Sunday, May 29, 2016

Leadership: the Philosopher’s Stone of the 21st Century

the effectiveness of ... symbolic action is enhanced by the confusion of all involved between substantive and symbolic results. -- Jeffrey Pfeffer (1981) "Management as Symbolic Action: The Creation and Maintenance of Organizational Paradigms"
What Are We After? For thousands of years, would-be power-holders have searched for some magic that would enhance their lives.

The philosopher’s stone (Arabic,: al-iksir , or Buddhist or Hindi: Cintamani) was reputed to enable its possessor to transmute metals of lower value into gold. Other rumored powers were: changing common crystals into precious stones, healing illnesses, lengthening life, creating homunculi.

One can find thousands, millions, perhaps, of characterizations of the terms leader, or leadership, in all kinds of media. No less magical is the hope that “true leaders” can be found or created that will transmute any group, corporation or society, even, into something wondrous. The logically and practically prior determination of the targets, i.e. of what it is that most everyone would find to be more wondrous, is generally passed over by those impatient to effect magical transformations. This impatience is often exacerbated by the desire to obscure substantive issues. (For related examples of present-day “magical” practices in society and law, see Same-Sex Marriage: yes or no? A Hypocritical Confrontation?)

Looking for "the Essentials" of Leadership.

"I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one." -- Napoleon, (anecdotal)

"Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men." -- E.B. White (1944) One Man's Meat

What is interesting about the volumes written about leadership is that many, many of them focus mostly on the personal characteristics of what they call "leadership," ignoring not only the influence of luck, but also the constraints of organizational structure, tasks and goals. Thus, we find books and blogs and newspaper articles on leadership -- as abundant today as love-lorn columns and horoscopes have ever been -- that focus on the behavior of the leader as a monologic actor in a group. What is generally overlooked is the influence, often stultifying, of the context of the leader's actions.

This context of action has long been studied in industrial contexts, but is generally ignored by social, particularly educational, reformers of many stripes -- despite their being well-aware that their markets comprise individuals looking to acquire "generalship" and esteem as "self-made" persons. The irony here is particularly striking when one considers how so many of our present social critics claim to want to make schools and colleges turn out graduates who are more economically productive "in the 21st century."

However, sociologist Joan Woodward's study, Industrial Organization. Theory and Practice (1966) provides an analysis that relates personnel relationships to organizational type, inputs and outputs. Industrial organizations, writes Woodward, fall into three classes depending upon their goal, i.e. the kind of product they make, and the kind of technology they use to produce it.

What is most important for those of us who contemplate promoting change in organizations is Woodward's finding that, in the most successful of the types of organization she analyzes, their goals and technologies affect profoundly both the productive and social relationships between workers. In other words, what we try to do and how we go about doing it affects the way we work together, our productivity and our politics.

Despite a not quite comfortable fit, large batch and mass production industries have provided Americans with a modern Factory image of educational institutions at all levels. According to Woodward, the goal of large batch and mass production industries is to produce uniform items for a pre-existent mass market. (See School Image: Expectations & Controversies.)

The technology of large batch and mass production industries, although complex, can be made piecemeal. Causal connections are generally clear. Uniform inputs produce uniform outputs. This diminishes the need for research and development. Management separates itself from, as it controls, low-skilled workers through a variety of highly elaborate sanctions. Communication occurs only to exchange information of interest to management. The technical rationality of the workplace tends to fragment social relationships as these tend to undermine efficiency. In American schooling,for example, this industrial model is reflected in persistent attempts to standardize curriculum, i.e. "teacher-proof" it, testing, promotion and graduation standards.

The large batch and mass production model is disregarded by proponents of the doctrine that the individual needs of each person should be met by the school. It is, ironically, also undermined by "democratizing" the public schools in particular, that is, opening them to all comers, using age as the only prerequisite for acceptance, rather than attempting to standardize admissions criteria in any productively, e.g. pedagogically, relevant way. (See The Capacity to Benefit from Formal Academic Schooling: two ideologies of distribution.)

Process industries such as oil refineries, chemical plants, and pharmaceutical companies are technology-rich. They produce specialized products for hard-to-identify specialty markets. Complex though well-defined causal processes are built into plant equipment so as to minimize the need for workers. Those few workers who are needed tend to be highly skilled technicians who can maintain and troubleshoot the production process. Control by management is of little concern since both the equipment and the technical orientation of the workers assures success. As in the mass production industries, communication is necessary only for exchange of information. The technical rationality of the process does not support -- though it need not undermine -- the social relationships of organization members.

This model is dear to the hearts of all technically adept educators, whose main failing is often little more than the assumption that their successes rests solely on their own pedagogical skill rather than on characteristics, not under their control, of their classrooms or students. The model is actively promoted by teacher accrediting organizations working hard to impose as doctrine on would-be teachers the belief that all children cn learn and that even future adult behavior can be controlled through early school interventions. Unfortunately, little consensus exists that there is scientific support for these propositions. (See Are “Best” Practices Really the Best? What is the evidence?)

Unit and small-batch industries, in Woodward's typology, produce custom-designed specialty items, such as locomotive engines and custom cars. Specialty demands provide the impetus for the research and development of processes and methods which take the very specific characteristics of inputted material and, with much skilled worker attention, transform it into relatively unique outputs. Management-worker relationships tend to be non-hierarchical and communication occurs on an operational basis as the process requires it. Since teaming and mutual support are often necessary, social relationships are as important as technical ones.

The chart to the right summarizes the relationships between inputs and outputs for the different organizational types.

This is what private (and otherwise small-school) education is about, although small budgets often cut into the possibility of hiring highly-skilled teachers or administrators. But parents (especially those of younger students) like to believe that their offspring are getting "individualized" treatment. (In the public schools this dream is responded to by the procedure of the IEP, individualized educational placement, that students admitted to special education receive.)

American schooling traditions make these models problematic in trying to characterize schools as production systems. Progressive as well as "scientific" ideologies tend to see the relationship of technical to social functions of the school to be that of Unit and Small Batch systems. But given their size, the production control of most schools defaults to that of Large Batch and Mass systems. (For more on this, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education.)

Two Classes of Leadership: Role-leaders versus Performance-leaders.
Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. -- Peter Drucker
Some leaders are designated as such because of their position in an organization. Job titles, roles, are ranked on organization charts, the higher being superior to the lower. The jobs are bestowed for various reasons, e.g. tradition, experience, nepotism, political connection, friendship, seniority and, (even!) possessing needed skills.

For organizations that rank these role-positions, “leadership” -- so the expectation (the hopes?) goes -- is a function of rank. A given job-holder is in a leadership position to everyone in line of command below him or her on the chart. But a person’s job title may be a poor indicator of competence: some high ranking people may lack the experience, competence or the attitude to be a good leader. They are called “leaders,” nonetheless, gaining unearned a lot of the approval, compensation or deference that the word’s usage insinuates they deserve.

From informal surveys I have conducted over many years, those discussing the characteristics of leaders or leadership to be desired are primarily focused on those of Performance Leadership. They all pretty much agree with Drucker what it is to be a “manager.”

Why is role-based leadership tolerated, even celebrated? Because in many organizations, particularly long-established ones, top-ranking leaders are the most powerful, controlling the organizational resources, particularly through ownership. The top-rankers needn’t have productive skills in terms of which lower ranking members are hired and evaluated. Princes need tend no gardens.

In Jeffrey S . Nielsen’s book The Myth of Leadership. Creating Leaderless Organizations. (Palo Alto: Davies-Black 2004) he treats all leadership as being role-leadership. (The term he uses is “rank-leadership”.) By “leaderless” he means “without rank-defined leaders.” What he does propose is that organizations strive to be run entirely on performance-leadership.

Two Domains of Any Kind of Leadership: Social versus Technical Among those who work in organizations where rank is important, funding is sufficient, and competitive pressures are minimal, it is strange to find that they may still yearn for the kind of performance-leadership that would likely not be tolerated by powerful top-rankers. However, by restricting its range of action, Performance Leadership can be tolerated where Role-Leadership is dominant.

We can distinguish persons, whether they exercise role- or performance-leadership at belonging to one of two different domains of functioning, the social or the technical. Social functioning comprises behavior that seeks to maintain consensus of various forms among organizational members, to protect the organization or its sub-parts against internal or external threats.

Common social functioning examples are participating in advertising, representing the firm at public functions, charity, or attending balls and commenting on public events. The language of social functionaries tends to be cordial, collegial, celebratory, non-committal and vague. It is replete with slogans, truisms, compliments and happy (or angry) ambiguities. It requires little technical training beyond what an undergraduate liberal arts major can pick up.

Common technical functioning requires planning and skillful strategizing so as to maximize the efficiency of social functioning. But -- an important note -- it presumes a context of consensus already established through social functioning. Technical leadership, whether role-based or performance-based is evaluated by its success at achieving restricted aims. The language of technical leadership is about cause-and-effect, cost-and-benefit, and efficiency.

A leader may appear cordial and celebratory, but if this behavior is a strategem believed to secure a desired aim, this leadership is technical-leadership: honey set out to attract more flies than would vinegar.

Leadership for a Common Humanity
A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr’s characterization of a “genuine leader” is intriguing. To not need to search for a community of consensus either assumes you are already fortuitously embedded in such a community, or that you have an irresistible technique for consensus building. So powerful, in fact is this community-building technique, if it is available, that those who earlier did not agree with you will suddenly drop their resistence and acknowledge that your consensus-molding efforts have worked successfully on them.

I can think of two beliefs of Dr. King, clearly a performance-leader, that he expressed on many occasions:
1. We are all children of the same God -- i.e. we belong to a universal community; and,

2. Non-violent confrontation is the method which will awaken that sense of community and moral consensus in those who right now don’t feel it.
With the first belief King acts in the social domain, proposing a logical foundation for a consensus. The second belief illustrates a technical approach to pursuing King’s aim of racial equality.

Whether we share Dr. King’s beliefs or not, we can concede that they provide a coherent basis for the actions he took to achieve the goals he wanted. That logic stands, even though the problems he faced have been more resistant to his efforts than many have wished.

To examine these issues further, see Sustaining Illusions of Leadership.

Cordially -- EGR