Leadership development in a fragile state

My colleague Nick Sarra and I were asked to work with some practicing managers and leaders in what is usually described as a ‘fragile state’ in Africa. The country has been plunged into conflict for decades, and this has had a profound effect on social relations and the ability to get things done. Conflict still breaks out sporadically, making parts of the country off-limits,  potentially reactivating the tensions which still exist between groups living elsewhere in the country, especially in the capital. The government struggles to provide basic services, so the country is dominated by international aid agencies, development organisations and the representatives of international governments who each have their own sets of policies, procedures and priorities. This becomes visible the moment one steps off the plane: the airport car park is full of 4x4s, each sporting its own logo, and often there to meet, or disgorge development workers with their wrap-around shades and desert fatigues. Without the agencies this country would not be able to survive, but at the same time it feels a bit like an occupation.

What does it mean to work with leaders and managers in these circumstances, where the whole country, let alone the organisations they work in, is caught up in conflict causing even more uncertainty and unpredictability?

Nick and I drew on the thinking which informs the Doctor of Management programme at the University of Hertfordshire to put together a loosely formulated curriculum for the two and half days we spent together. The  doctoral programme at UH combines the natural and social sciences, along with thinking derived from the group analytic tradition, to develop unique insights and methods for inquiring into the everyday activity of practising managers and leaders. The programme sits in the critical management tradition: that is to say that it calls into question some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about management and leadership practices and theory in order to explore alternative understandings.

We guessed that our participants would have had enough of people coming to their country telling them about the latest models and fads of management, and as far as possible we should create as much opportunity as time allowed to talk about what was important to them.

We spent most of the time talking together, but these conversations were informed by the following ideas for a ‘curriculum’, such as it was. The group spent some time adjusting to the fact that there would be very few lectures, very few notes to take and an assumption that they were free to talk about what was on their minds. We spent:

  • A morning of getting to know each other as an opportunity for thinking about listening, reflection and reflexivity and the importance of relationships. This was nothing new to the participants, but were topics which they felt they did not usually have permission and/or time to explore on development events on management they had experienced previously. The themes of reflection and reflexivity were developed further throughout the weekend since the convenors guessed that these would as useful as any other skills needed by leaders and managers experiencing situations of extreme uncertainty. The capacity for reflexivity may afford a greater ability to act more skillfully in demanding situations.
  • A short sociological lecture on power and its role in emergent social processes with opportunities for participants to explore their own power relationships at work/community, and its constraining/enabling potential. In addition, there was another lecture on our interdependence and the relationship between groups, including insider/outsider intra- and inter-group dynamics based on the process sociology of Norbert Elias.
  • A longer lecture on group dynamics and the emotions that being in relation with others provokes in the workplace which is largely undiscussable in most professional settings. Participants were encouraged to consider the role of envy, rivalry, loss and anxiety, amongst other emotions and feelings, and how these contribute to the uncertainty of every day organisational life.
  • Two group meetings which ran without agenda and without anyone leading the group formally. These meetings enabled the participants to bring to the fore their own concerns and to discuss them in their own way. It also enabled further reflection on the group of participants as a temporary organisation in itself.
  • Two evaluative sessions where participants were encouraged to find other ways of thinking about the quality and value of what they had been involved in other than comparing against pre-determined targets (of which there were none for this particular course).

Participants shared views on the constraints and limitations of the current aid regime which shapes the organisations, and in which many of them work. The main characteristics of the aid relationship which they found most constraining were to do with the overly-demanding reporting requirements of donors; unrealistic expectations of linear cause-effect in turbulent conditions; hierarchical and often authoritarian working relationships in INGOs which were also permeated with racist assumptions about the capabilities of the local population; over-bureaucratic ways of working. Participants discussed power relationships between white and black, and between Africans from different African nations employed in this particular country. They also began to reflect on the relationships within the room where two white facilitators convened a development programme for an entirely African group. This also produced ambivalent feelings in the group, which could be a useful source of criticality.

In beginning to discuss inequalities in general, participants also started to explore sexual harassment in the workplace which was something every woman in the group had suffered. Each had a moving story to tell. Although the group seemed supportive of the idea that is was predominantly women who suffered from the culture of sexual harassment, nonetheless some of the men also had stories about how they too had felt compromised by more junior women offering sexual favours in return for organisational advancement. In other words, in order for a culture of sexual harassment to persist it is likely to be co-created by both men and women in different ways. The topic of gender inequalities and sexual harassment also provoked disagreement in the group, which the participants started to explore, including some of their assumptions about how men and women ‘should’ behave.

The question of ethics came up again and again throughout the two and half days, as each participant offered examples of the compromises involved in being a member of a group, particularly if that group is colluding in corrupt activity. The conversation ranged over more obvious moral cases of right and wrong to explore more subtle, intractable or ambiguous situations that participants had found themselves in at work. The group gave participants a forum to explore their concerns and anxieties, which they became more confident in using as the weekend progressed.

One strong theme which developed over the weekend was that social life is co-created – we contribute to patterns of relating and are shaped by these same relationships. This led participants to reflect upon the way they are affected by factionalism in their own country and how they may themselves contribute to it, even in small ways. For example, one participant mentioned the fact that she had very few dealings with her next-door neighbor, perhaps because they are from a different tribe, but has strong relationships with people from her own tribe, even though they live further away. This led her to reflect on why this might be and what she might do about it: could she be contributing in a small way to perpetuating factionalism in her every day ways of being?

The participants have been exposed to the uncertainty of everyday life in ways which it is difficult for the convenors to imagine. We could support them with some concepts to help them express what was important to them, but apart from that they needed little encouragement once we had all got over our initial anxieties.

I expect to develop these themes further when we work with the same group later in the year ahead.



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