8/15 – Bill Drath on Leadership and Making Meaning in a Community of Practice

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Wilfred Drath

Wilfred Drath

Russ VolckmannBill Drath and Charles Palus wrote a paper in 1994 for the Center for Creative Leadership: “Making Common Sense: Leadership as Meaning-making in a Community of Practice.” Subsequently, Drath extended his thinking in his 2001 book, The Deep Blue Sea: Rethinking the Source of Leadership (Jossey-Bass). He participated in writing and publishing other articles and Center material, as well. A couple of years ago, he retired from the Center. But I discovered the 1994 article only recently. It reminded me of themes carried forward from The Deep Blue Sea, but the experience was really like reading the material for the first time. Here were perspectives and themes so highly relevant to integral leadership. At the heart of their discussion is the importance of making meaning. This is a theme I am particularly interested in and here was a document that contributed significantly contributed to my relational database around this theme.

Russ:  Welcome Bill Drath. You are a man whose work I’ve known about for probably 15 years or so, and who has quite a history in the field of leadership. Bill, I first knew about you in terms of your role at the Center for Creative Leadership. Is that where you started out with your interest in leadership?

Bill: That’s where I started out. In fact, I didn’t start out to have anything to do with leadership. I was a freelance writer and editor. The Center was one of my clients. Years and years ago, when my first child was on the way, I was offered a job there. It was a non-freelance type job and, for the sake of income steadiness, I took it.

For a number of years, I was Publication Director at the Center for Creative Leadership. Gradually, I began to edit technical reports and journal articles, help the research folks think through some of their work. One of them one day said. “Wouldn’t you like to be involved in research, rather than just edit the work of others?” And I said, “Sure, I’ll give that a try.” I don’t have any credentials in this field – this was in maybe 1983 or ’84.

So then the guy, Bob Kaplan, who was offering this to me said, “Well, there are no credentials in this field!” That was true back then. I don’t think there were any PhD programs in leadership or any formal education in leadership development. So, it was kind of a Wild, Wild West of period for the field.

Russ: I remember in that period and the period before that, I was working with Jim Kouzes and some other OD people on a Federal grant that we were training and coaching the directors of County Mental Health programs in Northern California and then consulting to them and their leadership teams. That was my first exposure to working with people around themes of leadership and the competencies of leadership and that sort of thing.

So I think you’re right. I had just come out of an academic environment and there were no courses on leadership at that time that I recall, although UC Berkeley sociologist Phillip Selznick had written of leadership in TVA and the Grassroots (1949) and Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation (1957). If anyone at Berkeley had a course on leadership at that time it would have been Selznick. I was in political science, but my focus did not take me to leadership studies at the time.

Bill: Leadership was a topic within the general area of management and it has been turned somewhat on in its head in recent years. One of the manager’s many functions was to provide leadership.

Russ: Please continue your comments about your career development within CCI.

Bill: I started out doing interviews and basic research drudge work, Although interviews are very interesting – I don’t know how many people I interviewed over the years but we did several research projects that were qualitative type research projects that involved anywhere from 30-minute to 90-minute interviews, taking notes – mostly I learned how to take notes. I also learned how to make an analysis of an interview to bring out what the main points were and so forth. Thus, I didn’t get an education in the academy and I don’t have any advanced degrees. In the 70s I was in graduate school in English Literature, but didn’t take a PhD. I got my education on the streets, so to speak.

I thought the concept of leadership just actually I just thought it was boring. So I began to think about “There surely is more to this than meets the eye!” or “There better be because I’m not going to be that interested in it if this is about highly-influential, white male, tall John Wayne – type speaking – taking charge and telling people what to do.” That wasn’t just going to be very interesting to me.

I started to exploring what are some different ways that you could think about leadership. About that time, my colleague dropped a book in my desk, it was Robert Kegan’s ’82 book The Evolving Self. He said, “Hey, take a look at this.” Well, I was fascinated and of course, it’s like anything else. All of a sudden I have this hammer here and I realized “I’m going to beat leadership over the head with this book!”

I started thinking about leadership in terms of the evolution of meaning structures as a developmental process, as a meaning-making process. After I had read The Evolving Self twice – because I had to read it twice to even partially understand it – I was with Bob Kegan and I mentioned that to him. He said that his Dad had told him that he should write a book that people could understand.

So, I wrote down some ideas about leadership as a meaning-making process. There was no outlet for those ideas; no one was thinking about them. I had put these ideas down and stuck them in a desk drawer. Then this fellow named Chuck Paulus joined the Center. It was very interesting, because he had gone to Boston University and he had done his dissertation on basically the psychological meaning of age markers for people — 20, 30, 40, 50 — which were just more interesting to me than leadership. We got to talking about that. And of course, he was familiar with some of the developmental literature – not the constructive developmental end of it, but the seasons of a man’s life end of it.

We were both interested, in other words, in human development, personal development. We got to talking about how to apply that to leadership. I pulled those notes out of my desk drawer and said “Take a look at these and see if this makes any sense to you.” That was really how “Making Common Sense” got its start.

There were some other things going on at the Center at that time that I mentioned in the introduction. For example, there was a move to try to offer a Center for Creative Leadership definition of leadership. I thought that was a very bad idea.

Russ: At that time, there were at least 800 or more definitions of leadership out there.

Bill: At least 800.

Russ: Recently, Barbara Kellerman says there are 1500. But you’re talking about an alternative to definition as something you came up with. What was that?

Bill: Yeah! In other words, instead of trying to define leadership, I was interested in another way to look at a perspective on leadership, a different framework. Basically, a different anthology, a different set of terms we used to think about leadership. In other words, an approach that’s pre-definitional. I mean, the definition would be laid down the road.

So that’s what I started and that’s actually what I’ve been interested in, it turns out. My entire career is trying to shift the framework, the terms, the vocabulary in which we speak about leadership and therefore in which we think about leadership. I believe in the social construction of reality. I want to be a participant in actually changing the way leadership is constructed and therefore the way it’s practiced. I felt we needed to improve the way it was practiced based on how the world was changing.

Russ: The parallel between what you’re saying and the work I’ve been doing and a project on one right now, is so strong it’s realexciting to me. It’s fascinating, because this was such a radical departure from the leadership literature in that era.

How were your ideas and efforts received?

Bill: Oh gosh! Mostly through a series of almost comical misunderstandings! I made some people very angry; let’s start with that. Some people felt that Chuck and I were taking the person out of leadership and making it some sort of communal phenomenon. They felt insulted by that.

Then there were more kind reactions that were, if you know Piaget’s distinction between accommodation and assimilation, in which people accommodated their understanding of leadership as a leader influencing followers through “Making Common Sense”. So how they readleadership as meaning-making in a community of practice was that what a leader did was to make meaning in a community of practice. That’s the most common– it’s still to this day, Russ, – the most common interpretation of this work. I’ve had people come up to me and say that it had been personally important to them as a leader to learn that what they were doing was making meaning and that it had improved their leadership.

Russ: It’s that and it is also the community making meaning.

Bill: Well, yes, of course.

But in the little booklet, we were trying to bring all the more integrated views of leadership in which the individual as a meaning-maker was a part of a system, an emerging system. That’s why at several couple of points in the little booklet we say “Leadership creates the leader.” It’s just the opposite of what people tend to think that a leader creates leadership.

We were trying to have a more integral perspective and that’s the perspective that I have found most difficult for people to accommodate. In other words, my hope for the book – that it would help people think about leadership in a new way – has only been partially successful. And that’s true for “Making Common Sense” and for The Deep Blue Sea. And for the article we recently published in Leadership Quarterly.

I was just at a conference and one of the things I learned is that people still find a lot of value in framing leadership in terms of the individual. I say, “Well, I’m trying to get people to change.” But they might not be changing, not because they’re recalcitrant or resistant to change, but because actually they still value thinking about leadership in terms of an individual leader influencing followers.

Russ: That was one of the things I found so impressive about “Making Common Sense” was that your message to that world was “Hey, keep those models. Those models serve you.” And in addition to those models, use this new lens that you’re offering.

Bill: Yes.

Russ: I didn’t see your work as saying that the more traditional mainstream representations of leadership and leaders was wrong, but that it was a perspective, a framework that if left to its own devices, would not serve us well in the development and practice of leadership in a more and more complex and challenging world.

Bill: Right. But there were distinct limits built into that perspective and we were beginning to encounter those limits.

Russ: Could you say more about that? Say more about the limits.

Bill: I think they’re well known. One of the limits is how much worldview can an individual encompass? And if your model of leadership is the individual influencing a large number of others, aren’t you, to some extent, constrained by that individual’s worldview? Therefore, your enterprise is constrained by that individual worldview. What we require in our more global organizations, but also just in our communities that are more interconnected, is a way of understanding leadership amidst a much richer tapestry of worldview that you can only get from multiple interrelating individuals who are – for a lack of a better term – in dialogue with one another.

That’s the key limitation of the individual leader perspective, which is not to say that it doesn’t still have its uses or that it isn’t valuable. But what I find people trying to do is figure out how to make that individual leader more universal or, in other word. through developing leadership capacities within the individual to make that person able to encompass broader worldviews. There is a distinct limit to that. The direction for leadership development really is to take a more systemic view of leadership as an emergent property. That’s the secret of making progress.

Russ: It’s emergent for the individual as well as the community of practice.

Bill: Sure.

Russ: The additional perspective that you’re bringing is related to this idea of the dialoguic community, is that right?

Bill: Yes, right! It’s a framing or an encompassing perspective that takes the individual leader perspective as a part of a larger whole. That’s how I would describe the perspective.

Russ: Would you give us an overview of the elements of that meta perspective that you’re offering?

Bill: As I’ve said, it’s a perspective in which leadership is a social collective outcome; it’s an emergent property of people working together. That property can manifest itself in a number of ways, including an individual influencing individual followers.

But so much more can also be manifested, including – and I think most importantly – the idea that peers, people absent in the authority hierarchy, without there being someone in charge, without there being an appointed leader, can work together in a project or a plan or a dream and create leadership, create direction, alignment and commitment by interrelating through a dialogical process.

And that is leadership. Now a lot of people say “No, that’s teamwork, that’s dialogue.” And so I say “Well, okay. Then I think we need to think about how teamwork is leadership, about how dialogue is leadership instead of saying “Well, since it’s teamwork, it can’t be leadership.””

Russ: There’s so much in this. What I keep wondering about is the way you talk about it. The framework seems to have some kind of meta model, if you will, some kind of underlying set of structures. For example, if we include the individual we are talking about their worldview, as well as the actions they take from that place. You also talk about the community of practice, the importance of culture, those shared and diverse worldviews that are present in the system. And then the system itself is these structures and the technologies and their roles… Well, the roles emerge from the culture, but in any case those kinds of variables are included and they’re all part of leadership. This is what I think you’re saying.

Bill: That’s true.

To respond to your hunch that there’s an underlying framework, there is one. It’s basically a developmental framework. This is where I started with The Deep Blue Sea. So to roughly describe the developmental underpinning it is the idea that – and this is in The Deep Blue Sea – it’s the idea that personal dominance is transcended and made an object by interpersonal influence, which is transcended and made an object by what I call relational dialogue.

In other words, because leadership is a social construction, that construction can and does develop over time. I believe that way back when, dominance was basically all there was to leadership. If you were stronger and faster, smarter, had more resources, had more rewards to offer, more punishment to threaten with, then you could be the leader and you could make people do things, organize things. That was leadership.

But in time we came to understand that dominance isn’t always possible and isn’t always workable. Sometimes you need to use an interpersonal influence process in which there’s more of a persuasive rationale or argumentative approach rather than the threat of force punishments and rewards. But that takes personal dominance as an object. In other words, it encloses or transcends personal dominance. This is this idea in the development of transcend and include.

What I was looking at in The Deep Blue Sea is where go off for interpersonal influence because it feels like in our modern age, in the 20th century, we’ve been thinking about leadership as a social influence process. I mean, if you read the 1500 definitions, almost all of them are some variation of leadership as a social influence process.

Russ: Actually, in the late ’80s Joseph Rost pointed that out that all the definitions that were out there boiled down to that kind of social dominance model that you’ were talking about.

Bill: Yes, that’s true. He did a lot of good work in this area, too, I might add.

I never hooked up with Joseph Rost. I think he sent me some emails. One thing led to another; I’m not a good networker so we never hooked up, but I have a lot of respect for his work. He has done and made a lot of important contributions to this perspective.

In The Deep Blue Sea I was asking, “Well, okay, what’s next?” What’s the next developmental era? What’s the next transcending and including — what transcends interpersonal influence?

And the term I thought up and use was relational dialogue. On the one hand, it was relational, which meant that it was a perspective or a turn that viewed the interconnections, the relations among in-between people or entities, as being constitutive of those entities. That’s what relational means. It means that the relationship, the interconnection, is what creates the individuals and brings the individuals into being.

That’s a difficult idea, a lot of people have struggled with trying to understand that but basically that’s what Ken Gergen’s work is all about. I have owed so much to Ken Gergen and to his writings and thinkings about this relational perspective on leadership.

Russ: Is there one piece by him that you would recommend? A book?

Bill: He just published a book and it’s very good. It’s called Relational Leading – Practices for Dialogically based Collaboration. You can see the relationship. He’s at the Taos Institute so that’s in your neck of the woods, isn’t it?

Russ: Well, next door. Yes.

Bill:  The authors are Hersted and Gergen.

I read some of his earlier works and I instantly realized that this relational perspective wasn’t an integral perspective. It was a systems way of looking at individuals as participants in a relationship rather than as entities that enter into relationship. They’re products of relationship. That was a perspective that could transcend the personal influence paradigm from a leadership perspective. We need that relational perspective to help cognitively transcend the individual perspective.

Russ: The way you have talked about this you’ve gone beyond Kegan in terms of adult development theory, is that right?

Bill: I wouldn’t dare say that, but, yes.

Russ: I don’t mean vertically, I mean horizontally.

Bill: Yes. I don’t think the relational idea works for Bob – the idea of individuals being products of their relationships. Although the fifth order as he describes it – one among many — I’m not quite sure where he is with that. Gergen helped me add another layer to what I was getting out of Kegan, definitely.

Russ: What about other adult development models like the work that Bill Torbert has done based on the work of Susanne Cook-Greuter and Loevinger and the Spiral Dynamics work based on Clare Graves –

Bill: All of that is a family of work around the constructive developmental perspective on development. Ken Wilber, Bill Torbert, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Jane Loevinger, and Kegan too, is all basically a family of work that goes back to Piaget. I’ve been interested in all of that, but it is basically all of a piece: different pieces of colorings and shadings, but the basic structure of it is the same or related.

Russ: What you’ve been talking about is a reflection of the kind of monological view of meaning-making and sense-making versus a dialogical view. These are two strong positions, the former being US-based primarily, although it’s of course spread around the world, and the latter being more European-based out of the work of people like Vygotsky, Bakhtin and others like that. So the issue you’re addressing is one that is still challenged at the level of sense- and meaning-making and it has its correspondence to how we use language, how language affects the way we think and those kinds of issues.

Bill: Absolutely. All of these – you mentioned Vygotsky, I hadn’t heard his name in a long time – there are a number of people who were really awakening some interest in me when all of this was brewing. So a lot of this goes into a philosophical realm.

Russ: We can’t avoid that, can we?

Bill: No. I seem to be worse at avoiding it than others I have a tendency to begin to get philosophical about all of this and –

Russ: What would that look like?

Bill: So what will a philosophy of leadership look like? What are the philosophical questions related to leadership? How would you begin to answer these questions?

I’m not sure that that’s terribly useful. One of the great benefits that I get from my colleague and co-author on “Making Common Sense”, Chuck Paulus, is a continuing grounding in reality and practicality, and what will help people rather than spinning off into my fantasy world.

Russ: Perhaps, they go together just like the individual and the community.

Bill: Yeah, probably. Probably they do.

Russ: Where is your work taking you now? You’ve indicated that the reception to “Making Common Sense” and perhaps The Deep Blue Sea was very mixed and you’ve continued to work, you’ve continued to consult. What’s ahead for you? What’s your newest interest?

Bill:  Well, right now, my interest is wholly practical. I’m involved with coaching action learning teams. So an action learning team is a group of peers who have to decide on a project focus and then carry out that project to some practical outcome. It’s something that we here at the Center are offering as a leadership development opportunity with the leadership being of the more collective distributed shared kind. Our sales pitch here would be that with action learning teams you can learn how to effectively participate with others in the creation of leadership.

So what I’m interested in as a coach for these action learning teams is observing, watching the ways that they interact and struggle with the lack of a clear leader, the struggle with how to make decisions, how to make sense of the work that they’re doing, how to take account of the different values on the team, the different perspectives and worldviews and how to bring all those together and integrate them into a direction that allows them to align, to get committed and to bring up something that’s of practical value.

So here I am thinking this is interesting what I’m doing and a fellow named Allen Moore got in touch with me. He’s written a dissertation under Ken Gergen at the Taos Institute in which he has worked with action learning teams and observed their workings and he’s written up a whole dissertation. I was looking at it earlier today, I’m going like “Well, yeah. Shoot! It’s already done.”

The parallels were interesting. Some of the things that he was discovering in the action learning groups are very interesting and helpful to me because they echo some of the ways that I’ve been trying to help coach the action learning teams toward a collective leadership performance.

So that’s what I’ve been doing recently. I keep thinking surely there’s something more than what I’m going to write, but not coming to me right now. Also, I’m very interested in painting. That has really been occupying a lot of my psychic energy, because I’m trying to develop my skill. I’ve taken some lessons, I’m thinking about going to some workshops.

Russ: I’m on a Dissertation Committee for an individual who’s a vice president of a high-tech company in Silicon Valley. One of the things they are doing is using SCRUM teams in technology innovation and development. They are using self-organizing teams for innovation and technology and for rapid development in projects.

Bill: Fascinating.

Russ: The use of SCRUM teams is a phenomenon that has been increasing within the world of high technology, because of the demands for innovation and creativity that are involved in these projects. His dissertation will involve trying to look at how is that working and the phenomena of leadership. The kinds of challenges that we’ve been talking about he has been seeing in these groups – which by the way, he says it takes a company about five years to develop the effective use of these self-organizing groups because of all the issues of hierarchy, boundaries and other cultural and organizational issues.

Bill: Very interesting and I don’t doubt that!

Russ: This reminds me of the challenges we have in bringing engaging with diversity to achieve shared as well as individual goals. We speak different languages. We have different sets of assumptions. We have different styles, different levels of development in our cognitive and emotional intelligence and so on..

It seems to me that if someone has identified these key variables in a dissertation, all that’s doing is opening up the possibility for you to be doing the work you’re doing. There is so much to be done around this on the ground, not just with the teams themselves, but with the cultures and organizations that presumably are supporting these teams.

And I think that’s exciting.

Bill: Yeah. I think so, too.

Russ: Is there anything, Bill, I haven’t asked you about you wish I had?


Are you laughing because that’s your interview question?

Bill: Yes. Yes, I am. “Oh, he knows that trick, too.”

No, I don’t think so. It’s been very interesting.

Russ: I’ve really enjoyed talking with you and I think I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of how my work and thinking relates to the work you’ve done. Thank you so much for doing this.

Bill: You’re so welcome. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.



Leave a Comment