Crisis? What Crisis?

Perspectives on leadership, change and organisational dynamics in turbulent times

Chris Rodgers

A couple of years ago, on route to the local railway station, I happened to be listening to a radio ‘phone-in programme on how best to raise children. Concerns had resurfaced in the previous day’s news about the detrimental effects of youngsters’ growing attraction to fast food, computer games and activities that offer instant gratification.

It was about forty minutes into the discussion when a woman named Susan Strang called in to the programme. A one-time presenter on children’s TV, Ms Strang explained that she had been campaigning for the past twenty years or so on children’s issues. The essence of her argument was that the lack of playing fields, the marginalising of in-school sport and the dearth of extra-curricular activities meant that many children had no sense of what they were missing. In effect, they had little choice but to behave in the way that they did. She advocated a much greater emphasis on re-creating opportunities for social and sporting activities and meaningful relationships.

One of the studio guests was quick to dismiss this line of argument on the basis that the children of today want to eat junk food, spend hours playing computer games, and get instant gratification from whatever they do. In a one-sentence response, Susan Strang said something that immediately struck me as profound in a wider context. Not only was it a brilliant retort to the ‘that’s life’ comment of her challenger but it also seemed to me to sum up what effective, value-creating consultancy and development is all about. She said:

“It’s not our job to give them what they want, it’s our job to give them what they didn’t know they could have.”

Giving clients what they don’t know they can have seems to me to be a key role for developers, as the country moves falteringly out of recession and managers once again turn to face the future.

According to official figures, the recession is over – even if ‘growth’ in January 2010 registered just 0.1 per cent on the ‘clutching at straws’ scale. But the challenges facing organisations and those who advise them are far from over. Will managers learn the harsh lessons of the past eighteen months or so and look for new ways forward? Or will they brush them off as a painful but passing ‘blip’ and continue largely as before? How will we, as consultants and developers, rise to the challenge? Will we be willing and able to offer them “what they didn’t know they could have”? And, if so, what might some of these new perspectives, processes and practices be?

In this edition of e-O&P, the editorial team of Deb Booth, Gary Purser and myself have sought to rise to that challenge by assembling a number of articles that offer some different – and sometimes provocative – perspectives on leadership, change and organisational dynamics. Our purpose in doing so is to challenge managers, consultants and developers to reflect critically upon the assumptions that shape their current practice.

The series of articles begins with Alastair Turner’s reflections on how the focus of his coaching work has shifted during the recession. Using feedback from his clients, he identifies five behaviours that make coaches more effective in responding to shifting client agendas and helping them to enhance business performance. He argues that the emerging challenges will require leaders “to be more reflective, ask new questions, seek new answers and to behave differently.” He concludes that rebuilding their personal credibility and regaining the trust of their staff will be pivotal to leaders’ success in this.

Rebuilding trust is also at the heart of Beth Duff’s article, on the use of equine-assisted learning to develop leadership capability. In a passionate plea for a return to what she describes as “traditional values”, she tells the story of how she has used horses to help leaders reconnect with these in a powerful way. What struck me particularly was that she has now taken the learning onto a new level; blending the physical and emotional experience of working with horses, with in-depth conversations about power, authenticity and relationships that these in-the-moment encounters have stimulated.

Penny Mavor similarly emphasises the importance of leaders paying attention to what’s going on in the here and now, when she takes us into the field of mindfulness. Sub-titled “embracing the future by understanding the present”, her paper draws together the latest thinking on this age-old topic and shows how it is highly relevant today; not only to individual leadership practice but also to leaders’ efforts to develop high-performing organisations. “Were we fully awake?” she asks about the pre-crisis state of affairs. And, more particularly, will leaders “wake up to a better way” and cultivate mindfulness as a route to greater awareness, insight and success?

Paul Z Jackson and Graeme Summers combine their experience of a range of coaching interventions, to show how leaders can face up to the complex challenges of an uncertain future by fostering a culture of improvisation. They use the metaphor of game playing to describe the ways in which people act and relate in organisations; recognising that these games, and the outcomes they generate, can be either positive or negative. Drawing on a number of brief case studies, they demonstrate how Transactional Analysis, the Solutions Focus approach and Applied Improvisation can be combined to help leaders to ‘change the game’ – making them potentially more constructive and performance enhancing.

Culture is also on the minds of Emma Langman and Fiona Cozens, as they tell their story of change in South Staffordshire Council. Looking at the project from their different perspectives, as external consultant and in-house manager, they describe how the centre of gravity of change leadership was shifted from the authority’s Senior Management Team (SMT) to those closest to the work. This move towards what they call “learner-led change” was facilitated by initial coaching of the SMT in the important art of ‘letting go’ and the introduction of a range of systems-thinking concepts and practices. “Prepare to be surprised by the scale of your people’s ambition for change” is a potent conclusion that they draw from their experience.

Bob MacKenzie shifts our attention towards the crafting of organisational strategy, and how we might do this more effectively through the more thoughtful – and essentially improvisational – use of writing. Consistent with a number of the articles, he advocates a shift in focus from the macro level (here spoken of in terms of “grand strategy”) to what’s going on in the everyday exchanges of local interaction. He characterises this as a move from seeing strategy as writing (a finished product) to focusing on the act of writing itself – as an ongoing and emergent process of strategy in the making.

Each of the above articles explores a different aspect of organisational practice, and how this might be enhanced by new approaches to individual and organisational development. The two remaining contributions focus instead on the underlying dynamics of organisations. In their different ways, these both offer a fundamental challenge to the way that we understand organisations and explore the implications of this thinking for leadership practice.

Although Irwin Turbitt’s paper might be seen as a treatise on problem-solving in organisations – which it certainly offers – I believe that his analysis of organisational dynamics goes deeper than this. In particular, he highlights the tendency for managers to see the challenges they face primarily in terms either of problems to be solved or crises to be commanded. Instead, he points to the inherent complexity of organisations; and the intractable nature of many of the issues that managers face. He therefore sees a critical task of leadership as being one of mobilising people to take responsibility for tackling tough problems themselves, ahead of the usual focus on setting out a vision for others to follow.

And so to my own article. Commissioning Editor Deb Booth asked me if I would share my ‘post-crisis’ thoughts on OD and change as viewed from an “informal coalitions” standpoint. The result is therefore best thought of as a personal ‘opinion piece’. If this challenge to established thinking leads readers to shift their perspectives – or even to reflect on and reaffirm their own views – it will have served its purpose. If it provokes new thinking on leadership, change and organisational dynamics, so much the better.

Finally, the challenge to management orthodoxy that is offered by these last two articles is also echoed in my review of Ralph Stacey’s latest book, Complexity and Organizational Reality. Using the economic downturn to illustrate his argument, Stacey presents a radical challenge to what he sees as the failure of investment capitalism, and of the managerialist assumptions that have been imported into the public sector. Instead, he argues that management and leadership are essentially social phenomena, which call for a fundamentally different approach to that offered by conventional management wisdom.

As developers weave their way through an uncertain and emerging future, the Stacey review and the Turbitt and Rodgers articles provide the metaphorical ‘warp’, through which they can interlace the ‘weft’ of the specific concepts, tools and techniques discussed in the earlier articles. With skill – and a little luck – the result might not be something that clients want but, more valuably perhaps, something that they didn’t know they could have!


This e-journal would not have materialised without the persistence of Deb Booth and the support of her fellow Commissioning Editor, Gary Purser. Thanks are also due to Gary’s son, Matthew, for his excellent work on the cover design and the formatting of the final text.

About the Author

Chris Rodgers works as a consultant, facilitator and coach, across a wide range of organisations in both the UK and internationally. He is also Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at Cass Business School, City University, London. His book, Informal Coalitions, was published globally by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007. He can be contacted by email at .

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