15- Implications of the Postmodern Condition for Leaders

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[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Pacific Soundings Press, P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]

Theme: The Postmodern Condition

Fundamental Question

What are the paradoxes, whip lashing contradictions and dizzying changes of which our world is made, and how might an appreciative perspective assist in responding to the challenges of this postmodern condition?

We bring this cluster of essays to a close by briefly examining a central tenet of the postmodern perspective—specifically with regard to leadership. We will look at the complex, unpredictable and turbulent contexts in which postmodern leaders have to choose, act and define themselves. This examination will continue in much greater detail throughout the future essays being offered on this blog. We will identify a series of themes that describe these postmodern conditions. We will not prescribe a specific strategy for addressing the challenges inherent in these themes, but rather offer a variety of perspectives on each theme, which in turn suggest a variety of different leadership strategies. In a postmodern world of fragmentation and troubling ambiguity, leaders must be open to experiencing and experimenting with their own variations on these fundamental themes.

Given the challenge of providing leadership in organizations that are filled with turbulence, unpredictability and complexity, many leaders have given up on finding a coherent set of answers to the questions they pose. They certainly don’t expect to discover a unified theory of leadership. Other leaders have grown cynical of any set of strategies or any theory that purports to tell them how to lead a 21st Century organization. Most postmodern leaders are inclined to dismiss any prescriptive model that identifies a right and wrong way of operating. Given the nature of the postmodern condition posed in this chapter, they turn instead to more contextually-based models that address the complex dynamics of most organizations.

Contextual Models of Postmodern Leadership

Abraham Maslow was among the first to recognize that there was no one right way to lead or manage. Unfortunately, he presented this notion in an obscurely titled book: Eupsychian Management. This book received little attention. Others (such as Woodward, Fiedler and Vroom) also tried to make the point, but were either too academic or located in an out-of-the-way location (such as England!). It really was not until the 1980s, when Hershey and Blanchard coined the term situational leadership that the notion of multiple models of successful leadership and management took hold among both the theorists and those who actually practice leadership and management on a daily basis.

At the heart of any contextual model are two concepts: ecology and relationships. The first concept relates to the relative influence which personality and situation have on the actions of all people—particularly leaders. While traditional models of leadership tend to focus on personal attributes, such as intelligence, honesty and dedication, postmodern models recognize the powerful role played by the complex ecology in which leadership is expressed. This ecology influences not only how a leader behaves, but also how those who encounter this leader interpret her behavior. As many behaviorists have suggested, the actions of any one person is more accurately predicted if information is available about the setting in which action is taking place than if information is available regarding this person’s personality or character.

In summarizing this ecological perspective, Malcolm Gladwell (in The Tipping Point) states that:

Character . . . isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits, and it only seems that way because of a glitch in the way our brains are organized. Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

From this ecological perspective, a leader isn’t successful because of her inherent talents or personality, or even the styles and skills she has acquired during her lifetime. Rather, she is successful because she creates or moves into ecological settings that are conducive to her display of effective leadership. An ecological analysis would conclude that Jack Welch was successful in running General Electric not because of his leadership skills, strategies or perspectives, but because of the GE ecology (market trends, financial conditions, the company’s life cycle, organizational culture, resources and history of the organization, and so forth). The ecologically oriented book to be written about the Welch success story would focus on the organization and surrounding environment, not just the person of Jack Welch.

In turning to the second concept, relationships, we begin with an analogy drawn by Margaret Wheatley between quantum physics and organizational functioning: “Nothing is independent of the relationships that occur. I am constantly creating the world—evoking it, not discovering it—as I participate in all its many interactions. This is a world of process, not a world of things.” We are always acting as leaders in relationship to the environment in which we find ourselves. There are moments and places within an organization when specific types of leaders are needed; furthermore, each of us can provide certain kinds of leadership functions in specific moments and places. 

Postmodern leadership is likely to be effective in an organization if there is a good match between the leader’s needs and style at that specific moment and place and the organization’s needs and style at that same moment and place. The context for leadership concerns this matching process. A leader may find, for instance, that he must be capable of and willing to shift his style when working with a relatively immature work group or with a group that is highly mature. Within this context, however, and in his working relationship with members of this group, he may help to promote their maturity, thereby necessitating yet another change in style (which may or may not fit with his own ability or willingness to shift). Similarly, the nature of a task or the processes of decision-making in the organization may change. Leaders must shift gears when entering varying situations. If they are effective, however, leaders will also influence these situations. As a result, leaders may be forced to shift roles precisely because they have helped to bring about a change in context. 

Expectations Regarding 21st Century Leadership:

Globalization, Localization and Coaching

Given the postmodern interplay between globalization and localization, we can expect many leaders to simultaneously play on the global stage and the local stage. We can also expect them to be deeply embedded in their own organization (as a new neighborhood) while also seeking to retain a viable family and community life. We also expect them to be national and world citizens, who are thoughtfully informed and ready to vote! The boundaries between work and home are inevitably blurred, leaving little time, in many instances, for leaders to keep their appointment with self. These postmodern conditions confront the leader with challenges that require both courage and insight.

The vertiginous rise of executive coaching in the last ten years – in its myriad variations – is a response to these challenges, both as a tool for self-development in the context of work and as a form of self-care. If leadership is situational, coaching is called upon to provide leadership development of the most customized and “just-in-time” kind.

 

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