The New Ecology of Leadership

A radical retake on the field of management, which stresses creativity, innovation and fair returns for all stakeholders and supplies a mental model and the management tools to do it.
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David's Blog

The Wreck of The New Republic – How Not to Run a Turnaround



The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously argued that the central feature of capitalism was “creative destruction”. Last month the destructive aspects were on full view in the wreck of the 100-year-old magazine The New Republic (TNR). In the first week of December 2014, a month after the celebration of its centenary, almost the entire senior staff resigned in response to the forced departure of the magazine’s respected editor, Frank Foer. In one day the publication lost two-thirds of the names on its editorial masthead.

The New Republic was founded in November 1914 by leaders of the American Progressive Movement and backed financially by a Whitney heiress and her wealthy husband. Over the years, under its masthead symbol of a square-rigged frigate, it has attempted to tack and jibe between the ancient menaces of Scylla and Charybdis. That is, it tried to find a way between “left” and the “right” in many, perhaps most of the instances of that polarity: tradition and progress, liberal and conservative, rural and urban, agrarian and industrial, arts and sciences, community and individual and so on and on. The result was an often scintillating publication, but with a limited readership. TNR lived perpetually on the edge of financial catastrophe, which was staved off only by philanthropic support. Even then, there were regularly crises, when the magazine’s very survival was threatened.

Internally the TNR culture was what a former editor, Andrew Sullivan describes as a “cauldron of first-class minds and third-class temperaments, engaged in something roughly called journalism not for money or pageviews, but because they believed in something, and were prepared to engage every ounce of their brainpower to fight over it. Editorial meetings were tempestuous, ribald, hilarious, and unmissable .…We experimented every week – and took risks others balked at.” Not surprisingly this atmosphere proved to be a great incubator of writing talent and many of America’s finest journalists have spent some time at TNR. This must account in part for the shock and anger expressed in the media at its wrecking.

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Words and Looks: Leadership Lessons from A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol First Edition

Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, was first published on December 19, 1843. So it’s close enough to roll this blog out again. Happy Holidays to all!

Management gurus have drawn lessons on leadership from diverse sources, ranging from the practices of Attila the Hun to the fictional events in Star Trek. Yet they seem to have missed one of the finest accounts of transformation and change familiar to us all. It is Charles Dickens’ best-loved story, A Christmas Carol. He said that he himself laughed and cried over it more than anything else he wrote, and it can still have that effect on us today. For there is a little bit (perhaps more than a little) of Ebenezer Scrooge in each of us and Dickens’ penetrating observation of the condition of our “shut-up hearts” is as relevant now as it was 171 years ago. As everyone knows, it is the story of personal renewal, of the conversion of a grasping, joyless taskmaster into a public benefactor and caring friend. Dickens also outlines a process of change, which many modern organizations might try to follow. Indeed, as a story of personal and organizational transformation, it reports results that would delight any change consultant. Of course Scrooge had three consultants…

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The Ecology of Innovation

A few weeks ago I delivered a keynote presentation at the Innovation Congress in Villach Austria. I spoke for about 30 minutes on the topic of The Ecology of Innovation to a group of over 600 participants. I began by saying that I wanted to leave them with three things:

  1. The image of a forest in springtime as a model for innovation
  2. The symbol of an infinity loop as a process of continual renewal
  3. A quote, “Nothing lasts unless it is incessantly renewed”

I then took them off to look at a lodge-pole pine forest and how it renews itself through fire. The core of such (temperate) forests is choked with hierarchy (tall trees) that hog the resources and don’t allow anything to grow underneath them. Thus innovation can take place only along the edges of the system and in open patches, where small-scale experimentation is possible. Fire opens up these innovation spaces while releasing the system’s resources that have been trapped in hierarchical structures. From there I went on to show how the same ecological processes operate in business organizations: enterprises are conceived in passion, born in communities of practice and trust, grow through the application of reason and mature in power. Here they become “frozen” – insensitive to what is going around them – which sets them up for crisis and destruction, but with the possibility of renewal. Conception, birth, life, death and renewal – these are topics central to an ecological perspective!

“Steering” the Enterprise

The ecological perspective is an inherently complex one. The ecological or systems view can be thought of as a three-pane window that operates in space and well as time. The result is a nine-box framework with management in the middle:


The three-level, nine-paned systems view

This perspective promotes the right questions about the dynamics at each of the three levels. At the product or component levels there are often fast-moving technological changes taking place. At the contextual level, political and institutional change becomes important. Clearly a manager is a person in the centre of a field of tension. This feeling was best conveyed by a single slide in the presentation. It shows the “steering wheel” of the enterprise that allows managers to navigate, using a well-known set of management “tools”:


The “Steering Wheel” of the Organization

The managers have to navigate between exploration on the one (left) hand and exploitation on the other (right) hand. Their ways of doing this can be grouped into four categories – according to this framework – power, management, leadership and culture. I didn’t have time to go into these in any detail, but I showed the steering wheel being turned left and right to keep the enterprise in a “sweet zone” between exploration and exploitation. To go “left” is to try something new and different and to court failure: to go “right” is to stick with the familiar and to risk falling into the crisis of a competency trap.

Supporting Evidence for This View

For the evidence to support this perspective of managers “in the middle”, alternating between the exploration for new opportunities and the exploitation of the most promising of them, I used MIT Sandy Pentland’s work. I have just reviewed his new book, Social Physics, and selected it as the best book of the year on innovation. In it he explains how he uses sociometers (smartphone-size instruments) to monitor multiple dimensions of body language (not content) on management teams. From a study of their interactions he can predict (with a surprisingly high level of confidence) which teams will do well on a variety of tasks. One of the things he looks for on creative teams is a “pulse” between exploration and exploitation and his measurements allow networks to “tune” themselves to the amount of these two activities they need.

In a broader context I think that measurements like Pentland’s, when used as feedback to allow teams and individuals to monitor and control their own interactions, point the way to liberating us from the tyranny of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), the top-down management approaches that accompany them and the resultant crushing of innovation in large-scale organizations.

Can Management Advance in This Way? A Question from the Global Drucker Forum 2014


Professor Clay Christensen: “Share each others’ slides.”

The 6th Global Drucker Forum ended on November 14 with a series of comments and calls to action from the major speakers involved. The last of these was HBS professor Clay Christensen, who called for more cooperation and harmonizing of language among management experts. He illustrated the kind of cooperation he was talking about with a story about Florida governor Jeb Bush and how he had shared slides from a presentation on the topic of child-centred education and the reform of the American education system. Forbes columnist Steve Denning quoted Christensen’s story in full and suggested that this is the way the management field should be headed.

I responded to his column and here is an expanded version of my comments:

“Perhaps Jeb Bush should have started closer to home with his brother, George W. who, with the No Child Left Behind legislation, embraced an evidence-based learning model. This required regular, standardized testing with teachers’ performance assessments based on the results. Many educationists see it as the antithesis of child-centered learning. The battle between the two continues to this day.

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Oppressive Bureaucracies Are a Symptom Not a Cause: Part I

This week I am off to Austria for two conferences. I am a keynote speaker at the Innovation Congress in Villach on November 13, where I will be talking about “The Ecology of Innovation” and I will then travel to Vienna to take part in the 6th Global Drucker Forum, where I am chairing a panel. I will be reporting on both meetings in future blogs.

Gary Hamel

Gary Hamel will be speaking at the 6th Drucker Forum

In the meantime the buildup to the Drucker Forum continues, with HBR blogs from several of the management gurus who are going to be present. Gary Hamel is one of those blogging; he published “The Core Incompetencies of the Organization” on October 31 and followed it up with the dramatically titled “Bureaucracy Must Die!” on November 4.

I replied to the first blog as follows:

“Your blog is descriptive of large organizations but does not explain how they got that way. All today’s large organizations started off small and earlier in their lives many of them were seen as pioneers of management practice. Standard Oil (ExxonMobil), US Steel, General Motors, Sears, Roebuck, Kodak, Xerox and Nokia (among others) were all held up as exemplary at one time or another. The “hero to zero” phenomenon is so pervasive in the corporate world that the explanations for it must go well beyond “hubris”, management “myopia” and “clueless” leadership. No doubt such conditions exist but, like oppressive bureaucracies, they may be symptoms rather than causes: unintended consequences of strategies pursued in contexts we don’t even acknowledge, let alone understand. The true causes must be complex mixes of the ecological and the evolutionary – a combination of the developmental dynamics whereby supple saplings become rigid trees and the evolutionary processes that allowed small mammals to replace large reptiles as the planet’s dominant species.

The virtual absence of these ecological and evolutionary concepts from the current management canon and the widespread use of structural and engineering analogies makes us insensitive to the roles of emergence and constraint in the lives of organizations. It leads to notions of managers as detached, rational strategists, scanning “the” environment, looking at their organizations objectively, implementing practices and applying “principles” by issuing crisp, actionable instructions. The firm itself is seen as a passive, command-and-control machine, waiting for orders to execute and strategies to implement. Thus mechanical analogies leave linear notions of cause-and-effect intact and they blame unintended consequences on inept managers, poor analysis and faulty implementation. It’s a self-sealing system, a hall of mirrors.

You are right that we need to go much deeper; much, much deeper. We need to assimilate the emerging evidence that humans are rational but in an ecological, rather than in a logical way. And that’s O.K. Our minds are embodied, not just “embrained”. “Thinking” is not just the conscious manipulation of abstract symbols: we can “think” about the world in just as many ways as we experience it. Immerse a collection of those kinds of minds in an ecological and evolutionary context, where causality is nonlinear, emergence matters and constraints are ubiquitous. Only then can one start to appreciate the complexity of the issues that we are dealing with, as well as the combinations of judgement and reason – wisdom – required to navigate them. It leaves one in something close to a state of awe for those practitioners who can.”

Bureaucracy Was a Discovery, Not an “Invention”

In his second blog, “Bureaucracy Must Die!” Hamel describes bureaucracy as an “invention”. If this is the case, he argues, all that is needed is for us to invent a benign substitute for it; “We must find a way to reap the blessings of bureaucracy – precision, consistency, and predictability – while at the same time killing it. Bureaucracy, both architecturally and ideologically, is incompatible with the demands of the 21st century.”


The Classic Bureaucracy – a Discovery, not an Invention

There is one problem: bureaucracy is not an invention; it is a discovery. It was made about ten thousand years ago when humankind started working with concentrated resources that required scale and specialization to exploit them. Prior to that they had lived in small, nomadic, hunter-gatherer bands that were ideally suited to exploring for and exploiting resources that were mobile and ephemeral. These bands of up to 150 people, divided in small, egalitarian groups, were in a constant state of motion. They were coordinated via a shared narrative, personal relationships, generalist skills and self-discipline. Their actions were determined by their shared understanding of the situation they faced. But when humans encountered concentrated resources like the flood-fed lands of the Nile Delta and the salmon-dependent ecosystems of the American North-West they had to cope with much larger numbers of people and the need for specialization. Store-houses needed to be built, with scribes to keep the count of what was in them and a security force to protect the resources from being stolen. Time became important as one had to be ready for the annual flood or the salmon run. Even very primitive technologies led to the emergence of functional silos and very different appreciations of situations that were difficult to share. Bureaucracy and hierarchy were needed to control these larger-scale organizations because they could no longer rely on face-to-face coordination in the way the hunter-gatherers had.

The Ecological/Systems Perspective

From an ecological/systems perspective, enabling bureaucracies and the hierarchies that accompanied them were (and still are) a solution to the problems of scale and specialization. They become oppressive and coercive when they were combined with an unhealthy lust for power over others on the part of those who rise to the top of organizations. When this happens, people in organizations change from being ends-in-themselves to becoming means to the purposes of others; they become tools and instruments. (Canadians will be very familiar with the recent case of the star radio-host Jian Ghomeshi, who seems to have had problems along these lines). As I explained in The New Ecology of Leadership:

“Large-scale organizations attract people with a need for power and success. Such individuals can deliver tremendous organizational performance because of their ability to articulate a vision, rally followers around them, and challenge the rules about how things are done. Unfortunately, large organizations sometimes appeal to high-functioning but unhealthy, narcissistic individuals with excessive needs for attention and recognition.When success confirms and reinforces these behaviors, they can become overblown.

In their extreme manifestations such behaviors can take the pathological form of the so-called dramatic, emotional, and erratic personality disorders.A vision coupled with success can lead to grandiosity and illusions of invincibility. Poor listening skills and a fundamental lack of empathy can result in a thin-skinned, hypersensitivity to criticism and the encouragement of followers to become submissive yes-people. A history of rule breaking without negative sanctions can create beliefs that such restrictions do not apply to them. The very real sacrifices that such managers make as they climb the career ladder and pursue power can lead to a powerful sense of entitlement once they achieve it.

This means that over time the productive hierarchy essential to running the repetitive operations of a large-scale, commercial organization can start to take on the trappings of a dominance hierarchy, whose priority is not to create wealth but to distribute it—among its own members.”

In short, the pathologies of bureaucracy have to be understood as the product of an interaction between humans, with their ecologically rational, embodied minds and an organizational form that has been around for only 10,000 years or so, which is not very long in evolutionary terms. We cannot discard bureaucracy; we have to understand its dynamics and its limitations and how to use it in combination with “hunting dynamics” of the hunter-gatherers. Only then can we get more of its benefits and less of its liabilities. That will be the subject of a future blog.