Leadership and the ‘vision thing’

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play in the European Champions League, for which his team has now qualified. Meanwhile political pundits, and sometimes members of his own party, are critical of the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Ed Miliband, doesn’t have a sufficiently clear vision. In contrast, President George Bush (père) once said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thang’.

If you search on the terms ‘leadership vision’ in any search engine it will turn up thousands of hits, consultancies, business schools, books, which claim that having leadership vision is probably the most important quality a leader can have. There are any number of proprietary tools, techniques, grids and frameworks for generating such a vision. The idea is now virtually unchallengeable.

How would I square the idea that vision is something an individual leader ‘has’ with some previous posts where I argued that leadership is an improvisational and ensemble performance? If vision really is the exceptional and innate characteristic of an individual leader, then maybe the leaders of banks and corporations really do deserve the fantastic salaries that they command. Is it really the case that some are born with visions, and the rest of us are born to be led by them. Continue reading

Changing organisational culture: a moral and disciplinary project

This post is another contribution to thinking about organizational culture in preparation for the Complexity and Management Conference due to be held 7-9th June this year, 2014, which will be dedicated to this theme.

The Christmas period provided a very good example of the dominant thinking about organisational culture change, which I wrote about earlier in a previous post on this blog here. The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Anthony Jenkins was the guest editor for BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, and he used the opportunity to draw attention to ethics, leadership and organisational transformation. You can find some of the clips from the programme here.

The banking world in general and Barclays in particular have been rocked by a number of scandals, including mis-selling of financial products and the manipulation of the inter-bank lending rate, LIBOR. Jenkins sees his task as rebuilding the bank and restoring public trust by ‘transforming the culture’ of the bank away from short-termism and a narrow definition of maximising shareholder value which he feels has predominated over the last 30 years, towards an understanding the banks serve society at large.th

To achieve this Jenkins has started a review of all the bank’s activities and has set alongside it an organisational change programme called Transform. The Transform programme sets out what Jenkins describes as five core values: respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship. All of these are to be ‘embedded’ in the organisations and measured episodically with numerical scores to give a reading of the bank’s progress towards operating differently. To give a token of his seriousness, Jenkins argues that he and his colleagues have developed a set of ‘explicit behaviours’ which staff have to exhibit in order to demonstrate the values. They will be recruited, promoted and developed according to these standards. According to Jenkins this change in culture will take up to ten years. Continue reading

On organisational culture change

There is a great deal of discussion in contemporary organisational life of the need to ‘change the culture’ in organisations. This is a way of talking that assumes that organizations do have discrete cultures and that they are manipulable, although the discourse can have it both ways with the term: on the one hand culture is known to be symbolic, intangible and abstract, on the other it can be the object of conscious and rational redesign and reframing. A good example of this way of talking about organisational culture can be found in the 4th edition of the eminent management scholar Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership[1].

Usually a prime role is assumed for leaders or senior managers in making the changes to organizational culture because they are considered to have the necessary abilities and skills to diagnose what is wrong with the current culture and to design a better one: one which fits better with the environment. Schein states this very explicitly in his book: ‘In this sense culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved and ultimately manipulated by leaders’ (2010: 3).  As a result of their leaders’ efforts, employees will be obliged to commit to a fresh set of values, or reaffirm an existing set which are thought to have become moribund, as well as demonstrating a suite of required ‘behaviours’ or new procedures. The new values and procedures are then set ‘at the heart of everything we do’, are vigorously communicated and disseminated and form the basis of widespread training programmes for staff, and are then subject to regimes of inspection and performance management. Such change programmes can consume weeks and months of organizational time and resources.

The whole process is a good demonstration of the systemic assumptions behind organizational realignment: values, behaviour, systems, procedures, training, communication and quality regimes are all supposed to line up and fit over each other and form a coherent whole. The emphasis is on integration, stability and alignment. It is a huge reduction of the complexity of what is at stake when attempting organisational change.

A book recently published calling for radical change in the NHS is a refreshing attempt to explain why ‘culture change’ in organisations is likely to be highly problematic. [2] Instead of assuming that whatever we might mean by the term culture is contained within one organisation, even one as big as the NHS, Ballatt and Campling, an ex-senior manager and psychotherapist within the NHS, explain why the institution reflects much wider conflictual social processes, as well as provoking profound questions about what it means to be human. That is, they try to bring together society-wide trends in social patterning in the UK and beyond in terms of their impact on changes in the NHS, and they wrestle with the profound human difficulties and dilemmas involved in professionalising the often spontaneous and improvisational human response of caring towards another human being in need. Though written specifically about the NHS, I think the book also raises important questions for anyone thinking about what is involved in processes of organisational change and echoes some of the themes from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. There are some key differences, however, which I will also explore below. Continue reading

Acting into organizational complexity: comparing and contrasting relational leadership and complex responsive processes of relating

At the Complexity and Management Conference 2013 our guest speaker, Ann Cunliffe, described her ideas about what she terms relational leadership, which are also set out in an article in Human Relations here. In her conference presentation and in her article Ann Cunliffe responds to what she understands as a crisis in leadership education and practice. In the news we are presented with example after example of failures of leadership which also point to an impoverished moral understanding on the part of leaders about their responsibilities, she argues. Cunliffe sets out her alternative by drawing on Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Shotter whom she adduces to develop her argument that leadership work is to be found in the everyday conversational activity of people trying to achieve things together. Her ideas turn on the idea of inter-subjectivity, that we are formed by others just as we form them, which she argues has implications for the way we think about our relationships. We should, she says, develop better anticipatory awareness about what matters in those relationships and the moral consequences of our responsiveness, or lack of it, to others. Responsibility arises, Cunliffe argues after Ricoeur, by recognising oneself as another.[1] Continue reading

Values and Norms – insights from Norbert Elias (Part 1)

I was recently reviewing a research narrative in which Max, the researcher, was describing what was happening in a health care organisation that was undergoing an organisational merger. Max had responsibility for leading a programme of work aimed at improving the care of patients with diabetes. This involved redesigning their treatment pathway to improve their disease management and reduce what were regarded by the organisation’s management as unnecessary and expensive admissions to hospital, which it thought could be better managed in the community. This work required him to bring together clinicians and managers from three former organisations, one of which he had worked for prior to the merger. His research interest is in exploring the concept of “transformation” and the narrative describes a series of meetings he is having with staff about the work. These meetings are proving difficult, because it is clear from what is being said that the groups from the three organisations have strong “we” identities arising from their former organisations and are all involved in stigmatising gossip based on their prejudices about each other. Max finds himself defending his former organisation when this is being criticised and also feels surprised and uncomfortable when it begins to appear as though the perceived source of the problem- the hospital- may not be the only cause of the problem – as he and his colleagues had formally perceived.  He describes vividly the detail of a very difficult meeting in which one of the influential Doctors loses their temper and refuses to co-operate with colleagues from one of the other former organisations on the grounds that what is being proposed could compromise patient care. Max describes the frustration and anxiety this raises for him and others – including a discussion with his manager Carl, in which he is told that “failure is not an option”. Continue reading

Taking the perspective of the airman and the swimmer – reflections on the ethics of organisational change

In order better to understand the unique flow of social life, Norbert Elias argues, we must adopt the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer. Unlike many objects in nature which are relatively unchanging, society is riven by tensions, disruptions and explosions. ‘Decline alternates with rise, war with peace, crisis with booms’. These disruptions are driven by the interweaving activities of highly social, interdependent people like ourselves competing and co-operating to get things done. Elias argues that it is only from perspective of the airman that we are able to gain some detachment, a relatively undistorted view of the order of the long course of historical changes and the way we are forming and are formed by them. These long-term historical trends are extremely hard to resist even by very powerful coalitions of people or groups. However, there is nothing inevitable about our actions and reactions to the processes in which we find ourselves participating. But only by adopting the perspective of the swimmer, who is obliged to take action in the moment itself, is it possible to see how varied are the different pressures that are brought to bear on the particular circumstances in which find ourselves acting, in order that we might create opportunities to bring about outcomes of a different kind. Continue reading

2012 Complexity and Management Conference

Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics

from 7pm on 8th June to 2.30pm on 10th June 2012

AT ROFFEY PARK MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE

(For location see Roffey Park website)

About the conference

The ninth annual Complexity and Management Conference will take place at Roffey Park starting at 7pm on Friday 8th June 2012 and ending after lunch on 10th June. This event is a very informal conference where prepared papers and presentations are minimal and serve the purpose of introducing themes for discussion amongst conference participants.  In organising this conference we seek to maximise the possibility of conversation. The purpose is to provide an opportunity for leaders, managers, consultants and academics who are interested in our work on complexity and emergence in organisations, as well as past, present and possible future participants on our MA/Doctor of Management programme, to discuss their experience and ideas with one another.

This year’s theme

The financial crisis has provoked a great deal of discussion about fairness, reward and the ethics of management. This is a welcome change from the usual focus on managerial instruments, tools and techniques which can often crowd out ethical concerns. But at the same time as the inadequacy of the way our organisations have been run has been made very stark, so has the inability to engage in ethical discussion. It is clear that leaders and managers are largely at a loss as to what to do and how to behave, and sometimes even how to begin discussing ethical questions. Everyone is feeling their way forward in the struggle over whose narrative of events predominates, and are relearning how to engage with each other in discussions of the good and the right. There are very few models which will be of any use to help navigate unique and highly uncertain times. This makes a complexity perspective, complex responsive processes of relating, particularly relevant to this theme.

In this year’s conference we will be drawing on both complexity and critical management traditions in trying to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in, particularly in relation to the theme of ethics. We are delighted to have Professor Hugh Willmott from the University of Cardiff, (Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies (with M. Alvesson and T. Bridgeman), Oxford University Press; Critical Management Studies: A Reader (ed. with C. Grey) Oxford University Press; Introducing Organization Behaviour and Management (ed. with D. Knights) London: Thomson) accept our invitation as  keynote speaker, who has chosen as his topic:

The Financialized Corporation: Moorings Lost and the Crises of Legitimacy

There will be parallel sessions following the keynotes, where conference participants will be able to explore themes which have struck them as being important in conversation with others. Between now and June we will be uploading posts on this site to talk to the theme and to provoke discussion in advance of the conference. Anyone wishing to put forward ideas for parallel sessions is welcome to do so.

We will be posting more details about the conference soon including how to pay.

Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

In this blog I hope to develop some of the points made in previous blogs on the tools and techniques of management. What is generally meant by the term ‘tools and techniques of leadership and management’ is ways of applying instrumental rationality to solve problems and control outcomes. In fact, in an ambiguous and uncertain world none of these tools and techniques can do what is claimed for them but they do constitute the techniques of disciplinary power which enable leaders and managers to control the bodies and bodily activities of
people in the organization. All of these tools and techniques take the form of rules, procedures and models. However, there is a difference between competent performance, on the one hand, and proficient, expert performance, on the other.
The difference is that following rules, procedures and models may produce competent performance, but proficient, expert performance requires moving beyond the rules, procedures and models. Management tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality may promote competence but the development of expertise is beyond them. Experts are unable to articulate the rules governing their performance because they simply do not follow rules; instead, as a consequence of long experience, they exercise practical judgment in the unique situations they find themselves in. Through experience they are able to recognize patterns, distinguishing between similarities with other situations and unique differences. The patterns they recognize are the emerging patterns of interaction that they and other people are creating. In other words, they are recognizing the emerging themes in conversation, power relations and ideology reflecting choices. The key resource any organization must rely on is surely this expert interactive capacity in the exercise of practical judgment
by leaders and managers. If we cannot identify rules, procedures and models  as ‘drivers’ of expert practical judgment, does it follow that we can say nothing about practical judgment and have to leave it as a mystery?

I do not think there is anything mysterious about the exercise of practical judgment and we can inquire into the exercise of practical judgment and explore whether it is possible to identify any ‘techniques’ of practical judgment. Continue reading

Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference

I wanted to write about some of the themes  at the CMC conference this year as an invitation to further discussion, and perhaps as a way of involving others. There were a number of things which happened during the weekend which I think made a strong case for the methods being developed by the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the importance of paying attention to the experience of every day life.

So I was struck by a quite ordinary intervention by Iver Drabaek in the final plenary of the weekend. This was a session convened to explore what different conference participants were doing in their work and to ask whether insights drawn from the complexity sciences, or from complex responsive processes were proving helpful in what people found themselves trying to do. There had been a number of diverse observations about what was going on in the group: that the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere, or that it wasn’t easy to speak into the big group, as we struggled to make sense of this particular way of meeting together. As Nick Sarra has pointed out, there often is a struggle in big group discussions, and sometimes this struggle is about avoiding the discomfort of recognising each other in this kind of context.  Iver pointed out that for him it was different. It wasn’t that he was holding back but that every time he went to speak into the group he found that he had changed his mind about what he wanted to say, depending on what the last person had said. This for me was a very good example of what we are trying to describe on the faculty at Hertfordshire when we are drawing attention to the transformative potential of everyday interaction. Iver was displaying a patient attention to everyday experience, his own experience of the group, which then raised ideas of recognition, mutual recognition, identity and ideology for me. In drawing attention to the way that he was responding, to what was going on for him in the moment and articulating it, he provoked me (without of course realising it) into recognising myself in what he was saying. I would expect that for others it called out an entirely different response, or perhaps no response at all, but in that moment I came to understand my own participation in what was going on, recognising myself in the other, differently. Continue reading

Prophets for profits

In previous posts Ralph has been talking about the way that contemporary theories of management take for granted the idea that a manager needs tools and techniques in order to achieve organisational ‘success’. In this post I want to begin describing what I see as the appeal to the religious imagination that leaders and managers are also required to make, and which usually accompanies the more instrumental focus on grids and frameworks in many management books. At the same time as using the right managerial tools managers and leaders in today’s organisations are required to be ‘passionate’, ‘positive’, ‘inspirational’ and ‘visionary’. Managers and leaders are expected to be prophets as well as experts, preachers as well as technicians.

On the one hand there is something very important about the appeal to affect and ideals. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, collective promise-making is a very powerful way of disposing of the future as though it were the present, of beginning things anew and imagining a better world. Unfortunately very often the appeal to the religious imagination in turn becomes schematised and reduced and is understood in a highly individualised way as a ‘tool’ of management. There is a great potential for manipulation. For example, there are training courses on visionary and inspirational leadership and endless management books offering advice on the same. Currently it would be impossible to apply for a job in many fields without claiming to be ‘passionate’ about whatever the job on offer is. Although being passionate and visionary are regarded on the one hand as exceptional requirements, they are demanded routinely in everyday situations. Noble sentiments have become banal, another tool in the toolkit of aspiring managers and leaders. The proliferation of advice on how to be authentically passionate and succeed in management testifies to the fact that authenticity is difficult to fabricate – you have to practice quite hard at it. Continue reading