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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Keynote Speaking

David Hurst delivers multimedia presentations and a range of customized experiences that will inform and inspire your people and help them learn from the past, master the moment and create the future. For a recent sample of a short keynote to the 10th Annual Global Drucker Forum see the embedded link.
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David's Blog

Lead Like A Gardener: The Movie

This is the video of my short plenary presentation at the 10th Annual Global Peter Drucker Forum held in Vienna on November 28 and 19 in Vienna. For all the video from the conference see: Global Peter Drucker Forum 2018 Video

Click here for my Medium article, Lead Like a Gardener! 

BREXIT: A Study in Complexity

British politics is in a real mess. Mired in the Brexit debate, its current predicament is best captured in the poetry of the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold; “Wandering between two worlds, the one dead, the other powerless to be born.” The British public, Remainers and Leavers alike, seems to be thoroughly sick of the whole topic and just want it to end. But it won’t. The UK and its parliament are caught in a social/systems trap.

This predicament can be visualized using the ecocycle, which is an ecological/complexity perspective on how complex adaptive systems function:


Enterprises, economic, social and political, are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust, grow through the application of reason and mature in power. As successful systems mature, however, they become over-invested in the structures and processes that perpetuate their success and suppress any disruptive threats. They get stuck in a success or power trap, which sets them up for crisis and destruction but with the possibility of renewal. This is where the Brexit process is at the moment, spinning in a spiral of crisis and confusion (between stages 4 and 5 in the diagram). Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are trying to preserve the current power structure by getting back to stage 3 (Conservation) but Brexit has altered the political landscape and their efforts to do so are just keeping the system in the trap. The country needs to go forward but no one knows how.

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The Engineer and The Gardener: the Central Tension in 21st Century Management


“Warm hearts allied with cool heads seek a middle way between the extremes of abstract theory and personal impulse”                                         Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason

In Masters of Management (2011) Adrian Wooldridge (Bagehot columnist for The Economist and frequent Drucker Forum participant) identified four defects in management theory:

  1. That it was constitutionally incapable of self-criticism
  2. Its terminology confuses rather than educates
  3. It rarely rises above common sense
  4. It is faddish and bedeviled by contradictions

After declaring management theory “guilty” on all charges in various degrees, he identified the root problem as an “intellectual confusion at the heart of management theory; it has become… a battleground between two radically opposed philosophies. Management theorists usually belong to one of two rival schools. Each of which is inspired by a different philosophy of nature; and management practice has oscillated wildly between these two positions.” He went on to identify the two schools as scientific managementon the one hand and humanistic managementon the other, concluding that, “This, in essence, is the debate between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ management.”

It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature

It’s time to recognize our fundamentally divided nature as the essence of our humanity and that it is the practical weaving together of irreconcilable opposites that is the very warp and woof of our existence as human beings. It is not a bug but a feature of our success as a species and our ability to grapple with uncertainty by cooperating in groups much larger than the extended family. Managers and leaders must integrate this diversity. That takes art, craft, a little science, powerful metaphors and compelling stories, lots of stories.

The Engineer and the Gardener

Over the last sixty years the focus of Anglo-American management has been on means rather than ends. Many regard management as applied economics. The stress on efficiency has been very successful, at least according to the metrics it values. This engineering-technical approach, however, tends to view organizations as machines and people as instruments. The spotlight on utility and stability has led to an inability to address identity, purpose, innovation and change, especially in large-scale organizations. To do that requires an organic, ecological-adaptive approach – the earth-caked hands and patient habits of a gardener.  Through this lens organizations are organisms and people are ends-in-themselves. The resulting tensions go with the job of being a manager and a leader.

Complicated and Complex Challenges

The engineering approach is not wrong. It works well in the natural sciences, but erratically in management. Complexity science tells us why. Project Apollo NASA’s program to put a man on the moon was a technically-complicated challenge. The cause-and-effect relationships were stable and understandable to engineers. On the other hand, raising children, starting new businesses or innovating in existing ones are complex challenges. The ‘components’ have minds of their own and causality has to be continually discovered and rediscovered. Complex challenges cannot be reduced to merely complicated ones, so managers are always grappling with an unknown compound of the two. When uncertainty rules ‘gardeners’ are needed.

The Individual and The Community

The engineering-technical approach to management emphasizes the role of the individual and neglects that of community, especially the role of the community in producing, not just individuals, but human beings. It privileges ‘I’ over ‘we’. There is much we can learn from the African concept of ubuntu, often translated as ‘I am because you are’. What makes us human is our connectedness with each other and the empathy that flows from that. The standard Zulu greeting is sawubona– “I see you.” The response is sikhona– “I am here.” Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. It follows then that management is always both a moral and a technical practice.

Masculine and Feminine

There is widening discussion in management about the meager representation of women at the top of business. It’s time to recognize the systemic roots of this issue in theAnglo-American management’s mono-logical mindset and heroic, ‘make-it-happen’ ethos that crowds out everything else. Engineering sounds hard, tough, masculine and predictable. Gardening has a very different feel. Gardeners care, they nurture, they tend. They realize that young enterprises and emergent strategies have to be cultivated and grown not designed and built.  They understand the ecology of the situation, discerning the possibilities in this organization, right here,right now. They have to select and plant, water and fertilize, train and prune – and  sometimes uproot and transplant. It’s a subtle, indirect approach, always embedded in complexity and calling on multiple perspectives to ‘help it happen’.

A Single Mind with Two Brains

After this litany of tensions and dilemmas the good news is that we humans have evolved to handle paradox. Our single mind consists of two brains, two ways of being in the world that are in creative tension with one another. One way is concerned with the familiar, the other with the novel, the one with what’s predictable, the other with what’s possible, the one with what is fixed, static, decontextualized and explicit, the other with the variable, dynamic, embedded and implicit. The mind is a loom that continually weaves a fabric of meaning, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

East and West

Gardeners and engineers, yin and yang; the Taoist polarities capture well the weaving dynamic of management. Evolution uses a dual model, with a creative dynamic between female and male, as its default for its key mission – the production, care and development of the next generation. Gender is not destiny, but both roles must be played. Why would it be any different for creating sustainable organizations and societies? As managers we need a dual-systems view; a ‘dialectic of polarity’ as Drucker called it, between the existential and the instrumental, complex and complicated. This will take a social movement, a community of practice and some gardeners who also know how to be engineers. And have the judgment to know when.

This article is one in a series related to the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum, with the theme management. the human dimension, taking place on November 29 & 30, 2018 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF18


The Ecology of a Social Movement: The Quakers and Social Reform – Public Talk RSA London December 7 2018

williams-view-of-coalbrookdale iron bridge

The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale

On Friday December 7 2018 I will be at the RSA’s Rawthmell’s Café 8 John Adam Street, London, speaking on the Ecology of a Social Movement, using the Quakers of the First Industrial Revolution as my example. They were an astonishing community of commercial and social entrepreneurs who had an influence out of all proportion to their small numbers. They featured in my book, Crisis & Renewal (1995/2002) and I have blogged about them before.

In this multi-media presentation I will outline an ecological model of change and use it to explore the Quakers experience, their origins in the turmoil of the English Civil War, their rise to commercial and social prominence in the 18thand early 19thCenturies and their subsequent decline.

The event will be held on The Steps, the mini amphitheatre that is part of the new Rawthmell’s Café at the RSA. I will look forward to seeing you there!


Lead Like a Gardener! – Agile and Design Thinking Will Become Management Fads Unless We Expand Our Concept of Management

Master Gardeners Tilling the Soil

Master Gardeners Tilling the Soil

This blog is a shortened version of a full-length article Lead Like a Gardener that appeared in Medium earlier this week.

Management is notoriously faddish. Managers can reflect on a long line of management innovations that attracted huge attention, were widely adopted and then gradually dropped as management attention wandered to shinier tools.

Is Agile Different?

Management writer Steve Denning argued in a recent Forbes column that Agile is different from all the others. All of his claims have merit but I think that they are largely irrelevant to whether Agile becomes a fad or not. The determining factor is the mainstream Anglo-American management mindset. This dominant ‘Cartesian’ view of management is that it is a technical practice, like engineering, with the same relationship to economics that engineering has to physics. It appeals to an individualistic ‘CEO’ theory of mind. This is the folk theory that we have only one conscious mind and that the manager is a detached, knowing actor/agent in a knowable world, rationally calculating (predominantly) his options and issuing crisp, actionable instructions. Accordingly to this Cartesian view all management innovations are seen as instruments – tools and techniques – to be wielded by such rational actors.  This view is closely associated with scientific materialism, the philosophical belief in a universe of matter and that physical reality, accessed by the natural sciences, is all that exists.

The Rise and Fall of Business Process Reengineering

The rise and fall of Business Process Reengineering is the clearest illustration of the making and breaking of a management fad. First its very name implied that one was dealing with a mechanical, engineering process. The ‘reengineering’ tag was deliberately chosen because it was ‘hard, tough and masculine’ Secondly, a feature of BPR was its violent prose penned by the appropriately-surnamed Michael Hammer. This appealed to the two most common characteristics of American managers – aggression and impatience. Thirdly, BPR’s main advocates Michael Hammer and James Champy made it clear that knowledge of a particular business was unimportant for BPR to be a success: they were talking about “clean sheet” design. That was catnip for consultants.

By 1993 60% of Fortune 500 firms claimed they had either initiated BPR projects or had plans to do so. By 1994 a $50 billion consulting business had developed around it. By early 1995, however cracks were appearing. Reengineering projects were failing badly, often making situations worse. Reduced headcount had become the main corporate goal conducted under the banner of BPR. The three founders of the movement, James Champy, Michael Hammer and Thomas Davenport, all made public apologies, confessing that in their revolutionary fervour they had forgotten about people.

The Double Bind of Management Methodologies

The fate of BPR illustrates the double bind that the developers and peddlers of new approaches to management find themselves in. To ensure that a new approach has wide appeal they will be tempted to frame it as an efficiency tool, but if a methodology is used purely instrumentally it is unlikely to be effective. If, on the other hand, the creators emphasize the counter-cultural nature of the new approach it will be unlikely to achieve widespread use. One sees some proponents of both Agile and Design Thinking taking the first option, presenting them as linear, mechanical processes – an efficiency tool to do more work in less time, and a ‘roadmap’ for innovation.

Complicated and Complex Challenges: Engineering and Ecology

The Cartesian mindset isn’t wrong: it works well in the natural sciences. In management it’s limited in its applicability. It works when applied to predictable, machine-like systems, situations where the same inputs always produce the same outputs and cause-and-effect relationships between independent and dependent variables are stable.

The Cartesian mindset doesn’t work, however, when it is applied to complex systems where parameters are unstable, agents are interdependent and cause-and-effect is non-linear. Starting new business ventures is also like that. No venture is the same and what works in one situation may not work in another.  Complex systems don’t yield to engineering-technical methodologies; they require an ecological-adaptive approach. Instead of thinking like engineers, entrepreneurs have to act like gardeners. They realize that nascent enterprises and emergent strategies have to be cultivated and grown not designed and built.  They have to understand the ecology of the situation, what might thrive and what might die. They have to select and plant, water and fertilize, train and prune. At other times they may have to break out the chainsaw to clear away the deadwood, uproot and transplant, make a bonfire of the debris and plant anew. As managers they realize that no two situations are ever the same; history matters, contexts matter and stories matter.

Expanding Mindsets; Doing, Knowing and Being 

The Cartesian mindset is baked into Anglo-American management theory and practice. As a result it overused and misapplied.

How does one change one’s mindset? Of course the Cartesians have an answer – all it takes is a conscious choice, like an engineer selecting welded connections over riveted ones. But this ignores that fact that ‘mindset’ is a multi-layered concept. A mindset can be as shallow as the selection of an explicit model or as broad as a worldview and as deep as a philosophy of life.  At these deep levels a change in mindset demands a change in identity, an existential change in a way of being. Changes here take compelling experiences, not intellectual choices.

It Will Take a Social Movement Plus Much More

Expanding the Anglo-American management mindset will take a social movement plus much more. We are looking at a complete re-assessment of the theory and purpose of the corporation and its role as an organ of society. To make the situation even more difficult this reassessment of the role and purpose of the corporation will challenge the hegemony of the philosophy of scientific materialism and the scientific method as the only valid form of inquiry into the human condition. The universe may be made matter but we humans live in a world of significance, a world of ‘what matters’. Here history, context and narrative all matter. Once this is accepted the limits on the context-free, scientific method become clear and the importance of the liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular become recognized as valid forms of inquiry into the context-dependent human condition.

There Will Be Significant Opposition

As if all these requirements were not demanding enough, there will be significant opposition to this new, broader view of the human mind, the role and purpose of the corporation and the task of management. This opposition can be expected from both the management academy as well as mainstream management consultants, neither of whom have any interest in revising their view of management as an engineering and technical practice.

The only support for this model will come from management practitioners because it captures the reality of their experience, especially those in privately-owned companies and the not-for-profit sector. Managers in small and medium–sized companies can also be expected to be supporters. The management in large public companies may be more ambivalent. It is well established that successful organizations become more mechanical as they grow in size and exploit economies of scale. As such, the engineering-technical approach is more widely applicable to them than to any other class of business. The focus on quarterly reporting and short-term results argues against an ecological-adaptive approach that may take a long time to show results.

Leading Like a Gardener

The core to this challenge is the Anglo-American management mindset with its macho ‘make-it-happen’ management identity. Gardening has a much more feminine feel; gardeners care, they nurture, they tend.  They are cooperative rather than competitive. It’s a subtle and indirect approach always embedded in a systems view and calling on multiple perspectives to ‘help it happen’. Certainly there are activist moments when gardeners must train and prune, uproot and cut down but these activities are always contained within the larger view.

But changes in identity are possible. In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (2015), , General Stanley McChrystal explains how the confrontation with Al Quaeda in Iraq (AQI) posed a complex challenge rather than one of the complicated situations that his task force had been designed to handle. Their hierarchical structure and formal communication and approval processes were totally unsuitable for this encounter with an elusive, resilient enemy, whose organizational network morphed continually. McChrystal realized that he had to change the task force’s culture and ways of working into those of fast, flexible network that could match AQI’s for agility and speed of decision-making. The result was something he called ‘shared consciousness’.

What McChrystal’s account makes clear, like those of others who have been through similar experiences, is that it takes a compelling experience to expand the engineering mindset into an ecological one. Only when a situation’s demands are so pressing, unambiguous and anxiety-inducing can deeply embedded habits, one’s identity, one’s way of being, be changed. Only then can individuals truly set aside self-interest and collaborate with their peers in common cause. Where such experiences come from is as varied as the situations in which people find themselves. Mass conversions of this kind typically take place in the aftermath of some great event or crisis. But that’s what it’s going to take if agile and design thinking and other management innovations are not to become management fads and we are to develop a more sustainable approach to management and learn to lead like gardeners.

This is the immense new task of management, both in theory and in practice.