Response to 'Lead us not'

Work Study

ISSN: 0043-8022

Article publication date: 1 February 2000



(2000), "Response to 'Lead us not'", Work Study, Vol. 49 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Response to 'Lead us not'

Response to "Lead us not"

Keywords Leadership, Management styles

A couple of issues ago, in the Random Observations section, I made the following observation:

In a delayered, democratic, organic, flexible, customer-focused organisation what is the role of leadership? Do leaders simply become facilitators or is the role of leadership too important to obscure in such a way? I ask because at one of our recent management meetings we had a debate (a rather heated debate, actually) about the nature of leadership - and the degree to which leadership is naturally associated with adjectives such as dictatorial, domineering, and so on. Must leadership always be visible? … or can an organisation be led subtly from the rear? These are questions that our social science colleagues have already answered - but I don't know the answers. If any reader would care to supply them - either in a form suitable for publishing or simply as a personal favour - I'd be grateful.

This sparked the following response from Martin Ringer (of Martin Ringer Consulting) who is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for Work Study

"These are questions that our social science colleagues have already answered …" is both true and false. Social scientists, including both psychologists and sociologists, have spent a great deal of effort on exploring the nature of leadership but rather than having an answer, have many answers. Furthermore, many of the answers conflict with each other. The conciliatory response to conflicting views is either "it depends on the context" or "you've all made some good points, but the complexity of the situation means that no one answer is sufficient". Using these platitudes as a basis, I will outline what I observe in organizations to be core aspects of a leadership system.

Leadership systems include not only authority - which is usually mistaken for leadership - but also influence, collaboration, boundary management, and purposefulness. A leadership system is a complex social phenomenon that is socially constructed by all of the members of an organization. It is not solely constructed by the "leaders". Core aspects of a leadership system range from rational and conscious to non-rational and unconscious.

The fight that occurred in the management team that John mentioned, resulted from clashes in the mental representations that each team member had about the nature of leadership. These internal maps are formed as a sort of "semantic" collective representation for each person of all of their experiences of leadership. The first, and often most significant of these experiences are those of parental figures and early teachers or child caretakers. When we argue about leadership we are likely to be arguing from the implicit basis that our mental representations of the nature of leadership figures are the same as other peoples. This is seldom true, and so arguments need to be grounded in a common understanding of the nature of leaders and leadership. Finally, before moving to a "checklist" of core components of leadership, it is useful to view leadership as a process and not a product. Products can be put in wheelbarrows, whereas processes are patterns of interaction that may change the shape and form of what goes in the wheelbarrows. Trying to define leadership as a "something" creates difficulties because this attempt conceals the dynamic and interactive nature of leadership.

Essential factors in the leadership process for organizations are outlined below:

  1. 1.

    The negotiation of the organization's primary task, or mission, along with the core activities that enable that mission to be achieved. Shared understanding among members of the organization of that primary task is vital, as is an understanding of the way in which each role in the organization contributes to its wellbeing.

  2. 2.

    The clarification of the "division of labor", authority and responsibility, information flow, and role relationships. That is, the tasks that enable the organization to function need to be suitably allocated to individuals and teams, along with the resources and authority to conduct that task. In this system, each person needs also to take personal responsibility to provide to others the essential information. If this "formal structure" is seen by all to belong primarily to others, it will probably fail.

  3. 3.

    Leadership involves the facilitation of relationships throughout the organization that are strong enough to provide "bridges" across which the work can flow from person to person. Difficult relationships are dealt with proactively by effective leaders, and authentic communication about expectations and performance is provided both ways across relationships. Interaction between the organization and external agencies is also facilitated.

  4. 4.

    The difficult issue of whom is competent to do what is addressed. Failure to achieve this is often at the root of serious conflict and dysfunction in organizations. Effective coaching, training, performance management and performance agreements are core aspects of effective leadership. So too is the design and implementation of effective recruitment, promotion and termination procedures. Leaders who model up-front but respect provision of feedback on performance contribute to a functional "feedback" culture that supports the growth of competence in the organization.

  5. 5.

    Effective leaders manage their internal emotional and psychological worlds in ways that keep their competence accessible - in contrast to regressing to defensive or aggressive behaviours. A core aspect of leadership is to assist others to manage their inner worlds as well, and one more subtle aspect of this is to help to contain the levels of anxiety in the organization. Excessive levels of anxiety create excessive dependency on leaders and immobilize organizations. Thus, in this sense, the leader is a figure onto whom others can project their need for security. A leader creates a "holding" environment for the organization in a similar way to a mother emotionally "holding" baby. Leaders can also be "attachment" figures for members of an organization.

The most subtle aspect of leadership is that of deliberately working to promote helpful unconscious patterns of perception and expectation in the organization. This is achieved by having a sound understanding of unconscious and symbolic aspects of organizational life and by understanding one's own place in that dynamic. Every action taken (or not taken) by a leader and every word spoken adds to the overall perception in the organization of "leadership" in that organization. This is the realm of mental representations, of the "organization-in-the-mind". Here, the leader deliberately acts as one who influences mental representations. This can only be achieved through interacting with others and not by telling people what to think. Articulating and congruently enacting a personal vision for the organization is one component of this complex aspect of leadership.

So, leadership is a process that occurs in changing circumstances and is simultaneously proactive, reactive and responsive. The leadership process is simultaneously adaptive and shaping; simultaneously visible and invisible. Leaders are custodians of the leadership process, which involves a dynamic roving from visionary, to facilitator to director, and through many other types of role.

Note: I have not provided references in the body of this extended comment. The density of the ideas presented means that references would take up half the text, rendering it unreadable.

Some useful material and references, however, appear in the following section.

Further reading

Bate, S.P. (1994), Strategies for Cultural Change, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Heifetz, R.A. (1994), Leadership Without Easy Answers, Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Morgan, G. (1997), Images of Organization, 2nd ed., Sage, London.

Obholzer, A. and Roberts, V.Z. (Eds.) (1994), The Unconscious at Work: Individual and Organisational Stress in the Human Services, Routledge, London.

Pauchant, T.C. (Ed.) (1995), In Search of Meaning: Managing for the Health of our Organisations, our Communities, and our Natural World, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Ringer, T.M. and Robinson, P. (1996), "Focus and strategic action in management: using a systemic model of organisational culture to inform managerial actions", Work Study, Vol. 45 No. 6, pp. 5-16.

Schien, E.H. (1997), Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Stapley, L.F. (1996), The Personality of the Organisation: A Psychodynamic Explanation of Culture and Change, Free Association Books, London.