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Leadership - Rethinking

Charted Management Institute (CMI) Management Book of the Year

To improve understanding around the topic, we are showcasing articles written by our expert authors and editors. If you find leadership difficult, these articles provide insights into common paradoxes and challenges faced by leaders, the new paradigm of leadership-as-practice and lessons on becoming more resilient to ethical failure. Select the article you would like to read via the navigation tabs on the left.

Update February 2017: We are delighted to announce that Dennis Gentilin, who's article is featured on this page, won the Charted Management Institute's (CMI) Management Book of the Year Award in the Management and Leadership Textbook category for his book, The Origins of Ethical Failures.

The foundation of the leadership-as-practice approach is its underlying belief that leadership occurs as a practice rather than reside in the traits or behaviors of individuals. A practice is a coordinative effort among participants who choose through their own means to achieve an outcome. Accordingly, leadership-as-practice is less about what one person thinks or does and more about what people may accomplish together. It is thus concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience. The social and material-discursive contingencies impacting the leadership constellation – the people who are effecting leadership at any given time – do not reside outside of leadership but are very much embedded within it. To find leadership, then, we must look to the practice within which it is occurring.

The practice view may consequently upend our traditional views of leadership because it does not rely on the attributes of individuals nor need it focus on the dyadic relationship between leaders and followers, which historically has been the starting point for any discussion of leadership. Rather, it depicts immanent collective action emerging from mutual, discursive, sometimes recurring and sometimes evolving patterns in the moment and over time among those engaged in the practice. This definition suggests an ecumenical approach to practice because at times it refers to routine activities; at others times, it suggests a more perpetually unfolding dynamic. Perhaps the simplest way to account for this difference is to compare the concepts of practices and practice.

Practices refer to specific sequences of activities that may repeatedly recur, whereas practice refers to emergent entanglements that tend to extend or transform meaning over time. In her chapter in this book, Simpson links practices to an inter-actional mode of activity in which pre-formed entities – be they people or discourses or institutions – vie for influence over other “inter-actors.” Practice, on the other hand, is associated with a more trans-actional mode characterized by a continual flow of processes where material-discursive engagements produce meaning that is emergent and mutual. Practices, therefore, as Crevani and Endrissat point out in their chapter rely on an entitative ontology of subject-object or subject-subject relations in which individuals may be viewed within fields of relationships. Practice, on the other hand, is processual and thus considered more situated and recursive. Another way to differentiate these two forms of activity is to use the philosophical language employed by Cunliffe and Hibbert in their chapter in which practices may be considered objectivist or subjectivist, depending upon whether the practices in question are studied as objects separate from the people engaged in them or whether they are subject to the intentions and interpretations of the actors who experience them. Practice, meanwhile, may be considered intersubjective in character because it is interwoven not between people but “within” the dynamic unfolding of their becoming” (see Shotter’s chapter).

When we associate leadership with practice, we think of it as not only material-discursive but shared or collective. The parties to the practice engage in semiotic, often dialogical, exchange, and in some cases for those genuinely committed to one another, they display an interest in listening to one another, in reflecting upon new perspectives, and in entertaining the prospect of changing direction based on what they learn. Peter Gronn refers to the engagement as a conjoint agency characterized by reciprocal dependence. In effect, the parties look to coordinate with one another to advance their individual or mutual projects. In the integrated professional services realm, for example, individual contributors may seek to work inter-professionally in aligning their thoughts and actions with others in order to interpret problems of practice and to respond to those interpretations.

The activity of leadership is at times orderly; at other times, it will be irregular and provisional. As people within an enterprise work together, they may develop a sense of mastery not only in accomplishing the daily mundane work of the organization but in surmounting unexpected challenges and disruptions. At times, the practices become so obvious that they are no longer questioned and begin to represent an objectified context for members of a community. At this point, actions become pre-determined until system perturbance pulls people out of their contextual patterns. Unfamiliar stakeholders may be invited to contribute their knowledge. New or forgotten resources may be solicited to add to the knowledge base. Eventually, familiar routines may be broken or familiar relations may even end in unresolved conflict as new structures, material, and relations become salient. Activity may resume, however, as participants decide whether or not to continue the effort. A casual observer to the action may see the activity as an organized effort leading to a planned conclusion, but if paying close attention, it may actually resemble a jazz improvisation in which, as Mary Jo Hatch once explained: “The directions [the tune] will take are only decided in the moment of playing and will be redetermined each time the tune is played.”

So, the practice of leadership is not dependent on any one person to mobilize action on behalf of everybody else. The effort is intrinsically collective. However, in the process of engagement, leadership may also emanate from the actions of particular individuals who, often because of historical reasons, may be able to suggest meaning with a high degree of insight, such as by extracting or providing critical cues, by suggesting behavioral patterns, or by transmitting cultural norms to minimize the range of choices available. These “meaning makers” may be serving in managerial roles, but anyone within the team can be responsible provided they have astute awareness of the perspectives, reasoning patterns, and narratives of others.

Joseph A. Raelin is Professor of Management and Organization Development at Northeastern University, USA, and author of Leadership-as-Practice: Theory and Application.

Paradox n. a seemingly absurd though perhaps well-founded statement; self-contradictory or essentially absurd statement; person or thing conflicting with pre-conceived notions of what is reasonable or possible.
- Oxford English Dictionary

Why is leadership so difficult? And it must be difficult; surely there is no other reason why so many organisations around the world are so poorly led. If leadership were easy, anyone could do it and we would have a lot fewer problems in our economy and society. We know leadership is difficult too because despite the publication of more than 20,000 books on leadership over the years, we are still not entirely clear what leadership is, or how it works, or even who leaders are.

It is a truism, too, to state that there is no universally agreed definition of leadership. Put twenty leadership scholars and practitioners into a room and ask them to define leadership, and you will probably get twenty-two definitions (at least two will change their mind during the course of the discussion). How can it be that such a vast body of work has been produced on a subject that no one can define? Is there any other subject (apart from perhaps religion) where so much discussion had produced so little illumination?

This book makes no claim to delivering full and complete answers to those questions. Its purpose, instead, is to suggest that instead of attacking the problems of leadership using the standard tools of Cartesian logic and problem-solving, we should perhaps stand back and consider another way.

One of the problems, we believe, that has so far prevented better understanding of what leadership is, how it works and who leaders are, is that leadership is full of paradoxes. These are features of leadership that defy logical analysis; and, as we and our fellow contributors shall show, understanding these paradoxes is also central to the understanding of leadership. Until leadership scholars, consultants, developers and leaders themselves come to terms with the concept of paradox and incorporate it into thinking and practice, then scholarship will never be able to complete its investigatory task, and leaders will continue to struggle to make a lasting impact on the organisations they are supposed to lead.

The nature of paradox

The logician Willard Quine (1966) classed paradoxes into three categories:

1. Veridical paradoxes, which sound at first to be absurd but in the end turn out to be logically true.
2. Falsidical paradoxes which appear to be false and, upon analysis, turn out to actually be false.
3. Antinomy paradoxes, in which we find two equally logical but contradictory statements that no amount of logical reasoning can dispel.

It is antinomy paradoxes that people find most troublesome. For many people, their first impulse upon being confronted with a paradox is to try to ‘resolve’ it, to render down the conflicting statements so that they agree and the apparent contradiction can be made to go away. We are hard-wired to regard anything difficult as a problem needing to be fixed.

The central point to be made about antinomy paradoxes, however, is this: they are not puzzles to be solved or opposites that can be reconciled. They simply are. Rather than dissecting them, we need to learn to accept them as wholes and learn to live with them and manage them. Yet Western people, in particular, tend to be very bad at doing this.

The wrong tools for the wrong problems

When seeking a better understanding of leadership, it is important to recall the advice of the Irish postmaster to the lost motorist seeking the road to Dublin that ‘you can’t get there from here.’ We are attempting to analyse a necessarily complex phenomenon using a set of tools designed to make things simple, using the wrong tools to solve what are very likely the wrong problems as well.

As Hodgson (2007) and others have remarked, the vast majority of leadership theory over the past fifty years has emanated from American research establishments, and most of what remains has come from northern Europe: the UK primarily, but also France, Germany and Scandinavia. Witzel (2015) has noted how there is virtually no original theorising on leadership in management coming out of Asia today, despite the vast richness of leadership literature in those regions from antiquity; most of the work that has been published is derivative and based on Western thinking with little attempt at cultural context.

Living with an antinomy paradox requires us to do something which is, in descriptive terms, quite simple: accept that there is no black and white, no right and wrong, and that two or more logically incompatible positions might well be true - yet, in reality, most of us find this difficult. Partly this is because, as Witzel (2012) points out, Western thinking about management has been heavily conditioned over the past hundred years by the Taylorist concept of the ‘one best way’; there is only one ‘best’ way of doing things and all others are inferior. Taylorism tends to push us into narrow channels of thinking reliant on Cartesian logic and step-by-step approaches.

And Cartesian logic is, to repeat the phrase, the wrong tool. Cartesian logic is very good at breaking problems down into their component parts and working out cause and effect. But when there is a discontinuity between cause and effect, or when the cause leads to multiple and contradictory effects, our logical tools break down. In terms of analysing leadership, it may be that cause-and-effect analysis has taken us about as far as we can go. It is time, perhaps past time, that we stopped and stood back and looked at leadership not as a series of problems that can be solved, but as a series of contradictory, puzzling and obscure concepts that need to be managed and lived with. The purpose of this work, then is to introduce some of the paradoxes of leadership and to suggest some ways that leaders and organisations may learn to live with them.

Richard Bolden is Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of Bristol Leadership Centre at the University of the West of England, UK

Morgen Witzel is a Fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, Univerity of Exeter Business School, UK.

Nigel Linacre is a co-founder of Extraordinary Leadership Ltd and is an affiliate of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter, UK.

Click here to read an interview with the editors of Leadership Paradoxes, Morgen Witzel, Richard Bolden, and Nigel Linacre, which was shortlisted for 2017 Management Book of the Year by the Chartered Management Institute.

Being at the coal face of the FX trading scandal that rocked the National Australia Bank in 2004 was both a blessing and a curse for me. A curse because as anyone will testify, being associated with an ethical failure, in any capacity, is not a pleasant experience. And perversely it is those who are left to deal with the aftermath that carry an incommensurate burden. The pressure to find answers, deal with the consequences, and sure up processes and controls to satisfy leaders and regulators is enormous.

But the experience was also a blessing. As Mary Gentile says, “Dennis Gentilin is a practitioner whose commitment to ethical business was forged in the fire of personal experience.” These are wise words. Although it can be incredibly bitter, there is no substitute for experiential learning – it is extraordinarily powerful and delivers the type of knowledge that no textbook can provide. This, coupled with my subsequent research and reflection, has provided me with some very unique insights into how organisations sow the seeds for ethical failure.

Of the many invaluable lessons associated with my experience, one is that explaining ethical failure is far from straightforward. Our desire for simple explanations is what leads us to search for scapegoats – the so called “rogues” or “bad apples”. This approach, although intuitively appealing, is significantly short sighted. It fails to acknowledge that ethical failures are incubated within flawed systems.

Flawed systems are innately complex and difficult to rectify. They evolve over extended periods of time (years, sometimes decades) as people in positions of power make decisions (most of the time unwittingly) that create favourable conditions for the emergence of unethical outcomes. These conditions work to guide the behaviour of those operating within the system, so much so that it is possible for people of seemingly good character to behave in very uncharacteristic ways – they simply do what the system dictates.

This being said, it is possible to shape systems and build institutions that produce ethical outcomes. Admittedly, there is no quick fix or “one size fits all” approach, and the effort required is considerable.

As a starting point, it must be recognised that compliance, rules, regulations and other formal artefacts of corporate governance are necessary but far from sufficient. Worse still, their imposition can at times have perverse effects and drive the very outcomes they were designed to avoid. There are multiple reasons for this but perhaps the most telling is that formal mechanisms work on the premise that we are rational humans who engage in deep deliberative thinking before engaging in wrongdoing. Years of research in the behavioural science proves that this is rarely the case.

Next, we must embrace the idea that corporate citizenship is fundamentally about making a contribution to the greater good. If there is one thing we can take from the global financial crisis it is that it provides the definitive example of what can happen when organisations lose sight of purpose. When financial institutions began prioritising money and money making, their employees, somewhat predictably, followed suit. Service to self was placed ahead of service to other, and people joined the industry to extract rather than add value (economic or otherwise). When this attitude pervades an entire industry, the implications can be catastrophic.

In addition, organisations must create environments that embrace transparency, so much so that those who shine a torch on wrongdoing are cherished rather than chastised. It is now broadly accepted that formal systems of compliance, no matter how robust, have their shortcomings. The best way to compensate for these shortcomings is to enhance an organisation’s human systems. A central component of any organisation’s human system is employee voice – people must not only be equipped with the skills to speak up, but with the knowledge that if they do they will be listened to, respected and have their concerns appropriately addressed.

Finally, and most importantly, building systems that produce ethical outcomes requires strong leadership. Ultimately it is those who hold positions of power within a system that have the ability to influence how it operates.

Typically it is leaders who lack integrity, humility and courage that are more likely to preside over a flawed system. Integrity ensures that a leader will display a deep commitment to their organisation’s purpose and values, in both their actions and their words. Humility ensures that a leader will acknowledge their fallibility and empower those around them to hold them accountable when their standards of conduct fall short (as they inevitably will). And courage ensures that a leader will face into the difficult decisions that need to be made when one chooses to consistently place their organisation’s principles ahead of both profit and privilege.

The above list is not exhaustive. To properly build and sustain the ethical foundation of any system arguably takes all of the above and a whole lot more. But two things that you can guarantee it will take are this: significant effort and time.

Dennis Gentilin is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Ethical Leadership and the author of The Origins of Ethical Failure, a book which won the Chartered Management Institute's 2017 Management and Leadership Textbook Award.

Click here to read an interview with the Dennis Gentilin about his book.

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Leadership and Management Award

Leadership & Management AwardView our interviews with Richard Bolden, Morgen Witzel and Nigel Linacre, editors of Leadership Paradoxes and Dennis Gentilin, author of The Origins of Ethical Failures, who's books have been shortlisted for this year’s CMI Management Book of the Year award!

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