Conference Report


Director's Reflections


Authority, Leadership, and Human Diversity

A Tavistock group relations conference held at Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi

14 - 16 November 1996

For this first conference in what I regard as the "real," "old," or "deep" South (in my mind, Houston and Florida do not conform to my understanding of the South, although geographically they are located in the southern U. S.), I sought to implement, with staff's help, support, and participation, a design and orientation that would focus learning on the role of human diversity in social systems rather than in human groups.  There are many diversities, but in the "real" South, race remains, in my experience, the basic diversity of conscious and unconscious concern to most of its residents.  I, who am male and white, once suggested to a black male friend that for relaxation and spiritual renewal he might take a drive through the rural countryside (as opposed to the urban areas) of the beautiful State of Mississippi.  "Yeah, right," he exclaimed.  "An aimless jaunt through the country for a black person in the South is not a relaxing pastime and, unless you are eager to get to Heaven or believe in re-incarnation, not spiritually uplifting either."  And, even in 1997, he is of course right.

But the shift in focus that I wanted to bring to the conference is not semantic and represents a change or innovation that in various ways and on various levels seemed to stir fear, shame, reluctance, and excitement among a staff accustomed to "knowing" the rules and procedures of the more familiar, more American group model of conference work, from which I have recently maintained some distance.

In terms of institutional politics, I believed that a system focus would be 1) most useful to the participants and their engagement in the institutions in which they work and study, and 2) less likely to cause conflicts and disharmonies that would have negative repercussions on future efforts at group relations training in the same institutional setting (a principally black American university in the South).

In addition, my personal belief is that a system focus is more immediately useful to persons engaged in most contemporary institutions.  Lastly, I believed (and believe) that the system focus assures profound learning opportunities for staff persons already well versed in the group focus that is the more usual paradigm encountered in Tavistock group relations conferences in North America.

I elected to invite an international staff.  I sought staff participation only from those persons with sufficient skill, competence, and experience to be able to at least recognize and contemplate crossing the boundary into a different, more systemic approach to their tasks.  Human diversity also played a prominent role in determining the colleagues whom I invited to join staff.

All three of these parameters (observed skill, competence, previous conference experience), I thought, ensured that staff would be as involved in an experiential way in the work of learning as might be the members, who were expected to be inexperienced in conference work.  I foresaw a direct and positive correlation between the call to genuine engagement in staff's work and the genuineness of the members' learning.  Related to these perspectives, Review and Application Dialogues (RADs) were scheduled after each set of 3-6 here-and-now events.

A number of innovations, including some that were transformations of innovations that I had seen, experienced, and reflected upon in France, were incorporated into the conference design and staff's working agenda and format.  These innovations reflected an attempt to incorporate diversity into the staff's work, rather than to encourage or permit mere repetition of previous conference work patterns of experience and procedures.  The vehement degree of rejection and resistance that they caused surprised me, to put it mildly.

For example, administrative office hours were added, so that members would have a legitimate avenue for approaching administrative staff regarding any issues of concern or conflict and so that members and administrative staff would have the possibility of more easily understanding that conference administration has a direct relation to members and is not just an element of staff that attends to staff's needs and worldview.  Transactions across the member/administrators' boundaries were implicitly and explicitly presented as sources of experiential learning about roles, responsibilities, the exercise of authority and leadership, and diversity in human social systems. 

Staff were paid during the conference work, both as a way of replicating "real" organizational patterns in most modern institutions and, on a more unconscious level, as a way of compensating staff publicly for the expected duress related to the innovative alterations in design and implementation.  My intention was, in that way, to support staff's struggles to learn through innovation and transformation.  This intention was further buoyed by the plea of one black, female staff member, who, when I asked her how much compensation she thought was appropriate, commented: "At least $150 for the weekend--and more would be appreciated."  I found her statement profoundly moving and found myself wondering how many black professionals work for less than they deserve or for whatever "handouts" a white director/boss might be disposed to offer.  That this valued staff member has since died does not diminish the frequency with which I recall her remark, feel the pathos she concisely expressed, and reflect upon the system dynamics behind it.

The reluctance to engage in innovation (perhaps because it risks setting in motion a process of transformation in/of other institutional patterns in extra-conference settings?  or, perhaps, because it necessitates encounter with the Other, the unknown?) was manifest around this issue of payment to staff for their services; rather than distribute the checks in a formal way, with appropriate verbal expression of gratitude from management, as I had discussed with the administrative staff previously and indeed proposed in the published conference agenda, the administrative staff unilaterally and without any consultation with the Director, instituted changes in the staff's work agenda in order to ensure that the checks were in fact distributed hurriedly, at a time not scheduled, and without any verbal acknowledgment of gratitude...from anyone in conference management, not even the administrative staff.

Perhaps innovations of this nature engender a sense of shame or discomfort or even embarrassment.  One ancillary hypothesis is that because staff did not receive equal payment (i.e., managers received more money due to the longer time span during which their work had consequences for the members' learning), the notion of hierarchy and value to members' learning, usually covert or avoided in conference work, was introduced and was reinforced by the separately functioning management and consultant staff components during the Institutional System Event (ISE).  Jealousy, envy, or discomfort with hierarchical organizational position may have motivated the way in which payment was ultimately distributed.

Management and consultation were defined as separate functions and were in general maintained as such during all here-and-now events, most publicly in the ISE.  In this schema, management of the institution is regarded as "shared" management, with functions sometimes being more clearly as consultant and at other times more obviously as management.  Shared management relies on all staff members to manage instiututional time, task, territory, and technique boundaries, for example.  The Director remained in an essentially management role throughout the conference--to the degree that such a stance was permitted by the staff and/or was judicial from the point of view of protecting members' learning opportunities.

During the pre-conference staff work, two days before the conference actually began, staff were explicitly asked to verbally and publicly reconfirm their authorization of the director to direct the conference on their behalf.  This innovation (though no longer so in FIIS/IFSI conferences) was done in some cases reluctantly.

The entire written history of the conference, including all letters, negotiations, faxes, and written exchanges with staff, potential members, and sponsoring institutions, was available in the staff room so that staff had access to the development or transformation of ideas and plans eventuating in the instant conference.  The budget, with conference costs and projections for payments to staff members, was also publicly available to the staff in their workspace.

Initially, my hunch was that these last two items would be useful to the membership as well; I have not abandoned that hunch, but I have no data to prompt me to recommend that conference members have access to it.  It remains unclear to me whether a public conference institution, which exists solely to be studied, need or need not be open to public examination of its finances.  But, perhaps so.  Financial decisions always represent management decisions and the study of management is central to the conference task and purpose.

All of the consultants' here-and-now  work took place as scheduled.  During the ISE, extra-team and general staff discussion of this here-and-now work properly took place within the management or within the consultant subsystems, during the event's published working hours, that is to say, not in the staff gathered together as a whole system or during breaks in the schedule.  Such not-on-the-schedule and non-public work, both management and consultants, in their separate work spaces, had been stated publicly to all participants (members and staff) and had been put in writing, as work to be done only in public and during scheduled work sessions constituting the ISE.  This transformation of the staff's conception of the consultants' and managers' working for the duration of the ISE was extraordinarily difficult for staff consultants to imagine, comprehend, or maintain.  Its role in facilitating the members' learning about relatedness with authority and responsibility required unaccustomed discrimination; the need for the clarity of boundaries among the institutional task, the managers' responsibilities, and the consultants' contribution to the learning opportunities were previously unrecognized by most members of staff.

An overarching concern for me as director was that how staff work developed or was transformed would be in the direction of being coherent with the stated conference institution's task.  Naturally, it is precisely this coherence (or lack thereof) that indicates the degree of work (or, conversely, the reluctance to cross the work boundary) present in the institution.

The relationship of primary task coherence to staff's intention, motive, and behavior is never static.  The didactic assumption is that staff's and members' engaging in the boundary negotiations (between task and non-task orientation), both interpersonally and intrapersonally, constitutes the conference work during the ISE.  These behaviors are understood to lead to learning about authority and leadership in organizational and institutional settings.

An example of how a lack of coherence (or, difficulty in translating the conference themes--in this case, of diversity) was demonstrated, with predictable consequences of boredom, lack of interest, and anxiety-reducing comfort in the well-known, familiar, and already-tried ways of thinking and behaving as staff, is contained in the following observation: although there are approximately 85 different sodas available in 2-liter bottles in the Jackson, Mississippi area, administrative staff's provisions ensured exposure to only 4 of those (Coke, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, and Sprite).  All of these were either black or white (transparent).  While certainly adequate to represent the black and white races, there were no other "colored" sodas made available to staff or members.  No grape, orange, cherry, strawberry, pineapple flavors were "permitted."

Coherence with the stated task through publicly examinable provision of opportunities to learn even before the conference actually began was important in fostering cooperation, collaboration, and trust between the enterprise and the University that co-sponsored it.  Support grew as the University institution became convinced of a general absence of ulterior, political motives (e.g., trying to change the institution or create a competing institution).  The fact that the major sponsoring institution was a university and the conference exists solely as an educational enterprise was difficult to recognize on both sides of the fence.  Possibly the politics of Black and White institutions' collaboration were so novel as to be overpowering and threatening.

Although I felt authorized and supported by the Chicago Center for the Study of Groups and Organizations (CCSGO), I found it hard to experience the authorization of A. K. Rice Institute (AKRI), perhaps because its authorization was channeled through CCSGO.  Upon reviewing my opening discourse to the members, staff commented on a lack of adequate acknowledgment to these two institutions.  I remedied this perceived lack in the conference opening comments.  Staff members also expressed a need for the participation (principally economic and through provision of material resources provided by the St. Augustine Stewardship Fund of the Norbertine order of priests and brothers and by the International Forum for Social Innovation) of other institutions than the co-sponsors to be acknowledged in the conference opening discourse.  I joined with their reasoning and request and do not regret having done so.  It was a excellent example of shared management in action.

In retrospect, however, I wonder if the inclusion of acknowledgment to Others had the effect of exculpating staff members for their participation in innovative, transformed, non-traditional manifestations of group relations conference work.

Applications were received steadily throughout the enrollment period.  Diversity was present in the membership and in the staff.  No aberrations or psychopathological behaviors were exhibited by the participants prior to or during the conference.  A psychiatrist was on formal standby, but calling for her advice or assistance or otherwise employing her did not arise as a possibility or urgency during the conference.

Comments on staff deployment and participation

In the Large Study System (LSS), a white male/black female pair were assigned, convened as a team by the female; since as director I did not work directly with the LSS, a potentially productive degree of competition between the team and the director and his style and leadership arose early on.  Working in pairs is dangerous and not easily managed, for the pair often seems to be something intensely engaged because it denies the existence of a reality larger and often with managerial authorization outside itself, of which it can and maybe wishes to maintain only little awareness.  That reality is often a singular authority figure, nominally the conference director, perceived as threatening both because of his or her singular status and because of her or his role as an authority figure on conference management.  Directors of such conferences sometimes insist on working in the LSS as a consultant, possibly because the competition and conflict mentioned earlier in this paragraph are thereby reduced or avoided.  I regard conference management as not "hands on" in regard to the consultants' behaviors.  The task of management is, in my opinion, precisely the employment of staff members who can be trusted to perform professionally and then the provision of space for them to work.

In the three Small Study Systems (SSS), two females (one black American/French and one who was routinely accepted as Arab-American) and a black male Southerner consulted to the members, with the Arab-American woman asked to be the convenor of the team.

The Associate Director was a black male, a Southerner, also a Catholic priest and a professor at Jackson State University (JSU); the Conference Administrator was a white female, a Yankee.  The Director, a white Southern male in visible or outward terms, an American-Mexican in sentient terms, was de facto the director and convenor of the management team.

The conference design, implementation, and staffing provided adequate and even accepted and cherished containment for the members' work of learning through encounter with innovation, diversity, and transformative possibilities or opportunities.  Conflict between the staff and the conference director was typical, in my experience.  This conflict was routinely verbalized and public, and therefore, in my opinion, was a positive force in dedicating ourselves to the primary institutiona learning tasks.  No other "conclusions" seem wise or warranted at this time.

The overall theme through which members and staff worked on and elaborated their authority relationships and understanding thereof involved the need to maintain separateness and uniqueness in order to avoid the dangers of engagement in human and institutional forms of diversity (said dangers to be primarily those of implied or inherited responsibility for the implementation of future transformations in work and social environments elsewhere, and secondarily, to involve a perception of a sense of submission or emasculation in openness to or engagement in the novel or different or the Other).

This conference contained significant moments of synchronicity, surprise, perplexing coincidence, mystery, and magic.

For logistical reasons, a formal or informal discussion of members' and staff's work in this conference was not scheduled as part of the conference program.  Such a discussion would be beneficial and useful both for staff and for the members.  A large part of such work as did take place was never made available during the conference in a public forum.  The purpose of this report is not to disenfranchise conference participants (members or staff) of the intellectual and emotional work properly performed by them, but rather to briefly provide an element of appropriately inconclusive feedback to representatives of the two institutions, JSU and CCSGO-AKRI, that co-sponsored the enterprise.  Inasmuch as participants included faculty and students of JSU, two (in addition to myself) CCSGO-AKRI members who participated as staff and a third who did so marginally, in addition to a CCSGO-AKRI member who participated as a conference member, other sources of data useful for learning are available to satisfy the interest or curiosity of these institutions.

In this medium, I wish to publicly express my gratitude for the support and freedom to learn that both co-sponsoring institutions provided and that they supplied so unambivalently, maturely, and graciously.


Submitted: 24 xi 1996

The director's opening comments to the members of this conference


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vi 2000
vi 1999