Q&A for David Hurst on The New Ecology of Leadership

Q. Why did you write The New Ecology of Leadership?

DH. I am trying to change the thought and practice of leadership and management to reflect the realities of the 21st Century:

  • A new set of challenges for the Western world after a long period of relatively easy growth and prosperity.
  • Rapid growth in the Far East, particularly in China and in India with all its implications for societies and the environment.
  • Growing concerns about man’s impact on earth and the changes we can expect from both that and the natural variability of the planet’s climate.
  • An emerging understanding of both human nature and how complex systems work.

I wanted to do this by offering and adding an intellectually multi-disciplinary framework to the management literature that is based upon both systems in nature (ecology) and humanistic perspectives.

Q. What’s wrong with leadership and management thought and practice at the moment?

DH. I have believed for a while that much of what is being taught and written about management is based upon a narrow view of human nature and an inadequate understanding of why and how organization work (and don’t work). For a long time this perspective was adequate for our purposes, because it helped managers address the central problem faced by Western economies and corporations in the 20th Century – how to manage growth. The story of the American corporation, at least for the first 75 years of the 20th Century, was how to handle expansion and growing scale as first the continent and then the world was opened up by modern transportation, communication and other technologies. Organizations needed to get more structured and formal to do this and that’s what the business schools supplied – frameworks for organization and rationalization.

Q. So what’s changed?

DH. The challenges we face in the West have changed. It’s the East that is now struggling with managing expansion and scale, while we are faced with the challenge of how to reinvent our economies. Invention and innovation are the watchwords and they are antithetical to rationalization and organization. The result is that we have to change the way we think about leadership and management.

Q. What contribution does The New Ecology of Leadership make to the field?

DH. The book provides a set of alternative perspectives on management thought and practice, integrated into a total systems view of organizations. In contrast with the “either…or” approach of economics, this perspective uses a “both…and” view drawn from ecology and Nature. The result is a new understanding of the relationships between stability and change, reason and emotion, production and innovation.

Q. What qualifies you have to write this book?

DH. I have extensive experience in the “ABCs” of management – as an academic, a businessperson and as a consultant. The most powerful experience has been that as a manager in a series of organizational “train wrecks”. Military people say a week in the trenches is worth a year on the parade ground and I spent 25 years in the trenches as an operating manager in progressively more senior positions in organizations undergoing tumultuous change. I have spent another 20 years as a teacher and educator in the business schools and as a consultant to companies around the world. I have listened to a lot of managers recounting their experiences and the mental model I have developed was informed by these encounters.

Q. What makes The New Ecology of Leadership different from other business books?

DH. There are a number of factors that make it unusual. Firstly, it is written by someone with wide international experience as an operating manager, executive, consultant and academic. This gives the book its broad scope as well as its depth; the book integrates an incredible wide swathe of experiences and concepts into a coherent whole.

Secondly, it does not tell managers “what to do” in the sense of supplying “answers” or solutions to problems. I believe that such context-free advice is largely useless, as all it counsels is desirable outcomes. The book explains why this is so and why all sound advice must be context-specific. Instead, the book helps readers find the right problems by placing their own experience and that of their organizations in context and suggesting what questions they should be asking themselves.

Lastly, the book introduces a number of new exciting ways to think about people and organizations. The idea of the sweet zone situated between two spiral traps is a very powerful idea that captures and clarifies several management conundrums. It’s also an extremely practical concept that allows open discussion about some of the most difficult issues that an organization can face.

Q. What was the inspiration for writing the book?

DH. Over the years as a practicing manager I have developed a fascination with business organizations. The experience of being taken over in a leveraged buyout on the eve of a sharp recession and managing our way through the resulting mayhem crystallized a number of the issues that I had been grappling with. I found an approach to writing about them in Taoist philosophy, which in its essence is an early systems view of the world. From there I got to modern systems thinking and eventually to ecology as a way of understanding complex systems. I have always been a graphical thinker, using pictures and diagrams to help me understand complex topics. Combined with ecology, I developed a way of talking and writing about complex systems in a way that was accessible to a broad range of people. My writing emerged naturally from this.

Q. What are readers going to take away from the book?

DH. What they take away will depend on who they are and, if they are managers and consultants, where their organizations are situated in the ecocycle. I hope that academics who are teaching in the fields of general management, leadership and organizational behavior will consider using the book in their classes as a basic framework for their MBA and EMBA students. At a minimum they might want to use it as an advanced text for some of their course options at the doctoral level.

Consultants may find the framework helpful to position some of their practices and to understand better the differences between what I call process and content consulting. As I have said, much of what managers will take away depends on where their organizations are in the ecocycle. More generally I hope that they, especially young managers setting out on their careers, will embrace the framework and use it as recommended  – as a concept-organizing filing cabinet and as a handy management tool cupboard.

Q. Why is the book called the “New” Ecology of Leadership?

DH. Traditionally we have seen Nature as passive, idyllic and pastoral, something to be either preserved or exploited. The view of Nature in this book is very different; Nature is seen as constantly active and capable of great violence, a master (or perhaps mistress) of change. From this perspective she is an all-powerful partner to be worked with, rather than against, and always respected. We cannot win “against” nature; if we do we only defeat ourselves.