Welcome to what I hope you will find to be an enlightening interview and conversation with Steffan Surdek, an esteemed author and leadership coach, as he delves into the core concepts and personal journey behind his latest book, The Way of the Co-Creative Leader.
Surdek offers a unique perspective on leadership, challenging traditional norms and advocating for a more inclusive, co-creative approach. In this interview, he shares the origin story of his book, the central ideas driving his philosophy, and his insights on the current state of leadership development.
Join us as we explore the transformative experiences that shaped his views, uncover the 'big lie' of leadership, and discuss the vital role of collaboration and self-improvement in effective leadership.
In case you didn't catch the first segment of my interview with Steffan for Forward Thinking Workplaces, be sure to check out "Unlocking Today's Workplace: Can Inclusive Leadership Be the Magic Key?"
Whether you are an aspiring leader or a seasoned executive, Surdek's thoughts provide valuable guidance and inspiration for anyone looking to enhance their leadership style and impact.
I hope you enjoy and benefit from the interview as much as I did. I invite you to let us know what you think in the comments or by email.
To your forward-thinking life & great success!
Bill Fox, Founder @ LeaderONE, SpaceB, and Forward Thinking Workplaces
Q1: Could you share your book's origin story and how it came to be?
Steffan: It began in 2010 with my first book, The Practical Guide to Distributed Scrum, co-written with my IBM colleagues. That project was intense, occupying my evenings and weekends, which unfortunately strained things at home. My spouse was clear: no more book writing.
For 13 years, I held back despite feeling I had more to share. Around 2014-2015, I started exploring co-creative leadership, a topic we can explore later. During this period we were involved in testing theories with clients and refining my approaches, leading to the rebranding of my business to Surdek Solutions in 2019. This shift made the business more personal, focusing on my coaching style and relationship with people.
In late 2020, I realized it was time for a new book. I broke the news to my spouse, framing it as both good and bad news. The condition was clear: the book must not disrupt our family life. To honor this, I hired a ghostwriter, Andrea Barker, making the process collaborative and enjoyable. Andrea wasn't just learning about my ideas; she was experiencing them. We challenged each other in Google Docs, focusing on creation over perfection.
Our joint editing sessions were fun, with Andrea's insights greatly enriching the book. Her contributions shaped its structure, offering various perspectives while I provided the content. This book, partly pre-written through years of blog posts, needed unifying under a singular voice. Over 14 years, my writing evolved, and this book reflects that journey. In short, it felt like the right time to share these insights, and the book called out to me to be written.
Q2: What central question does your book address?
Steffan: The fundamental question my book explores is:
How can leaders embrace vulnerability and allow others to shine as part of their leadership style?
Traditional views often depict leaders needing to be at the forefront, but my book challenges this notion. It's about redefining leadership to let others contribute and excel, creating an environment where everyone can be their best together.
The book isn't just theory; it's practical. In my work with clients, I guide leaders in adopting this style, starting from where they are and gradually incorporating these principles into their leadership practice. It's about demonstrating that this isn't just idle talk; these are actionable strategies that can be applied in everyday work situations.
While the book focuses on co-creative leadership professionally, it's really about leadership in all areas of life — with family, in the community, and at work. It advocates for being a consistent, authentic person in every aspect of life rather than maintaining different personas in different settings.
In my workshops, I encourage participants to "step into their leadership."
The key is to embrace leadership opportunities. This means consciously choosing to lead in a given moment. However, many hold back due to fears of conflict, lack of legitimacy, or potential failure. I challenge this by asking them to consider the positive outcomes of stepping forward. Instead of worrying about the negatives, we should ask ourselves, "What good can come from this action?" and "Who am I to prevent potential progress by holding back?" It's about taking that step and seeing what unfolds.
Q4: Can you explain the 'big lie' in leadership development that you discuss in your book?
Steffan: In my book, I address what I call the 'big lie' in leadership development. This concept revolves around the misguided practices often seen in companies today.
These practices, often dictated by HR, set rigid dos and don'ts for leaders, prescribing behaviors and responses in a way that can be quite limiting.
For example, there's this notion that good leaders always ask questions rather than provide answers. But here's the issue: Many times, the people advocating for these practices, like some HR professionals or internal coaches, lack the practical experience to guide leaders in these methods effectively.
What I observe is akin to the blind leading the blind. This approach not only fails to aid leadership growth but also leaves leaders feeling restricted and unsure about their roles and how to engage with their teams. As a coach, I often find myself undoing these rigid teachings. A typical example is leaders asking leading questions to guide their team toward a preconceived solution. It's disingenuous. I advocate for leaders to speak their minds honestly and appropriately rather than follow a script because they've been told that's what good leaders do.
This 'big lie' extends beyond just asking questions. It encompasses a broader issue where these promoted practices don't align with real-life applications. Leaders are being trained within the confines of the existing company culture, which only achieves minor tweaks rather than substantial growth or change. This frustrates me: we're not genuinely enhancing personal leadership skills or perspectives.
Another prime example involves having difficult conversations. While internal coaches might emphasize the need for these conversations, they often shut them down when they become challenging. This contrasts sharply with my approach. One leader I worked with highlighted this difference, noting that while difficult conversations with me might not be easy, they knew they would come out of it okay. In contrast, such conversations often don't happen with internal coaches. This discrepancy points to a significant issue in how leadership development is currently approached in many organizations.
Q5: Who or what has been the most influential in your leadership development?
Steffan: The most transformative period for me was between 2011 and 2013, during which I engaged in significant personal growth work. I was part of the Tribal Leadership community, based on the book by Dave Logan, John King, and Haley Fisher-Wright. I participated in their intensive program, placing me in a triad with two others for a collaborative project. This experience required us to achieve a high level of teamwork and accomplish something beyond our capabilities.
It took us 18 months to complete our project, as we were challenged to collaborate in ways that truly required all three of us. This period involved regular meetings and a strong commitment to each other. Being part of this group, especially with two coaches more experienced than myself, was eye-opening. I learned immensely from their conversations and approaches.
One of my triad partners became like a big brother to me, and the other, a woman, like a big sister who was further ahead in life. Our relationship has continued to this day with a familial bond. This experience, coupled with my integral coaching program during the same period, profoundly changed how I interact with people, my approach to parenting, and my general outlook on life.
Q6: What key takeaways would you like people to have from your book or this conversation?
Steffan: A crucial takeaway from our discussion and my book is the importance of collaboration in leadership.
Leaders must learn how to play with others and leverage their team members' unique strengths or 'superpowers.'
This isn't about using others but creating a space where everyone's abilities can contribute to an amazing team dynamic.
Self-improvement is vital. Leaders should recognize and work on their blind spots, embrace imperfection, and experiment with new ways of leading. Change doesn't happen instantly; it requires dedicated effort.
Leaders shouldn't have to go it alone. There are professionals like myself and others who can offer guidance and insights. Many leaders try to handle challenges by themselves, but seeking support and coaching can be incredibly beneficial for growth and navigating leadership.
Q7: Is there a question you wish more people would ask?
Steffan: That's a thought-provoking question. I'm not often stumped, but this has me pausing. On one level, a simple question would be, "How can you help me be a better leader?" But I don't want the focus solely on me.
The conversations I enjoy most are those where we explore and dig deep into a person's challenges and potential, not necessarily as a business transaction but as a genuine exploration of leadership and personal growth.
So, the most rewarding questions invite us to discover and play with possibilities together.
Q8: Would you like to share any current or upcoming projects or ways for people to engage with your work?
Steffan: Certainly! For those interested in delving deeper into my thoughts on leadership, my blog at surdek.com offers over 150 articles, podcasts, and videos. It's a great way to familiarize yourself with my approach to leadership. My book, The Way of the Co-Creative Leader, available on Amazon, provides a more in-depth exploration of co-creative leadership.
We are also developing coaching programs, including three-month group sessions, which will provide an immersive experience of co-creative leadership. For personalized guidance, contact me at email@example.com, and we can arrange a conversation to see how I might assist you one-on-one.