30- The Postmodern Leader: Style One. II. The Challenge of Relativism

June 28, 2010

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II. The Challenge of Relativism

[This blog is based in large part on a chapter I wrote with my colleague, Agnes Mura, in our 2005 book, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches, which in turn builds on concepts I presented in my 1992 book, The Postmodern Organization]

In Blog 29 I describe several ways in which Style One leaders can become lifelong learners, noting the ways in which we are changing and expanding on our notions about adults learning. In this blog, I wish to dig deeper and explore the profound challenge that underlies virtually any new learning associated with the postmodern realities of 21st Century life. I propose that we live in a world of relativity and uncertain knowledge. In such a world how shall we make commitments and honor enduring values? How do we continue to learn when new knowledge often calls into question our most closely (and carefully) held assumptions and perspectives.

Who knows if unadulterated good and bad, right and wrong were ever appropriate perspectives on the nature of truth and reality? The postmodern world is one that demands a relativistic perspective, if we do not want to shut out what we are learning. What are the tools of thought that will help us in our willingness to take action in a world that is fluid and in which ethics are more situational and elusive? William Perry’s description of the movement from relativism to a commitment in relativism offers us some insight into this process.

From Dualism to Commitment in Relativism

Perry suggests that many mature men and women move beyond a way of thinking (dualism) in which everything is either identified as black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, clear or unclear. They move to a way of thinking (relativism) in which there are rights and wrongs, and goods and bads that exist within a specific community of belief and are not universal. Thus, within a specific scientific community, certain postulates are accepted as valid and are subject to rules of verification that have been formulated by that specific community. Yet, within another scientific community a different set of postulates are accepted and a different set of rules are followed in efforts to verify these postulates. Thus, in each of these communities there are “truths”—but in neither case can truth be claimed as universal or all encompassing. We see this dynamic played out in the field of psychology during most of the 20th Century. Three warring camps—behaviorism, humanism and psychoanalysis—and many sub-camps fought against one another, yet could never make much headways, since each camp made the argument for truth using methods and criteria of validity that neither of the other two camps accepted or even recognized as appropriate to a valid study of the human condition.

What are the responses of many leaders to this condition? The typical response is a turning to or a returning to the state of multiplicity in which we cynically conclude that since there is no one right way or moral way to do things, then any old way is acceptable as long as we don’t get caught. Such a cynical posture provides some shelter against the postmodern storm. Skepticism is another protective stance: Anyone who has grown up in a totalitarian ideological system, which has its seductive absolute truths and world-improving tenets, often spends their life in justified skepticism toward any ideology or absolute claims of truth: at least I will never be fooled or made to believe in something that is ultimately found to be inadequate or dead wrong.”

Multiplistic thinking is certainly a tempting stance for a 21st Century leader to take given the postmodern challenges this leader faces. It is based on the assumption of multiple truths and multiple realities, each of which is equally valid. Ironically, multiplicity is just another form of dualism: “if there is no one truth, then there must not be any truths!” As Foucault has so often observed, in this view truth and reality tends to be decided by less rational forces involving governments, political pressure, social-economic power, and subtle media-based coercion. We need not worry, therefore, about who is right; rather we must worry about who is in charge and what they believe or declare to be the truth and reality. A new golden rule applies for the Multiplist: “he who has the gold makes the rule [and defines reality]!”

Perry suggests another response to the problems of a relativistic world. This is the response he calls commitment in relativism. It is a response that is directly aligned with the learning-orientation of the Style One postmodern leader This response requires the willingness to make a commitment to something, despite the fact that there are alternative truths and realities that can make viable claims on our sense of the world. At this point, Perry moves beyond the line of argument that would be found among most relativists. He writes of the need for mature men and women to make decisions and take stances in the face of postmodern relativism. As postmodern leaders we must make commitments while living in a relativistic world. In order to be able to do this, Perry suggests that we need courage and the capacity for self-reflection. Dualism and relativism without commitment enable one to avoid anxiety, but courage alone enables us to transcend it.

Dualism, with its clear rights and wrongs, enables us – as Erik Fromm noted many years ago –  to escape from freedom. Relativism without commitment enables us to float above the fray, and avoid making the tough decisions or any commitments. We can be breathtaking in our clever and often cynical social analyses. We are brilliant Monday morning quarterbacks regarding politics, corporate decision-making, and our parents’ child raising strategies. Because we ourselves never have to make choices, we can successfully criticize those who do have to make decisions.

The Multiplists and Relativists do not view themselves as similar to the Committed Relativist, but instead criticize the Committed Relativist for retreating into Dualism. Like the Dualist, they confuse commitment for uncritical acceptance. In the case of the cynical Multiplist, the retreat is either a falling back into Dualism or an expedient move to commitment (“who is paying you to come to that decision?”). For the Relativist, the retreat is viewed as either an ignoring of alternative perspectives or as a “selling out” to the forces that are forcing simplification in our society. The Multiplists project their own turn to expedience onto the Committed Relativist, while the Relativist yearn for (and try to remain in) a world that enables them to stay detached and “objective.”

In large part this misinterpretation of the motives and perspectives of the Committed Relativist relates to the emotion of grieving, which accompanies, for example, our “loss of innocence” when moving from Dualism to Multiplicity, for we must abandon our belief in one abiding truth. We also grieve when moving from Multiplicity to Relativism, for we can no longer embrace an undisciplined and cavalier attitude toward all purported “truths” in the world. Some ideas and “truths” are better than others, and expedient use of those truths that serve our own personal agendas are no longer acceptable. In the case of the move from Relativism to Committed Relativism, we grieve the loss of freedom and broad perspective that required no final judgments or commitments. We are kicked out of three different Edens, and feel devastated and betrayed when forced to leave each of these refuges.

Implications for Style One Leaders:

Commitment within the Context of Faith and Doubt

Leaders make an existential leap of faith when they face the complex, uncertain and rapidly changing conditions of postmodern life. When leaders are willing to make decisions and commitments within the context of these postmodern conditions, with insufficient and contradictory data, without absolute guidelines, then they have found what Merleau-Ponty has described as a truth within situation:

Courage and Self-knowledge in the Midst of Relativism

The movement of a Style One leader to commitment without absolute certainties—to a truth within a situation—requires courage and a willingness to encounter an unknown and unknowable world and do the best job possible with the information and perspectives that he does. At this point, the Style One leader is actually beginning to embrace a Style Two model of leadership—one that focuses on courage. She becomes courageous about her learning! Once this first courageous commitment is made by a Style One leader, a bit of increased self-knowledge often comes along. As Style One leaders, we find a new level of appreciation for our parents, our bosses and even our national leaders when we first discover how difficult it is to make good choices in a relativistic world. With increased self-knowledge, we become somewhat more comfortable about making commitments and about adopting a style of operating that leaves options open for an appropriate period of time and that moves the decision-maker to commitment.

Even after the decision is made, the committed relativist in a leadership role remains open to alternative perspectives that could lead to a modification in this decision, and follows up the decision with feedback on the effects of this decision. Chris Argyris and Donald Schon propose that the most effective decision-makers are not those who avoid making mistakes, but rather are those who learn from their mistakes and do not continue to make the same mistakes. By assuming the role of learner, the Style One committed relativist effectively confronts the ambiguity and often immobilizing anxiety associated with the postmodern, relativist view of reality.

Seeking Truth in the Midst of Relativism

What then becomes the nature of certainty and commitment for a 21st Century Style One leader in this relativistic framework? The key seems to lie in an emphasis on the process of knowing and inquiring rather than on the outcome or product of the search for knowledge or inquiry. Alfred North Whitehead first spoke of such an orientation in his portrait of a theology of process—in this sense, he was one of the first post-modernists. According to Whitehead, God is changing along with everything else—much as some scientists are now hypothesizing that the basic laws of the universe may themselves be changing over time. For Whitehead (and many contemporary feminist philosophers and psychologists), truth must always be viewed within its particular context and with regard to its purpose and use. Thus, a contemporary Style One leader must examine not only the outcomes of his deliberations, but also the methods and purposes that defined this deliberation. The postmodern deconstructionists encourage us to look at the words and sequencing of words as well as the message and intention being conveyed by the words. Whitehead and his process-oriented colleagues similarly encourage us to look past the outcomes of thought to the thought process itself.

In a world of relativity and process, how do Style One leaders grapple with the issues of faith and doubt? One answer to this question is obvious, though often ignored when talking about organizational leadership. This answer, as we have already seen, is the ingredient of courage. 21st Century leaders must find and manifest courage in order to confront the issues of faith and doubt in such a way as to lead to commitment. Courage, in turn, is to be found only when we have found some understanding of and have properly nurtured our own inner life. Courage comes when we have been successful in integrating the disparate elements of our selves. John Sanford suggests that the successful man is not someone who is able to achieve perfection (or thinks that he has achieved perfection by repressing aspects of himself). Rather, he is someone who has acknowledged and integrated all aspects of self—including those parts that are not very mature or even acceptable to our personal sense of the ideal self.

Puzzles, Problems and Mysteries

It is conventional wisdom to think of leaders as problem-solvers—as persons who along with colleagues identify problems, analyze causes, consider alternative solutions, and act on the solution that most promises desired results. Since the hey-day of logical positivism, and notably Kurt Lewin’s major contributions to organization development, we have tended to use the tools and deficit language of analysis and problem solving because we have been taught to focus on problems. And, as Cooperrider and others have so wisely and concisely observed, we have even gone so far as to see organizations (and, by extension, individuals who work within them) as “problems to be solved.”

Even if we were to look at problem solving as the cornerstone of our work, we would need to look closer. There appear to be three different kinds of issues. Some issues (puzzles) readily produce intended results through systematic analysis and action. Other issues (problems, in particular paradoxes or dilemmas) defy simple or single solutions, and often our attempts at systematic analysis and action create new, unintended consequences. Even more daunting are issues that are beyond rational comprehension, much less systematic resolution (mysteries).

With puzzles, the parameters are clear: The solution is completely in the control of those who choose to address it. The desired outcome of a puzzle-solution process can readily be identified and quantified and is often important to only a small number of organization members. Furthermore, a puzzle is unidirectional: It has only one successful solution; or, one solution tends to be unrelated to the successful solution of other aspects of the puzzle. The puzzle is clearly appealing to the Dualist. One need only apply a pre-established principle or technique to the puzzle and it will be successfully solved (as determined by a pre-established set of criteria). Examples of puzzles and their solutions abound: establishing a telephone registration system in order to make conference registration easier and more convenient; blacktopping more land in order to expand the capacity for parking in a Mall; conducting the search for a new member of the engineering staff.

Problems are complex, important, and sometimes paradoxical. There rarely is agreement on the criteria for solving a problem or even knowing when solutions are successful. By its very nature, a problem can be readily viewed from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, the outcome of the problem- solution process itself is of significant interest to multiple stakeholders—and successful resolution of one aspect of the problem tends to make resolution of other aspects more difficult or to create additional problems. Moreover, problems are set in unpredictable and turbulent environments and have a combination of internal and external locus of control; that is, factors influencing the creation of a problem and attempts to resolve it are located both within and outside the control of the individual or the organization.

We often don’t recognize problems for what they are. Rather, we tend to see them and act on them as if they are puzzles. When that happens, we dig ourselves deeper into the complexity of “the problem.” What we often get as a result is what we might call a “mess.” A “problem” of international dimension is the current “war against terrorism.” How should we define terrorism? How do we identify terrorists, let alone find them? What are we willing to do to win the war? Who will we ally with, and who will be our enemy? How do we sustain civil liberties at the same time that we provide a secure environment for law-abiding citizens? What are our criteria for defining success? When will “the war” be over?

As one might expect, Dualists don’t particularly enjoy working with problems, and seek in all ways possible to re-conceptualize problems as puzzles. Multiplists do not like problems either, and look to expedient (if short-term) solutions. Relativists often take delight in confronting a problem, though they prefer to remain on the sidelines, offering multiple suggestions regarding ways in which to interpret and address the problem, without having to come to a resolution! It is only the Committed Relativist who is willing to acknowledge that a problem—not a puzzle—is present and who is willing to live with the ambiguity and careful deliberations that attend any careful analysis of a problem and is willing to live with the inevitable emotional reactions (from multiple stakeholders) that accompany the choice of one solution to the problem over another.

Mysteries are of an entirely different order than puzzles and problems. A mystery is theological (inevitably viewed from many different perspectives that are systematic and deeply rooted in culture and tradition), profound (desired outcomes are elusive but of great importance to many stakeholders), numinostic (has no boundaries and all aspects are interrelated)—and the locus of control is external (entirely outside the control of the person, organization or constituencies seeking to deal with it).

Mysteries are beyond rational comprehension and resolution, and they are viewed with awe and respect. Depending on one’s perspective, they are the things “we take to God.” Why is there evil in the world? Why did lightning strike our building but not the one next to it? When and how am I going to die? Why did my child die before me? Mysteries also encompass many positive events and moments of reflection: Why did I fall in love with this person? Why did this remarkable person fall in love with me? How did I ever raise such an exceptional child? Why is this world blessed with such beauty in its sunrises and sunsets, in its mountains and oceans, in its many life forms?

For both Dualists and Multiplists, mysteries are much easier to comprehend than are problems—for mysteries are outside their control. The Dualists are likely to see mysteries as a confirmation of whatever “truth” they have received from an external source: The “good” have been rewarded, or the ultimate plan has not been revealed by the “ultimate” source of truth. Multiplists will view mysteries as further evidence that there is no solid base for assessing the validity of any “truth” and that therefore one should abandon all critical analysis: “It doesn’t matter what we think or believe, since what really happens in the world is a mystery beyond our control or comprehension. . . So let’s do whatever we want to do.”

Mysteries are much more challenging for the Relativist and Committed Relativist who try to place a rational frame around experiences in their lives. Mysteries defy reason and leave the Relativist in a mood to become even more detached from reality, and the Committed Relativist in a mood to join the Relativist in this detachment. Having come to a difficult decision, the Committed Relativist hates the thought of some external event, over which he has no control, intervening and throwing off the carefully deliberated course of action that he has taken. We finally decide on a candidate for this new job and she must decline because of a death in her family. We have chosen the new location for our shopping mall and we find that it is located in a seismically-active region and, hence, is not suitable for development. The Committed Relativist curses the perfidious predisposition of Nature and moves back to ground zero in order to make different, thoughtful decision.

A Special Type of Problem: The Paradox

If choosing between left and right in a definitive way is dangerous, and if defining good and bad in absolute terms is no longer philosophically defensible, how do Style One leaders in a postmodern setting make choices and decisions? Barry Johnson gave us in his 1992 book, Polarity Management, an elegant and eminently practical solution for “identifying and managing [such] unsolvable problems.”

As I already noted, puzzles have simple solutions and lie within our control. Many problems have multiple solutions, are infinitely complex, and require multi-directional cooperation, since they are not subject to one locus of control. Another category of challenges, mysteries, can never be solved completely:”What is love?” “Why am I here?” And then there are paradoxes or dilemmas, which require action and can be moved along, but can never be resolved once and for all. Think about it:  Can there be one ultimate answer for the choice between career and family life? Can the world conclusively choose between globalization and local needs? Between freedom and security in America? Can a manager choose between driving for performance and attending to his people’s needs? In these cases, the “solution” has to be… both! Instead of choosing between these apparent alternatives, we are learning to manage, not try to “solve” these dilemmas.

Barry Johnson suggests as a first step for handling everyday dilemmas, that both the benefits and the disadvantages of the two legitimate but opposite forces be analyzed. The two opposing forces are often embodied in “camps;” For example, the comptroller’s interest in minimizing expenses is pitted against the marketing department’s need to invest in consumer research. A central government has the need to unify the nation, but the states or provinces need flexibility in running their daily affairs. Neither position is “wrong.” The Style One leader who understands polarity management will regularly bring both parties to the table and facilitate a mutual understanding of the respective benefits and possible negative consequences of exclusively holding either position. Enormous understanding and empathy result from this first step alone.

Once the strengths and risks of the two sides are understood, the discussion is directed by the Style One leader to what happens when we try to maximize the benefits of either side. It turns out that such unilateral bias to one side of a paradox or dilemma soon causes the downsides of that same force to manifest. Therefore, Barry Johnson warns that we not try to maximize but rather carefully optimize the degree to which we incline toward one side or the other and for how long. Optimizing means that we must find a reasonable and perhaps flexible set-point as we incline toward one side or another. Finding these acceptable optimum responses and redefining them again and again is the key to polarity management; and it requires a constant process of vigilance and adjustments. We want to find a dynamic, flexible balance, so that each side’s beneficial contribution can be enjoyed, without engendering serious negative consequences. It seems that as a safeguard against overshooting toward either side it would be prudent for Style One leaders to build in alarm systems that warn that we may be trying to maximize one side, and are on the verge of triggering the negative reactions.


The sign of a leading mind today is that it can hold opposing views without flinching. The sign of a successful Style One leader is that she can live with and manage the dilemmas she faces in real time—without questioning her identity at every turn in the road, whip-lashing her strategies, tearing and rebuilding her organization’s structures reactively, or scapegoating people within or outside her organization. Many years ago, Orson Welles was featured in a unique cartoon that showed two warring factions that were in great dispute over a minor issue that soon became major. One day, one of the members of one of the warring factions made an extraordinary (and very brave) statement. This Style One leader said: “maybe they’re right!” Everyone and everything stopped—in amazement—on both sides of the battlefield. Members of each faction began articulating reasons why the other side was, at least in some respects, correct in their assessments, in their assignment of priorities, in their priorities. This fictitious world began to change and Welles, in his magnificent voice, ends by suggesting that just perhaps the people with whom we violently disagree in the “real” world might “. . . just be right!” Such is the case for the 21st Century Style One leader, who must acknowledge, in a relativistic frame, that there is validity in the multiple perspectives, values and ideas being offered by the various stakeholders to whom this leader is accountable.


26- The Modern Leader: Style Two. II. The Challenges

December 21, 2009

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II. The Challenges

The premodern Style Two leader builds her credibility on the foundation of courage—and typically looks to an external enemy as the focus for engaging this courage. A modern Style Two leader, who builds her credibility on the foundation of empowerment, is challenged by the nature and power of the internal enemy. In many ways, an internal enemy is much harder to engage than one that is external. The internal enemy may be constantly shifting, as new factions develop around specific policies or priorities. Furthermore, we usually have to work with the internal “enemies” rather than defeating them. As we come to appreciate the insights offered from alternative perspectives in our organization and as we seek to empower those with whom we work, then the internal enemy is likely to be transformed from a specific person, department or organizational perspective, to a pervasive ignorance in the organization or to a pervasive sense in the organization of entitlement or passivity or bureaucratic indifference.

The Ambiguous Enemy

The premodern enemy is usually rather easy to identify. He is out there, threatening us at the gates of our city (or organization). The internal enemy is inherently ambiguous—unless we chose to take the destructive path of identifying a specific and tangible internally-threatening enemy. How do we go about identifying and “concretizing” the ambiguous internal enemy? Do we use the rhetoric of warfare, such as often occurs with a government agency: “the war on drugs” or “homeland security”? While this may work short term, this rhetoric carries unwanted or at least inappropriate baggage with it. We look to war-like strategies to defeat the war-like internal enemy. We question loyalty when alternative perspectives are offered. We apply coercion rather than either clarification or persuasion to bring about the “defeat” of the internal enemy.

Much as the challenge of premodern courageous leadership can be summed up in two words (“powerful enemy”), so the challenge of modern leadership/management of courage can be summed up in two other words: EMPATHETIC EMPOWERMENT. The effective Style Two leader will be open to alternative perspectives, will fully appreciate the need for flexibility in addressing the complex problems of the modern world. Furthermore, the Style Two leader will fully embrace and engage the processes of empowerment as related to patterns of communication, conflict-management, problem-solving and decision-making in her department or organization.

There are several alternative strategies that can be applied in moving toward empathetic empowerment. These strategies are much less warlike in orientation. The metaphors to be used are based on models of appreciation and collaboration. First, we can frame the internal enemy as a corrective polarity—a polarity that has gone too far or is no longer relevant. For instance, it may be important (if not critical) to honor organizational traditions and to serve the interests of continuity and predictability within an organization. Excessive and indiscriminate change can destroy an organization. Yet, an emphasis on tradition, continuity and predictability can be pushed too far, leading an organization to atrophy. The enemy becomes the over-emphasis on tradition (or an over-emphasis on change). This over-emphasis needs to be “corrected” not “defeated.” The empowering leader can show modern-day courage by pointing the way to this correction and by ensuring that the correction doesn’t shove the organization to the opposite extreme and to a whiplash swinging from extreme to extreme. This first approach to framing and managing the internal enemy is systemic in nature. There is a need for rebalancing the organization—an acknowledgement of homo-stasis (the important and adaptive tendency of healthy organizations to return to some balance point between two extremes).

The second way in which to frame the internal enemy is based on an alternative way to think of organizations as systems. This approach focuses on the dynamics of homeorhesis (the important and adaptive tendency of healthy organizations to return to some operational pattern). This approach is much more ambitious and much harder to engage. It is much easier to return an organization to homeostasis than it is to identify, address and correct an embedded organizational pattern. What do these homeorhetic patterns look like? They may involve patterns of decision-making in the organization or patterns of communication, conflict-management or problem-solving (the four building blocks of the empowerment pyramid).

Communication patterns often involve the distribution of “air-time” among members of a group (whether meeting in person or meeting virtually via email or conference call). Who is expected to (and allowed to) dominate the conversation? Who is expected to offer information and who can offer options? How is the communication managed? Does someone serve as “gatekeeper” ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to speak? Are there many attempts to clarify the communication that does occur? Is there much paraphrasing? Is active listening engaged? To what extent does each person who is speaking (or writing) build on the ideas being presented by the previous speaker or writer? Empowering communication typically involves candid conversations about these patterns (a process that is often described as “meta-communication” or communication-about-communication).

Once communication has been addressed successfully by a Style Two leader and her associates, attention should focus on the ways in which conflict is being managed. Typically, it is only when communication is clear and when all parties are given an opportunity to voice their own opinions and share their own assumptions, that differences among these parties become clear. We might assume that our perspectives and desired outcomes differ from those of other people—however we don’t’ really appreciative the differences that exist until such time as we can truly listen to the words being spoken or written by these other constituencies. This means that it is not unusual for conflict to increase or at least become more evident when once empowering communication has been established.

Conflict is best addressed in an empowering manner when a Style Two leader seeks a higher level of agreement between herself and the other party: we seem to agree about the need for XXX and shift our attention to finding a common path that leads to this goal. Alternatively, the Style Two leader may seek to reach an agreement with a conflicting party by reaching agreement with this party about a sequence of actions: we will first seek to achieve your goals and then seek to achieve mine. A third alternative is to shift attention from the issue of direct priority (which goal is most important) to the issue of enablement (to what extent does each goal enable other goals to be achieved).

With the resolution or at least effective management of conflict, a Style Two leader is ready to address the pattern of problem solving in her department or organization. Is there a focus on the current status (realism) or on the desired state (idealism)? Is there a tendency to move quickly to action or to spend considerable time in reflection on alternative actions (as related to the assessment of current status or desired state)? To what extent is there a focus on rational processes of problem solving and to what extent a focus on creative and divergent processes of problem solving? Empowered problem solving requires a balance between realism and idealism, a balance between reflection and action, and a balance between rational and creative processes. An empowering Style Two leader encourages and embraces multiple problem solving strategies.

Finally, with an empowering and diverse set of problem solving strategies in place, the Style Two leader is ready to engage effective decision-making processes in the organization. The existing patterns of decision-making are often the most challenging to reform. The Style Two leader must be willing to identify and openly discuss the benefits and costs associated with current patterns of decision making in her organization and identify ways in which her specific department or organization might most successfully make decisions in specific areas. When should consensus be reached? Consensus decision making is usually only needed for very important decisions that require not only the understanding and consent of all parties, but also the active engagement of these parties in implementation of the decision. When can a small subgroup make the decision and when is it appropriate for the leader to operate in a unilateral manner? When are votes to be taken? What constitutes a “working” majority?

For empowerment to be successful, the Style Two leader must encourage ongoing reflection on the communication, conflict-management, problem-solving and decision-making patterns in her department or organization. The successful modern day Style Two leader is guided by the principle that form should follow function. The particular pattern to be engaged by members of her department or organization should be based on the specific function(s) being served by this department or organization. Does this department or organization need to respond rapidly to shifting environmental conditions? How much risk can be taken? Is there a high or low level of clarity with regard to the current challenges being faced by the department or organization? The answers to these fundamental questions will help to guide the processes of communication, conflict-management, problem-solving and decision-making that are being engaged by the Style Two leader.

24- The Modern Leader: Style One. II. The Challenges

January 12, 2009

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II. The Challenges

As in the case of the premodern leader of wisdom, a modern leader who builds her credibility on wisdom may at times be quite resistant to any challenge to his wisdom. This challenge might come from those who report to him or from among his peers who may question his wisdom (especially when profound change is occurring inside the organization or in the environment in which this organization operates). Obviously, we now live in a world where profound change is occurring within and around virtually all organizations. This suggests that most modern leaders and managers of wisdom are living in challenging times.

This challenge is even greater when the existing leadership is based on premodern wisdom and the credibility of an organization’s leadership is based on modern principles of management and on the educational programs that transmit and provide verification of these modern principles. In a previous blog I mentioned that I work with many young men and women from Asia who come to the United States to obtain a Masters Degree in Management. Their parents are typically deeply embedded in premodern cultures and have built their credibility on the basis of premodern wisdom. These premodern leaders often feel particularly challenged by their highly educated sons and daughters who want to introduce modern management principles into their parents’ organization.

The Subordinates’ Ambivalence

The premodern “follower” is often ambivalent about transitions in leadership. They want their premodern leaders to always be wise, but also want them to acknowledge the growing wisdom of other members of the premodern organization. Similarly, at one level, the modern subordinate wants her boss to be wise. She wants him to be a good manager and to be “up-to-date” with regard to modern management principles. However, part of what it means to be a “good manager” is respect for the growing competencies of subordinates.

One of the mostly widely used models of modern leadership/management—that is offered by Hershey and Blanchard—is based on the assumption that the style of leadership and management should shift as the people being led becomes increasingly knowledgeable about the tasks they are assigned, are able to set high but realistic goals, and are able to work effectively with other employees. In other words, the successful manager not only transmits her wisdom, she also acknowledges and supports the growing wisdom of the men and women who report to her.

Much as the challenge of premodern wise leadership can be summed up in two words (“succession planning”), so can the challenge of modern leadership/management of wisdom be summed up in two other words: THOUGHTFUL INFLUENCE. As a carefully trained and educated manager in a modern organization one should not be in the business of controlling the actions of one’s subordinates. With control comes an environment of repression and intimidation. Subordinates learn very little in this environment and certainly are not being prepared for movement themselves into management and modern leadership. On the other hand, a lasses faire attitude is also counter-productive—in which the modern manager pretty much ignores their subordinates and treats the successes and failures of their subordinates with indifference. Neither extreme are appropriate in the modern organization. Somewhere in between is the process of influence: the effective manager teaches, mentors, supervises and delegates. Each of these managerial initiatives is intended to be influential. All-too-often, unfortunately, modern management training programs stress control rather than influence. It is all-too-frequently the case that the opposite actually occurs: managerial indifference and isolation. What would a managerial training program look like that emphasizes behaviors that lead to influence rather than control, and to engagement with subordinates rather than a reliance on formal supervisory rules and regulations that are alienating.

Thoughtfulness must accompany the pattern of managerial influence. Donald Schön writes about reflective practice as critical for effective leadership in contemporary society. He is referring to ways in which someone in a leadership role is always testing out their hypotheses about how to conduct business in their unit of the organization and even more importantly how to work with other people (including subordinates). This means that an effective leader/manager is open to and actively seeks out feedback on their behavior from other members of the organization—and in particular from their subordinates. This feedback, in turn, requires that the modern leader/manager is willing to articulate the assumptions they are making and the processes of reasoning that underlie the decision they make and the interpersonal strategies they are employing. Thoughtful influence requires, in other words, that the modern leader/manager is open to being influenced by other people. Paradoxically, when we are open to influence from other people, they are, in turn, more open to be influenced by us.   

As I have repeatedly noted, we are living in organizations that are simultaneously premodern and modern—and are becoming increasingly aligned with a postmodern reality.  Effective modern leaders/managers recognize this hybrid reality. Their wisdom is based, in part, on this recognition and on the adoption of multiple and flexibly employed styles of leadership and management when navigating these turbulent waters of premodern, modern and postmodern reality. These styles of leadership and management rely in part on wisdom and its modern application via thoughtful influence. There are also styles of leadership that rely on modern equivalents to premodern courage and vision. I turn in the next blog to the modern day equivalent to organizational courage—a commodity that often is in short order when we search for effective 21st Century leadership. 


23- The Modern Leader: Style One. I. Education and Experience

January 5, 2009

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I. Education and Experience

In my previous six blogs I focused on three different styles of premodern leadership that have appeared in similar form in many different models of leadership and in conjunction with premodern social systems. In the six upcoming blogs I will provide a description of each of these leadership styles as they appear in modern societies. In each instance, the role of leader merges with that of manager. The successful leader, in other words, is a success manager—and management can be taught and managers can be created. Managers operating in modern organizations are not born into greatness nor do they necessarily need external forces (such as enemies) or auspicious circumstances (an appropriate vision at the right time and place) to be successful. They are “manufactured” in standardized formats—much like the products and services created by the organizations they manage.

I begin in this blog and the next blog with the modern version of the first leadership style. In its premodern form, this leadership style focuses on wisdom. In its modern form this style focuses on the role of the leader/manager in SHARING THE WISDOM with other members of the organization. This sharing of wisdom is engaged through effective delegation and supervision, through teaching and through mentoring. When a modern manager delegates, he or she is essentially “educating” the person being supervised regarding the job he or she is to perform. Supposedly, the manager knows more about the job to be performed than does the subordinate. The manager assigns specific tasks to the subordinate, in part because the subordinate is not as knowledgeable (at least initially) about the tasks to be done in order to achieve specific objectives. As in the case of the premodern leader, the issue of subordinate maturation and experience often arises: at some point the subordinate may very well know more about the tasks to be performed than does the manager. Under these conditions, the subordinate either passively accepts the manager’s orders (even though these orders are not always correct, appropriate or maximally efficient) or offers some alternative suggestions. Hopefully, the latter option is viable—though all-too-often we witness the subordinate grumbling about the foolish or stupid “jerk” who is serving as manager.

Similarly, in the case of manager as trainer and mentor, the modern version of wise leader is engaged. We assume, once again, that the manager is more experienced and skillful than the subordinate and that the primarily goal of the manager is to share this wisdom. In some cases, teaching and mentoring is quite explicit. I have worked with (and greatly admire) one leader/manager who defines his primarily role in the organization as that of teacher and mentor. He believes that he is doing a good job when he has made himself dispensable by teaching and mentoring his new hires. Unlike the threatened modern manager, this highly experienced leader/manager has no problem with succession planning—he is constantly in the business of building capacity in his staff. Wouldn’t it be a joy if we could speak similarly about all modern managers!

Educated for Management

What about education of the managers—those who are assumed to be “wise”? Obviously, not all education of managers comes through their interactions with a gifted, experienced and caring leader. Much of what modern managers learn comes from the management development program they took as young men and women or from the ongoing management education they receive as aspiring leaders in an organization. During the 20th Century, management education was one of the major growth industries in North American colleges and universities. The whole notion of management education and degrees in management didn’t even exist prior to the 20th Century. Management education only emerged when “management” was identified as something that can be taught and as something that some people do as a “livelihood” (rather than being an addition to their other duties in the organization—such as “running the place”).

It has also become clear that a manager doesn’t have to receive her degree from a high-pedigree university in order to be a successful manager. In fact, many management program (undergraduate and graduate) are conducted by schools that are very low on the higher education totem-poll. These are institutions that primarily serve matured men and women rather than young adults. The University of Phoenix and National University come immediately to mind when identifying “convenient” institutions that serve working adults by teaching about management. These institutions are often primarily supported through tuition revenues paid by corporations that assign value to this form of education for their employees. These management education programs not only provide an education to the up-and-coming managers but also serve as an incentive or benefit that attracts and retains promising employees.

I identified a bit of irony in an earlier blog with regard to premodern leadership training and education. Prestigious education has rarely been directly devoted to the acquisition of leadership skills—usually because an assumption is made that leadership can’t be taught. The prevalent premodern assumption is that only character, discipline, and broad-based knowledge can (perhaps) be taught or inculcated. It is quite a different story with regard to modern management education. It is assumed that management can be taught—though it is interesting to note that very little data actually have been accumulated regarding the improvement of management following completion of an MBA program. Perhaps, it is the perception of support for management development that is critical—not the actually acquisition of knowledge and skills that are applicable to the daily challenges of contemporary management.

Leadership, Experience and Education

I mentioned with regard to premodern leadership that a man or woman does not have to be formally educated and prepared to become a leader. The premodern leader may attain this status as a result of substantial experience in the field or organization. This assumption does not seem to hold true in most modern organizations. Managers are expected to obtain (or at least work on) an MBA if they are to advance in the organization. I have recently worked with one organization that actually expects their managers to obtain a second or even a third MBA degree in order to “keep up” with contemporary management practices. The head of HR in another international corporation with which I work estimates that a mid-manager who works in her organization throughout their career will obtain the equivalent to seven MBAs by the time they retire—this seven MBAs being comprised of not only degree programs but also management development programs being conducted inside her organization.

This HR leader admits that there is little data to support the claim that these seven MBAs produce better managers than a lifetime of managerial experience. Furthermore, she is the first to admit that the informal mentoring and the formal delegation and supervision that occurs in the “trenches” often provides an employee with more and better training and education than the seven MBA programs. But she isn’t about to admit this to her own bosses, given that they are directing substantial funding to her in-house management development programs and to full or partial reimbursement of tuition payments for external management education programs.

In my earlier blog concerning Style One premodern leadership I asked: what kind of experience seems to be important? To end this blog I will ask a comparable question regarding modern leadership and management: what kind of ongoing education and training really makes a difference in the performance of leader/managers in modern organizations? Are there other ways in which wisdom can be effectively shared? What about coupling management education with mentoring and with organizational coaching? How does career counseling and how do career ladders enhance (or block) effective management development? These are questions to be addressed in future blogs. In the next blog I provide a brief description of the challenges which a modern leader/manager of wisdom faces—especially in a postmodern world.