We all know how organizations work. We’ve read the books and magazines, seen the research, and attended the courses. If we’re looking for ways to change, develop, restructure, merge, demerge, turnaround, or otherwise transform the organization for the better, we are spoilt for choice. These - always “new” - ways of working are all neatly packaged, politics-free, and presented as common-sense responses to the challenges that we face. Provided that everyone follows the prescribed programmes, systems, and procedures, we’re assured that the outcomes we’re looking for will come to fruition. Sorted!
Trouble is, this well-ordered, fully aligned view of organization and management practice, with its unfailingly positive results, bears little relationship to the world that managers experience every day.
The straight-line, ‘do this and you’ll get that’ idealizations are far removed from the wiggly reality. Despite this, it’s the former that continue to dominate the ways in which management is spoken about and judged in formal organizational arenas and wider society.
This does nobody any favours – other than, perhaps, those who design, package and sell the supposed ‘solutions’. In particular, it creates unrealistic expectations of what managers can sensibly achieve. This increases pressure on them to conform to this fantasized view of organization and contaminates their day-to-day practice.
Most importantly, it inevitably distorts the ways in which they account formally for their actions. The resulting reports then serve to reinforce the assumptions of scientific rationality, predictability, and control on which the popular rhetoric – if not the reality - of organizational management and leadership practice is based. And so the fantasy continues.
What might happen, though, if managers took their own experience seriously? How might they (and the rest of us) understand and talk about leadership?
Here are ten potential shifts to be going along with…
1. From elite practice to emergent property
Leadership would be recognized as an emergent property of people interacting together, not as an elite practice confined to those at the top of organizations (and of society more generally). That is, it would be understood as a complex social process enacted by many people in the course of their everyday interactions. It would not be seen as a rational, scientific endeavour, practised by a few gifted and formally appointed individuals.
2. From standing out to standing in
This popular conception of leadership assumes that it is provided by someone (or a cadre of people) with outstanding ability - individuals who ‘stand out from the crowd'. They are also thought of as people who remain above the fray, objectively observing and controlling the actions of others. Instead, a central element of leadership practice would be seen as one of ‘standing in’ – that is, “actively participating in the conversations around important emerging issues,” as Ralph Stacey puts it.
3. From controlling to contributing
Those in formal leadership positions (as well as others who comment upon their performance) would accept that they were not in control of organizational outcomes. As powerful participants in the ongoing process of social interaction, they would be contributing to those dynamics and outcomes in important and influential ways – whether intentionally or not. But they would not be in control of them.
4. From certainty to curiosity
It would be recognized that managers (like everyone else) act into a continuously emerging and unknowable future, in which they don’t have all of the answers. Sometimes they don’t have any. The search for, and expectancy of, certainty and predictability would have been replaced by the valuing and practice of curiosity. That is, there would be a preference for leading through questions, and acceptance of the inevitability of ‘not knowing’.
5. From diagnosis to dialogue
The currently dominant view of leadership practice assumes that strategic and operational challenges can best be dealt with by expert diagnosis – whether a manager’s own or that offered by specialist advisors. In contrast, managers would recognize that knowledge in a social process is co-created through people’s everyday conversations and interactions. As such, they would see their role as one of provoking shifts in the ongoing patterns of interaction rather than prescribing solutions for others to follow. Put simply, for managers, the conversations are the work.
6. From managing change to mobilizing coalitions
It would be understood that all interactions involve differing – and often competing – interpretations, interests, ideologies, and identities, etc. People coalesce informally around emerging themes, in order to initiate, support, or frustrate particular changes and to preserve their sense of self-worth. Seeking to bring about change is therefore a political process. It involves mobilizing active coalitions of support around themes that run counter to the currently established ‘order’ and that resonate strongly with a sufficiently powerful constituency of people. It would no longer be assumed that change can be brought about by using the ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ logic and n-step methodologies of change-management orthodoxy.
7. From individual dynamism to interactional dynamics
There would no longer be an excessive preoccupation with the “dynamism” (i.e. drive, vision, energy, inspiration, and other such attributes) of managers as heroic individuals. This would have been replaced by a focus on their understanding of – and practical engagement with - the complex social dynamics of interaction, and the muddling-through nature of real-world management practice.
8. From evaluating people to enabling performance
It would be recognized that managers cannot determine what emerges from the widespread interplay of people’s day-to-day interactions. Whatever happens does so as a result of the intentional and habitual behaviours of interdependent people (including managers) interacting together moment-to-moment. It is not determined by the target-focused behaviour of supposedly autonomous individuals. Practice would therefore shift towards enabling people to perform at their best in the light of what actually happens. It would not be about measuring and evaluating them against abstract targets, based on what might have happened if the real world had been kind enough to conform to the planning assumptions.
9. From evidence-based practice to practice-based evidence
Organization would be understood to be a complex social process, not a rational scientific endeavour. This means that the success (or otherwise) of a particular action only becomes evident as 'outcomes' emerge and come to be recognized as such. Even then, what constitutes "success" or "failure" is a matter of interpretation rather than fact. In essence, it would be recognized that the 'evidence' of the worthwhileness or otherwise of any changed way of working only emerges in the midst of its practice. That is to say, evidence is practice-based.
10. From colluding to confronting
Realizing the above shifts in thinking and practice would bring with it an increasing tendency for people (and particularly those in formal leadership positions) to confront - rather than collude with - the basic myths that sustain current management orthodoxy.
The central illusion, that an organization’s fortunes can be assured if managers take action in line with the latest ‘recipe for success’, would be less in evidence than at present. Some actions will help. Others will hinder. Some will ‘work’ there and then, but not now and here. None can guarantee a successful outcome – however commonsensical these might appear to be. Keith Grint captures this nicely in what he calls “the banal paradox of management” …
“Much of what is taught in management or business schools, or written about in management or business books,” he says, “is a banal paradox. It is banal in that it appears to regurgitate what everyone already takes for granted and knows to be true. It is a paradox because, despite being full of common sense, it doesn’t seem to work.”
This tendency for people to confront rather than collude with policies and practices that run counter to their lived experience would also extend to the exposure and exploration of other shadow-side themes and behaviours, where previously these would have remained hidden and undiscussable.
If a sufficiently powerful coalition of support were to form around themes such as the ten set out above, these might emerge from the shadows and enter the mainstream. If not, the tendency will remain for current narratives - and the flawed assumptions on which these are based - to continue to shape people's understanding of leadership practice, performance, and development.
 R. Stacey (2000:413) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics (3Ed). FT Prentice Hall
 K. Grint (1997:2) Fuzzy Management. Oxford University Press