Management as competences, management as practice

This is a posting is in response to John Hailey’s idea of a skill-set of ‘catalytic skills’ for contemporary INGO managers posted on the BOND website in September.

Like many contemporary approaches to management which draw on cognitive and humanistic psychology Hailey’s article seems to suggest that today’s INGO manager needs a set of ‘competences’ or skills which s/he can either learn or draw on to meet a new set of organisational needs. Although we never find out in the article what these are and how we might learn them, a set of cognitive skills are thought to combine with a humanistic imperative to develop the ‘inner’ self, which prepares the modern manager to deal with a new reality. As we work with various organisations in the sector we often come across quotations from Mandela, Gandhi, ‘be the change you want to see’, or Martin Luther King enjoining the individual to change herself.

Perhaps to caricature this unkindly, it seems to us that this amounts to no more than an injunction to ‘be good in order that others may be good’. It overly individualises and idealises the role of leaders and managers and does not do justice to the messy, conflictual and sometimes violent struggle that Gandhi, King and Mandela and were caught up in to achieve what they did with others. They have become saintly figures but only by the more earthly route of politics and power.

Instead of thinking about management as a set of skills to be acquired, we put forward here the idea of management as social practice, a daily engagement with the complicated, awkward and sometimes uncomfortable relationships of power that arise between a manager and those they are trying to manage. It runs counter to the predominant idea that management or leadership arises from a set of competences that a manager ‘has’. Rather it points to an emergent social process where groups of staff and partners are constantly negotiating and mediating their relationships of power to find a way forward together.

We want to argue that the skills a manager and those they manage need are less about the individual and more about the group. Of course we are not against self-awareness, but we would argue that self-awareness is only possible because there are other selves. We become a self in a society of other selves, so self-awareness can only develop in sustained process of reflection, usually with others, which leads to reflexivity. So more important for us is the confidence and facility that groups of people need to develop together to draw attention to their own habitual ways of working, noticing what they cover over and take for granted in their daily practice. A manager will have a key role in this but will only be as effective as the group of staff they find themselves working with. A high-functioning manager forms, and is formed by a high functioning group.

Modern managers require a developing understanding that management is much more than a set of skills; it is a social process to which they make a significant contribution, but they are also inviting those they manage to do the same. It requires the confidence to sit with others amid ambiguity and unpredictability, and to negotiate the constantly iterating questions: ‘who are we and what are we trying to do here?’ The methods of a modern manager encourage reflection and reflexivity that lead to continuous sense-making in the face of often disruptive change. It is not a requirement to think like, or be like one of the great leaders of the 20th century.

None of the great leaders, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela ever went on a management course to develop their competences. Rather they fashioned their leadership in the boiling cauldron of social movements engaged in political struggle over the distribution of power and the need for recognition.

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