Chapter 14: Making Sense of Organizations: Leadership, Frames, and Everyday Theories of the Situation by Joan V. Gallos
From J. V. Gallos (ed.). Business Leadership: A Jossey-Bass Reader. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
In his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis notes a simple truth. “When you understand, you know what to do” (2003, p. 55). Good sensemaking is at the heart of good leadership. Whether we call it executive wisdom, sound judgment, reflective practice (Schon, 1983), or learning from experience, the expectation is clear. Leadership involves the capacity to make sense of the ambiguities and challenges in organizational life and translate those into appropriate choices and actions. Effective leaders avoid myopic or simplistic interpretations, build sound everyday theories that fit the situations in which they find themselves, and use those to facilitate the accomplishment of a larger good.
A wealth of books and expert advice offers solutions to this challenge. Over the years, leaders have been counseled to employ management by objectives, total quality management, reengineering, management by walking around, Six Sigma, quality of work life programs, socio-technical systems design, participative management, the search for excellence, the search for greatness, and the search for soul to name only a few – and today’s wisdom can too quickly become yesterday’s news. Sorting through the many models, studies, frameworks, and findings that compete for a leader’s attention is not always easy. But we know that leaders serve their organizations best when they are both discriminating consumers of leadership theories and skilled translators of their learning into workable everyday strategies. Kurt Lewin, father of the applied social sciences, got it right – there’s nothing so practical as a good theory.
While this may sound academic to those who labor in the organizational trenches, good theories are pragmatic and grounded. They explain and predict. They serve as frameworks for making sense of the world, organizing diverse forms and sources of information, and taking informed action. Theories come in all shapes and sizes. They may be personal —tacit mental schemas that individuals develop over time from their unique life experiences. They can be research-based – models that stem from experiments, formal exploration, and field studies of practice. Whatever the origin, theories guide behavior, and leaders who can embrace and build good theories have a competitive advantage. A look at sensemaking offers insights into the challenges that they face.
Sensemaking and Everyday Theory Building
The intricacies of sensemaking and its implications for action have been well developed in the organizational and information science literatures (for example, Argyris, 1982, 1985; Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, 1985; Argyris and Schon, 1978, 1982; Weick, 1985, 1993, 1995, 2007; Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001; Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld, 2005; Starbuck and Milliken, 1988). For our purpose here, the basics will do.
Sensemaking involves three fundamental steps: noticing something, deciding what to make of it, and determining what to do about it. Sensemaking is always incomplete and personal. Humans can only attend to a limited amount of the information and experiences available to them; and an individual’s values, education, past experience, cognitive capacities, physical abilities, and developmental limitations impact what they see. Sensemaking is interpretive: when thrown into life’s ongoing stream of experiences, unpredictable events, available information, and social encounters, people create explanations for themselves of what things mean. Sensemaking is also action-oriented. These personal interpretations contain prescriptions for how they and others should respond. The sensemaking process is not about finding truth with a capital “T” – although what individuals attend to and how they explain it might be closer or farther from what others might see. It is a personal search for meaning, governed by criteria of plausibility and satisficing rather than accuracy. A “good enough” explanation of the situation will stop the search for alternatives early in the hunt (March and Simon, 1958; Weick, 1995).
Sensemaking and everyday theory building are close cousins. Together, they reflect the deep human need for order, control, and meaning, and their relationship is intricately circular. People use their everyday theories to make sense of new experience, and, over time, their experience feeds back to reinforce or modify their theories. Theories influence what people see. That often means they won’t see things that don’t fit their preconceptions. On the other hand, people are sometimes forced to revise their theories when they no longer adequately explain and predict the world around them.
The process of sensemaking and everyday theory building is ongoing and largely tacit. Leaders are continuously registering some things, ignoring others, making interpretations, and determining what to do. This mostly occurs quickly, automatically, and outside of awareness. For that reason, everyday theories feel so obvious and real that they seem more like Truth and the way the world really is than the individual creations that they are. The tacit nature of the process can blind leaders to available alternatives, gaps and inaccuracies in their framing (Argyris and Schon, 1982). It also provides little incentive for leaders to question their interpretations or retrace any of their steps from data selection through action.
Whether leaders think about it or not then, they always have a choice for how they frame and interpret their organizational world – and their choices are fateful. A last-minute search for a stronger hanger to take his suit to school for a debate tournament, for example, led my son to run up two flights of stairs, stub his toe in the process, complain to his mother, and be late for his ride to school. His theory of the situation told him clothes hangers were upstairs – and not in the front hall closet a few feet from where he started. On a more serious note, the situation in Iraq would be markedly different today had the United States been “welcomed as liberators,” the Bush administration’s pre-war theory of the situation.
In summary, leaders need good theories – whether homegrown, borrowed from others, or some combination of the two. Every leadership initiative is based on theories about how organizations work and what might make them better. What can help leaders to strengthen their theory skills?
Sorting Complexity: Leveraging the Pluralism in Organizational Theory
Modern organizations are complex beasts – and the changing nature of our fast-paced, technology-rich, competitive, global world only adds to their complexity. Successful collective action is no simple matter. Organizations are simultaneously finely-tuned machines producing goods or services, extended families meeting human needs and employing individual talents for a larger good, political jungles teaming with enduring differences and competition for scarce resources, and theaters of worklife where organizational roles are played with drama and artistry. These images flow from the efforts of Bolman and Deal (1984, 2003, 2007 in this volume) to synthesize and integrate the major traditions in organizational theory into four distinct areas: theories about organizational structure, people, political dynamics, and culture. Each of the four areas—the authors call them frames—has its own view of the organizational landscape, rooted in distinct academic disciplines. Each also has its own points of focus, underlying assumptions, action-logic, path to organizational effectiveness, and major advocates. Each frame captures an important slice of organizational reality, but alone is incomplete. Reliance on any one perspective can lead to mistaking a part of the field for the whole, or to misinterpreting the root cause of events or challenges. Together, however, the four frames harness the pluralism in the organizational theory base, acknowledging its richness and complexity while organizing the major elements for easy access, recall, and application.
The structural frame, with its image of organization as machine, views organizations as rational systems. It reinforces the importance of designing structural arrangements that align with an organization’s goals, tasks, technology, strategy, and environment (for example, Galbraith, 2001; Hammer & Champy, 1993; Lawrence & Lorsch, 1986; Perrow, 1986). Differentiation of work roles and tasks provides for clarity of purpose and contribution, but leads to the need for appropriate coordination and integration.
The human resource frame, with its image of organization as family, captures the symbiotic relationship between individuals and organizations: individuals need opportunities to express their talents and skills; organizations need human energy and contribution to fuel their efforts. When the fit is right, both benefit. Productivity is high whenpeople feel motivated to bring their best to their work. The human resource frame has roots in the work of such seminal theorists as Chris Argyris (1962), Abraham Maslow (1954), and Douglas McGregor (1960). It also spawned the fields of organization development and change management (Gallos, 2006) and underpins many of our pop cultural beliefs about good leading and organizing.
The political frame sees an organization as a jungle – an arena of enduring differences, scarce resources, power negotiations, and conflict (for example, Cyert & March, 1963; Pfeffer, 1994; Smith, 1988). Diversity of values, beliefs, interests, behaviors, skills, and worldviews among the workforce are unavoidable organizational realities. They are often toxic, but can also be a source of creativity and innovation when recognized and effectively managed (Thomas, 2006).
Finally, the theater image of the symbolic frame captures organizational life as an ongoing drama: individuals coming together to create context, culture, and meaning as they play their assigned roles and bring artistry and self-expression into their work (for example, Blustein, 2007; Cameron and Quinn, 1999; Cohen & March, 1974; Deal & Kennedy, 2000; Meyer & Rowan, 1983; Schein, 2004; Weick, 1995). Good theater fuels the moral imagination; it engages head and heart. Organizations that attend to the symbolic issues surrounding their own theater of work infuse everyday efforts with creativity, energy, and soul.
Table 14.1 outlines a four-frame approach to understanding organizations. It summarizes the underlying assumptions and images of organization that underpin each perspective, as well as frame-specific disciplinary roots, emphases, implicit action-logics, and routes to organizational effectiveness. [INSERT FIGURE 14.1]
Figure 14.1: A Four Frame Approach to Understanding Organizations
Image of Organization
Path to Organizational Effectiveness
sociology, industrial psychology, economics
rationality, formal roles and relationships
1. Organizations exist to achieve established goals
2. Specialization and division of labor increase efficiency and enhance performance
3. Coordination and control ensure integration of individual and group efforts
4. Organizations work best when rationality prevails
5. Structure must align with organizational goals, tasks, technology, environment
6. Problems result from structural deficiencies and are remedied by analysis and restructuring (Adapted from Bolman and Deal, 2003, p. 45)
clear division of labor; creation of appropriate mechanisms to integrate individual, group, and unit efforts
psychology, social psychology
the fit between individual and the organization
1.Organizations exist to serve human needs
2. People and organizations both need each other
3. When the fit between individual and organization is poor, one or both suffer: each exploits or is exploited
tailor the organization to meet individual needs, train the individual in relevant skills to meet organizational needs
allocation of power and scare resources
1. Organizations are coalitions of diverse individuals and interest groups
2. Differences endure among coalition members: values, beliefs, information, interests, behaviors, world views
3. All important organizational decisions involve scare resources: who gets what
4. Scarce resources and enduring differences make conflict inevitable and power a key asset (Adapted from Bolman and Deal, 2003, p. 186)
bargain, negotiate, build coalitions, set agendas, manage conflict
social and cultural anthropology
meaning, purpose, and values
1. What is most important is not what happens but what it means to people
2. Activity and meaning are loosely coupled: people interpret experiences differently
3. People create symbols for conflict resolution, predictability, direction, hope
4. Events and processes may be more important for what they express than what they produce
5. Culture is the glue that holds organizations together through shared values and beliefs (Adapted from Bolman and Deal, 2003, pp. 242-243)
building faith and shared meaning
create common vision; devise relevant rituals, ceremonies, and symbols; manage meaning; infuse passion, creativity, and soul
The power of the four frames for organizational diagnosis rests in the fact that organizations are messy and complex. They operate simultaneously on these four levels at all times, and can require special attention to address problems in one area while remaining strong and functioning in others. Organizations need a solid architecture—rules, roles, policies, formal practices, procedures, technologies, coordinating mechanisms, environmental linkages—that clearly channels resources and human talents into productive outcomes in support of key organizational goals. At the same time, organizations must deal with the complexity of human nature by facilitating workplace relationships and training that motivate and foster high levels of both satisfaction and productivity. Enduring differences of all kind play a central role in organizational life. They lead to misunderstandings, disagreement, ongoing needs to manage conflict, and differential levels of power and influence. Finally, every organization must build and sustain a culture that aligns with organizational purposes and values, inspires and gives meaning to individual efforts, and provides the symbolic glue to coordinate the diverse contributions of many.
Staying mindful of these four parallel sets of dynamics cultivates solid diagnostic habits for business leaders who need a comprehensive yet workable perspective on their ambiguous, ever-shifting organizational landscape. But such mindfulness is not easy. Human beings rely on limited cognitive perspectives to make sense out of their world, readily fall back on habitual responses to problems and challenges, and remain blind to other options. Developmental limitations (Gallos, 1989, 2005) collude to sustain beliefs that an individual’s way of thinking and seeing the world is often “the only way”—when our only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Such natural human tendencies keep leaders in their perceptual comfort zones and often away from the very experiences that challenge them to break frame and embrace “more complicated” socio-emotional, intellectual, and ethical reasoning (Weick, 1979). In essence, good diagnostic skills require leaders to employ multiple lenses to expand what they see. Leaders are less apt to use them, however, without a framework that nudges them beyond their developmentally-anchored propensities and into multi-frame thinking.
To compound the issues, the ambiguity in organizational life leads to a host of possible explanations (and implicit solutions) for any problem. Take the simple case of two coworkers who engage regularly in verbal battles at work. Employing a human resource–based analysis of the situation, for example, might cause leaders to see a personality conflict between the two, clashing interpersonal styles, incompetence, or some personal problem for one or both of the employees. In this situation—as in most —if leaders set out to find a people-blaming explanation, they will. And once leaders determine that the problem requires people fixing, they will tackle it accordingly. When a group or organization falters, we look for someone to blame. If the team is losing, fire the coach. If the corporate strategy isn’t meeting expectations, jettison the CEO. When relief efforts faltered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, for example, much of the debate was about who to blame. The mayor? The governor of Louisiana? The director of FEMA? His boss, the director of Homeland Security? Or everyone’s boss, the President. Heads predictably rolled, including that of Michael Brown, the FEMA director. Sometimes, changing horses is the best or even the only option, but too often it doesn’t help because it solves the wrong problem.
If the underlying problems are really structural, changing people may not change anything. FEMA director Brown, after offering his own mea culpa, tried to tell Congress that there had also been serious structural problems resulting from FEMA’s poor integration into the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA had gone from an independent agency with its own goals, priorities, and internal controls to become a step child in a new organizational home where, Brown said, people were more interested in terrorism than preparing for natural disasters. Brown was onto something important, but was advised by Congress to focus more on his own “inadequacies.” Brown is long gone, but the structural issues he identified still remain. In their frame-based research across organizations, sectors, and nations, Bolman and Deal (2003) repeatedly found that the first and most common diagnosis of organizational inefficiency is interpersonal—blame people and explain everything that goes wrong as human error, folly, or treachery. Faulting individuals may be second nature to us all. But it blocks seeing structural weaknesses and other more subtle system dynamics [for example, see Sales, 2007 in this volume]. The tendency to look first for the people problem should raise a red flag for leaders. Research on perception, sensemaking, and human development confirms that what we expect to see is exactly what we will.
Looking beyond people or structure offers additional possibilities. In the Katrina case, effective relief efforts required cooperation among a number of different agencies and levels of government, each with its own interests and agendas. A political approach might involve negotiations among the various players to arrive at a plan that all the key players could support.
A fourth diagnostic alternative is to use a symbolic lens to explore the cultural and dramatic elements. Unintendedly, the agencies involved were staging a drama titled No Relief for the Suffering which played 24/7 on the television news with a central plot line of “government incompetence fuels human tragedy.” The damage was magnified by the widespread perception that poor African-Americans were being neglected by their government. When government officials told reporters they were unaware of things that viewers had already seen on television, their credibility fell to near zero. Attention to the symbolic elements would have recognized the criticality of conveying realistic messages of confidence, competence, and caring to both the victims and the American public. Contrast the handling of Katrina on the leadership stage to the calm, reassuring media presence of Rudy Giuliani in the days following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
A Four-Dimensional Diagnostic Model: Issues, Choice Points, and Areas of Focus
As the foregoing examples illustrate, each of the four frames offers a diagnostic lens on a distinct set of organizational dynamics. Each also points to a frame-consistent course of action for leaders. If the problem is structural, tweak the structure. If the problem is with the people, teach, train, coach, counsel, or hire new ones. Issues of power and politics imply the need to renegotiate, bargain, or share influence. Symbolic analyses focus on the meaning of organizational events to stakeholders inside and outside the organization and suggest ways to support the development of a healthy organizational culture and a hopeful future. Although any of the frames may account for what'shappening in any given case, it is hard to know which one really does without first looking at them all. Any one frame may oversimplify a complex reality or send leaders blindly down the wrong path, squandering resources, time, and credibility along the way.
A comprehensive diagnostic picture is better launched with four questions: What is going on structurally? What is happening from a human resource perspective? What's going on politically? What is happening on the symbolic front? Taken alone, each question encourages consideration of an important slice of organizational life. Taken together, the four offer a systematic yet manageable examination of a full scope of organizational possibilities. Table 14.2 outlines key issues and concepts from each frame. It provides a checklist of sorts, identifying a range of possible frame-specific issues to investigate, as well as potential areas of focus for data gathering, intervention, and change. [INSERT Figure 14.2]
Figure 14.2: Frame-Related Issues and Areas of Focus
Potential Issues and Areas to Investigate
rules, regulations, goals, policies, roles, tasks, job designs, job descriptions, technology, environment, chain of command, vertical and horizontal coordinating mechanisms, assessment and reward systems, standard operating procedures, authority spans and structures, spans of control, specialization/division of labor, information systems, formal feedback loops, boundary scanning and management processes
needs, skills, relationships, norms, perceptions and attitudes, morale, motivation, training and development, interpersonal and group dynamics, supervision, teams, job satisfaction, participation and involvement, informal organization, support, respect for diversity, formal and informal leadership
key stakeholders, divergent interests, scarce resources, areas of uncertainty, individual and group agendas, sources and bases of power, power distributions, formal and informal resource allocation systems and processes, influence, conflict, competition, politicking, coalitions, formal and informal alliances and networks, interdependence, control of rewards and punishment, informal communication channels
Finally, each frame can also be understood as a unique set of central tensions that must be reconciled in making choices about organizational structure, HR concerns, ways to manage conflict, and culture. The tensions are universal and best thought of as endpoints on a series of continua, each with critical choice points that reflect trade-offs and the challenge of balancing competing forces. For example, the design of an appropriate system of rules, roles, procedures, and structural relationships to facilitate organizational mission and purpose requires leaders to address four ongoing tensions:
differentiation and integration: how to divide up the tasks and work to be done and then coordinate the diverse efforts of individuals and groups
centralization and decentralization: how to allocate authority and decision making across the organization
tight boundaries and openness to the environment: how much to buffer and filter the flow of people and information in and out of the organization
bureaucracy and entrepreneurism: how to balance the requirement for consistency, predictability, and clarity with the need for autonomy, creativity, and flexibility.
Working through these choices to achieve the right mix for any organization is hard and important work. But the aforementioned tensions are only one piece of the larger work to be done. Again, each frame has its own central tensions. A look within the symbolic frame, for example, identifies different, yet equally significant, concerns:
innovation and respect for tradition: how to foster newness and creativity while honoring the power and wisdom of the past
individuality and shared vision: how to "get the whole herd moving roughly west" without sacrificing the originality and unique contributions of talented individuals
strong culture and permeable culture: how to nurture shared values and norms while avoiding organizational repression and stagnation
prose and poetry: how to balance an organization’s needs for accuracy, objectivity, and accountability with its requirement for beauty, inspiration, and soul
Table 14.3 summarizes the central tensions for each of the four frames. [INSERT FIGURE 14.3]
Figure 14.3: Frame-related Central Tensions
differentiation and integration
centralization and decentralization
tight boundaries and openness to the environment
bureaucracy and entrepreneurism
autonomy and interdependence
employee participation and authority decision making
self-regulation and external controls
meeting individual needs and meeting organizational needs
In working with these four sets of competing forces, it is important to remember that there is value for organizations on both ends of each continuum. The challenge for any organization is to find the balance between or combination of the two extremes that best fits its mission, purpose, values, and circumstances. All organizations need to divide up the work and integrate employee efforts. They foster the autonomy of individuals and units and the interdependence to accomplish common goals. They build on shared experience, skills, and values and utilize diversity to stay cutting-edge. They stay grounded in reality and embrace artistry and soul.
The challenge for leaders then is to stay cognizant of the full range of universal dilemmas and tensions and open to working with each. Leaders all have values or emotional preferences for one end of a continuum or the other, and they may regularly push only in the direction of their personal comfort zones. Those personal biases, however, do organizations a disservice. We know, for example, that organizations require predictability, regularity, and consistency, and that people are empowered and more productive with clarity of purpose, means, and contribution. Rules, roles, policies, and standard operating procedures are a route to needed clarity. On the other hand, an over-emphasis can lead to rule-bound bureaucracies that stifle initiative and innovation, and a belief that restructuring is the solution for all ills.
Effective leadership is aided by an appreciation of all the options and choice points along the road to improved effectiveness. Attending simultaneously to the tensions in examining structure, people, politics, and symbols reminds leaders that there are multiple facets to organizing, each with its own contribution and promise. The four frames offer a map of the organizational terrain that aids leaders in knowing where they are, where they might go, and what they might gain or lose in choosing one direction or another. They also remind them that an important part of their job is reframing.
Reframing: Using and Teaching Reflection and Cognitive Elasticity
Thus far, this chapter has looked at the four frames as a device for leaders to bring all that they know about organizations to the work of making them more effective. Using the four frames well, however, means engaging in a process of reframing—the practice of deliberately examining a complex situation from multiple perspectives. Reframing is a skill that requires both knowledge about all four frames and practice in applying them so as to make frame flipping second nature.
Schön and Rein (1994) identify the important linkages among self-reflection, frames, and effective action. In the same way that a picture frame outlines and highlights a limited image from a larger visual landscape, our personal frames delineate and bound our experience. But we don’t realize this unless we can see our own thinking and recognize its limited nature. Otherwise, we assume that what we see is what is, and that anyone who sees things differently must be mistaken. In addition, the nested nature of frames—frames can be individual, institutional, or cultural—compounds the problem. Individuals develop their personal frames based on their experiences in families, organizations, and communities which in turn have been influenced by a larger social and cultural milieu, and vice versa. These reciprocal influence loops reinforce and sustain each other. The authors believe that, with practice, individuals can learn to develop a “frame-critical rationality”: expand their personal capacities to see the impact and limitations of their particular frame while engaged in interactions with others. This self-reflection in action – akin to the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness and recognition of the disparity between how the world appears to us and how it actually is (Dalai Lama, 2006) – is a crucial first step on the road to reframing.
Reframing, however, is a multistep process. Recognizing one’s preferred frame or frames is important. But expanding frames of reference requires knowledge about alternative perspectives, appreciation for their potential contribution, and opportunities to practice looking at the same situation through multiple lenses. The multi-frame model developed in this chapter supports that by offering a workable template for expanding frame choices and understanding alternatives. It says to leaders, “Study your own thinking and discover which frames are least familiar or least palatable to you. Those are the ones you should learn more about.” It also expands the role and contributions of a leader: leaders in essence become teachers who expand the framing capacities of their organizations and those who work in it.
By systematically and publicly exploring the structural, people, political, and symbolic components in any given situation, leaders assist their organization in identifying its dominant institutional frame—the shared assumptions and logic that tacitly drive organizational actions and underpin reward systems and strategies. Institutional frames often flow from organizational founders, become anchored in the organization’s culture, and are tacitly passed along to newcomers socialized to see the institutional frame as the route to organizational success (Schein, 2004; 2007, in this volume]. Does your organization, for example, focus first on finding a structural response to new problems? Does it ignore the organization’s culture and its consistency with corporate goals and strategy? Does it try to sweep conflict and political dynamics under the rug? Does it give inadequate attention to assessing and developing the competencies and self-reliance of key players?
Although all organizations simultaneously function as machines, families, jungles, and theaters, few are skilled in regularly monitoring and managing the ongoing tensions and needs in all four areas. Recognizing this and understanding the content and contribution of each frame enable organizations to expand their institutional lenses, identify areas and issues historically ignored, and better balance attention across frames. Leadership development now includes a useful metacurriculum on reframing and cognitive elasticity, with top leaders modeling multi-frame strategizing and the benefits of cross-frame discourse (Kuhn, 1996). As a result, organizations enhance their overall capacities for multi-framed analysis and action while building new levels of organizational awareness and learning.
On an individual level, leaders also serve as coach to their staff members as they learn to expand and strengthen their own diagnostic and reframing skills. Reframing demands a tolerance for ambiguity, an appreciation of the social construction of reality, and skills in relative thinking—all developmentally sophisticated capacities (Gallos, 1989). Teaching the art and craft of reframing encourages individual growth, and when employed throughout the organization can foster significant team and organization development as well (Torbert, 2006).
In Closing: Leading and Sensemaking in Organizations
This chapter begins with a promise to help leaders become more informed theory users. It lays out a four-frame diagnostic model to harness the plurality in the organizational theory base and strengthen how leaders understand and work in their organizations. It reminds leaders that they build their own everyday theories to understand and bound their organizational world – and offers the four frames as a way to expand what they see and what they make of it. The chapter illustrates the possibilities and content of each frame; outlines key issues, inherent tensions, and areas of focus; highlights the power and benefits of reframing; and suggests an expanded role for leaders as multi-frame teachers, coaches, role models, and diagnosticians.
The chapter ends with an appreciation of the paradoxical nature of leadership and of the need for leaders to recognize the risks in being single-framed specialists in an increasingly multi-framed world. Leadership is too often confined to only one portion of a leader’s work – providing vision, developing strategy, building a learning culture, utilizing workforce diversity. This is not surprising. Leadership is complex and requires diverse skills and understandings to do it right. Simplifying leadership is a comforting albeit misleading way to wrap one’s arms around a difficult job. Individuals often rise to leadership positions because of their specialized skills and strengths, and it is hard to think beyond what has worked so well before. In the language of this chapter, it is easy to see leadership as a single-frame process; however, there are risks in doing that in a multi-frame world—and the organizational world is more multi-framed than ever (Bennis, 2003). The challenge for leaders is to become both frame generalists and specialists.
Each of the four frames suggests an area for specialized skill development, attention, and potential intervention in organizations. The advantages of specialization are that leaders can know more about a selected area, develop stronger skills in facilitating frame-related processes and diagnoses, and reflect their own values and talents. Utilizing vertical and lateral coordination networks or implementing a company-wide Six Sigma program, for example, is dramatically different from fostering a culture that fosters entrepreneurial spirit and drive. Implementing accountability systems based on complex metrics uses different leadership insights and strengths than supporting a multi-level, company-wide leadership development effort. Given the limitations on a leader’s time, talent, and energies, it is tempting for leaders to become a valued expert and resource in one set of frame understandings than in them all.
Specialization, however, involves real risks. Leaders may find themselves challenged by issues outside their area of expertise. Specialization can also tighten frame blinders so that leaders just don't see problems and options beyond their own perspective. Consider the case of Robert L. Nardelli. After missing out in a three-way race to succeed Jack Welch at General Electric, Nardelli hired on as CEO of Home Depot. He replaced the founders who had built the wildly successful retailer on the foundation of an entrepreneurial, free-spirited “orange” culture where managers ran their stores using “tribal knowledge,” and customers counted on friendly, knowledgeable staff. Nardelli was a structural-frame leader who decided that Home Depot’s future needed a heavy infusion of discipline, metrics, command-and-control, and lots of ex-military employees. Almost all the top execs and many of the front-line employees were replaced. For a while, profits improved, but the stock languished, morale plummeted, and so did customer service. Where the founders had preached “make love to the customers,” Nardelli cut staff, and by 2005 Home Depot came in dead last among American retailers in ratings of customer satisfaction. In 2006, Nardelli made news by running one of the shortest and most infuriating shareholders’ meetings in corporate history. It only took 30 minutes because he told the board to stay home, skipped the usual CEO speech, and answered no questions. His board pushed him out at the beginning of 2007, but gave him a $210 million severance package to cushion the blow.
Nardelli is only one of many examples demonstrating that leaders are at grave risk if they are not flexible, multiframe diagnosticians who can understand what's really happening and assess how well their talents and skills match current organizational needs. Competent leaders are specialists and generalists who need to embrace both sides of this core paradox.
This may seem like contradictory advice. Fletcher and Olwyler (1997) would disagree. Their work in understanding the role of paradox in optimal performance suggests the importance of simultaneously embracing two seemingly inconsistent paths without feeling the need to compromise on either. The most successful sprinters, for example, are simultaneously relaxed and tensed to meet the competition. Bill Gates is a genius in vision and in practicalities. Fletcher and Olwyler’s work has been driven by recognition that highly successful people are universally contradictory but have learned to accept and use their contradictions for the creative resolution of what may seem to others as irreconcilable conflicts. Just like musicians playing good counterpoint, these individuals have learned to play their competing melodies at the same time and celebrate the fact that each proudly holds its own. Leaders are aided in their work when they successfully embrace the paradox of the specialist and the generalist, bring the benefits of both to their work, and model the power of flexible thinking by asking “What else might really be happening here?”
Joan V. Gallos is Professor of Leadership at the Henry W. Bloch School at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an award-winning author and management educator. www.joangallos.com
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