Complex leadership

Complex leadership

We face various emergencies – climate change, inequalities, conflict, mental health and now pandemics – as well as attacks on peace, democracy and justice – white (and other) supremacy, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, cuts to public services, and attacks on the rule of law – that require intelligent leaders. And yet if we don’t rethink how we conceive of leadership, then poor leaders thrive and decent leaders don’t stand a chance.

I’m editing a volume about leadership (part of a series with colleagues at the Complexity and Management Centre, CMC) and in it we shun simple recipes and soothing platitudes. The contributions are complex explorations that take account of specific temporal, political and cultural contexts but also that reach generalisable plausible conclusions about the everyday practice of leadership as a relational phenomenon. We are all inspired by Ralph Stacey’s take on complexity theory, pragmatism and group analysis, beautifully explained by the Director of CMC, Chris Mowles, in this interview. Chris is an interesting leader himself, bringing debates about power into our teaching on management. He once said of me that I have a high tolerance for ambiguity – what a kind thing to say – and I’d like to say it back to him. He puts into practice what Shotter and Tsoukas describe as the style of quiet leaders:

‘People who have developed a refined capacity to come to an intuitive grasp of the most salient features of an ambiguous situation and, in their search for a way out of their difficulties, to craft a particular path of response in moving through them, while driven by the pursuit of the common good.’

A woman advises the CEO, (out of frame), while he fields questions from the floor on a Celebration of Women’s Day in Seattle, USA

(Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash)

Chris does this crafting of leadership by being sometimes directorial (especially in public and when difficult decisions are needed), usually collegiate (when we review and plan teaching as a group), and always a friend (especially when the going gets tough).

I work at two universities and my other boss, Adam Habib at SOAS, University of London, is equally interesting. He has already taken a stand against exploitative casualised employment of early career academics. Proposing a new vision for SOAS, partly based on partnerships with the Global South, Adam has been engaging across the School in an Arendtian fashion to encourage deliberation on our competing options. He reflects on his past leadership in a crisis in this interview with Jonathan Jansen (an intriguing leader in his own right). As a community, we recently backed a statement to challenge anti-Blackness throughout the institution. SOAS has an unhappy history and present but, in my view, the most promising prospects for working on social justice of any UK university.

These directors I work for are a contrast to most university leaders. Most universities tend to be run by over-cautious bureaucrats who remain (mostly) uncritical of neoliberal managerialist-style management and the government’s marketisation of higher education, forcing academics into complicity (Shore and Davidson 2014) and then hiding from them. What makes improvising leaders different? They are inevitably flawed like the rest of us, popular with some and challenging for others, despite the fantasies of visionary, servant, agile, democratic, inspirational, motivational, authentic, coaching, pacesetting, participative, charismatic, strategic, or transformational leadership found in training courses, manuals and speeches delivered across the world. These idealisations tell us little of value about what we actually need leaders to do and how we need them to be in the everyday practice of leading. 

So, learning from my contributors, and the two directors I work with currently, here are some suggestions, and questions to pursue, to help us think about leadership differently.

Complex narratives in context

The prevailing rhetoric peddled by many business schools is that leaders have individual qualities that enable (or disable) decision-making, management and ‘success’ (as defined by the leaders alone). Be they promoting tightly-controlled operational grip, loosely-guided holocracies or anything in between, the components of ‘successful’ leadership – and the skills needed to execute them – tend to be presented as detemporalised, decontextualised and based on understandings of culture and power that do not seem to reflect the actual, day to day experiences of leading and working with others. Often, these leadership approaches are taken up in ways that closes down research, contestation and even discussion. 

The symbols of leadership (a tidy business plan based on impossible predictions of the future, a smart suit or expensive car, emotional regulation / depersonalisation, remoteness) get fetishized, and elevated above the messiness of negotiating with each other. That messiness doesn’t disappear, however, and we see it pushed into the shadows, into gossip and hidden transcripts. As individual instances of the same social processes, those in leadership positions may discipline themselves into avoiding aspects of their own experience, and in defending against the anxiety that the awareness of this might cause, they become inaccessible and so unknown. Those they work with feel unrecognised and thrown around by the vagaries of obscure decision-making. 

In contrast, what happens when leaders – or those developing or researching them – critique the individualistic and systemic assumptions about leadership and pay attention to the improvised ways of communicating, deciding and leading that are already going on? More interesting change and research becomes possible.

Improvised practical judgements 

The idealisation of leadership extremes is often unhelpful: authoritarianism vs collective leadership; honesty vs hypocrisy; full transparency vs total secrecy and so on. While it may be attractive to think that local problems can be navigated by application to these kinds of normative standards, idealisations can never reflect the complexity of social interaction. Further, they draw attention away from practical judgements (in Dewey’s sense), taken by real people, about unique problems, in particular places, at particular times. 

To take everyday experience seriously means resisting idealising in both leadership and research. Both are inherently political processes that inevitably means taking sides. Both benefit from reflexivity, becoming detached about involvement and paying attention to the plurality of views. How then might we think of leadership as research, and research as leadership? And what gets in the way of seeing and acting on this entanglement of leadership and research? What role might anxiety, associated with uncertainty, play in blocking movement of thought and practice so that even leaders/researchers lose a sense of proportion.  

Perhaps an effective leader explains (and even sometimes sets) constraints with as much honesty and accountability as is possible and kind but creates the possibility of freedom, especially for those who tend to be marginalised? But it is doubtful that they can do this in ways that help them control the future or even predict what is likely to happen. So, then perhaps leadership often becomes about helping organisations to deal with uncertainty?

Accountability in decision-making

Arguably, contemporary Western societies are still in the thrall of the Enlightenment ideal that knowledge is the highest good. No surprise then that we see the same playing out in leadership discourses, in knowledge being fetishized and those at the top of formal hierarchies being assumed to be more knowledgeable than their subordinates. While there are counter-currents in organisational literature to this claim, e.g. coaching or process consultation styles of leadership are becoming increasingly common ideals, we still see leaders delegating their thinking to sidekicks (whether consultants, scientists, lawyers or special advisers). Sometimes this may arise from an appreciation of the value of involving others, but often it seems to be a way for leaders to evade accountability in case things go wrong, or to claim that their knowledge is superior and uncontaminated by politics. Judgements about who is knowledgeable and what counts as competence is always political; so are claims of credit and accusations of blame. So what purposes might denying this serve? 

When leaders do take the knowledge of those within their organisation seriously, then new challenges present themselves. If leaders have the courage to explore difference, exclusion and inequality within their organisation, then how might they accommodate the plural views that emerge in their bid to be accountable? I’ve already suggested that they need to understand and improvise into their specific context, using practical judgement (or phronesis), but they also need to think carefully about the role of others in the exploration. It is not in an individual leader, or the whole system, that decent leadership is crafted; it is in relationships across a network. The way we engage with each other is the responsibility of all. While the leader’s responsibility is to create the rituals and rhythms for encountering each other, how we debate issues of substance and develop collective intentions requires goodwill from us all.

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