Category Archives: teams

Six things you can stop worrying about as a leader and one thing that should keep you awake

1 Everyone knows what good leadership is in the abstract and the ideal. But there is no leadership in the  abstract. There is only what you do when you show up at work, and this will never be ideal. So if you are a leader you are always a work in progress making it up as you go along with your colleagues. You won’t always know what to do, and that’s ok. One of the central tasks of leadership is how you work out what needs to be done together.

2 Whenever I work with senior people it is only a matter of time before someone mentions Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King (I have a dream) or Gandhi (be the change you want to see). You are none of these people, nor do you need to be an exceptional world leader to do your job. You might be good at your job and the right person to be leading, and you might just have got lucky or speak the right kind of leaderly language. But the more you play into the ‘exceptional leader’ narrative the more you will invite denigration and opportunities for people to point out that you have feet of clay. As a leader you will have a strong role in people’s fantasies and imaginative life (because of the strength of the leadership discourse) , and this will need to be handled with caution.

3 Relax about the vision thing (see 1 and 2 above). Saints and prophets have visions, and visions of the corporate variety are often so grandiose or vacuous as to be meaningless: everyone wants to be ‘best in class’, ‘world leading’, or ‘internationally renowned’, so what does it mean if you do too? This is not the same as saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious for your organisation, set high standards and want that you and your colleagues do the best you all can. It might be perfectly obvious to you and your senior colleagues what needs to be done, but so might something else in six months time when the game has changed.

4 You are highly unlikely to ‘transform’ anything if you mean by this that you can guarantee bringing about wholesale change for the good. Changes you make will bring about the expected, the unexpected and the unwanted. There will always be unintended consequences, and ‘success’ will depend upon who is judging and when the judgment is made. Large initiatives may make little difference and widespread change might come about from a conversation in a corridor. You must live forwards but can only understand backwards. Leadership, as an academic pointed out, is often about the ‘extraordinisation of the mundane’ – much of what you do as a leader is no different from what most people do at work, but the ordinary conversation you have with a colleague may have special significance because you’re the boss.

5 No one can design organisational culture, not even the most powerful and successful leader, if by culture we mean what we’re all doing together. You can change people’s work, set them targets, punish and cajole, tell them that they have to demonstrate certain behaviours and reward them accordingly, but how they respond to this will be largely beyond your control (unless you live in North Korea). Attempts to manipulate people’s values may well result in resistance, more or less overt, and/or superficial compliance. If people don’t have a choice about their values, rather their values ‘choose them’, then what are you getting in to if you try to dictate your colleagues’ values?

6 And You won’t be able to choose your leadership ‘style’ if by this you think you can rationally chose the kind of leader you want to be before you show up at work, like choosing an outfit. You are much more likely to be moulded by the organisation you work for than to mould it. You will find yourself responding to the game of organisational life in ways which will surprise you as you run to keep up, even if you’re the boss. You’re in charge, but you’re not always in control, not even of yourself.

And the thing which should keep you awake at night is that if you said any of these things in an interview for a leadership role you probably wouldn’t get the job. This is because leadership, as one academic has pointed out, is the subject of much dogmatically stated nonsense which seems to have a grip on the public imagination, not least because some of the tropes about the powers of exceptional leaders are repeated over and over so they are taken for granted as self evident truths. Everyone these days is thought to need leadership training, no matter how lowly their job, and many organisational problems are ascribed to ‘absence of leadership’.  The myths about leadership are now self- sustaining.

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Experiencing uncertainty

I was working with a group of managers and we had been discussing how a lot of managerial work is about dealing with uncertainty. Things don’t work

questionout quite how you planned, surprises come out of left field, and your boss, or the organisation with which you are working closely, has just decided that something else is now a priority. What you came in to do in the morning has somehow gone off course by the afternoon, but you’re still responsible for your first priority. This was the link I had been making previously to the complexity sciences: I had been arguing that small changes can amplify into big differences, and social life arises in the interplay of differing intentions. But how do you know how to respond and what to pay attention to?

I suggested that we might work together with uncertainty with the group as an experiment the next morning, if they were up for it. We would meet with no agenda as such and the only task would be for the 26 of us to sit together in a room for an hour and a half and talk about how we cope with uncertainty, making links with organisational life, and noticing at the same time how we were dealing with the task together as we were dealing with it. I was explicit about the fact that this was a group method developed by the Institute of Group Analysis as a way of paying attention to process from within the process itself. I told them that would participate with them, but that I wouldn’t be in charge. I warned them that they might find it a bit uncomfortable and anxiety provoking, but they were a group of social work managers and no doubt they would have been in situations like this before.

They said they would like to try it. Continue reading

Cricket, identity and the paradoxes of group life

So was it right that he was sacked or not?

Those of you who are not cricket fans, or not UK residents (or both) may not have heard that Kevin Pietersen, England’s best but most unpredictable and unreliable batsman, has been told that he no longer figures in the plans of those managing the England cricket team. This follows a disastrous tour of Australia where the team lost all of their matches in the annual grudge series with the Australian team known as the Ashes. (The competition is called the Ashes following England’s shock defeat to Australia in 1882, when the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary stating that English cricket had died and its ashes had been sent to Australia. Every year since then the England team has struggled to wrest them back).Image

What is interesting about the sacking is the soul-searching it has provoked in the press well beyond the sports pages. This is not just because sport, to bowdlerize Clausewitz, is war by other means (or if you like, and after Elias,  the civilising of our aggressive instincts in highly interdependent societies), but because it appeals to our sense of identity, our ‘heroic we’. Pietersen’s sacking has provoked very strong emotion in a wide variety of people, not all of them avid cricket fans. Clearly, it’s not just about the game.

Continue reading

Meeting to achieve measurable outcomes

In the last post I discussed the ways in which people regulate themselves and each other in everyday life. I made the argument that without this self- and group discipline there would be no order in social life. As we have pointed out many times on this blog, après Bourdieu, Elias and Foucault,  and by drawing on analogies from the complexity sciences, power relations both enable and constrain what it is possible to do. There is, however, a general tendency in more popular management literature to suggest that somehow we can do away with or ‘transform’ power relations by being nice to each other, or by being appreciative, or by being open and transparent, or authentic. These perspectives convey the implicit idea that power is somehow unpleasant or illicit. But this is to cover over or even to miss the productive nature of power. Power produces a regimen of resistance and compliance, the exact patterning of which will always be unpredictable, but is likely to give rise to both routine as well as a degree of novelty. But to ask the question about how disciplinary power operates in social life is not simply to enquire into how ‘they’ are doing something to ‘us’ but also to probe into how we are doing things to ourselves. How we try to influence each other to organise our joint undertakings can say a lot about the kinds of pressures we are under and how we aspire to being professional. Continue reading

Putting the ‘cult’ into culture

This week saw the publication of another report into an organisation, the Mid-Staffordshire hospital, which was deemed to have been poorly managed, and therefore to have seriously and dangerously failed its service users. Some of the contributing factors to organisational failure were thought to be the management team and board’s slavish persuance of government initiatives, which led to keeping an over-tight rein on the budget in order that the hospital might qualify to become a Foundation hospital, and/or superficial management to targets. By implication the inspection regime must also be at fault since the hospital seems to have passed a variety of inspections.

From this and other examples, what are some repeating patterns in organisational life, and assumptions informing them? What sorts of things do leaders and managers, board members and government ministers seem to be thinking about management and leadership that might be contributing to the mess?

Apologies in advance for the caricature – it is the weekend. Continue reading

Two perspectives on leadership

I was recently invited to fill out a questionnaire for a colleague who was being assessed for a 360 degree appraisal concerning her leadership abilities, although I did not work for her organisation. I was being invited to offer an ‘outsider’s’ perspective. To the best of my knowledge this colleague does not lead a large team, although she has a very senior position. I understand this questionnaire to be a reflection of many organisations’ preoccupation with leadership and their need to quantify and assess the leadership potential of their employees, whether they are in leadership positions or not. It is part of a much wider discourse about leadership and a widely accepted supposition that it is a critical determinant of organisational success.

This particular questionnaire comprised 40 or so Likert scale questions with four discursive questions at the end asking about the colleague’s principle strengths and weaknesses. The questions divided roughly into eight main themes. Continue reading

Taking a detour via detachment in INGOs

I have been working with staff from an international development organisation to review a new service that they set up a year ago. For them this involved creating a new department, launching a new vision and strategy, and team building within the new entity. There were a number of away-days and launches. Inevitably there were glitches, miscommunications, lacunae. Additionally, the ambitious work plan of creating the new department, with new policies and procedures, has been run over by events. So staff were running around trying to set up something new at the same time as they were responding to business as usual. Everything has taken much longer than anticipated.

The new department comprises people who work in the UK and overseas. Some of these latter were doing a similar job to the one they were doing previously, but were now considered to be in a different department. Some of them are not clear that they have become part of a new department – their everyday reality is much as it was before, although they might be reporting to a different manager. For staff in the UK the changes have been more obvious and more talked about. They are engaged in struggles with the old department from which the new entity has been carved concerning who does what, who takes responsibility.

Members of the new group make observations which seem very familiar to me from previous similar situations. The first is to criticise the senior management team who set this process going in the first place. Why didn’t they plan this properly – why didn’t they foresee some of the difficulties which were going to arise and pre-empt them? The second is to bemoan the lack of clear communication. If only we could communicate clearly, or even design a better system of communication, then some of these problems would not have arisen. The third is to draw attention to the feelings of demoralisation that some people feel: they complain that they have not been sufficiently consulted, or they may have been made anxious by the turbulence of change, or they may have lost out in terms of power and autonomy in the new department. Some people present have been moved out of the new department, and are now only loosely connected to it, and are feeling excluded. Continue reading