complex responsive processes, Complexity, complexity sciences, dialogism, Douglas Griffin, Fractals, G.H.Mead, learning, meaning, Organizational development, organizations, paradox, patterns, Ralph D. Stacey, reflexivity, school, teacher, truth, X-files
My intention in this essay is to introduce two different ways of thinking about leadership. First one sees it as a role with a function to make decisions based on cause and effect links between facts, actions and results. The search for the facts, for the “Truth out there” as in the popular TV-series, is the main discourse organizing this way of thinking.
Second one sees leadership as a function that isn’t fixed in roles, but rather emerges from the interactions between people. Search for the Truth becomes obsolete as it is the meaning arising from the interaction that matters. We will see that the common way of thinking about leadership as a role enables quite straight-forward actions, but also limits the thinking and actions to concern only areas which can be put under simplistic laws of causality. The second way of thinking is more demanding as the leadership is not a process or role but emergent property of the interactions between people. Leadership is then a capacity to see the dynamics of meaning and acting accordingly. Whoever has this capacity in a given moment is manifesting leadership.
Leadership as a role
In the common way of seeing leadership it is seen as a fixed role. The most important function of this role is decision making. The world is a place with clear cause and effect links between facts, actions and results. The leader is simply a person who has clear vision of desired result, power to find out facts and knowledge to decide which actions are needed to reach the result. The leader first spends time to develop the vision of what needs to be done and the facts surrounding that goal – he participates meetings and conferences, meets consultants and experts, gets to know the competition, gains substance knowledge, etc. After this preparation he makes clear what kind of actions are needed in order to achieve the result. If there will be conflicting views of the facts, actions and results the leader gathers more knowledge and makes the final decision of how to proceed.
In this way of thinking it seems possible to analyze and affect all the factors that are relevant for the process of actions towards the result. It does not matter what the subject of work is – it can be product-making, customer negotiations, patient care, manual work, writing a law, etc. The most important function of leadership is to gather facts and decide how those facts affect the process of actions towards the desired result.
Example: Teacher has a problem with ninth grade student who has poor grades in several subjects. The vision of the teacher is to have class with no poor students. This vision is developed in the teacher education, seminars and in the various discussions with other teachers. Everybody needs to have at least average grades. If somebody is not achieving accordingly teacher’s duty is to make actions to correct this. She is the leader of learning. In order to achieve the desired result the teacher starts by gathering information and facts. Are there problems with student’s motivation, family situation or does he have learning disabilities? Teacher consults the parents and experts such as special teachers and school psychologist. Special teacher says the student seems to be working in the class-room so it is not the motivation. The parents say there are nothing unusual happening in the family. Teacher consults the school psychologist and asks her to conduct assessments to find out whether the cognitive ability of the student explains the poor grades. The assessment shows that the student’s cognitive ability is in the normal range and there are no evidence of any learning disabilities either. The teacher needs to decide which facts are true and relevant and make decision of needed actions: “Student has capacity to learn so it must be the attitude/motivation. It needs to be made clear both for the parents and the student that his vocational studies are jeopardizing if he will not start to work harder.”
In this way of thinking the most important thing is to assure the results. If the results (good grades) are not met the problem needs to be identified (student’s motivation) and corrective actions (sanctions) initiated.
Leadership as emergent property
Complexity sciences point out that the world of human beings does not consist of clear cause-effect links between facts, actions and results. Instead, it is filled with complex responsive patterns of interactions. These patterns have paradoxical properties such as unpredictable predictability. The same pattern seems to repeat over and over again but at the same time there are always some variation. Sometimes these variations can suddenly transform the whole pattern. No person can control these patterns as they emerge from the interaction between lots of people. Does this complexity mean there is no need for leadership or that there is nothing that can be done? No, it does not. But it means that we need to see leadership in different terms than in the common way of thinking.
Instead of facts, what really matters, is the meaning. The meaning is the repeating pattern we can recognize. Facts assume that the meaning is fixed, unchangeable, something that can be captured in words, printed and transmitted between people. But that is not true. We can see information war going on around us all the time. It is not possible to find the Truth anymore – and this can cause anxiety. The Truth is not out there anymore. Even if it is possible to find out the facts, the meaning of those facts seems elusive, easily changeable by the gestures of others. The real Truth, the meaning, develops in the interaction with people and there are no limits for this development. The real function of leadership is not fact-based decision making, but the search for the emerging meaning. The leader can not control the patterns emerging in the interaction of lots of people, but if she is capable of relating to other people’s view of these patterns she can be sensitive to the emergent meaning. Meaning is insight that makes it possible to think and act in ways that are in accordance with the patterns, strengthening and/or weakening them. Meaning makes it also possible to clear space for other people to join the dialogue.
Let’s visit our teacher’s case again. This time the teacher sees the situation as a pattern of interactions between lots of people. She sees that her education and the discourse of school achievement are patterns that have been strengthened in the countless discussions between teachers, parents and students. She sees herself as a person who has great influence over her students. The grades themselves are not important as they are just patterns of evaluation, partly socializing the students, partly bringing motivation for some students. But the grades also have real meaning when students are applying for vocational studies. She sees that the student with poor grades is in danger of losing possibilities in that competition. Instead of finding out “facts” for the poor grades, the teacher tries to understand how the student sees the same patterns of success in school. Are those important for him? Does he realize the grades affect his later educational trajectories? The teacher might consult special teachers and school psychologist to find out if it would be possible to improve the grades, but the most important reason for including them and perhaps careers counselor in to discussions would be to influence the patterns of discussion with the student and his parents. It might be that in these dialogues the ninth grader becomes aware of his own desire to become a professional carpenter and the meaning of school achievement in it. He might also come to understand the reasons for his underachievement such as his own fear of failure which had become a self-fulfilling prophecy for him. With these insights he now has enhanced capacity to grasp the meaning of it all and act accordingly.
In this way of thinking the results are not easily conceptualized as it is the meaning that is of importance. Instead of problems and corrective actions the leadership is emergent property that can not be fixed to any individual or role, although some people have more capacity to manifest it. The function of leadership is to find out meaning and make it available to others.
The Truth and The Meaning
The Truth can not be found from the facts as the facts themselves are nothing but monuments of the past. They do not carry meaning with them. The meaning is gesture in the present moment, an action in abstract form. Meaning is possibility for variety of actions that open variety of new meanings. Like fractals, the meaning build on previous meanings that are acted upon – and like fractals, the meaning opens up possibilities to build new meanings upon it. The leadership is emergent property of human beings to suddenly see the meaning and the fundamental function of leadership is endless search for this fractal process of emerging meanings.