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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. 


Splitting Leadership and Management as a Social Defence

Stephen Billing, October 21, 2012

In a classic article published in Human Relations in 1990, James Krantz from Yale and Thomas Gilmore from Wharton consider the splitting of leadership and management to be a social defence against the anxiety of engaging directly in detail with the ambiguous difficulties of the organisation.

They are using the term "splitting" in a psychodynamic sense, where two aspects of a whole are divided off from each other and one aspect is idealised while the other is denigrated.

Managerialism is the exaltation of technique and method – tools, strategies and process are implemented into an organisation without regard to the specifics of the organisation. It is an elevation of technique over situation. An example is when new managers establish processes that they used in their last organisation. It also is apparent in the expectation that when people go on a management course they will come back transformed and everything will be better. Lean and six sigma would be ultimate examples of managerialism.

Hero leadership by contrast is the seeking of and investment of magic into a hero leader who will deliver the organisation from the problems it is facing. In the leadership literature, leadership is exalted / idealised – we are seen as needing good leadership for success in the future, while management is denigrated by comparison.

The reality is that you need both ends and means – both management and leadership are needed and it does not make much sense to separate them out and exalt one over the other. Krantz and Gilmore suggest that this is done as a defence against painful awareness of its challenges and responsibilities. 

There is a big difference, for example, between extolling the virtues of a technique like management by walking around as part of a recipe for success and its origins at Hewlett Packard as part of real relationships between managers and scientists.

What is being defended against? ask Krantz and Gilmore. Anxiety of an unknown and uncertain future, disruption to existing social defence mechanisms, painful feelings which arise from being in difficult situations. For example, it’s easier to champion customer service from high up in the organisation than it is in an interaction with a difficult aggressive customer.

Focusing on leadership vs management is a way of abstracting from the painful conflicts that face us in our everyday work in organisations. I would prefer to advocate that we look at and notice what is going on around us. Focus the discussion on what is going on, not on abstractions like what ought to be going on in leadership or management.



Agendaless meetings, and the importance of casual conversations

Stephen Billing, February 25, 2010

In the previous post I pointed out the significance, for generating new ideas, of conversations with diverse people – people with different backgrounds, ways of looking at things, and professional affiliations, for example.

Any leader in an organisation, or entrepreneur has to engage in interactions with others in order to get a business going or keep it running. The entrepreneur or leader may have clear goals in mind, or may be in the process of shaping up his or her intentions, exploring different options and potential paths. Either way, it is through interactions with others that these plans take shape and are brought to fruition. The others that the entrepreneur is interacting with have their own intentions, goals and plans. The entrepreneur has to respond to these different goals and intentions, as they emerge in the course of these interactions with others.

Some of these interactions will take place during meetings that might be quite formal and have agendas that are known in advance, written down and followed quite closely during the meeting. Other important interactions will take place much more informally – sometimes in response to an unexpected opportunity, a chance meeting or as a result of a casual conversation over coffee. It is important for leaders and entrepreneurs to be looking for such opportunities and paying attention to what is going on.

A colleague (Diana Jones) told me the other day that there is quite a lot of interest in so-called agendaless meetings. Rightly so, in my opinion, because most interaction does take place in agendaless meetings, in more informal settings, and through casual conversation during which no formal agenda is ever put together.

But it would be for many people working in organisations, quite risky to get together a group of senior people to meet without having a formal agenda. At the same time, many would find this idea appealing, recognising the opportunity for generating ideas, relatively free flow of information and learning what people really think.

In such meetings, the traditional chairing skills and formal meeting procedure would not be very useful. What is important in such meetings is facilitation, such as making sure everyone has the opportunity to speak, handling conflict productively when it arises, listening to others, expressing your point of view, noticing the patterning of the conversation especially when something new happens, finding ways to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that arise.

Such informal "agendaless" meetings are given far less prominence in the leadership literature compared to the weight placed on presenting and chairing at meetings. This is somewhat strange given that, although leaders and entrepreneurs will have to chair formal meetings with agendas and follow meeting procedure, the bulk of their interactions take place outside such formal settings. And the formality of such settings can reduce the range of acceptable contributions that people make to the meeting.

If you are trying to generate new ideas, innovation or creativity, you actually want to stimulate a range of diverse input, rather than reducing the kinds of contributions that people make through formalising them.

Therefore, as a leader or entrepreneur, do pay attention to the casual conversations you are part of, and recognise how important they are to your results as a leader or entrepreneur. And consider convening some group interactions as "agendaless" meetings to see how you go. Of course, the term "agendaless" refers only to the lack of a formal agenda. There is no such thing as a truly "agendaless" meeting because all the participants will have their own intentions, interests and goals (or agendas) that they want to pursue. This comes with the territory of being a human working in an organisation.

Having a formal agenda doesn’t do away with the goals, interests and intentions of the participants. Such goals, interests and intentions of the participants are unlikely to make it onto the formal agenda of a meeting anyway.

To find more posts on this blog about formal and informal meetings, click here.



Stephen Billing, January 18, 2010


I have had more than one situation recently in client organisations where a person "Angelica"  has had a problem with person "Boris" or something they have done. Angelica then emails or talks to Boris’s boss "Charlie," (and sometimes a range of other people) explaining the situation and seeking resolution.

It seems that this "dynamic of three people" frequently occurs in organisations, at all levels of seniority.

It is interesting to consider the effects of this in relationship terms. Angelica may have reached the point where she is so frustrated that this is the only option she can see to resolve an important organisational issue. "I am just being honest" or "I am saying what I honestly think" are common aspects of Angelica’s perspective in this situation.

Angelica’s boss Charlie has an opportunity to put a problem right. Angelica has contacted him, complaining about Boris or his actions. Charlie gets the chance to take some action with Boris to resolve the situation.

What action should Charlie the manager take?

One option for Charlie is to go to Boris, inform him of his transgression and work with Boris to remedy the situation. This is a very tempting option for many managers, as it enables them to be directly involved in solving an issue that perhaps could not otherwise be resolved. The manager is then very clear of his or her own contribution to resolving an issue that otherwise might not have a resolution.

I feel for all three participants in this situation. Consider Boris, who all too often is unaware that Angelica even has a problem with him. Seemingly out of the blue, Charlie is discussing an issue with Boris that Boris did not have any opportunity to attempt to resolve.

Another option for Charlie is to respond to Angelica by asking her to talk to Boris and see if they can resolve the issue prior to Charlie getting involved.

Then, at least Charlie only gets involved when Boris is aware that there is an issue and that Angelica and Boris have not been able to resolve the issue together.

And for Angelica, she would have reinforcement of the lesson that the first step in resolving an issue is with the person concerned, and then to go to the manager if resolution is not possible.

From a relationship perspective, I am interested in two aspects – the actions of Charlie the manager and the relationship between Angelica and Boris.

To me, Charlie the manager has to consider the relationship between Angelica and Boris and ensure they have made attempts to resolve the situation before becoming involved. Anything other response will make working with Angelica and Boris difficult in future, regardless of who is "at fault" in this situation.

Angelica’s very act of going to her manager Charlie will sour the relationship with Boris. So Angelica must be on very sure ground prior to approaching Charlie. Although by the time she has raised the issue with Charlie Angelica is so annoyed by what Boris has done that she is not thinking about the longer term relationship with Boris.

Now, Boris may (or may not) have been to blame for the original incident, but from the information provided by Angelica, Charlie wouldn’t be able to tell for certain, and this is commonly the case for managers like Charlie who are approached by staff members like Angelica – Charlie just doesn’t know how much of what he is told that he can reliably take action on.

So, if you are Angelica, try to resolve the issue with Boris before escalating to Charlie.

If you are Boris approaoched by Angelica, be grateful that Angelica has approached you before going to your boss, and work hard to resolve the issue. If you are Boris approached by Charlie, ask Charlie if he can give you some time to tlak to Angelica to attempt to resolve the issue (this happened to me once with a good result although Charlie was initially quite surprised at my request but quickly saw the logic of it).

If you are Charlie approached by Angelica, then encourage Angelica to discuss and resolve the issue with Charlie. If this is not possible from Angelica’s point of view  (i.e she thinks the situation is too far gone to raise it with Boris hersefl directly), offer to faciltate a discussion between tbe two.

Do not say that you’ll take it on and resolve it for her. If you do, you are not demonstrating that you are taking all the points of view seriously. That way lie monsters…

And that’s as prescriptive as I get!


Change Your Management Practices, Not Your Culture

Stephen Billing, January 3, 2010

I believe it makes more sense to change the management practices of your managers  than to launch a culture change initiative.



Leading an NGO – What a Challenge!

Stephen Billing, November 16, 2009

Spare a thought for those who are working in the non-government organisation (NGO) sector. Imagine this scenario.

The users of your service do not pay for it. Instead a central funding organisation contracts you to provide certain services to certain numbers of service users for a fee. Imagine that you are providing long term residential services to elderly people who experience mental illness. Over periods of 10 years or more your staff providing the care would develop deep relationships with these users of your services.

Now, imagine you are funded by a contract that is renewed annually. The process of negotiating the contract takes several months so you start negotiations for your June contract in February in order to have everything finalised for the new financial year starting in July. You have some tweaking and improvements you want to make to the contract so you signal them early.

Your contract is one of many for the procurement person you deal with, and because it still has four months to run you are not on their priority list. Weeks go by without response from your contract / relationship manager. Things get urgent, but eventually the contract expiry date passes and a new contract is still not finalised. (more…)


The Modern View of the Self

Stephen Billing, November 10, 2009

The romantic notion of the self as a deep well of hidden passion and emotion has given way through the application of scientific thinking to an idea of humans as rational beings applying reason to make sense of their world. The n-step approaches to change are based on this view of humans.

The romantic stage began to wane toward the end of the 19th century. As expansionist markets and mass production started to emerge, the sciences, with their imperatives to objective evidence and rational utility gained favour. These concepts went against the romantic ideals of feeling, soul, will, and the driving forces of the deep interior which were so much a part of the romantic view.

Science: objective versus Romantic: deep inner core (subjective). The battle lines were drawn. (more…)


The Romantic View of the Self

Stephen Billing, November 9, 2009

In Kenneth Gergen’s The Saturated Self, he notes that the Western concept of the "self" has developed in three stages and I have been thinking that we can see these three stages in our current views of leadership. These stages he labels as:

  • Romantic
  • Modern
  • Post-Modern

This post considers the Romantic stage and the residue it has left on our current thinking about leadership.

Gergen is not using the term "romantic" in the way we think of romantic love. Rather he is referring to a view of the world that prevailed at its height in the late 1700s and on into the 1800s, which is known as the Romantic period. During that period, the view was that what was important about people was their personal depth – passion, soul, creativity and moral fibre.

An early exemplar of the romantic period was Goethe’s "The Sufferings of Young Werther." This is the story of a young man, Werther, who is hopelessly in love with a young woman who is married to an older man. His love goes unrequited and Werther has months of agonising over the conflict between passion and morality.

This conflict summarises in a nutshell the elements of the concerns of the Romantic period – the conflict deep inside the person, between the passions of the spirit, and what it is right to do. (more…)


The Language of Leadership – Useful Only to Describe Deficits?

Stephen Billing, November 5, 2009

In which I consider that even though it is much debated what leadership actually consists of or whether it actually exists at all, the language of leadership has certainly given rise to to many ways to describe deficits of personal characteristics in those who manage and lead organisations. 

I am currently reading The Saturated Self by Kenneth Gergen. In it, he discusses the impacts of burgeoning technology on our identity – i.e. how we experience who we are. He says that through technology we are now bombarded by many disparate voices of humanity – both harmonious and alien.

He demonstrates how the scientisation of human behaviour has led to an explosion of terms to describe mental health deficits in the 20th century. Terms such as low self esteem, repressed, authoritarian, obsessive-compulsive, bulimic, sadomasochistic and post-traumatic stress disorder have only come into being relatively recently, and they all refer to problems, shortcomings or incapacities – mental deficits. (more…)


In Change Situations, Familiarity Breeds Lack of Noticing

Stephen Billing, November 2, 2009

This article appeared in the November 2009 edition of our monthly newsletter, ChangingOrganisations. Why is it that it is so hard for your people to articulate to you what is actually going on?

In my consulting work I often find that clients who tell me of a problem or issue they want to resolve, often have great difficulty explaining what is going on and what it is that they see as the problem. They know that there is a problem and they know roughly what it is – they definitely know who is involved. It’s just so darned hard to articulate the multitude of factors and the complexity of the problem(s)

The challenge seems to be in explaining the situation to someone who is not intimately involved. At one point I used to think that this meant that the person must be not very competent if they couldn’t describe what’s happening. But then a colleague graciously pointed out that I have the same difficulty in explaining my own practice. I had to admit that there are so many nuances that are difficult to explain, and I started to appreciate that explaining our practice is difficult for everyone. You end up repeating yourself, skirting around the issue and providing a picture that is not very coherent. It becomes like an onion where you are trying to unravel the layers and it makes you cry while you’re doing it, if you’re not careful. (more…)