1st Edition

Provocation as Leadership A Roadmap for Adaptation and Change

By Maxime Fern, Michael Johnstone Copyright 2023
    274 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    274 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    To create deep change, you have to disturb people, or at least risk doing so. Shaking people out of their comfort zones not only generates the possibility of change but also elicits new information and brings out hidden resources that people need to navigate unfamiliar waters. Nevertheless, provoking without antagonizing or shutting people down and tolerating their pushback are complex challenges, requiring skill and will.

    This is the first comprehensive provocation roadmap: why provocation is necessary for effectively leading change, the different forms of provocation, action tools and frameworks, and case studies illustrating how change is achieved through the sustained and careful use of provocation and disturbance, with strategies and tactics for minimizing the risks involved. We illustrate, for example, how two Australian farmers challenged centuries-old farming practice to regenerate their properties and how a large American bank used the death of a revered CEO to reinvigorate the business. We show how a young indigenous school principal tackled entrenched attitudes to turn a failing school around and how a national statistical service acted like a technology start-up to innovate during the Covid-19 pandemic. The case studies address change at the local level, within organizations, as well as on a national scale. We finish with a synthesis of the lessons learned and a set of ideas about building people’s capacity to use provocation to live, learn, and thrive. 

    Provocation as Leadership offers a blueprint for people who, using provocation, want to ignite change and help their organizations, group, or community break through to a better future. This book provides a vehicle to see provocation in its potential for necessary disturbance, to lay bare its anatomy, and give access to its possibilities, including how to enable provocateurs to live another day.

    Introduction   PART 1: What is provocation and why is it necessary?  1. What is provocation?  PART 2: Provocative capabilities and skills  2. Observation, interpretation, and questioning - foundation skills for provocation  3. Provocative capabilities  4. Developing a provocative mindset  PART 3: Types of provocation  5. Paradox, contradiction, and ambiguity as provocation  6. Stories as provocation  7. Unique forms of provocation  PART 4: Application - practicing provocation  8. Paradigm change - breaking with tradition in agriculture  9. Survival - Kibbutz Yizrael and the evolution of an ideology  10. Smashing it to bits - risky tactics to change first nations’ education  11. Living with contradictions - M&T Bank and the transformation battle  12. Confounding expectations - how a public sector business behaved like a start-up  13. Orchestrating conflict: Large-scale reform  14. Putting your head above the parapet - taking risks and speaking out  15. Testing your values - life transitions as personal provocation  PART 5: Risks and lessons of provocation  16. Risks of provocation  17. Cultivating provocation - helping people live with disturbance  18. Lessons in the use of provocation  19. Epilogue - the albatross and the conductor


    Maxime Fern, M.Ed. and Michael Johnstone, PhD., partners in life and work, trained in Psychology, Systems Family Therapy and Human Geography, developed the art of provocation as therapists and then leadership consultants. Stepping into places where others may be too polite to go, they refined provocation at Harvard’s Kennedy School as a framework to help others understand and succeed when change and adaptation is the only option. Both authors live in Australia and Italy.

    "In an age of ‘strong man’ politics and increased totalitarianism, being superficially provocative is sometimes mistaken for leadership. But this book reveals that using provocation in real leadership requires intelligence, cunning and, perhaps, most importantly, the ability to think outside the square, in persuading people that change that is uncomfortable for them is a good idea. This book gives a roadmap to using provocation as a tool of both leadership and change: recognizing its boundaries, its risks, and the instruments at hand."

    Laura Tingle, Chief Political Correspondent for the ABC’s 7.30 Report and author of Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman

    "I had the privilege of seeing Michael and Maxime in action when I was their client. Through their wisdom, care, and yes – provocation – I grew as a person and leader, as have so many others. In their book, Provocation as Leadership, they are sharing the secrets of their delicate and powerful art. Drawing from a wide range of disciplines and using rich case studies as illustration, Provocation as Leadership is a deep exploration of both the anatomy of provocation and requisite conditions for it to create change. The book is full of useful tools and frameworks to enable leaders and consultants to assess how, when, and in what form provocation can lead to change that may have otherwise felt unattainable."

    Karen May, Former Vice President of People Development, Google

    "Exercising leadership is always risky because it involves taking people out of their comfort zone. Maxime Fern and Michael Johnstone remind us in this splendid book that leading means provoking, and that it is necessary to be brave to do so. They provide valuable and well thought out tools – supported by many examples from which to be inspired – to know how to provoke effectively and not to be damaged in the attempt."

    Juan Carlos Eichholz, Professor, Universidad Adolfo Ibanez, Chile, and author of Adaptive Capacity

    "Maxime Fern and Michael Johnstone have delivered a practitioner’s dream: a comprehensive field guide to purposeful provocation. Using detailed case studies and relatable stories from their decades of teaching and training, they animate the theory, provide tools to tackle the practice, and offer an honest assessment of the risks and rewards of this approach. While we know our world’s most wicked challenges lack easy answers, this book will surely sharpen the mind, steady the hands, and embolden the heart of any intrepid changemaker who seeks to tackle them."

    Laura Berlind, Executive Director, Adaptive Leadership Network, Washington DC

    "This is a timely written book given the lack of leadership in the world today. Maxime and Michael present powerful principles and concepts that address the realities of helping groups, institutions, and complex systems make progress on their toughest challenges. The art of provocation is a vital leadership skill to get attention and stir people to action."

    Dean Williams, President, Thinking Heads Global and author of Real Leadership

    "People experience provocation all the time, especially lately. Rapid technology advances, a global pandemic, evolving understandings about inclusion, high geopolitical tensions, all have many feelings provoked. Provocation as Leadership claims "provocation" as a tool for the greater good and gives examples of how the conscious use of effective provocation can unlock successful change efforts in our families, organizations, and communities. We don’t need less provocation in our world. We need better provocation. This book guides the way."

    Ed O’Malley, President and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center