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The Practice of Leadership in the Messy World of Organizations

Stephen Billing, October 24, 2012

I am reading an article by Jean-Louis Denis, Ann Langley and Linda Rouleau of Canada, entitled The Practice of Leadership in the Messy World of Organizations. It was published in Leadership journal in 2010.

They use some interesting narrative stories of leadership they draw from a long term study in health care, to posit four aspects of leadership as it is done – dynamic, collective, situated and dialectical.

By calling leadership dynamic, they are drawing attention to how leadership evolves over time in context. They identify substantive aspects as concrete structural change, symbolic aspects as the evolution of meaning over time, and the political aspects as being the evolution of the leadership roles themselves.

In talking about leadership as collective, they draw attention to how the leader works with not only their own top management team but also other groups, for example legislators, politicians, Boards and groups representing other interests. They draw on the concept of "leadership constellations" from Hodgson, Levinson and Zaleznik’s 1965 book The Executive Role Constellation. Isn’t the term constellation a great one? It makes me think of a galaxy of stars at the top of the organisation, leading the organisation on to its happy place. In the examples given of collective leadership, they give examples from their research of how leaders gained the trust of certain already existing powerful groups and were able to use these alliances to help them lead later changes that were highly contentious. The ability to lead collectively emerged over time as these relationships were established. They point to how the leaders fitted in with the existing groups initially, before beginning to influence and take charge, in a process of mutual accommodation and interdependence.

Leadership being situated means that you have to look at the broader context in which the leadership took place, as well as the micro-level detail of what the leader did. The authors point out that the micro-level effects of the leaders’ situated practices could not be understood without knowledge of the broader context in which they took place.

Talking about leadership as dialectic draws attention to the tensions or conflict that inevitably exist in leadership situations – the authors say that leaders are subject to unexpected forces for change including the consequences of their actions, practices, and decisions, and that they cannot control the patterns of power and interests in which they are operating, nor can they anticipate the context and outcomes of their decisions. This is one of the key premises behind the school of complex responsive processes that has influenced me greatly. You cannot know in advance what the impact of your actions will be in organisations. Whether or not your actions will be recognised as leadership and whether they will have beneficial effects for your objectives will not be known until after you take the action. 



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