been using the term “performative” incorrectly. This led to an interesting discussion, with Laura sharing the proper definition, and Julia pointing out that literally no one uses the term as it’s “properly” defined. I’d thought it meant “an action taken purely for show without real value”, but the intended, theory definition is closer to “when using language to name something is an act of change or creation” such as saying “I do” in a marriage or “You are now sentenced to…” during a legal proceeding.

I’ve certainly heard the term “performative leadership” which is relies on the first definition: leaders who perform in public but lack the plan or action to implement the performed commitments. What’s maybe more interesting is thinking of “performative leadership” relying on the later definition: leadership where articulation is creation.

This sort of leadership is akin to magic, and I have absolutely seen leaders create possibilities, cohesion and teams where they didn’t exist before through their words. Folks who can walk into a meeting of people who don’t want to ever speak to each other again, and have everyone walk out willing to give collaboration another try. Folks who can spark the team whose project appears destined to fail into optimism. Folks who can engage someone on their immutable beliefs and reignite the growth mindset.

There are both literal and slant interpretations here. In the case of defusing angry teams, it’s rather abstract to argue that you’ve created something new – is the possibility of cohesion really a thing? – but imagine the case of a reorg. When you reorg and announce that teams have changed, then the teams have changed by virtue of you saying it. When you announce a promotion, that person is changed as a result. When you tell someone they’re no longer a member of the company, they become someone who is no longer part of the company.

Sometimes it’s easy to get worn down in the grind of management – the performance reviews, the planning exercises, the headcount debates – and I find it both important and rejuvenating to step back and remember that writing software isn’t the only way to create magic in the world, leadership is too.