Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Planned versus emergent leadership

I have been challenged: how can organisations get their needs for leadership met (or should they even try) when commentators now claim that leadership is ‘emergent’ and should be allowed to do so; all the organisation should do is create the right conditions. Good question. Here is how I reconcile the dilemma.

Situations are unpredictable (as my book discusses), especially in the light of what complexity scientists say. So there must be scope for individual leadership responses to emerge, free of the organisation hand on the tiller. Yet, that cannot be the whole story. When Thatcher put my old boss Lord King in charge of British Airways, she gave him a brief - broadly, make it earn money and become independent of annual Treasury bailouts, take customers seriously, and privatise. There was a new agenda for BA. King couldn't do it on his own. It would not do for his managers to say: 'that King's job: our job doesn't change'. Nor could they afford to say 'what we do will 'emerge' '!

Rarely is an organisational need or message 'steady as she goes'; usually change is required - be it the banks, BBC, Royal Mail, etc. There will be an inevitable tension between top-down, organisation-mandated change (which requires the organisation to take a positive view of what it needs leadership for at a given time) and a bottom-up emergent perspective where little can be predicted and forced, and people need a considerable degree of freedom in what they use their leadership for.

Taking another example, did the TV companies' telephone premium phone charge scam 'emerge' in some bottom-up, uncoordinated and unplanned way? Or were objectives and conditions deliberately being set which made such behaviour by executives inevitable? When it all went pear-shaped and fines were imposed, the top brass made clear what it wanted from these leaders to put it right. If the truly emergent model rules OK, then it seems to me we will lurch from unexpected crises like this followed by a crackdown, and so on. That doesn't seem a very clever way for an organisation to manage its affairs. And yet, you might argue that a firmer view of what the organisation needs before things go wrong might stifle creativity and testing the boundaries. Overall, the answer to the conundrum probably lies between these extremes.

I end up thinking how can organisations be happy to spend so much on leadership development without taking a view on what they want it for? If you were put in charge of the MOD, wouldn't you want to be clear about that and to communicate it and make sure it was being used for that? Or would you put all your faith in 'let's see what emerges'?