Author Archives: ralphstacey

Leadership as the Agency of Disciplinary Power

In 1977, Zaleznik published a paper drawing a distinction between managers and leaders. According to Zaleznick , managers differ in motivation from leaders and in how they think and act – they emphasize rationality, control, problem solving, goals and targets. They co-ordinate and balance conflicting views and get people to accept solutions. They are tactical and bureaucratic. Leaders work in an opposite way. Instead of limiting choices, they develop fresh approaches and open up new issues. They project their ideas into images that excite people. They formulate visions and inspire others to follow them. It is also generally thought to be the role of an organization’s leaders to shape its values or culture, understood to be the deep seated assumptions governing the behavior of the individual members of an organization. One of the most influential writers on leadership and organizations, Schein , said that the primary function of leadership was the manipulation of culture. An equally influential writer, Senge , talks about the building of a vision, purpose and values as the ‘governing ideas’ of the organization. In successful companies, leaders are supposed to deliberately construct values and teach their people in training sessions to act according to them. The leader forms a personal vision and builds it into a shared vision through ongoing dialogue in which people suspend their assumptions and listen to each other. So we now think in terms of a distinction between leaders as the top people who articulate visions and provide direction and a hierarchy of managers who implement what is chosen by their leaders, all in the interests of shareholders. According to this dominant discourse, the leader is presented as an unconstrained, autonomous individual with the ability to choose what happens to an organisation, while managers are presented as highly constrained individuals who must be aligned to the leader’s direction and implement the actions required to follow it.

Since the 1990s, there has been an increasingly rapid growth in the provision of leadership development programmes, provided not just by the elite business schools and consultancies but even more by the education and development departments of most organisations. Leadership academies and programmes have been established by governments and others to provide for leadership development, for example: the International Leadership Association, the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK, and programmes for the military, defence, health and higher education. Even academic researchers at universities are invited to go on a leadership programme. This trend is not confined to the UK but is as much in evidence throughout Europe and North America. Such programmes are now common throughout the developing countries too. Participants on these programmes are introduced to one or more of the leadership theories indicated in the previous section, usually presented in a ‘model’ claimed to be specific to the sector mounting the programmes. It is quite common for participants to be presented with: exercises using various games; experience of the theatre, for example, actors and directors may interpret the leadership qualities of, say, Shakespeare’s Henry V; conducting an orchestra; engaging in various outdoor activities such as trekking through the wilds and dealing with hazards such as mountains and river crossings. The aim is for participants to have the experience of leading teams in addition to understanding the theories of leadership so that they will be more likely to apply them in practice. Also participants are often asked to identify the leadership qualities of great leaders, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, so that they might imitate them in order to improve their own leadership skills. Continue reading


Thinking about the nature of the ‘tools and techniques’ that people ‘apply’ in the serious game of organizational life

I was prompted by the comments on my last blog on management tools and techniques to write this blog as a reply. I am struck by how strong the belief in tools and techniques is so that even though agreeing with what I said, there is an immediate move to talking about dynamic tools instead of static ones and claiming that there is scientific evidence for certain propositions about the development of the human mind allowing standard patterns to be mapped and measured. Of course what I wrote is contesting all of this and is certainly denying the assertion of a scientific base allowing us to know as a fact. Another comment asserted everything we do could be described as using a tool or technique. In this blog I will try to explain why I profoundly disagree with that statement. Then there is a comment by Chris Rodgers, most of which I agree with. What I am trying to talk about, however, is not about different prescriptions or ‘shoulds’ but rather with a way of thinking about what people are already doing in organisations.

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The Demand for Management Tools and Techniques

Some of the responses to previous postings on this blog reflect the widespread insistence on providing managers with a set of tools and techniques that will produce success. I think it is widely believed that there is a received body of knowledge on management concerned with the ‘big picture’ over the ‘long term’ for the ‘whole organisation’. What people usually mean when they talk about the long term, big picture for a whole organisation is a clear view of the purpose of that organisation and the direction in which ‘it’ is intended to ‘move’, ‘going forward into the future’, so that its ‘resources’, ‘capabilities’ and ‘competences’ are ‘optimally’ ‘aligned’ to the sources of competitive advantage in its environment as ‘the way’ to achieve ‘successful’ performance. It is also widely believed that there is a set of ‘tools and techniques’ which can be ‘applied’ to an organisation to yield ‘success’ and that there is ‘evidence’ that these tools and techniques actually do the job required of them. The tools and techniques are persuasive if ‘case studies’ can be presented of major organisations which have achieved success through applying them. When anyone critiques or dismisses accepted its tools and techniques then there is a powerful expectation that the critic will replace them with new ones in the belief that if managers do not have tools and techniques they will simply have to muddle through in ways that are completely unacceptable in a modern world. The expectation is that we need to focus on what decision makers ‘should’ be doing to make decisions in certain kinds of problem situations in order to ‘improve’ their organisation’s performance. This is taken for granted as obvious common sense and if a critic fails to comply then the critique is dismissed as impractical and so useless.

In the previous paragraph I have placed in inverted commas those notions that most people talking about management simply take for granted as if their meanings were all perfectly obvious. However, I find it difficult to see the use of trying to present new prescriptions without exploring just what we mean when we make such taken-for-granted assumptions. Furthermore, I find it difficult to match the continuing demand for tools with the major economic and political events of the past few years. It is hard to understand how anyone who has paid any attention to the events of global credit crunch and recession that we have all experienced since 2007 can continue to believe that there is a clear, reliable body of knowledge on management containing prescriptive tools and techniques for its successful application. Surely the great majority of major international banks and other commercial organisations have not been successfully applying tools and techniques over the past few years for if they were there would not have been such a mess. Furthermore, we must surely question why massive investments by governments in Western Europe and North America in public sector services, now governed on the basis of private sector management tools and techniques, have yielded such disappointing improvements, if indeed they have yielded any significant improvement at all. If a set of tools and techniques for successful management was actually available then governments must have been incredibly ignorant in not applying them so as to produce more acceptable levels of improvement. Continue reading

Organisations and the concept of systems

The comments on Chris’ last post refer to a dominant view of organisations and an alternative view presented by the notion of organisations as complex responsive processes. Questions arise as to whether one replaces the other or whether one can have both. In thinking about this we need to consider what the differences are. Mainstream thinking about organisations assumes that they either are or could most usefully be thought of as if they were systems.
I think there are a number of reasons for claiming that it is not helpful to think of organisations as systems – the claim is not that all forms of systems thinking everywhere are useless, as developed below but that it is not helpful to think of an organisation as organisation in terms of a system. The reasons are:

1 To think in terms of system is to think in terms of formative causality which cannot encompass novelty or creativity – a system unfolds the pattern already enfolded in its design, unless it is a system consists of diverse agents which give it the capacity to evolve. Most writing on organisations does not consider the last named and the practical difficulty is that the evolving system model of an evolving reality takes on a life of its own which will rapidly diverge from the evolving reality.
2 A system is a whole separated by a boundary from an environment and consisting of parts interacting to form the whole and themselves. A part is a part only in so far as it is necessary for constituting the whole. This means that if you think of a human being as a part of a system you are excluding from your theory of human agency all that is truly human such as the capacity for some degree of choice and spontaneity.
3 The conceptual act of separating a system from an environment or a context is an act of creating an inside of the system and an outside of the system. This immediately implies an observer. Indeed this is a central concept in all the serious systems thinking I have ever come across. The position of the observer as being outside the system was really recognised by Bateson as problematic and second order system thinking attempted to widen the boundary to incorporate the observer. However, as Bateson recognised, this led to infinite regress. Systems thinkers who recognise the problem of infinite regress use the ‘in practice it does not matter’ rhetoric to dismiss the point.
4 There is a strong tendency to reify a system and talk about ‘it’ having a direction, plans and so on. This is an abstraction from the ongoing experience of interacting people who are the organisation. It is striking how absent ordinary human beings are from discussions of the organisation as a system.
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Why we need to re-think leadership/management in the ongoing crisis of investment capitalism

The vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, most management consultants and people in organization, including senior executives, all talk about how organizations should be governed, all making the same taken-for-granted assumptions. There is a dominant discourse in which it is assumed, without much questioning, that small groups of powerful executives are able to choose the ‘direction’ that their organization will move in, realize a ‘vision’ for it, create the conditions in which its members will be innovative and entrepreneurial, and select the ‘structures’ and ‘conditions’ which will enable them to be in control and so ensure success. The problem is that to be at all effective these activities rely to a significant extent upon the ability of powerful executives to know enough about what has been, is now and will be happening around them. Executives are supposed to know what is going on because they are supposed to be avoiding emotion and personal politicking so that they can make roughly rational decisions on the basis of the ‘facts’. If they cannot do this then, on the basis of dominant thinking, they must simply be pursuing only their own interests and gambling with society’s resources.

However, recent and current economic developments are making it clear that executives of large corporations and their management consultants, as well as politicians and their advisors, are far from sure of what has been happening and they simply do not know what is now happening, let alone what will happen in the future as a consequence of the actions they are taking. The contrast between the dominant thinking and our experience is striking. While people and their ongoing messy daily political interaction are absent in the dominant discourse, or feature simply as obstacles, they are the central aspect of our experience. In the dominant discourse uncertainty plays a very minor role and leaders know what is going on; in our experience, neither leaders nor anyone else really knows what is going on and few pay much attention to what they could know about, namely, what they are actually doing to live in uncertainty. In thinking in the dominant way, we are covering over the complexity and uncertainty we actually experience in our ordinary, everyday lives in organizations and we are positing capacities of foresight in leaders which they do not actually possess. Continue reading