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A Complexity Approach to Leadership Development: Developing Practical JUdgement

Dr Kevin Flinn and Professor Chris Mowles
University of Hertfordshire
Stimulus Paper, January 2014

Our research forms part of the Leadership Foundation membership benefit. Hard copies of this Stimulus Paper have been distributed to all member institutions. The PDF will be available to download from the end of March 2014.


Preface 

This paper offers valuable and challenging perspectives to those with an interest in leadership development. It is likely to be of particular interest to academics in leadership and management education, and specialist professionals tasked with organisational development. It will also make for thought-provoking reading and reflection on the part of those who have experienced leadership development interventions as participants.

The authors write in a clear and consistent style, and the paper is enhanced by detailed case examples from respective practice in the National Health Service and higher education. They offer something new and distinctive by challenging conventional approaches to the design and implementation of leadership development programmes, and indeed to the paradigms governing management practices in universities.

The paper takes a provocative view of prevailing constructs associated with managerialism. While the authors argue that they are not "necessarily dismissing or abandoning mainstream thinking", the argument for the importance of developing cultural literacy in organisational contexts is well made. There is an important distinction between ‘public transcripts’ and ‘hidden transcripts’ - what is promulgated to wider audiences as opposed to the private conversations which reveal people’s personal and political interpretations of organisational life. Finding ways of spending time discussing and reflecting on such interpretations is a valuable approach to the design of leadership development interventions.

The paper will resonate with leaders who are concerned with facing up to challenges in higher education institutions of refocusing the critical role and purpose of universities in an era of increasing marketisation.

Dr Paul Gentle
Director of Programmes

Leadership Foundation for Higher Education


Abstract

Over recent years, complexity perspectives have been taken up more broadly in scholarship and teaching about leadership with leadership development providers such as Ashridge Business School, Roffey Park, Harvard Business School, and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (Leadership Foundation), incorporating aspects of complexity theory into their programmes. In this paper we argue that the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating1 advances a radical interpretation of the complexity sciences that has profound implications for the way in which management education and development might be usefully conducted. In staying with a radical interpretation of the complexity sciences the perspective calls into question the conventional paradigm of predictability and control in organisational life. That is, many leadership development programmes, even ones which claim to draw on the complexity sciences in their pedagogy, steadfastly maintain that organisations are open to manipulation by powerful leader-managers who are able to choose organisational futures and control them at will. From this paradigm of control, leadership is seen as a natural, neutral, individualistic activity that tends to the good.

The perspective of complex responsive processes of relating, developed over the last 15 years at the University of Hertfordshire, proffers a radically different view that understands leadership to be a contested, social and relational activity that has a shadow side. We argue that organisations are intensely political places and that leaders and managers are particularly powerful players in the game of organisational life. As the game unfolds, so leaders play and are played by the game; influencing while simultaneously being influenced. In this paper we offer a view of organisations as patterns of human interaction constantly emerging in both predictable and unpredictable ways in the living present2, mostly through conversational activity. Consequently, helping current and future leaders develop their practice means basing much of the content of organisational development programmes precisely on this perspective, encouraging them to pay attention to what they are doing and the conversations they are presently engaged in, as much as what they think they should be doing.

We explore the practicalities of this perspective for leaders and participants of leadership development by providing accounts of two extended development programmes conducted in different organisations. These programmes involved managers and leaders from the National Health Service (NHS) and higher education, respectively. In both cases insights from the complexity sciences have been central to informing how we worked with leaders and managers as part of their leadership development. In the first example, Chris Mowles shares his experiences of working with groups of NHS managers over a period of two years; and in the second example, Kevin Flinn writes about the changes he has implemented in the University of Hertfordshire’s internal leadership development programmes over the last six years.

Rather than looking to provide idealistic prescriptions, models and frameworks of how leadership and organisation ought to be, these programmes have explored what is involved in supporting managers and leaders to develop reflexivity and practical judgment, capacities that are required if they are to become more adept at navigating the politics of everyday life in organisations. This has involved allowing participants in the programmes that we have run to explore the activities of leading and managing as probabilistic, rather than certain, undertakings that can have all kinds of surprising, unintended and unwanted outcomes.

Participants on the programmes that we have led have become much more sensitive to, and mindful of, the power relations they are caught up in, as well as the ways in which they influence and are influenced by others. We have also questioned the pervasiveness of the contemporary discourse as to what leadership "should" be, helping participants to deflate notions of the heroic and visionary leader and identify something more congruent with and applicable to their own reality and circumstances. Both of these programmes have been centred around group-based and exploratory conversation.


1 Stacey (2007); Griffin (2005); Shaw (2002); Mowles (2011)
2 The living present describes temporal processes of interaction where our experiences and actions in the present are influenced by and influence our accounts of past experience, at the same time as being influenced by and influencing our (anticipated) future actions

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