Leadership Emerging

Russ Volckmann

arbingerThe Arbinger Institute. Leadership and Self-Deception. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler 2010.

Self-deception shapes our experiences of life. This book seeks to determine the extent and implications of how it blinds us to seeing the true causes of our problems. The work of the Institute in teaching people about self-deception and how to address it is that it “sharpens vision, reduces feelings of conflict, enlivens the desire for teamwork, redoubles accountability, magnifies the capacity to achieve results and deepens satisfaction and happiness.” Don’t you feel tempted to say something like, “Now if I could only get it to do the dishes!”

But lest we make light of it, this work was first published in 2000 and has been updated with this new edition. Here they tell a story intended to help us address our self-deception. Something must be working because the book is now available in more than 20 languages. So step into this first person account and see where it leads you. Corporate Vice President Bud Johnson helps Tom (you) see that he has a problem and that problem is, of course, he is deceiving himself and as a consequence treating others badly or dishonestly. Johnson states, “the discovery of the cause of self-deception amounts to the revelation of a sort of unifying theory, an explanation that shows how the apparently disparate collection of systems we call ‘people problems’—from problems in leadership to problems in motivation and everything in between—are all caused by the same thing.“

It seems we operate from inside a box that results in inauthenticity in our relation with others and self-deception for ourselves. This comes about, in part, when we do things like these:

  • Trying to change others
  • Doing our best to “cope” with others
  • Leaving. (Not dealing with what is in front of us.)
  • Communicating
  • Implementing new skills and techniques
  • Changing our behavior.

Each of these involves focusing on ourselves and thus, being in the box. But these same things do work when we are outside the box. And you get out of the box by not resisting others. Yet we are in and out of the box at the same time in relation to different sets of other people. When we are out of the box we are open to learning from others.

Well, there is much more to this story and I have probably over-simplified here. Check it out. Discover your in and out of the box behaviors. And, by the way, there are excerpts from another Arbinger Institute book, the Anatomy of Peace, at the rear of this book, in case you are interested.


turbulent timesKevin Kelly and Gary E. Hayes. Leading in Turbulent Times. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010.

Interested in a book that reports on what CEOs from corporations all over the world have to say about leadership? Well, this one may get your attention. It should intrigue you even more when you discover that it includes material that reflects on the global financial crisis we are still in. And this is a book written in the tradition of business and leadership books of the last few decades. It seeks to reduce the complex phenomenon (even more complex in global settings) into a view of leadership that is focused at the top of highly complex systems. Note the three “really strong messages that emerged from their interviews with CEOs:

  1. Passion rules. While money is important as a motivator, real leaders are driven more by a passion for their people and organizations.
  2. Hard times call for mastery of the soft side. Empathy, coaching, mentoring, attending to the people side. We have been hearing about this for years: the really hard stuff to do is the soft side. Then we get to the notion that it is mostly about communication—“what leaders do.” Another oversimplification of a complex process—communication—since it also involves sense making and meaning making which is ignored by these authors.
  3. Think long term. American business (and others?) have been ruled by short term quarterly results to please their investors for so long. Writer after writer has been calling for a shift to attention to the long term. Perhaps I am being cynical, but so far it seems that Wall Street has gotten away with the murder and destruction of life for millions of people and not much is changing. What are we to make of a renewed call for attention to the long term, much less for attention to stakeholders other than Wall Street investors?

Still, our (a global our) business organizations are going to continue to have CEOs and Chairmen of the Board and other leader roles. What is the contribution of those in these roles? Well, the history of business tells us they can “lead” their company’s to success or to failure and even to total dissolution. If you read between the lines of what these CEOs have to say, essentially the message is stay in control, but just don’t look like you are doing it. Keep yourself fully informed, says one CEO. In truly complex and changing systems (the focus of this book) no one person can be fully informed enough. It takes a team. It takes a village. It takes system practices and structures that provide bridges across the boundaries imposed by control functions.

Another challenge in this book is equating leading and managing. These authors are not the only ones. This has become commonplace in our effort at obfuscating our terms so that no one really knows what we are talking about. The best leaders take charge in the face of change, note the authors. More control—which I have always associated with managing and less with leading. Even cross-cultural fluency is important to give “leaders” more control and less ambiguity.

Nevertheless, in the face of crisis and complexity what is most needed, note the authors, is leadership. “When the going gets tough, the tough exercise leadership.” And now the authors say there is a difference between leading and managing because the former requires soft skills—right, think of the future, work effectively with people, and then really stretch those people in challenging position while staying close enough to guide them.

Being a leader in modern organizations is demanding on the individual who seeks to lead. You can’t settle for half measures. You have to have courage—moral courage. Why? Well, because there is research that shows that company performance and reputation are to a significant extent tied to the that of the CEO. I wonder if the employees feel the same way. I am reminded that Jerry Porras and Jim Collins worked with companies around identifying their core values. Where did they find these? Not at the top of the organization, but at the bottom—where people felt the daily impact of those values.

I am sure there is much food for thought in this book and, perhaps, I am being too hard on it and the authors. So check it out. I am sure for those who hope to be in formal roles of management in companies there will be food for thought and even inspiration. But for truly understanding the phenomenon of leadership in complex systems, this is not the place to look.


bellmanGeoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan. Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

I have to begin this brief review by reporting a bias. I mean a different kind of bias than shows up in most of these brief reviews. I have admired the work of Geoffrey Bellman for many years. His work gave consultants (such as I) great insights and advice on how to practice and manage oneself successfully as an organization development consultant (at least that was my lens). And then he sent me this book for review and wrote in the front an appreciation for my work. Now how can you not love a guy like that?

Well this isn’t about the guy (or his coauthor) but about the ideas. Good friend (another person I admire) Jim Kouzes sees this as an amazing book and a place to start when understanding outstanding performance of groups. Also, given increasing levels of ambiguity and complexity, how the phenomenon of leaders (something Kouzes knows a lot about) shows up is another intrigue that draws me to the book.

The authors examined no less than 60 members of groups and the result is a model that receives high praise from another guru of organization development, Peter Block, for being a great leader or member of a group.

Extraordinary groups achieve extraordinary results. This is what they look like. They have

  1. A compelling purpose
  2. Shared leadership
  3. Just enough structure (not bureaucratized)
  4. Full engagement of all members
  5. Embracing differences (appreciation, that is)
  6. Unexpected learning (keeps things interesting and exciting)
  7. Strengthened relationships
  8. Great results

Maybe I am not much of a team player, but it has not been my experience to be a part of many groups like this, so I am already excited to learn how it is done. And those are the clues. One of the points they make, shared leadership, is so very important in challenging situations—which almost every organization I have ever worked with is. The authors argue that leadership behaviors show up all across the group. This is a functional view of leadership that I embrace. It is something that so little of the leadership literature truly groks, giving little more than lip service. This is the reason why we need to watch the movie of a system in action, rather than just short outtakes or snapshots, to truly understand the phenomenon of leadership. “ With shared leadership, members take mutual responsibility for outcomes. This gives everyone more opportunity to assist in getting what the group wants. “ Groups do have formal leaders. Those in extraordinary groups know their role is important, yet they are one leader among many.

Bellman and Ryan offer a model that they discuss in much of the rest of the group. I am, however, going to skip ahead to the next to last chapter: “Leading Extraordinary Groups.” Their advice is offered to all group members, not just facilitators or formal leaders:

  1. Frame an inspiring purpose (remember all group members participate in this).
  2. Lead with a light touch (particularly for formal leaders by making sure the group members are leading, not that you are always the leader).
  3. Keep issues discussable (it is the undiscussability of issues, including Chris Argyris’ observation—the undiscussability of which is undiscussable—that really destroys relationships, be they dyadic or group.
  4. Manage the world around your group. (I think of this as particularly involving keeping communications channels open with the external environment so that information gets to team members who can best act on it.)
  5. Put the right team together (This is really tough! First, at the level of knowledge and skills, we usually can get pretty good information about that up front—if we understand what will truly be required—often not the case under conditions of high ambiguity and uncertainty). Keeping a link to purpose to inspire and then taking action to assure that those who don’t fit well—for whatever reason—are cast out in support of a positive group culture. I have used so many words to describe this one because it is extremely difficult to do. More on that in a moment.
  6. Design and facilitate meetings with group needs in mind. This includes team sustenance issues, as well as task needs.

The authors offer some activities at the end of the book to help groups develop along these guidelines. And that is important. My sense of most groups is that they can benefit from such activities and also may need the quality facilitation and training that folks like these authors have to offer. It is often because of those undiscussables. Pernicious things. But it is also the fact that acquiring the skills to do what has been laid out in this book is darned difficult for all of us. The fact that they have found groups experiences that have met the challenge and have laid out a path for others to follow makes this well worth the read. And I don’t say that just because I really like these folks!


insightErvin Laszlo and Christopher Laszlo.The Insight Edge: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Evolutionary Management. Westport, CN: Quorum Books, 1997.

Why do a review of such an “old” book—13 years since publication? Well, in part I wanted to see what this father and son team was up to. Also, you have to love that title: The Insight Edge! (For those who don’t see why, because it sounds so much like the “inside edge.” In sports the inside edge of a skate or ski is the “cutting edge, “the edge your rely on to cut into the surface so you can maintain your balance. Or it is the edge of a bat closest to the batsman, as in cricket. In business to get the inside edge means to get an advantage.

The authors want to provide insights to managers drawn from the sciences of complexity and chaos. It is evolutionary insight which “requires a process of distillation from a base that is complex and seemingly esoteric; it might take considerable time to evolve from it relevant business applications.” Such insight will require the collaboration of scientist and business person. Ervin Laszlo, says Wikipedia, was “(born 1932 in Budapest, Hungary) is a Hungarian philosopher of science, systems theorist, integral theorist, and classical pianist. He has published about 75 books and over 400 papers, and is editor of World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution. He has recorded several piano concertos.” Scientist, artist, philosopher. And an integral theorist. His son Chris was a consultant with a firm in Virginia and later was teaching at Case Western Reserve where we find David Cooperrider and others who developed appreciative inquiry.

Learning is critical for deal with chaos and complexity in business. The authors suggest three types which they leave to us to determine the level of utility:

  1. Knowledge about the company and its industry.
  2. Knowledge of “hard” and “soft” operational technologies, including in relation to technologies to facilitate information flow within the company and with its environment.
  3. Knowledge that includes the first two and an understanding of the dynamics that drive change in this increasingly complex and interdependent world.

They state, “In today’s world, they key success factors focus on the interactions between the complex systems that is the organization, and its likewise complex operating environment,” in the present and the future. The third kind supports envisioning alternative futures that, in turn, helps managers develop the capacities to deal with surprise and rapid change. This is the same argument used by Keith Bellamy and myself in arguing to using scenario development processes in organizations to create an integral leader and leadership development process (Richard Couto, ed. Political and Civic Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, forthcoming).

Further, they call for evolutionary literacy through which one understands the dynamics of the systems that make up the environment of business and society. They draw on chaos and complexity theory to craft models for understanding these dynamics. This leads to a set of principles of evolutionary management for the organization, strategy and operations. Here is a sample from each area:

  1. (Organizational) “Replace Hierarchies with Multilevel Heterarchies.”
  2. (Strategic) “Treat Information as a Strategic Resource, Not as an Overhead.”
  3. (Operational) Compute Ecological Constraints and Opportunities and Internalize Their Cost.”

Much of the book explicates these an other principles.

Ultimate we arrive at the Postscript: A Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century. This philosophy very much plays to the intuitive soft skills of managers. They offer a vision on which their prior analysis rests. This evolutionary paradigm asks, “How did that thing (or person or event) become what it is now?” Focus on what things have become. Evolutionary thinking is key to their approach to exploring this and other questions. Oversimplified, this means shifting from LaPlace’s determinism to evolving dynamical systems that began in the first half of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, thinking about leadership failed to follow suit; it tends to be mechanistic and conservatively mechanistic.

In contrast, evolutionary leadership with its consciousness of evolution offers some key benefits:

  1. Improved forecasting
  2. Improved interventional guides
  3. Participatory rather than authoritarian problem solutions
  4. Clearer long-term and humanistic images.

Furthermore, the evolutionary approach to leadership calls for responsible behavior, an evolutionary ethics that includes social morality. This means attending to the long-neglected soft factors, including a concern for society. This means valuing people first. Much of this postscript is an elaboration of these principles.

The authors close with, “Promoting the evolution of the economic, social, and ecological environment in which their enterprise operates is in the direct interest of management, the same as promoting the innermost sphere of their collaborators’ vision, motivation and personality.”

So even in this cutting edge work, this significant contribution to thinking about our enterprises, the conflation of management and leadership is continued. Dare we hope for the day when we can begin more consistently to address both while recognizing the important distinctions between them that make the practice of leadership and its study more intelligible.

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