Mexicano de Relaciones Grupales y Organizacionales
Mexican Institute of Group and Organizational Relations
LESSONS FROM THE FIELD:
AN ESSAY ON THE CRISIS OF LEADERSHIP IN CONTEMPORARY ORGANIZATIONS
February 8, 1990
This paper is about leadership and the crisis of leadership in our contemporary institutions. The point of departure for my thinking is the emerging literature in the field of applied behavioral and organizational research itself. In other words, this essay asks what can be learned about contemporary issues of leadership from reflecting on the themes and patterns that underlie the work of the field.
At the center of my focus is the relation between observer and observed. This essay tries to understand something about the crisis in leadership by analyzing the way the observers of organization and leadership make sense of their topics. Gleaning the lessons that reside in this intermediate zone requires turning to interpretative methods. In contrast to methods which aim for prediction or explanation, interpretation is concerned with understanding. It refers to the connections between previously disconnected data in order to illuminate the meanings that imbue some field of inquiry.
My intent here is to look across the field of organizational
scholarship as it relates to issues of leadership and consider common themes
and patterns. I take two "cuts" at the field. First I take a broad look
at emerging ideas of leadership and authority which grow out of the phase-change
in our economic order to post industrial society. Secondly, I examine
more deeply major works recently published about the crisis in leadership:
works by Warren Bennis, Peter Vaill, and Tom Gilmore. Finally, I
explore several underlying themes which link the
Since one's own theory or framework defines the questions asked and has an impact on the empirical "slice of life" one focuses upon, a final note of introduction may be useful to orient the reader to the author's interpretative stance. Issues in leadership are viewed here through the dual lenses of systems thinking and psychodynamic theory. How the unconscious meanings, conflicts, fears, and beliefs are projected into organizations and how people collectively manage these forces is of central concern from this vantage point.
Leadership in a New Key
Leadership is in fashion now. Our society's preoccupation
with leadership has spawned a large industry devoted to "leadership training"
and "leadership development." The popular literature abounds with
books extolling the heroic qualities of maverick business leaders who are
taking on mythic proportions in our cultural landscape. No less telling
is the massive volume of academic publication emerging in the area. While
At the same time, an understanding of leadership remains elusive enough for Warren Bennis to comment that leadership is the most studied and least understood topic in all of social science. While the studies agree on little, a consensus is emerging around the central requirements of effective leadership at this time in history -- namely to provide a vision around which members of an organization can coalesce and direct their productive energies (e.g. Bennis, 1989; Vaill, 1989; Sashkin, 1988; Leavitt, 1986; Burns, 1978;).
The almost exclusive emphasis on this particular feature of leadership is relatively recent. Earlier, leadership and what is now distinguished as management were conflated, and classic managerial functions were considered essential to leadership (Krantz and Gilmore, 1990; Selznick, 1957; Barnard, 1938). Now they have been split apart. Managers and leaders are seen as different breeds (Zaleznik, 1978; Bennis and Nanus,1985; Burns, 1978). Increasingly, the "managerial mentality" is viewed as a source of our leadership crisis; the "manager," in contrast to the leader, does damage through an emphasis on order and efficiency rather than the sort of focus on mission and substance that can promote commitment and creativity (Vaill, 1989; Zaleznik, 1989).
A belief is commonly expressed that what is lacking is leadership in the new visionary sense (Zaleznik, 1989; Sashkin, 1988). The solution generally proposed for this lack of leadership is straightforward: find real leaders. The search for leaders with vision, leaders who can motivate by articulating a purposeful direction, suffuses the academic literature and popular press. The massive leadership training and development industry is based on the same prescription - provide leadership by developing leaders.
My central thesis is that this diagnosis of our
crisis of leadership is simplistic and is used defensively in order to
avoid a confrontation with the more complex, and more intractable, problems
which underlie this leadership crisis. This is not to suggest that the
person of the leader is unimportant. There can be little doubt that the
leader plays an important part in the leadership of an enterprise. What
I am suggesting, however, is that the leader's personality has been vastly
overrated in attempts to understand leadership. And that in clinging to
the hope that
The idea that leadership emanates from leaders
was easier to maintain in an era which favored centralized bureaucratic
hierarchies. Control was imposed from top to bottom; Taylorism enacted
a view in which managers thought and workers labored; authority relations
were based on obedience and contractual obligation; command and control
systems were based on information held by few; and careers tended to imply
Even so, researchers have noticed features of organizational
life which are inconsistent with the idea that control and leadership is
such a top-down process in reality (e.g. Mechanic, 1962). An intriguing
example is a study by Nancy Roberts (1985) which explored the contextual
determinants of charisma. Her study showed how an executive who helped
an organization respond successfully to a crisis came to be considered
"charismatic," even though she hadn't been thought of in those terms before
or in her subsequent positions. In a similiar vein,
Similarly, psychoanalytically inclined researchers have explored the impact of unconscious processes on the capacity of leaders to function (Hirschhorn, 1988; Kernberg, 1983). To "group-as-a-whole" theorists, leaders are as much a creature of the group's collective emotions as any other member (Wells, 1985). Because they are active targets for other members' parental projections of love, hate, responsibility, and blame, leaders are profoundly affected by their group memberships (Turquet, 1974).
The major "fault lines" in this heroic image of leadership, however, are appearing in connection with the shift to the post-industrial order, creating pressures to re-examine the attribution of leadership exclusively to formal leaders. The new post-industrial economic order is leading to dramatic changes in the relatedness of individuals to their organizations and in the character of authority relations.
At the center of this evolving drama is the critical need for organizations to adapt to continually fluctuating environments in order to compete globally. This change renders large centralized bureaucratic hierarchies obsolete and selects for systems in which response capability resides in the outer boundaries as well as in the center. To do this, organizations have had to relax their hierarchical control systems (Kotter, 1985; Cohen and Bradford, 1989) and decentralize aggressively. They have had to introduce work designs enabling workers at all levels to exercise informed judgement. They have had to appreciate that participation and group collaboration are central determinants of quality and effectiveness. As a result of these changes, managers face the erosion of their traditional sources of power - the hierarchical organization (Kanter, 1989) and a monopoly on information (Zuboff, 1988).
The new, highly decentralized organizations make it much more difficult to maintain the notion that top officials are "in control" than did its predecessor, the pyramidal, centralized structures that are receding. The illustory dimensions of this image of leadership have been exposed by changing conditions. With increasingly participative systems in which workers at all levels are expected to take up their roles more authoritatively, it becomes harder to sustain the myth of the lonely hero on top or the more recent myth of the brave maverick that saves the bureaucratically moribund organization (Reich, 1985).
New forms of organization, adapted to the turbulent conditions of contemporary operating environments, seek to replace obedience and obligation with commitment and personal involvement in work (Walton, 1985). The keys to success in these settings are collaboration and participation rather than deployment and command (Hirschhorn, 1988 & 1984; Weisbord, 1987). Asking members at all levels to bring these parts of themselves into their work roles amounts to a renegotiation of authority relations, and requires a recognition of the fundamental interdependence between leaders and followers to create effective enterprise leadership.
Understanding the changing social, political and economic terrain and searching for ways to go about coping with the new conditions that will enable organizations to thrive and enable people to find meaningful work within them calls for a reconceptualization of traditional approaches to leadership. One implication of the basic premise explored in this article is that a more pertinent and useful conceptualization of leadership will move away from focusing on the leader toward a more complex appreciation of the variety of factors which affect leadership within a system.
In systems terms, leadership is a property of the
overall system and stems from the on-going process of interaction between
the important elements of the system. From this perspective, leaders and
followers mutually co-produce overall system leadership. What leaders do
cannot be considered independent from, but interdependent with what followers
do. To understand leadership within a system, we must appreciate the
These subsystems include inter-group processes, task systems, and administrative structures of the organization. For example, without an effective relationship between the administrative structure and the task, leaders are doomed to fail. This "fit" is thus a property of a system's leadership capacity. It is also a view of leadership which highlights the dependency of the formal leader on his or her followers (Krantz, 1989) and puts into sharp focus the way inter-group relations within an organization shape leaders' capacity to exercise authority. In other words, it places followership and leader-follower relationships squarely in the center of systemic leadership capacity.
Each of the three authors discussed in depth here are grappling with the contemporary dilemmas of leadership. They each articulate a complex understanding of leadership which encompasses both what we need from our leaders as persons as well as the contextual requirements for effective systemic leadership. Warren Bennis (1989) has written an updated companion book to his earlier classic, The Unconscious Conspiracy (1976), that sets out the parameters of the current crisis in leadership. In Making a Leadership Transition (1989) and Managing as a Performing Art (1989), Tom Gilmore and Peter Vaill, respectively, offer their own viewpoints for ways out of this current dilemma.
All three authors span both worlds of academic practice and organizational consultation. Both Bennis, who is in his 60's, and Vaill, in his 50's, have held senior administrative positions. Gilmore, a consultant and researcher in his 40's, is a senior member of a private consulting firm. In trying to link theory with experience, each author begins with the commonly held understanding of the context within which this leadership crisis has arisen - the rapid and profound turbulence in the social, economic, and technological environments. Organizations must now contend with vastly different conditions in which former approaches no longer apply and which require developing the capacity to change, learn and adapt quickly and decisively.
Against the background of this "permanent white water," in Vaill's (1989) term, former approaches to management and leadership, well suited to earlier times in which operating environments were more placid and predictable (Trist and Emery, 1973), are rendered dysfunctional. Each of the three books is aimed at understanding conditions which foster the development and effective exercise of leadership.
Before turning to these books in some detail, I want to discuss some of the human consequences of change of this magnitude. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1989) points out, the shadow side of the autonomy, freedom, discretion, and authorization is the sense of loss of control and greatly increased uncertainty. Facing the enormous uncertainties involved in operating in today's business environment is painful and disturbing, especially for managers who have been trained to "avoid surprises" or instilled with the belief that management is supposed to "control uncertainty." The uncertainty and ambiguity at the heart of any change can lead to psychological defensiveness and interpersonal rigidity.
Studies have illustrated how resistance to change was, in part, rooted in the fear of the uncertain (Menzies, 1961; Jaques; 1960). Now that change is constant, robust psychological defenses against this painful reality appear quite frequently (e.g. Krantz and Gilmore, 1990). The kind of anxiety-laden, frightening changes that organizations are being called upon to accomplish lead to a wide range of responses, from the most primitive and fragmented efforts to establish omnipotent relations with others to the mature achievement of collaboration and mutually respectful dialogue. (The repressive response to the changes in China may stand as an emblem of the more destructive types of response to change.)
Shifting the focus for understanding leadership capacity from the person of the leader alone to the context of leadership is likely to stir up massive anxiety. In practice, this sort of reorientation calls established modes of thinking and relating into question. When responsibility for leadership is distributed around the system, people will have to relinquish some of the shared notions that have developed in relation to more hierarchical authority systems. These notions serve, in part, as socially maintained defenses against painful anxieties (Menzies, 1988; Hirschhorn, 1988; Jaques, 1955), and their dismantling may threaten members with emotional disarray.
Belief that the people on top are "in control"
and responsible for everything can be gratifying, partly because it is
reassuring to know that at least somebody is in control is this world.
It is also enables us to relinquish the burden of responsibility for the
groups and social systems in which we work and live (Rioch, 1971; Milgrim,
1965). The equation of leadership with leaders reflects this kind
of dependency since it locates excessive responsibility at the top.
The tendency in groups to believe in the unrealistic power and knowing
of its leaders is what Bion
The changes being discussed here render these defenses maladaptive and require people to relinquish them in order to participate meaningfully in the new kinds of settings being created. An increase in anxiety can be predicted whenever established defenses are threatened, leading to efforts to shore them up. One hypothesis I propose is that the current search for heroic leaders represents just such an effort. The dramatic contrast between institutional changes occurring which are undercutting comfortable dependencies on one hand and what seem like nearly desperate efforts to locate organizational saviors and heroic leaders on the other requires interpretation. Trying to solve our institutional malaise and leadership vacuum by looking for leaders constitutes, following the argument in this paper, a flight from confronting the deeper issues of institutional transformation, and from what is involved in creating a context in which leaders can lead. Specifically, I would hypothesize that efforts to find and create leaders to solve our leadership crisis is a defense against recognition of what type of context for leadership is needed.
Efforts persist to shore up the heroic leader myth, even in the face of nearly overwhelming evidence that it is ill suited to emerging post-industrial conditions. The creation of cultural icons, such as Iacocca, and the explosion in chief executive compensation serve to maintain the deified aura around our leaders and to deny their essential dependency on subordinates. Other defensive postures in response to these issues are boosterism and inspirational direction (e.g. Peters and Waterman, 1982). The three authors reviewed here are struggling with tendencies toward immature, defensive approaches to leadership and are striving toward a conceptualization of what mature, effective leadership will comprise under these conditions.
Three Studies of Leadership
In Why Leaders Can't Lead Warren Bennis has written a sequel to The Unconscious Conspiracy that filters the same basic argument through the last ten years of history with characteristic insightfulness and incisive observation. But the outcome is strikingly different - darker, more despairing and angrier.
What a dramatic difference from his early work which described how the behavioral scientist was developing tools to humanize work organizations (c.f. Bennis, 1963)! If the course of his writing is any gauge, the OD that was rooted in the 1960's and grew in a climate of social hope and optimism has been tempered by experience. Bennis' dismay, anger and sense of betrayal reflect a bitter recognition of how limited the social technologies were in the face of broader cultural forces.
In this book he addresses these cultural forces and the way they affect the unconscious conspiracy that he first described in the earlier book. The "unconscious conspiracy" is a way of talking about the context of leadership and the conditions presented to leaders which disable them. This set of tacit arrangements establish the cultural and operational parameters of organizational life and, in Bennis' view, prevent leaders from "taking charge and making change."
The situation he describes is critical. The crisis of leadership Bennis is trying to understand is rooted in a more general social disarray. "The business world is turbulent....The political world is in upheaval...the very fabric of our society is being unravelled ....and unprecedented cynicism toward possible solutions [prevails]" (xii). The book begins with the story of a 48 year-old University president who killed himself in 1969, the day after leaving his post. This story exemplifies the impossibly complex conditions facing today's leaders and the way these competing pressures can express themselves in the personal travails of those trying to manage them. In attempting to account for this tragic death, Bennis weaves a complex explanation which includes multiple levels of analysis - personality, leadership style, the historic moment, institutional history, and organizational factors - illustrating how the coalescence of these factors contributed to human destruction.
The relationship between the leader and the institution that Bennis sculpts is complex and sensitive: we need leaders who care deeply about their institutions, yet that implies they are also vulnerable to what happens within them. Identifying with the institution puts one at risk of psychic damage when there is no shared caring for or identification with the institution by others as well. When the leader makes a personal investment in the institution and others simply use it to further personal or political ends, he or she is at risk. From an organizational standpoint, Bennis' diagnosis is that the university failed to provide the mechanisms of protection and cushioning for the president.
Quality leaders, he feels, are withdrawing from leadership positions because they are exposed and vulnerable to these destructive processes. The unconscious conspiracy produces "simply ridiculous" situations in which leaders are involved in and subjected to impossible situations, double binding politics, and paralyzing conflicts. As a result, those better suited to these conditions are placed in leadership roles, further compounding the problem.
Bennis then shifts focus from the context of leadership to leaders. Using his experience as president of the University of Cincinnati, Bennis identifies what he feels are the essential traits of leaders themselves: leading, not managing; conceptualizing; creating goals; doing the right things not things right. These competencies, in which he attempts to articulate true leadership as distinguished from management, are formulated into four essential types: management of attention, meaning, trust and self. Leaders need to be passionately committed to quality and to people in Bennis' view, and they must be allowed to express these aspects of themselves.
So to the question of whether leadership is in the person or the context Bennis' answer is: both. The first section of the book puts this creative conceptual tension forward as a polarity which must be retained, else understanding leadership will be impossible. To this Bennis adds a third component - the environment within which this dialectical accommodation between person and organization must be achieved.
Here he paints a disturbing picture of a world in serious decline, adapting to the compelling logic of mass markets by becoming shallow conformists and alienated consumers. Bennis depicts the current conditions within which institutions operate with a grim and acerbic brush. The central themes revolve around the pervasive narcissism in society which leads people to put their own ambitions above loyalty to institutions and above commitment to purposes beyond the self. In stark contrast to the 60's, which Bennis recalls as a time of purpose and vision, now there is no social hope to rally around nor any sense of shared values to serve as beacons.
Bennis sees the organizational consequences of these societal developments -- the idolatry of celebrity executives, the short-term bottom line obsessions which blind managers to the true importance of human resources, the wilful distortion of reality in order to promote interests, and the unbridled greed of the 1980' -- as contributing profoundly to the unconscious conspiracy against leadership.
The primary hopeful note Bennis strikes is that the contemporary era is one of constant change. This holds out the possibility that changes will occur which reverse some of these trends that are draining the meaning out of life and sterilizing people's relatedness to their organizations. Staying with the person-context tension to the very end, Bennis calls for special people of virtue to lead us out of this wilderness of materialism and isolated self-interest, people who can be trusted and convince us to trust them. At the same time he recognizes the deep- seated countervailing forces against innovation and creativity that reside in any established system of norms and interests, forces which will work to neutralize their potential contributions.
In the end, he seems to feel that as far as the person goes, leadership can be exercised only by the self-actualized in today's world where the sheer complexity and turbulence will serve to derail any but the most directed, purposeful leaders. In keeping with the dialectical tension throughout his book, he also recognizes that the leaders alone cannot save us from the crisis he describes. We must create institutions that let them lead as well.
In Making a Leadership Change (1989), Tom
Gilmore takes a hopeful stance in relation to the crisis in leadership.
Gilmore stands for the idea of "working through." His appeal is aimed
at responding to emergent post-industrial conditions adaptively through
improved methods of leadership change, selection, and empowerment which
take into account the increasingly complex set of factors impinging on
His argument serves as a counterpoint to calls
for radical discontinuity or appeals for epistemological transformation
that characterize Vaill's book, discussed below. From Gilmore's vantage
point, the call for a radically altered mindset or cultural paradigm can
be understood as a form of magical thinking or a longing for a messianic
vision or construct. His proposal is more sober: we must improve our ways
of changing, finding,
Underlying his detailed and thoughtful presentation of a model for leadership transition is the enormously important idea that times of change provide perhaps the richest of all learning opportunities. Transitions, in Gilmore's view, are moments when crucial issues are grappled with, and when organizations enact their implicit theories in ways which make them more accessible than usual. In other words, if handled with self-awareness, leadership transitions are opportunities both for finding good leaders and for enhancing the organization's ability to enable its leaders by articulating, refining, and clarifying its purposes and priorities. Doing so depends on incorporating authentic self-review and careful thought into the process.
Gilmore begins with his own formulation of the crisis of leadership: "As our world becomes more complex, pluralistic, and interdependent, and as the pace of change quickens, we become increasingly dependent on authentic leaders" (p. 3). At the same time, unfortunately, these very same factors both reduce the tenure of top executives and render them more vulnerable to competing and impairing demands. Leadership transitions become more frequent and the "process costs" of leadership increase.
Yet transitions also afford the opportunity for important improvement of the organization and in its ability to bring in the sort of leadership it needs. Gilmore takes the reader through each step of a leadership transition: determining the organization's needs, developing a profile and expectations of the new leader, searching for and hiring a candidate, and coping with acting leaders and lame ducks in the interim. He discusses, also in illuminating detail, what new leaders must do to join with their organizations in meaningful and effective ways. This involves addressing the lingering impact of the predecessor, building alliances with the existing staff and building a new management team, incorporating an authentic new vision into the organization, managing the "inevitable reorganization" effectively, and preparing the organization for future transitions.
For the purposes of this article on leadership, what stands out is Gilmore's complex appreciation of the demands of leadership in post- industrial settings and an equally complex appreciation of the contemporary challenge of transition. This comes across primarily in two ways.
First, he recognizes the role of irrational forces in the exercise of leadership and authority. Of course the irrational has always been a major factor in the exercise of authority. Now, however, the irrational is impinging upon and suffusing organizational dynamics to a far greater degree. Effective systemic leadership must find ways of working to harness its creative potential to task.
By taking irrational forces into account, and by appreciating the impact of anxieties elicited in the course of leadership succession, Gilmore offers a sophisticated treatment of this daunting moment in an organization's life. At every step, he proposes the use of structures to bind the inevitable anxieties that arise and to preserve the all important capacity for dialogue and reflection. As for the positive aspects of irrationality, Gilmore similarly argues for structures and social technologies that enable new values, beliefs, and purposes to emerge and to be linked with organizational needs. Commitment is a more mature expression of irrationality than obedience, to be sure, but it depends on finding a way of linking personal values to organizational purposes. Again, the conceptual movement is toward context and its enabling features.
Secondly, his image of leadership captures the evolving nature of authority. No longer can the leader command and direct as in earlier times of highly centralized hierarchical bureaucracies. His emphasis on team building, forming alliances and networks, and working through collaboration all speak to the ways in which the nature of authority relations are changing. Paradoxically, this development de-emphasizes the person of the leader, as in the image of the commander or heroic warrior, and emphasizes the importance of leaders who work with and through people. His view of modern organizations is based is largely antithetic to charismatic leaders. For while Gilmore argues that organizations are increasingly dependent on effective leaders, he is also saying that leaders are increasingly dependent on their organizations to match them with their roles and enable them to work. Charisma breeds the sort of dependency that undermines an organization's ability to manage transitions effectively.
In Managing as a Performing Art (1989), Peter Vaill offers yet another perspective on the crisis in leadership, a viewpoint which calls into question the underlying world views that guide thinking on leadership and organizations. Instead of working through and refining our adaptive capacities, he is suggesting that nothing less than a transformation of our ways of thinking and understanding is required in order to meet the current challenges.
Vaill's understanding also centers on the state of dynamic fluctuation and turbulence that now characterizes the world. His concern with the implications of this situation lead him to explore the new emergent meanings of leadership, the sort of personal development required of people who lead, and the underlying philosophies of knowledge and action that support this development. Like Bennis and Gilmore, he focuses throughout on the dynamic interplay between person and context.
Vaill's metaphor for the new conditions within which leaders and managers must operate is "permanent white water," a condition in which little can be taken for granted. He is speaking of a "revolution of the total situation," it is "not just new kinds of problems and opportunities that we are facing, but whole new contexts within which these problems and opportunities resid" (p. 2). He is not saying that we must now learn how to live within a newly configured context, as if in a Lewinian sense the situation will become "re-frozen" after a systemic re-alignment. Rather, Vaill believes the contexts themselves have become de-stabilized. Since we orient ourselves with respect to our contexts, the emergence of continuously shifting contexts presents major problems, one of which is that you can never know what your problems are.
Given this, the challenge of personal adaptation is no longer finding one's way within a context, but learning how to continuously learn emergent contexts. Thinking about this requires bumping our attention up a level to the epistemological questions of how we know things rather than what we know. In other words, he steers us toward what Bateson (1972) calls as deutero-learning, which refers to the capacity to learn how to learn (a new context). Since managers, in Vaill's view, work in a world of constant chaos, our existing paradigms of management and organization are inadequate. The new conditions call for competencies and attitudes which cannot be accommodated within the categories engendered by conventional paradigms. Our paradigms are losing their relevance, in this view, and we need to adopt new paradigms suited to the tumultuous, unpredictable world.
Vaill's critique of existing attitudes is multifaceted and spans our attitudes from the "micro" theories we hold about ourselves to the broader ideas we hold about the nature of organizations, authority, and the environments in which they operate. One common theme throughout concerns the way our habits of thought tend to create understandings of the world in which our selves and our consciousness is separated from our behavior, our goals, and our immediate contexts. For example, his critique of the theories of management based on competency notions is that it presumes managerial competencies can be meaningfully understood apart from the whole person who exercises them. In the process of abstracting those bits of the person which are identified as a "competency," other elements which inform and give these "competencies" their meaning and potence are obliterated. The same sort of argument goes for thinking about managements as a set of functions, as if functions have any real meaning apart from the consciousness that underlies the functioning.
Action-taking involves the whole person; efforts to divide action-taking into abstracted and reified segments prevent us from recognizing some of the deepest and most profound sources of human creativity and effectiveness. In the contemporary situation, according to Vaill, it is these elements of ourselves which we must locate and call on in order to navigate the white water.
Vaill also disputes the cherished belief in techniques or methods as ways of reaching goals. Dependence on techniques, what he terms "technoholism," presumes a stable context. The belief that following a specific sequence of steps or plan of action will produce a predictable outcome assumes that contingencies will not render the plan irrelevant. One way managers and leaders protect themselves from confronting the contingent nature of their work is by rigidly adhering to techniques and plans.
On the cultural level Vaill sees parallel forces
which lead to the denial of the deeper dimensions of human relatedness
and meaning. Superficial "models of man" predominate in social sciences
and organizational practice. The commonly held, tacit understandings which
bind people in a common organizatinoal purpose and meaning are under attack
by what he calls the "dialexic" impulse to comment on and expose everything.
As cultural bonds weaken, people are thrown back
onto themselves and their own personal interests which leads, inevitably,
to alienation and the sense of purposelessness so characteristic of today's
world. Vaill's hope is for people to re-integrate themselves -- re-integrate
thought with action, intention with unconscious modes, logical and nonlogical,
behavior with consciousness -- and to enable them to engage
Established paradigms attempt to understand by breaking phenomena into component parts. The synthetic or systems views that Vaill advocates do the opposite. One consequence of the atomistic approach is the creation of dualities and polarities which, when viewed from a broader perspective, appear as paradoxes. Vaill argues that paradox ought to be sought out and embraced, as a kind of bridging mechanism from the established framework into this more whole viewpoint. Along the way, numerous myths about authority, hierarchy, and organization will be relinquished. Not the least of which is that control is exercised through a pyramidal chain of command. For Vaill, organizational control arises from meaningful relatedness, from the development of common purposes, and from the bonding of shared commitment. Achieving this sense of collective purpose within the shifting contexts of white water depends on the articulation of and commitment to values. Since goals cannot be specified, values provide the only effective form of guidance. He goes so far as to say that "Leadership and management in the turbulent modern organization are values clarification" (emphasis mine) (p. 55).
It is in the embracing of public, shared values that the person of the leader and the context of leadership come together for Vaill. To achieve the kind of atunement to the unpredictable, novel context as it unfolds in the moment, Vail believes that the leader's values, spiritual and otherwise, must serve as the primary organizing principle for action. Similarly, to achieve high performance and strategic clarity in the modern environment, organizations must organize themselves around economic, technological, communal, sociopolitical, and spiritual values. This brings the nonrational to the heart of management practice.
Vaill's image of the effective leader in today's organization is anything but the proficient technician or commanding presence. He likens the effective exercise of leadership to artistic performance, a kind of synthetic, harmonious immediacy. The leader is profoundly connected with his or her ensemble: "expressiveness...is more important than mere technical competence with the tools, actions, and traditions of the art and a mentality that is friendly to paradox will practice influence and control as an emanation of a growing, dawning comprehension of what is going on and of what is needed." (p. 124)
Because the writers discussed arise in an historical moment, their ideas are woven from commonly shared strands of experience. Several underlying themes, or subtexts, emerge. To compliment the two already discussed - the need to consider the context of leadership (rather than leaders per se) in understanding the leadership crisis and the changing character of authority relations - three prominent subtexts emerging in the domain of organizational scholarship are addressed below.
The Increasing Prominence of Irrationality
Increasingly, leaders must contend with irrationality as the source of both destructiveness and creativity. Stable organizational arrangements are used by members to contain and manage the anxieties that are evoked by membership in groups and organizations (Menzies, 1970). The increasing pace of social, economic, and organizational change leads to a continual destabilization of boundaries and loss of established ways of containing anxiety (Hirschhorn, 1988). Heightened anxiety manifests itself as irrational group and individual behavior. Additionally, the increased interdependence between subsystems eliminates buffers and prevents the containment of irrationality with sub-systems, leading to more fluid parallel processes (Alderfer, 1984; Smith, 1989).
At the same time the non-rational or irrational, used interchangeably here, is also a source of hope. If the emerging literature is any guide, then the issues of vision, purpose, and meaning are pivotal for developing leadership capacity in modern enterprises. These too are rooted in the irrational sphere, grounded in the realms of meaning, belief, value, and subjectivity. As the importance of things like commitment, involvement and creativity increase, then leaders will increasingly be called upon to embrace the irrational in constructive ways.
The emergent notion of organizational effectiveness and personal competence is one in which people link organizational purposes and missions with their personal value systems. It is a function of leadership is to help members make these connections. Because creativity, inspiration, and imaginativeness all reside in the irrational strata of the human mind, aligning the irrational dimension of peoples' functioning with their tasks and roles has become a prerequisite of high performing systems.
Similarly, functioning as an effective leader in today's chaotic environment requires that leaders be able to draw more readily on their non-rational capabilities. The loss of "road-maps" from past experience or proven techniques requires leaders to draw on their intuitive abilities to synthesize the complex information confronting them. A heightened receptivity to the unconscious and irrational spheres of organizational life depends on the ability to tolerate being vulnerable to often uncomfortable or frightening experience. This amounts to a call for leaders with a high degree of personal integration and maturity out of a recognition that the extraordinarily powerful social and psychological forces with which they must contend can easily derail the more fragile or rigid psyche. Without stable structures to rely on, leaders will have to draw on their inner resources to a far greater degree.
The Weberian legacy in organizational theory and managerial practice is increasingly becoming a liability in this regard. To be sure, organizations aim to relate means to ends rationally. But the normative orientation which devalues the irrational and feeling-full aspects of organizational membership will pull for people ill suited for modern settings (Kern, 1989) and reinforce constricting norms which inhibit the kind of spirited, creative spontaneity required.
Narcissism in the Modern Age
Since the mid-century psychoanalysts have been
discovering a shift in common patterns of psychological functioning. Freud's
and his immediate followers discovered a kind of incapacitating guilt,
anxiety, phobia, and obsessions which contemporary psychoanalysts see less
and less. Today, they are finding people who are grappling with a lack
of feeling, an inner emptiness and a deep sense of frustration and unfulfillment.
On the individual level it refers to aspects of personality characterized by exaggerated investment in one's own image and interests. Narcissism is expressed by the untempered ambition and greed that is so common, and by an attendant sense of isolation and detachment. It also refers to an unconscious exploitativeness and manipulativeness toward others, which involves a diminished concern for the social, for the other, and for community.
The impact of contemporary narcissism on our cultural and social life has been explored by various writers (e.g., Lasch, 1979; Lawrence, 1979). Some have written about excessive narcissism in leaders themselves (Horowitz and Arthur, 1988; Kets de Vries and Miller, 1985; Kernberg, 1980), describing the corrosive impact on subordinate staff of their striving for power and admiration.
There is equally good reason for concern with the
way this development erodes the domain in which leadership may be exercised.
A central characteristic of narcissistic functioning is the difficulty
in finding meaning and purpose outside of the self and beyond instrumental
self-interest. In particular it involves the use of work roles to seek
out power and prestige rather than meaningful activity through commitment
to task or to the ideals represented by the functions carried out by the
institution. While Bennis is most articulate and alarmed by an
The emergence of narcissism in society poses a
severe problem for leaders and for the development of leadership capacity
in institutions. Recognizing its profound impact on organizational membership
leads to an additional hypothesis concerning the widespread call for leaders
who can provide purpose and direction. Are we tacitly asking our leaders
to provide this very sense of meaning and purpose, to enable people to
Managing Inter-group Relations in Chaotic Environments
The denser interdependencies and heightened adaptive challenges require increasingly sophisticated collaboration. More and more work is vested in teams and groups to accommodate greater complexity and to draw upon collective problem solving capacities (Weisbord, 1987). One function of organizational leadership is to foster this collaboration. But is "vision" enough to provide a facilitating medium?
Paradoxically, just as the need for robust and creative collaboration is increasing throughout organizations, the rising levels of diversity in the workforce pose major barriers to achieving it. Homogeneous work groups have the advantage of sharing tacit codes of communication and understanding. While this can promote group blindness it can also foster clear communication and understanding. With the introduction of women and non-white males into many levels of organizations, there is inevitably a fragmentation of the "world views" and cultural assumptions operating. Inter-group relations, as they are imported into workgroups through their racial, ethnic, and gender-specific representatives pose an important challenge for leadership.
Similarly, the increased interdependence between functional, specialist, and regional work groups places a premium on another type of inter-group relation. Leadership is faced with the need to oversee wide cultural, epistemological, and instrumental differences amongst groups. Failed collaboration between groups, both identity groups and work groups, leads to heightened destructive irrationality. Genuine dialogue across these boundaries can produce creativity and enrichment.
It is unlikely that "vision" will be enough to forge these critical links across the perceptual and cultural gulfs these inter-group relations represent. I expect that an increasingly essential component of leadership - whether exercised by formal leaders or others - will be the ability to manage inter-group processes and promote negotiated understandings of shared tasks. My final hypothesis is that the emphasis on "vision" and "direction" is, at times, used in the hope that inspiration can be mobilized in order to avoid the complex and frightening issues raised by the increased workforce diversity and sub-system interdependence in post-industrial settings.
The emerging consensus that effective leadership involves setting directions and providing vision is clearly grounded in the need for organizations to adapt continuously to changing, unstable environments. This essay has attempted to explore both the constructive aspects of this emerging consensus as well as the defensive uses of the search for visionary leaders.
While the search for leaders who are passionately committed to a vision and who provide direction to their organizations is essential in this environment, it also lends itself to new forms of debilitating dependency and to a longing for saviors. Moving away from an excessive emphasis on formal leaders to a broader focus on the context of leadership renders visible the impact of a wider range of features - such as followership, structure and inter-group relations - on systemic leadership capacity. Hoping for transformational leaders (Burns, 1978), or their "visions," to rescue us from the cultural malaise of narcissism, from the increasing need to exercise authority and judgement at all levels of organization, or from the unsettling confrontation with inter-group phenomena will undoubtedly serve to perpetuate the crisis in leadership in our modern society.
One thing appears to be certain. The confusion,
the accelerating rate of change, the breakdown in familiar boundaries,
and the shifting contexts characteristic of organizational life will continue
to put established patterns and ways of experiencing into disarray. Though
discomforting and frightening, in anxiety and disarray are the seeds of