There is a wide gap between the currently dominant view of organizational leadership - as supposedly practised by those in formal leadership positions - and the complex social dynamics of organizational life, as discussed in this Blog.
Although leadership is supposed to be about creativity, innovation and change, and about enabling staff to pursue the leader’s assumed-to-be-far-sighted and inspiring vision, the reality tends to be much more mundane. And, despite what might be suggested by the formal trappings of organization, decisions arising wholly from rational analysis of ‘the facts’ and step-by-step decision-making are rare – if they exist at all. In practice, people tend to make progress through informal interactions, ad hoc sense-making conversations, ongoing political accommodations, and plain, common-or-garden ‘muddling through’. Most significantly, perhaps, whilst leaders might be formally ‘in charge’, they are not – indeed cannot be – in control of the outcomes that emerge from the complex interplay of the myriad local interactions that constitute everyday organizational life.
This is not a matter of incompetence. Far from it. But it might be portrayed as such, were it not to be covered over by the superficial gloss of management speak and formal process rituals that maintain the illusion of rationality, predictability and control. Or if there was no post-hoc rationalization of actual outcomes that savvy political behaviour demands.
Swimming against the (main)stream
Organizations comprise dynamic networks of people interacting with each other. And people have a habit of not conforming to the mechanistic assumptions that still channel much of the mainstream management thinking about organizational change and performance. Unfortunately, the veneer of goal-maximizing objectivity reinforces the fantasy that leadership is a rational, scientific endeavour practised by the few, rather than a complex social process enacted by the many. This has become so ingrained that managers who sense that ‘it isn’t really like that’ can find it extremely difficult to acknowledge this openly. And it’s harder still for them to escape from the deeply ingrained patterns of response that further sustain the status quo. In other words, the dominant management discourse and widely accepted narrative about leadership in work and society tend to enforce compliance. They do this through the expectations of rationality, predictability and control that they embody; the language that such expectations demand; and the ‘measures of competence’ that these imply.
Natural dynamics of leading - In charge but not in control
All of this might appear to be a damning indictment of individual leaders, were it not for the natural dynamics of organizational interaction that are highlighted in Informal Coalitions. It seems to me that most of the leaders with whom I have worked during my career – or have come across in other forums - have been trying to make a worthwhile difference in the complex, uncertain and ambiguous conditions in which they find themselves. The problem is that they are ‘on a hiding to nothing’ in their pursuit of leadership ‘perfection’, as this is prescribed by business school orthodoxy, sustained by popular misconception and reinforced by current performance measurement and reward mechanisms. All of these imply that they enjoy a level of control that is far removed from the reality of day-to-day experience.
Despite being formally in charge of the organization (or a part of it), they are not ‘sitting in the stands’, dispassionately observing and controlling other peoples’ actions. They are ‘on the pitch, playing’. Power relationships might ordinarily be weighted in their favour – and often significantly so. But what they think, say and do, and how this plays out in terms of outcomes, is ultimately determined by everyone else’s thoughts, words and actions that comprise the complex social process of everyday interaction.
The unrealistic expectations placed on formal leaders (particularly those in senior leadership positions), together with the mainstream ideological claims about the nature of their and others’ roles, tend to institutionalize leadership as an elite practice, rather than as an emergent property of everyday interactions. And the use of hyperbole in the business press and management consulting profession to describe leaders and leadership practice continues apace. This further reinforces the extraordinariness of the concept. As does its positioning as something distinct from, and superior to, common-or-garden management.
Although Mintzberg’s definition of leadership as “management practiced well” (Managing, 2009), offers a much more grounded description of the formal leadership task, even this ignores the wealth of informal leadership that is continually exercised by individuals, as they mobilize the actions of others in pursuit of collectively desired ends. So the current conception of leadership is well entrenched and shows little sign of abating. Indeed, most of the current leadership selection, development and reward prescriptions reinforce this position.
Shifting the patterns
Becoming aware of these dynamics, and recognizing the inadequacy of the current conception of leadership is therefore an important first step in shifting the conversations about such behaviours towards something more useful. So what patterns of talk and action might become evident, if the currently dominant conception of leadership practice was to be supplanted by one which more closely reflected the complex social reality of organizational life?
I shall attempt to offer some answers to that question, from an informal coalitions perspective, in the next post.