Managing to engage with not knowing

Thoughtful Leaders, Thoughtful Organisations

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Thoughtful Leaders, Thoughtful Organisations

In this paper, it has been our contention that thoughtful leaders are characterised by the recognition, conscious or unconscious, that leadership demands the ability to keep the organisation ‘on task’. We suggested that this ability is comparable to Bion’s ‘search for truth’, which he believed to be fundamental in the development of thought and mental capacity. Rather than a dogmatic, knowing search, Bion emphasised that this work takes place at the edge of knowledge, on the boundary between our knowing and our ignorance. This can be both an invigorating and a terrifying experience and presents a particular challenge to the leader: the challenge of countering dispersal into emotion and activity that take organisational members ‘off task’.

In the face of this challenge, the thoughtful leader works to provide containment, which involves the creation of a relational and mental space that helps in the toleration of ambiguity, uncertainty and anxiety. Bion’s method in this was summarised as listening, waiting and patience, leading us to liken the required leadership practice to Bion’s description of the mother’s capacity for reverie. This was most clearly illustrated in Harry’s ‘visits’ and in Abbot’s ‘walking the landings’ of the prison.
An important contribution to containing the pressure to disperse – and hence to keeping the organisation on task – is the leader’s capacity for being ‘available’ for thoughts, which may provide the answers to the ‘what’ of organisational change and development. However, the leader cannot do everything: the challenge of implementation requires the thoughtful leader also to mobilise others. This has two dimensions. Firstly, the leader must mobilise support, or at least keep resistance and opposition at a manageable level. Secondly, the leader needs to mobilise others to become thoughtful themselves. In this regard, Bion’s ideas on the experience of ‘lack’ as a stimulus for thinking were compared to the thoughtful delegation of the leadership of organisational tasks. We have suggested that such delegation creates the experience of a ‘lack of leadership’. Provided, however, that the anxieties triggered by the experience of lack can be well enough contained, this apparent ‘lack’ can provide precisely the energy required to stimulate thoughtful leadership throughout the organisation.

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