Leadership for tomorrow’s organisation

20 10 2009


Leadership for tomorrow’s organisation

I am preparing the literature search element of a research project on “leadership and tomorrow’s organisations”. This research will be particularly related to sustainability. At this stage I am looking at writings which seek to define leadership from a wide range of perspectives, including

  • Henry Mintzberg’s new book “Management” says that managers lead some of the time and leaders manage some of the time. Leading is a relatively small part of how they spend their time, not the whole of the job for anyone.
  • Ron Heifetz of Harvard, Kennedy School of Government, writes or co-writes three books, which, with another by Sharon Parks illustrating his approach of creating situations where participants experience what is involved in leadership, discovering what it means in terms of attitudes relationships and activities. He distinguishes between the purely technical means of management and the adaptive leadership which has to deal with situations in areas where there is no ready answer. Leaders should not impose their own solutions but enable people to own the problems and develop their own solutions.
  • The University of Hertfordshire under the “leadership” of Ralph Stacey, denies that an organisation has any kind of living existence, such as that propounded by Arie de Geus in “The Living Company”. Organisations are not run by leaders top down, but develop out of local conversations by all employees at all levels, so that the organisation is self developed at the edge of chaos, as nature is said to be by complexity theory. Individuals on their own don’t change things – it is the power of these conversations and relationships; they are somehow the energy for change. The question remains whether some individual leaders are needed to avoid descent into chaos. I have been unable to understand why Stacey et al are so hostile to systems thinking as presented by Michael C Jackson, Russell Ackoff and Peter Senge.
  • Bill Tate in “the Search for leadership”, just out, says, in effect that we don’t need leaders, but leadership, which can emerge in all sorts of situations at all kinds of level in an organisation. This could fit with the Stacey view, except that Tate roots it in systems thinking, which Stacey belittles. I haven’t finished Tate yet. It promises to be a good book, which I will review on the VLRC (Some of the Stacey stable is being reviewed and Mintzberg’s latest. Heifetz has already been reviewed.)

Other books and articles being considered include those by Adair, such as “Leaders not bosses”,  Kotter’s best book in my view is his parable of the Penguins whose iceberg was melting and whose problem was solved by one who was seen as a non leader, with the blessing of one of the formal leaders. This could be quite relevant. Some of Kotter’s books are somewhat mechanistic revolving around his seven or eight points.


One question that frequently emerges is the doubt whether one can put manager and leader into different categories.  Organisational learning expounded by Senge and others is not favoured by Stacey, because as organisations don’t exist as entities they can’t learn, according to him, though individuals don’t learn either, other than in relationship.


Also relevant to everyone being involved in leadership is the approach of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Environmentalists tend to seek to influence organisations to change course or persuade people to take small carbon reduction steps which will make them feel good. The best way according to the WWF is to work on changing people’s central values, so that they in turn will insist on action being taken by government. Hearts and minds being involved are stronger than mere checklists. They are working on changing the quality of the thinking of the population, so that they will insist that Governments act. Thus the whole population has a share in leading governments to do something. Leadership is enshrined in the people, which is the essence of democracy. Government of the people, for the people, by the people.


This has certain similarities with Stacey’s leadership stemming from the relationship between the mass of people almost mystically having an effect. But probably the media has a greater effect, and the basis of its work is not the instilling of the highest values, but the supporting of a favoured party to win elections. Perhaps the WWF is being highly idealistic and has a high view of human identity that is not generally borne out in practice. However  perhaps the only answer to environmental concerns is when we, the people, are led to lead our government to take uncomfortable but needed action  


Most of the authors agree that we can’t predict the future; a mistake that market systems often make is to think they can. And one of the qualities expected by those who look for it in hero leaders is such a capacity for foretelling the future. Is the distributed leadership we have been considering with some of the writings, capable of learning that if we continue as at present then disaster is certain? We can’t go on as we are. Thus we do know something about the future, sufficient to create scenarios about possible situations and how to handle them if they arise. If we actively lead our fellow citizens into Stacey like conversations about the future needed for a life of reasonable quality, we can start together in that direction, even if where we arrive is not quite what we expected.


When we, the people, provide such leadership and force the government people who think they are the leaders, to face up to realities, which are more significant than election winning, we may arrive at Robert Greenleaf’s, “Servant Leadership”.


Is it too much to expect research to be taken seriously if it considers such issues and possibilities, so far removed from current cynicism and starts talking about trust and courage, giving and not just taking, and seeing business as having a responsibility to Society, in spite of denials from the Friedman school. Positive results can stem from a different perspective on leadership.


Comment, including rigorous opposition, is welcome. My thoughts are only partly formed as yet.


Edgar Wille

20 October 2009




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