Falling Off the Horse: Overcoming Bad Leadership Habits

Keith McCandless
9 min readJun 11, 2021

by Keith McCandless

This horse bucks!

Overcoming bad habits is hard to do. It helps to have a pleasant substitute for a bad habit or an unproductive behavior. For me, Liberating Structures (LS) offer new options. They are helping me become a better leader.

LS introduce tiny shifts in the way we meet, plan, decide, and relate to one another. They put into everyone’s hands the innovative power once reserved for experts only. By design, LS distribute control and unleash all voices so that participants can shape direction as the action unfolds.

Distributing control starts with me letting go of over-control. When leading, I am still in charge but not in control of the direction unfolding.

Below, I detail my struggle with stopping unproductive over-controling behavior by describing how I fall off the horse. And, I share a few tips for getting back on the horse.

1. Talking Too Much

2. Making Vague, Aimless, or Irrelevant Invitations

3. Setting the Bar Too Low: Accepting Whatever Happens

4. Moving Forward Without First Looking Back

5. Neglecting Imaginative New Uses

6. Facilitating Timidly, Neglecting Fidelity

7. Settling for Inadequate Space

Liberating Structures (LS)

1. Talking Too Much

My most common mistake is to talk too much. I can go on and on and on about the principles or theory behind each LS method. I assume that participants care as much as I do. Also, I talk more when a little nervous. ;^)

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: state the purpose of the activity in 2 minutes or less, then jump into what you are inviting participants to do

I often paraphrase the LS one liner (e.g., 9 Whys: Make the purpose of your work together clear)

  • One option is to share an example of a very sharp result (for 9 Whys, here is a powerful purpose that is a collective expression of personal purposes… Liberating Structures stop the unwitting practices that exclude, stifle innovation, and over-control people)
  • Do whatever it takes to calm yourself before starting (e.g., breathe deeply)
  • Substitute a question and curiosity for a statement or the advice you are tempted to give

With Liberating Structures the focus is squarely on user experience and self-discovery among group members — not the facilitator’s expertise or experience. A minimalist, less-is-more bold approach to facilitation is helpful.

2. Making Vague, Aimless, or Irrelevant Invitations

My second most common mistake is to offer a fuzzy conceptual invitation — not linked to a tangible activity, the participant’s local reality, or a practical purpose. Without clarity, over-explaining makes a vague or irrelevant invitation even worse.

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: launch the activity with very clear micro-structure

  • State the invitation (e.g., you are invited to interview one other person about what they do when working on ____, and why what they do is important to them)
  • Specify how space and materials are used (e.g., face-to-face in a breakout room, knee-to-knee when meeting in-person, jot down key phrases that sum up your fundamental purpose)
  • Specify how participation is distributed (everyone has an opportunity to contribute!)
  • Specify group configurations (1-2–4-All, pairs-foursomes-full-group) and then remind them as needed
  • Specify timing (10 minutes to total, 5 minutes for each interview)
  • If working in large groups, project a slide with this information
  • It helps to signal that the launch is complete with, “Is it clear what I am inviting you to do? If yes, go wild!”
  • Expect that some people will want more clarity — clarity that can only come from them engaging in the activity. Sifting, sorting, and making sense of alternatives is work for group members to complete — not me. Doing more is over-controlling the direction taking shape. Paradoxical to be sure.
  • Invitations should be loving, provocative, and ambiguous (i.e., there are many good answers) in a way that each person brings their own meaning to the party.

On purpose, you are precisely ambiguous and intentionally a minimalist as you launch Liberating Structures. Clarity emerges out of their interaction. Help them notice when it happens… and then take it up a notch!

3. Setting the Bar Too Low, Accepting “Whatever” Happens

My third most common mistake is NOT checking in, clarifying, and asking for more tangible examples as the experience unfolds. I can be too timid in asking for more rigor and clarity. I do not always apply enough encouragement and loving provocation for everyone to perform at a high level. Often, the group knows they need to dig deeper for better solutions. One of my jobs is to remind them they are capable of much more.

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: Jump in to help participants make progress as the experience unfolds

  • Part way through, interrupt and check in with participants by getting a handful of quick reports from group members — rapid fire via voice or chat text is effective. Ask, “What insight or idea is so interesting that the whole group should hear it?”
  • Ask for one example of something interesting, surprising, or illuminating that is coming out of their conversation. What stands out? So what? Is there a pattern? Is a hint of a new option taking shape?
  • If you are not a member of the group, ask for help clarifying next steps. Rely on people in the group to help you notice what is novel, a source of productive disagreement, or a springboard for action and discovery.
  • Amplify or affirm tangible insights, successes, and next steps; briefly try to redirect people who have missed the point (it is easier to affirm success than fix)
  • Be comfortable with differentiating the quality of insights. Brilliant contributions will bounce around the community from group to group. No one person or group will drive all the action.
  • Ask, “Have we plumbed all the depths and explored all the peaks?” “Do we need to dig deeper or come back to this topic?”
  • Be sure to record insights and actions in your proceedings. Make them visible on wall “tapestries,” chat notes, and shared documents. Contributions to making progress may become apparent only in retrospect. Keep meticulous records.

With quick reports from a few small groups, the participants urge each other on and shape next steps very rapidly. You play with and pounce on the insights and actions taking shape.

4. Moving Forward Without First Looking Back

My fourth most common mistake is NOT taking time to debrief what just happened… or what happened well before the current interaction.

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: Make time for short debriefs as you go

  • Ask repeatedly, “What did you notice about the experience?” Or, “In addressing this topic, what lingers from all the experience we have shared prior to this gathtering?”
  • You can suggest a 1–4-All or simply invite a few comments
  • Make note of what is produced and how to harvest the results in shaping next steps
  • Start with comments about the experience of using LS and then migrate to what new content or novel ideas popped up
  • Invite people to notice microstructure design elements: invitation, participation distributed, groups configured, space arranged, & time scheduled.
  • In online settings, create graphics to capture individual evaluations that simultaneously generate a collective assessment. Invite participants with powerful experiences to share a story with the whole group. Retrieve and repeat collective assessments.

Ask, “What did the structure make possible? How is this structure different than what you normally do? How has the baseline shifted?”

The progression of two projects tracked via Ecocycle Planning, over nine months in three month intervals.

5. Neglecting Imaginative New Uses

My fifth big mistake is not taking time to imagine and then share diverse application ideas immediately following the debrief.

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: Make time, after the debrief of the experience, for applications ideas and stories

  • You can suggest 1–2 minutes of reflection and then invite a few comments; online, two to three minutes with a parnter in a breakout room is very productive
  • You can invite people to think of applications at smaller and bigger scales
  • Ask, “What seems possible now?” and “What are adjacent possibilities? and, “What novel ideas are hovering on the edges of the present state of things?”
  • You can share examples from your experience
  • Invite others with experience to share via brief stories

Ask, “What other settings and for what challenges can you imagine using this Liberating Structure? What seems possible now?”

6. Facilitating Timidly, Neglecting Fidelity

My sixth common mistake is timidity. It happens when I do not honor or maintain the fidelity of the microstructure design elements (e.g., not keeping the experience moving with rapid cycling). It can feel clumsy or a little rude to interrupt people, adjust configurations (e.g., pairs not threesomes), or move forward before everyone feels comfortable.

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: Be bold! Believe before you see results. Be confident that productive or better-than-expected endpoints will be generated!

  • Follow the simple rules or Min Specs of each LS… then you can break them
  • Review carefully the Min Specs before you start
  • Let folks know ahead of time that you will be interrupting people and making quick changes in configurations in order to co-create the best experience
  • Follow the time limits with an audible and visible timer (you can project a countdown clock on a screen or activate one in breakout rooms)
  • Acknowledge that all voices will not be heard in any given debrief
  • Invite participants to gather all fabulous ideas/suggestions/actions digitally or on Post-it Notes to be added to “wall charts”
  • Remind everybody that the magic happens as insights and action emerge out of their interactions, not from the efforts of the facilitator or a single leader
  • If a LS activity is going sideways, stop and restart from the beginning

Follow the simple rules or Min Specs of each LS. New habits sparked by LS are fragile while over- and under-controlling habits are well established. Repetition is a source of innovation.

7. Settling for Inadequate Space

My seventh mistake is settling for an online meeting platform or meeting space that is not suited to high engagement, frequent movement, and messy co-creation. In face to face activities: immovable tables, cluttered walls, poor acoustics, and chairs bolted to the floor stifle co-creation. In online interactions: rapid movement across breakout rooms and open access to co-created documents supports movement forward.

GETTING BACK IN THE SADDLE: Make my needs explicit, fight hard for getting the most flexible space or online platform even when it is uncomfortable

  • Send requirements and needs well in advance of events or meetings
  • Ask for photos, sound checks, and diagrams to confirm what is available; ask about the interactive and shared leadership features of online platforms
  • Everyone needs to hear and see everything that happens — more microphones, multiple projections screens, and rolls of “tapestry” paper for wall charts can really help with large groups
  • Face to face: arrive at venues with enough extra time to fix problems. Online: test the features of online platforms and create an additional role of technical wizard or co-producer to manage interative features.

Say, “We will change configurations multiple times during our session. We need very adaptable logistical support to work together… matching the high velocity of our collective imagination.”

Summary Note To Self (and You)

Try to recognize that new habits sparked by LS are fragile while over- and under-controlling habits are well established. Be kind to yourself. Walk in the shoes of others when old behaviors snap back. Relapse happens! Simultaneously and mutually shaping direction with everybody is a new set of behaviors! Mastery comes from experience — success + falling off the horse.

Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz

Many thanks to my co-author and frequent co-leader Henri Lipmanowicz. He has helped me sense when I am falling off the horse. As we developed the LS repertoire, honest and direct coaching made all the difference. Henri defines a coach as “the person who will tell you what you do not want to hear.” To quickly develop your skills, we recommend side-coaching with one or more partners.

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Keith McCandless

Keith is co-developer of Liberating Structures and co-author of the book The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures ...