Managing to engage with not knowing

THOUGHTFUL LEADERSHIP Lessons from Bion Abstract

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Lessons from Bion


In the competing discourses within organisations, primacy tends to be given to decisive, action oriented, knowing leadership in contrast to more reflective, patient, thoughtful leadership. This paper argues that there is an important place for ‘thoughtful leadership’ as one of the necessary responses to the challenge of liquid modernity and the danger of organisations going ‘off task’. Thoughtful leaders are first of all concerned with keeping their organisation ‘on task’. It pursuit of this, thoughtful leadership provides containment, is available for thought, and mobilises others in the organisation to be thoughtful. Throughout the paper lessons are drawn from the work of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion on the development of the capacity for thought.


The scope, scale and nature of current societal insecurities have led Baumann to coin the term ‘liquid modernity’ to describe a world where ‘patterns and configurations are no longer “given”, let alone “self-evident”’ (2000: 7). And what is true at the societal level, is also true of organisations:

Organizations were, to be sure, never closed systems, but in more stable times with much slower rates of change, they were experienced as self-contained and self-perpetuating. By contrast, contemporary post-industrial organizations often have quite the opposite character. They are experienced as unstable, chaotic, turbulent, and often unmanageable. (Gould, 1993: 49-50, cited in Gabriel, 1999: 282)

These dynamics of chaos and instability can be a significant challenge for organisations. In particular, they can distract and confuse organisational members, so that the espoused task of the organisation can be replaced unwittingly by other ‘work’. This ‘other work’ amounts to the dispersal of energy into activity generated out of habit, panic, denial, and avoidance. These ‘dispersals’ are all examples of losing the capacity to think or, if you like, of thoughtlessness. The role of the leader in such situations is to keep the organisation ‘on task’ (Dartington, 1998) and he or she must achieve this by ensuring that members of the organisation retain the capacity to think, even under pressure.

In this paper we argue that retaining and developing the capacity to think requires three things. Firstly, in order to keep people ‘on task’, leaders need the ability to contain the pressures that cause dispersal into thoughtless activity. Secondly, leaders must be able to identify and work with the thoughts that will help to address the challenges of the moment. Here, we are referring not merely to the thinking of new thoughts but also to the ability to think possibly ordinary thoughts that are relevant to the situation at hand. Thirdly, the leader needs to mobilise others in the organisation to think so that they may contribute fully to the organisational task: implementation is a shared activity, not something that the leader can do alone. Before these three dimensions of thoughtful leadership are considered, we discuss the challenging context of liquid modernity and some of the pressures that can mitigate against thoughtful leadership.

Pressures that mitigate against Thoughtful Leadership
Within the overall context of liquid modernity, the pressures are great for the wasteful dispersal of organisational resources. However, whilst leaders must give attention to guiding and supporting others to remain on task, leaders themselves are not immune. In fact, organisational leaders are peculiarly subject to the pressures imposed by the expectation of performativity, which dominates our culture at all levels; that is, ‘efficiency measured according to an input/output ratio’ (Lyotard, 1984: 88). Key stakeholders, shareholders, management boards and politicians, demand that organisations achieve increasing levels of performance on key measures. Indeed, changing political and economic pressures mean that what might once have been expected primarily, or even exclusively, of business enterprises is now also required of organisations in the public and not-for-profit sectors (Exworth and Halford, 1999; Pollock, 2004). These demands are often stated simply and directly, as though their achievement is a straightforward matter. However, liquid modernity ensures that nothing is straightforward. Old answers (if there are any) may no longer be relevant; new answers have often not yet been developed.
As leaders look for answers, they will be mindful of the political context and the fact that their actions will be observed and judged. The search for answers is, however, constrained by the fact that the range of discourses competing for space and legitimacy in organisations is limited, with the active and the technical dominating over the reflective and the humane. Rewards go most easily to those who ‘know’ and are decisive, ready with ‘answers’. Those who wish to take more time to consider the question take a different type of risk.
For example, in discussing with a senior manager in the UK civil service how to manage a culture change in an organisation with 25,000 staff, we stated that we did not have ‘the answer’ and added that we did not think that anyone knew how to do what he was asking. He looked surprised, even shocked, that such a statement could be made. “That’s no good to me,” he said. It became clear that the matter was urgent and he wanted to know what to do. More than this, it seemed, he needed to be seen to be doing something – ideally something “positive”, though merely to be seen to be acting appeared to be the first priority.
We are not suggesting that reflective inquiry is the best or only way to lead but we are drawing attention to the competing discourses within organisations, suggesting that primacy tends to be given to decisive, action oriented, knowing leadership in contrast to more reflective, patient, thoughtful leadership. As a consequence the latter can be devalued and marginalised as a practice. We are particularly aware of this because it affects us, both positively and negatively, in our work as researching consultants. In a sense the parameters of our work with organisational leaders seem to be set largely by the nature of their ‘thoughtfulness’. Whilst the example above set those parameters so tightly as to exclude patient, thoughtful reflection, others do base their leadership on just this characteristic (see Armstrong, 2005: 21).
For example, Harry was the chief executive of a reasonably large division (3,000 staff) and was known for his ability to relate to people at all levels throughout the organisation. Whenever he travelled to different parts of the business, often for meetings with members of his senior management team, he would also book in half a day to ‘visit’ – walking through the open-plan offices, stopping to talk to members of staff, listening to their issues and problems. This was easy for him because he enjoyed meeting with people. However, this was also, in his view, some of the most valuable time that he spent in his leadership role. Listening to staff throughout the organisation helped him to think about the detailed implications of the significant changes that the organisation had experienced in recent years. Through this process he would generate an agenda of items for his next meeting with his management team.
In contrast, following Harry’s retirement, his successor, Bill, appeared to have little interest in listening to others in the organisation – not even to his management team. He arrived in his new post knowing the ‘rules of the game’ and what his new team needed to do differently. There was, in his view, little need for more thinking – the answers were already clear to anyone with ability. Unfortunately, also in his view, not one of the management team that Harry had left him possessed this ability. Within two years he moved on to his next promotion, leaving a fragmented and demotivated group of senior managers. This experience left many despondent that this was what it now took to “get on” in the organisation.
These two managers are illustrative of our argument. Bill was clearly focused on answers but, somewhat paradoxically, appeared to show little desire to listen to new ideas. On the other hand, Harry gave persistent attention to the search for new thoughts, believing that he could not hope to know what he did not take the time to discover. Bill was also known for his clear focus on the task, whilst Harry was known for a more relational approach, engaging with and listening to people, working with and through others to get the task done.
Clearly both of these men were thinking. What we wish to explore here are the implications for leaders of the differences between them. We do so by drawing some lessons from the work of Wilfred Bion and, in particular, upon those aspects of his writings that give explicit attention to the processes of thinking and development.

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