Managing to engage with not knowing

Leading as Being Available for Thought

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Leading as Being Available for Thought
In a situation that is adequately contained, the thoughtful leader is able to make another contribution to the pursuit of the organisational task: to represent or embody an important idea or thought. For example, a visionary leader is one who is able to effectively represent a new thought for the future. However, the relationship between leading and finding thoughts is not an obvious one. Some leaders do indeed have the ability to create, discover or develop the thought itself, but this is in no way a prerequisite for thoughtful leadership. It is even possible that the modern idealisation of originality – in the arts and sciences, in academia and in business – may in some ways be a societal side-track. In an organisational context it is the thought and its relevance that matters. Whether leaders conceive a thought themselves, or copy, borrow or buy it is a different question.
However, this notion of ‘thoughts’ depends on a definition that is wider than the everyday one – that is, of thought as a rational product of the human capacity for thinking as expressed in language. Thoughts can be unconsciously held as well as consciously expressed. A dream is a ‘thought’ – whether a night-time dream, a daydream or a vision. ‘Thoughts’ can also transcend the individual as manifestations of ‘social’ thinking – as myths, for example, as ‘social’ dreams (Lawrence, 2005), or as the kind of group, organisational or social dynamics that Bion called ‘assumptions’ (Bion, 1961).
Thus, a product is a thought ‘produced’; an organisational structure is the ‘realisation’ of a thought; a strategic plan is an evolved or evolving thought; the physical lay-out of offices or the shop floor, a hierarchy of roles and responsibilities, the headings on note paper and the signs at the entrance: all of these are thoughts made manifest. A vision statement is a ‘thought’, as is an organisation’s culture, which is a collective thought expressed in ways of behaving and relating, thinking and acting. It is worth noting, in passing, that such thoughts are not always a positive influence. For example, Willmott has described the manipulative way in which the idea of organisational culture can be used as a ‘thought’ which will infiltrate and control employees ‘from within’, ‘by managing what they think and feel, not just how they behave’ (1993: 516).
In all of these senses, organisations are thoughts made visible. They can also become a ‘forum’ (meaning both ‘market place’ and ‘political arena’) for thoughts that are ‘in the air’, waiting to be found. Bion took this phenomenon to be a fundamental aspect of human interaction – that is, the existence of ‘thoughts’ in experience that are, as it were, searching for a thinker (Bion, 1967: 166). Infants, for example, experience hunger and satisfaction, pain and joy, before they know these phenomena as thoughts. In a similar way, patients find in therapy a context in which it can be possible to bring into thought emotions or experiences that may have been ‘unthinkable’ for years but have nonetheless been present and may have manifested themselves as dreams, for example, or in a variety of symptoms and patterns of behaviour and relationship (see Bollas 1987). This is the basis of Bion’s assertion that ‘thinking has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts’ (1967: 111).
If thoughts truly can be ‘around’ in the emotional experience of individuals and groups, then finding new thoughts in organisations demands mechanisms for thinking that are adequate for discovering the as yet un-thought thoughts of the moment. Teams, focus groups, departments, new roles, away days, consultancy, partnerships – and leaders themselves– can be conceived of precisely as mechanisms ‘called into existence to cope with thoughts’. The reason these different phenomena can, at times, achieve remarkable things is that for that moment they provide precisely the ‘mechanism for thinking’ that is necessary to crystallise a new idea – provided that those involved are prepared to actively pursue the truth at the edge of their existing knowledge.
This may be illustrated by the response of Jim Burke, CEO of Johnson and Johnson at the time of the infamous ‘Tylenol crisis’ in 1982 when several people died after poison had been inserted into Tylenol capsules. Burke chose to deal openly with the truth of the situation, most evidently when he immediately removed the product from the shelves. He did this against the wishes of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the FBI, who were concerned that this action would alarm the public. Burke was prepared to make himself available for new thoughts, so desperately needed in this challenging situation. He said later, “We put the public first. We never hid anything from them and were as honest as we knew how to be.” This included appearing on the Donahue television programme and on 60 Minutes. The corporation had not worked in this manner before; these were new thoughts working themselves out in a very public forum. “Only one person here supported what I was doing”, recalled Burke “When I decided to go on 60 Minutes the head of public relations told me it was the worst decision anyone in this corporation had ever made, and anyone who would risk the corporation that way was totally irresponsible, and he walked out and slammed the door.”
Burke drew on his training in market research and consumer marketing. He also worked his contacts in the media and described being guided by a “philosophy of life”. In other words, as he moved to the edge of his knowledge, he did not turn his back on what he already knew. These things were essential in being able to contain the powerful pressures inherent in the situation, which could have led to the dispersal of his and the company’s energies into inappropriate actions. This combination of mobilising his knowledge whilst acknowledging that he did not have all the answers generated a contained space within which Burke was available for thought and the corporation, the media and the public at large were able to create a new way to think about the problem. Nine weeks after the crisis began new tamper-resistant packaging was in production. Burke later suggested that such product development would normally take two years. The organisation could continue its task and Burke appeared on the front cover of Fortune magazine, lauded as an innovator (Bennis 1998: 151-4).
The fact that this case is widely cited as a model example of corporate responsibility and crisis management has led to a number of ‘formulaic’ responses to crises, largely based on sending the company CEO out to deal with public and media. However, the imprisoning in India of Union Carbide’s CEO, Warren Anderson, following the Bhopal poisonings is just one example that illustrates the danger of assuming that Burke’s actions constituted a replicable form of knowledge rather than, as we prefer, an example of a leader making himself available for new thoughts.

Thoughtful Leadership Mobilising Others
Being available for thoughts, however, is not enough if the organisation is to pursue its task. The leader must also be able to convince others that these new thoughts can be managed and their power for change contained within the political context of the organisation. The leader must be able to mobilise support or, at the very least, limit the power and extent of opposition. Burke’s skill as a leader and his considerable expertise in public relations were an essential component of his success. The situation was dangerous for the corporation, but ultimately Burke was able to carry enough people with him. Without this ability, the implementation of new thoughts within an organisation is impossible.
If a new thought is experienced only as dangerous then the result can be the emergence of patterns of individual, group and organisational resistance that are familiar to anyone involved in change initiatives. Bion’s greatest contribution outside psychoanalysis has been to identify some of these underlying patterns of unconscious resistance to the new. He called a group dominated by such dynamics a ‘basic assumption group’, whose ‘complex forms of interpersonal defences’ prevent them from working ‘in an objective and consistent manner’ (Hopper, 1997: 443). Instead, such groups disperse their energies and resources into activities that can be engaging and can indeed feel like ‘work’, but are essentially ‘off task’ (Bion, 1961).
For example, we once undertook an action research project with a chief executive and his senior management team who were undertaking a significant organisational change process. Seeking to create a more ‘corporate’ team at the most senior level, the chief executive replaced existing reporting lines based on divisional responsibilities with a flatter structure and introduced greater collective accountability. This new ‘thought’ provoked strong resistance within the management team itself. Existing power relations were threatened and political conflicts emerged as senior managers struggled to come to terms with the implications of this change.
In conversation with the chief executive we discovered that he had drafted a letter severely reprimanding his managers for this in-fighting and insisting in the strongest terms that they behave corporately. We advised that this could be counter-productive, because by doing so he was likely, among other things, to reproduce precisely the old pattern of top-down leadership which he wished to change. But he was insistent. The letter was sent. The presenting problem did disappear, only to continue in the form of non-action and subtle forms of sabotage. Eighteen months later the chief executive moved on to another organisation, still trying to push through his change programme.
This leader had a new thought, but he did not succeed in convincing his team that the resulting change could be managed in a productive manner. Merely having a thought is not thoughtful leadership. The complexities of inter-relating realities – new thoughts interacting with other thoughts – must also be considered if the organisation is to stay ‘on task’. Here the chief executive was unable to achieve this within his own team. Burke’s achievement is all the more striking because his leadership was taking place in the face of potentially damaging resistance not only within the organisation, but also from the media, governmental agencies and the public.
There is another element of Bion’s theory of individual development that helps to shed light on the challenges thoughtful leaders face in attempting to mobilise others; that is, the way in which a lack of leadership (‘no-leadership’) may activate thoughtful leadership in others. Bion speculated that the very need for thinking arises from our experience of a lack, that is, of something experienced as missing. He suggested that as long as a baby’s hunger is met by the comforting experience of the breast, he has no reason to form the thought of the breast. However, when the baby is hungry but not fed, he has the experience of ‘no-breast’. That is, he experiences the ‘presence of an absence’, which clearly has an entirely different texture or ‘psychical quality’ (Bion, 1962: 34) to the ‘presence of a presence’. Bion was led to ask, ‘Is a “thought” the same as an absence of a thing? If there is no “thing”, is “no thing” a thought and is it by virtue of the fact that there is a “no thing” that one recognizes that “it” must be thought?’ (Bion, 1962: 35)
Provided the experience of lack, of ‘no thing’, is not overwhelming, then two positive elements can emerge from the negative: both a specific thought and also an increased capacity for thinking. The success of this transformation depends on the dynamic between inner and outer, between the intra- and inter-personal dimensions we have highlighted here: that is, between the adequacy of the infant’s own capacity to contain frustration and the parenting he has received up to that point. No baby can do this emotional work of thinking on his own, any more than he can feed himself. Thus development involves a complex balance of intra- and inter-personal containment which continues – and shifts – throughout life. As Winnicott argued, maturity is to be found in inter-dependence, not in the ‘illusion’ of complete in-dependence (Winnicott, 1963).
It is the specific impact on thinking of lack, or of ‘no thing’, that is so important for organisational life in general and for leadership in particular. Lack – of resources, time, confidence, and so on – is a constant feature of organisational life. Any change, however major or apparently trivial, inevitably stimulates in individuals, in groups and in organisations, a sense of ‘no thing’, of un-certainty, not knowing, in-security – ‘no breast’, as it were. With adult organisational members, as with infants, the issue is whether this sense of lack can remain at a tolerable level, in which case it can be experienced as an opportunity for creativity or innovation, rather than as threatening or persecutory, and may be transformed into thought.
As consultants, we had an experience of the challenge inherent in this form of leadership, which seeks to mobilise others. We had been asked to work with a group of eight middle managers, who had been given the responsibility of planning their organisation’s annual management conference. This was a significant task that had previously been undertaken by senior managers. However, this year the chief executive decided to delegate it to this group of middle managers. They were to be provided with support – the availability of the chief executive himself for consultation, plus additional resources, including our services. The group was required to design and manage the two day residential conference that would include all senior and middle managers – a total of over eighty participants.
At the first meeting the discussion was frenetic, with some proposing creative and thoughtful ideas whilst others quickly dismissed their suggestions as having already failed in the past. Those who had been energised soon became frustrated. Those who had been more critical became more confirmed in their cynicism. Alongside aggression, frustration and a growing sense of apathy, the level of anxiety within the group increased noticeably. We observed that the group was becoming stuck. However, it was not immediately clear how the group might find a more positive engagement with the task. We worked hard at resisting the desire to intervene, instead concentrating on taking in the experience of the group, thoughtfully reflecting on what we saw, heard and felt.
After listening carefully for twenty minutes, the insight grew that there was a common confusion about the task, most noticeable in their use of the terms ‘conference’ and ‘workshop’. One of us intervened: “It appears to us that you may not be clear about what is expected of you. A ‘conference’ is frequently characterised by the expectation that experts will provide answers. In contrast, the idea of a ‘workshop’ is generally used to describe participants working together to explore important issues and difficulties.” This stimulated a measured discussion. Eventually the group concluded that their ‘conference’ could not hope to provide answers for the organisation in its current state of turmoil and transformation, but this was indeed what they had assumed was their task. As a result, this impossible expectation was redefined and they sought to design a conference that provided participants with a range of opportunities to meet and to explore important issues together. This clarification of the task was later recalled by the group as a significant step forward in their work.
In this example, the chief executive sought to encourage others to take up the authority to lead by delegating leadership to the group. Experienced as a lack of leadership from senior management, this delegation of responsibility contributed significantly to the level of anxiety within the group. They were only able to find their authority once this anxiety was well-enough contained, initially by the consultant intervention but more permanently by achieving clarity about an achievable task.
Sometimes, however, the results of the delegation of leadership responsibility are not so positive. Organisational members may experience and communicate, in subtle and not so subtle ways, their hatred of ‘no thing’ – of what they experience as ‘no leadership’. In such situations, the leader must be able to cope with their reactions, if he or she is to avoid being pulled back into patterns of dependency that may, in the long term, be as disabling as they are comforting, or into punitive responses, such as the letter sent by the chief executive to his senior management team described in the earlier example.
Anyone who takes up a role that demands giving a lead, whether as teacher, trainer, consultant, manager, or leader, will be familiar with this dynamic. Faced by ‘no thing’ – for example, when one does not supply ‘the answer’ – students or clients can exert enormous pressure for someone else to find and supply a solution – a ‘thought’ – rather than moving into the space and thinking for themselves. The magnitude of the task of managing in the context of liquid modernity suggests that mobilising the capacity to think in organisations will be, at least in part, dependent upon the capacity of thoughtful leaders to develop new thoughtful leaders throughout the organisation.

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