Command and Collaborate

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: expert practitioner of mission-based command

In a recent HBR blog, INSEAD Professor Herminia Ibarra reported from the World Economic Forum in Davos.  The theme of the meeting was “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models”. As far as leadership was concerned, she wrote that the emerging solution seemed to be a “yes/and” model that embraced the need for leaders to be both more decisive and more collaborative and inclusive. She suggested that “command and collaborate” might become the mantra for a new leadership model. But, she said, we don’t have to reinvent leadership, just add some new elements to the old model. I agree entirely with her first point – we need a “yes/and” model – but not with the second. It is going to take a fundamental reconfiguration of the model. The New Ecology of Leadership does just this and develops in some detail an ecological management model that shows why and how to do it. What follows is my comment posted to her blog:

“Thanks for the report from Davos. I agree entirely with you that “yes/and” must replace “either/or.” But it’s not going to be easy in either practice or theory and it will require a lot more than new elements added to the old model of leadership (Is there a single model? The field seems to be fragmented).

The bastion of “either/or” is neoclassical economics and the field of management  (broadly defined) has been in its thrall for the last fifty years. The natural home of “both/and” is “ecologics” (the field is still emerging), which concerns itself with human behavior in the contexts in which it occurs. The philosophies underpinning “both/and” are to be found in frameworks like critical theory and constructivism, the polar opposites of the positivism that is the foundation of economics.

Both managers and academics are going to struggle with such an ecological model. Take the “command” part of “command and collaborate” for instance. There is much rhetoric in management writing that the era of command-and-control is over and that a New Age of collaboration and cooperation is emerging. But this just substitutes one arm of an “either/or” model for the other and, from an ecological perspective, sets the system up for a violent swing back to the opposite pole. We need command, but a particular type of command. It is command that deals with intentions – mission and purpose – and does not go into detail beyond the knowledge of the commander. It leaves its recipients the space and discretion to decide how to carry out the command. They have control and feel engaged because thinking and acting are not separated within their area of responsibility. Sins of omission are considered to be much more serious than those of commission in such a system. Thus individual initiative on the ground is encouraged. Fortunately there is a well-established model for this kind of command in the mission-based system developed by the German General Staff (1814-1945) and now espoused, although not always practiced, by leading military institutions around the world. Its practice, however, requires tremendous skill and discipline up and down the organization, not dissimilar to that demanded by the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Most management academics are going to find a “both/and” model anathema to their very conception of management science. At the root of the ecological perspective is the assumption that contexts matter. The evidence is becoming clear that our minds have not evolved to be rational in the logical sense of the term, demanded by management science (and neoclassical economics). Rather, our minds are rational in an ecological sense: that is, they have evolved to extract cues to action from the situations in which people find themselves. Our primary concern in organizations is not for scientific truth, but for narrative truth that speaks to how we think and feel about what happens.

Thus most management academics have built (and continue to build) their careers on outdated concepts of human nature and what the social sciences should be. They are not going to change their minds quickly. Indeed, the evidence is that progress in academia will take place in the same way as it always has – one funeral at a time. From an ecological perspective, the hope for faster change lies in the “edges” and “open patches” of an ecosystem – in young, fast-growing, private sector firms with no stake in the status quo, but who will grapple with the “both/and” challenge as they start to achieve real scale. The other source of learning will be from established organizations that have been through a process of genuine renewal. In the field of management practice usually precedes theory and new theory will likely emerge retrospectively from both these kinds of experience.”

The exciting part about Ibarra’s blog is that the search is on for a “both/and” model. Together with other straws in the wind, it suggest that time will never be riper than now for new ideas and new perspectives.

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