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Tight – Loose – Tight, by Peter Dickens

28 Sep 2015

Picture a typical hourglass. Wide at the top and bottom, tight in the middle: brilliant if you want an accurate way of measuring time, an has been since its invention in Alexandra over 2000 years ago. Sadly, it is also the way that many managers want to manage their teams. Consider this:

  • A manager is given a new assignment and promptly turns it over to his team. He is short of rationale because he really has been given none himself, other some vague connection to organizational priorities. He prepares the team by given them a vague goal and impossible timelines and then moves on to other business.
  • The team moves into the “forming” stage, trying to figure out what it is exactly that they are doing. They make some few tentative steps forward, but at the first sign of trouble, the manager swoops in and a familiar pattern of blame, micromanagement, and missed “deadlines” sets in.
  • When the project is finally, miraculously, delivered there is little response from management and few if any commitments to implementation and monitoring the outcomes. The team is left dispirited and disconnected.

I wish this was more that a satiric and somewhat cynical view of what happens in most offices but sadly I have worked with far too many individuals and teams who find this sort of approach far too common. They are feel no connection to the rationale for their work but then are basically told exactly what to do and how to do it. When its done, they see little or nothing in the way of follow through and implementation.

            What would happen if you re-designed the hourglass? It may not serve its original intent, but it would be a much more useful metaphor for the way that we can approach projects when innovation and creativity are needed. Some years ago, a client introduced me to a model they called simply “tight – loose-tight”. I tend to be a stickler for citing sources, but try as they might no one could tell me where this came from so I can only pass it on as very helpful organizational lore. Here’s how it works in practice.


            Going into any initiative, individuals and teams need to have very clear, concise direction or what you might call minimum specifications or min. specs. These are the absolute must dos and must not does of any project. Ideally, there should be no more than 3 – 5 and they have to be clearly understood by all concerned. For example, in one improvement initiative I studied, the requirements were clear: reduce the time an admitted patient in the hospital’s emergency department waits until they are in a bed on the medicine floor by 25% without increasing operating costs. This was designed to address a chronic problem in hospitals, patients who have come to the ER and require at least an overnight stay, but there are no available beds. This means they are left waiting in the ER in a sort of limbo, which contributes to the wait times we all read about. A team of nurses, physicians, porters, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals were brought together to work on the challenge, which is an extremely complex, systemic problem.

            Regardless of the organization or the issue, it is vital that time is spent up front clarifying the min. specs. They will guide everything that happens from there. For some, it will resonate with the concept of a “team charter” in terms of defining the mandate.


            Frankly, this is the tricky bit for many managers. They are unwilling to really let go of the reins and trust that the people closest to the problem will have the solutions. In the case I mentioned, most members of the team did not go into it unskilled. In addition to their clinical or operational experience, most had completed an in-house leadership program, they had training in Lean process improvement methodology, and they had all been to emotional intelligence workshops. In other words, they knew how to work together. They used a rapid-cycle quality improvement methodology that mean they tried many ideas, several at the same time, and collected “good enough” data to allow them to adjust or change course. They meet weekly with the senior leadership team but this was purely for the purpose of encouragement and communication. They senior team had committed to not interfering with the process and, for the most part, they honored that commitment. It was, however, very important to the project team to know that they had support. In the end, it was not one specific initiative or brilliant idea that solved the problem. It was several different ideas, adapted over time, and integrated.  During my research, I found that it may have actually been the level of communication and collaboration between different departments that was really the key. The result? In the end they reduced the wait time by almost double the intended target and that improvement continues.


            Even when we have initial success, continued monitoring and accountability are key. To this day, the number of admitted patients is monitored daily and if there is a variance, there are mechanisms in place to reengage some or all parts of the original team to identify new strategies. Good work can easily get lost if there is not tight, clear vigilance in making sure the benefits become embedded in the way things get done.

            Turn the hourglass inside out and see what happens. You may not be working in a system as complex as healthcare, but every organization would benefit form strategies that really unleash the creative power of the people who are face-to-face with the work every day.


Letting Others Lead: The Difficult but Necessary Factor in Highly Effective Leadership, by Peter Dickens

21 Sep 2015

“We have lots of problems in this place: big and small. I can’t possibly recognize them, let alone solve them. Only you can and that’s why you are here. You have an opportunity, regardless of formal role, to step up and be a leader – and please know you have my full support.”

When I used to lead a leadership program for teams of staff in the healthcare sector, this was the blunt confession the CEO would give to each new wave of participants. For the nurses and porters who had never been given that kind of opportunity or support, it was heady stuff. Yet little by little, the culture in that large hospital was slowly transformed by people willing to step up.

Ever since then I’ve been convinced that leaders need to embrace a much more inclusive and distributed mindset when it comes to leading large, complex organizations. Let me explain what I mean.

Whether in movies, books, or popular folklore, we all love stories of the “lone hero.” He or she is the one who courageously takes charge in a moment of crisis and independently makes decisions that save the world.

The myth of the lone hero is so prevalent that it even affects our view of leadership.

For example, we often think of Martin Luther King Jr. as the “lone hero” of the civil rights movement. But what would have happened if nobody had the courage to act? Anyone within earshot of Dr. King’s riveting speeches could have just said, “That message was no doubt encouraging, but I’m not risking my life or my family’s safety for a dream that might take generations to realize.”

As the saying goes, a leader with no followers is just a crazy person going for a walk.

Great leadership isn’t a solo act; it is inclusive. The most effective form of leadership makes leadership opportunities available to all, and draws on the best of each of them. Just as Dr. King sparked thousands of acts of leadership by drawing tens of thousands of people around a common dream, so we can be a catalyst for powerful change to emerge in our organization.

It all starts when we draw people of diverse cultures, ages and personalities around a common purpose.

As my old mentor, Dick Couto once said, “Any action, no matter how small, in pursuit of shared values and purpose is an act of leadership.”

We may not see ourselves as control freaks, yet letting go of control and trusting in the abilities of others can be scary. When much is at stake, it’s tempting to adopt an attitude that insists, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Despite what our “lone hero” culture might tell us, often the most courageous thing we can do in leadership is loosen the controls and give people the opportunity to lead. It means we have to allow people to try, fail, learn and try again.

Risky as it seems, failing to let others lead means we take the greater risk of letting them down instead. It means remaining bound by our ego and by our fears. This is a common trap that causes us to overburden ourselves far beyond the scope of our role.

I once had a hospital client tell me they wanted to develop 1,001 leaders. The 1,000 represented leadership as a plural phenomenon, while the “1” represented the power of an individual to make a difference.

Highly effective leaders recognize the incredible potential of diversity united under a common purpose. And they recognize the essential role of the leader is not to have all the answers and call all the shots, but to give their full support to the team.

Is Leading Change Wearing You Out? by Peter Dickens

14 Sep 2015

          For some, change can be exhilarating and an opportunity to learn and grow. For many others, however, it is mental, physically and spiritually exhausting. We find ourselves obsessing over how “we” can get “them” to change or at least stop resisting the changes we want to make. We focus on the naysayers while often leaving the ones who want to be part of the change adrift, feeling they are without leadership. Perhaps we are approaching the who question of leading change from the wrong direction?

            When we think in terms of change resistance we are unconsciously buying into a very mechanistic mindset. Resistance is a term that implies one object being impeded or slowed down by another object. By its very nature, the word implies a struggle or battle. It human terms, it becomes a battle of wills. What if we were to reframe change from a struggle to an attraction?

            In my experience, which has been validated in hundreds of workshops and coaching conversation, when leaders introduce a change initiative, there is a bell curve response within their team or organization. While the mathematics may vary, the responses look something like this:

  • 10% love the change; the either immediately see its merits or, more often, they see or infer some benefit to themselves. They are the classic early adopters.
  • 10% will hate the change for similar but opposite reasons. They can see no benefit, either for themselves or the system. Largely, they have a visceral fear of loss. People don’t actually fear change – what they fear is real or perceived loss. That is a critical distinction, as you’ll see in a moment.
  • 15% will respond with some variation of, “Yes, if….” They are positively inclined but may need more details or other sorts of information.
  • 15% will respond with some form of, “No, because…”. They defend their resistance with phrases like, “We’ve tried that before; we don’t have the budget, or ‘they’ won’t let us.” But are not open to the idea.
  • A full 50% will respond with a giant shrug and a “Whatever…”. They have no interest either way.

All too often, energy gets focused on the 10% who are adamantly opposed to the change in the mistaken hope that somehow, if we can win them over, all will see it our way. We become blinded by and obsession to get everyone on board: one of the most pointless and energy-sapping mantras in organizations. When we focus on the back end of the Bell Curve, all of our energy and thought goes into schemes, processes, and strategies to overcome resistance. It is exhausting and rarely proves successful.

            Let me give you a metaphor by way of an example. If you wanted to toss a rock into a bucket 15 feet away from you, what does it take? Practice. Practice. Practice. However, in behind all that practice is pure mathematics and physics. You are consciously or unconsciously calculating weight, trajectory, velocity, angle of release, distance, etc. With those calculations done, repetition is the key: keep doing what you have always done to have an increasing level of success. Sadly, too many leaders approach change the same way. They introduce change as they always have, typically causing all sorts of emotional distress in others, and then they try to enact the change as they have done in the past by focusing on the forces of resistance, thanks to the early work of Kurt Lewin and others. The results are often miserable for the simple reason that people are not inanimate rocks.

What would change if, instead of a rock, you tried to throw a live bird into the bucket. If you followed your physics-driven model the results would be a very predictable failure. When I ask workshop participants for ideas about throwing birds, there is a predictable level of fun as they develop nasty schemes to have the bird behave like a rock: kill it, stun it, or wrap it in duct tape. All good if you want the bird to conform to the ways of a rock. One bright person suggested creating an invisible tunnel from bird to rock so that the bird thought it was free, but really had nowhere else to go! “That,” they declared, “is what our organization calls policy!”

The obvious answer quickly surfaces: put some form of birdseed in the bucket so that the bird wants to go there.  This draws brilliantly on a central theme of complexity theory: attractor patterns. In complex systems, agents are draw to basins of attraction, which helps to form the dynamic shape of the system. In the bird’s case, the seed is the attractor. As a leader, we learn to ask very different questions. It is no longer a question of overcoming resistance but creating attractors, which we can often discern from the bird’s previous patterns of behavior but more importantly, we know because we ask: What would we need to do to make this change attractive to you? When, as is more often the case, we are dealing with a flock of birds – a team, a department or a whole organization – we have to recognize that there may be multiple attractors. What that demands of the leader is connectivity, collaboration, and dialogue. It requires a true systems mindset that asks, how do we get a critical mass of people moving toward the proposed change because they want to and not because they feel they must? As the front end of our Bell Curve begins to move toward the change, the whole dynamic od the system changes and reaches criticality. Movement is the work of leadership!

Inclusive Leadership, by Peter Dickens

07 Sep 2015

There is a popular “truth” out there that, in times of crisis, we need forceful leaders to independently make decisions. People will often cite examples such as an impending crash to justify the pilot making decisions on his/her own on the basis that seconds count (which is true) and that the pilot alone has the fast-thinking ability to avoid disaster (not necessarily true). Research evidence from flight simulators makes it clear that the pilot who takes a second or two to seek and listen to input from the co-pilot and/or navigator will actually make better decisions.

            That said, I don’t want to suggest that every decision requires a committee. In his work on adaptive leadership, Ron Heifetz makes it clear that when a problem is clearly defined and a solution is known and available, then individuals can and should make decisions. He would refer to that as a Type I problem and is really technical work, not an act of leadership. However, when the problem is clear but the solution is not (Type II in Heifetz’ taxonomy) then a wise leader will reach out and engage with others. This has often been referred to as consultative leadership.

            More and more, leaders in complex, rapidly changing times face situations in which neither the problem nor the solution is clear. This demands a highly inclusive and adaptive form of leadership. This is a Type III problem and the temptation is to slip into an insidious form of leadership: Type IV. These are leaders who want to apply simple answers to very complex problems. Heifetz would suggest that this is often driven by ego, pig-headedness or rigid ideology.

            Leaders need to embrace a much more distributed mindset when it comes to complex environments. I had a hospital client declare that they wanted to develop 1,001 leaders: the 1,000 representing the broad plurality of leadership, while the “1” represented the power of an individual to make a difference. With each incoming of participants in the leadership program that I led, the CEO would say bluntly, “We have lots of problems in this place: big and small. I can’t possibly recognize them, let alone solve them. Only you can and that’s why you are here. You have an opportunity, regardless of formal role, to step and be a leader – and please know you have my full support.” It was heady stuff for nurses and porters who had never been given that kind of opportunity or support, and the culture was slowly transformed by people willing to step up. As my old mentor, Dick Couto once said, “Any action, no matter how small, in pursuit of shared values and purpose is an act of leadership.”

            It takes courage to loosen the controls and give people the opportunity to lead. It demands a safe:fail culture that allows people to try, fail, learn, and try again. When we are bound up by our own egos or our by our fears, then we are really letting down both the people and the organization. Inclusive leadership means just what it said: leadership opportunities that are available to all and draw on the best of each of them. Whether it is cultural, gender, age, or cognitive differences, when we can draw all of that together around a common purpose then powerful things can happen.

Drilling Up, by Peter Dickens

31 Aug 2015

          In a recent focus group, a participant made the comment, “Isn’t the job of senior management to drill up, not down?” I was really struck by this. The term drilling down is a self-proclaiming positive. It implies a deep and detailed analysis of a problem. While it may be at the heart of the work of engineers, physicians, and others facing really difficult problems, I think it is a legitimate question to ask whether or not it is really the work of leadership.

          Consider for a moment the implications for those who work for the leader? They surface an issue or problem and their leader’s inclination is to want to drill down. What does this say about their confidence in the people they have hired. In my mind, the underlying message, and it was clearly the inference taken by the person in the focus group, was that they felt demeaned by the comment, as if their competence and commitment were being brought into question. Surely the leaderful response would be either trust that the staff person had, in fact, already done the drilling and could be trusted with their recommendation or, if there is doubt, to invite them to do more drilling. The leader is then in a position to provide the support, encouragement, and resources the staff person needs to really get to root causes. To do otherwise implies that the leader is somehow superior to or smarter than the staff person. This is not the recipe for building a strong, confident and capable team.

            What then might it mean to drill up on a problem? In my mind, the work of senior leadership in an organization is to maintain a “balcony view”, as Ron Heifetz, noted leadership scholar, would say. That is to spend much of their time, energy and discussion about the broader implications of a specific issue or challenge. It is not their job to spend all their time on the dance floor, trying to manage the action. Leaders need to always be asking three questions from a systems perspective:

  • What does this particularly problem tell us about larger systems issues? Is it part of a larger pattern that we are seeing? Has there been a change in the broader environment that might be impacting us in ways we didn’t anticipate and of which this issue may be just a symptom?
  • What does this issue mean to us?  In what ways might we reflect the values of the organization in the way that we respond to staff? How might we help them align their responses with the mission of the organization? Does it impact or change our strategic priorities?
  •  What resources or information might the individual or team working on this issue need to resolve it? How can we provide the support that we need?

When the first response of leaders to is think in terms of values and support for staff, it sends a powerful message. Staff feel that they matter, that their ideas are valued, and they are able to make a contribution of the success of the organization. This in turn builds high level of trust across the organization.

            If you are in a senior leadership role, drill up – and perhaps out. Demonstrate your confidence in your staff’s ability to do the deep drilling.

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership. For more, see his profile at and follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).

Complexity and Leadership, by Peter Dickens

17 Aug 2015

     I have been richly blessed to have practiced, learned about, and studied leadership in a variety of settings. I have worked extensively in the corporate sector as well as health care, but now have a leadership role in an Evangelical seminary. For some that may seem an odd arrangement, but I hold to Parker Palmer’s notion that you “let your life speak”. If I look back over my life, I see a continuing thread of adult education: I love to teach! I was blessed to have found, been accepted to, and completed a PhD in Leadership and Change at Antioch University, so late in career I was able to frame my experiential learning with solid theory and a finely tuned research mind.

     Over the past 35 years, I have seen a massive shift in the way we think about leadership that is underpinned by a shift in our beliefs about what constitutes a “well run” organization. We have moved from a belief that machine-like precision, standardization, and managerial expertise was the key to success to an understanding and acceptance that the reality of life is just far messier than that. It is little wonder to me that leaders are increasingly frustrated by the fact that their carefully thought out strategies and linear expectations are continuously thwarted by the daily realities of constant, often highly disruptive change. More and more, leaders are finding that a more organic metaphor helps them describe and navigate the realities of their world today. Organisms or ecosystems, if you like, are constantly adapting and changing. There are very real “ecocycles” of birth, growth, decline, death and renewal. Outcomes are highly unpredictable and often delightfully surprising and people seem to have an innate capacity to organize themselves, rather than waiting to be managed or directed from above.

       This organic metaphor is causing more and more organizational leaders to examine the possible benefits of understanding complexity theory to their understanding of how to be more effective. Born in the hard sciences of mathematics and physics, complexity theory (early on described as chaos theory) soon found resonance in other sciences, including biology, economics, and statistics. Not surprisingly, organizational theorists such as Margaret Wheatley, Ralph Stacey, Brenda Zimmerman, Glenda Eoyang, and many others began to see enormous opportunities to rethink how we view leadership and change.

       Complexity theory invites us to see our organizations as adaptive systems in which order emerges when the system has the space for self-correction and when change and compliance are self-generated, based on clearly defined “simple rules”. This leads to an ethic of commitment rather than command-and-control rigidity. It also leads to the reduction of quick-fix solutions as people learn to listen much more closely to the system. Key elements of this approach include:

·      Interconnectivity: A system consists of a large number of diverse components, referred to as agents, which may be tightly or loosely interconnected. Any change in one agent’s behaviors has an impact on all other agents, which then has a resulting impact on the original agent. Bottom line: Relationships are key!

·      Autonomy: Agents are not centrally controlled; they have a degree of autonomy but their behavior is always subject to certain laws, rules or norms. This does not mean that there is no role for leadership, but it is dramatically different from the old command-and-control perspective.

·      Emergence: Global behavior of a complex system emerges from the interaction of agents and is therefore unpredictable but not random; it generally follows discernible patterns. A key role for leaders to is gain altitude in order to notice and make sense of these emerging patterns.

·      Non-equilibrium: Global behavior of a complex system is far from equilibrium because frequent occurrences of disruptive events do not allow the system to return to the equilibrium between two such events.

·      Non-linearity: Relations between agents are nonlinear, which occasionally causes an insignificant input to be amplified into an extreme event, popularly referred to as the “butterfly effect”.

·      Self-Organization: A system is capable of self-organizing in response to disruptive events, so they are highly adaptive. Self-organization may also be initiated autonomously by the system in response to a perceived need.

·      Co-Evolution: A system irreversibly coevolves with its environment.

A complexity approach challenges the foundational principles on which many organizations have build success in much simpler times: strategic planning, transactional leadership, and a focus on short-term outcomes.

       Different sectors seem to embrace this approach at very different times. Dee Hock, the founder of VISA was one of the first in the corporate sector and his book, The Chaordic Organization stands as benchmark for new ways of thinking. Health care, arguably one of the most complex systems ever conceived, began to explore the implications and opportunities in the mid-‘90s.

       At the Iris Group, we are determined to be part of this new way of seeing things. All of our work is steeped in both the theory and practice of complexity thinking. Sound interesting? Lets set up some to chat about how we might journey with you on a new and exciting leadership journey.

Simple, Complicated and Complex, by Peter Dickens

10 Aug 2015

We are aware of the propensity of some leaders to want to simplify problems so they appear solvable. As comforting as that might feel in the moment, the results are too often simplistic solutions to what are, in fact, highly complex problems.

Brenda Zimmerman suggests that it might be useful to think in terms of three categories – simple, complicated, and complex. A simple problem is similar to following a cooking recipe. Launching a rocket is complicated. Raising a child is complex. The key difference between the three problems appears to be how one defines success.

When baking cookies, one takes careful note of the quality and quantity of the ingredients as well as the timing of their assembly. The assumption is that if you follow the recipe carefully, you will get good cookies each and every time.

Putting a rocket into space is clearly more complicated but may still be considered as linear. The difference is in the number of “recipes” or protocols and the level of expertise required. Success, however, can be reasonably predicted if you have a blueprint that both directs the development of the parts and specifies the relationship in which to assemble them. The problem is clear: get the rocket launched, but not all of the solutions are clear to all participants.

Raising children is a significant leap from complicated. What does it mean to successfully raise a child? When does one think the parenting is finished? When and how does one measure success? The challenge, as with any complex situation, is that every child is unique, and one cannot separate the child from its context. In raising a child there is a constant state of uncertainty based on relationships between different people, experiences, and moments in time. If both the problem and solutions are uncertain and constantly changing, then one requires a highly adaptive mindset that is willing to challenge the notion that a complex situation will ever be static or finished.

The point is this: Complicated systems are all fully predictable. They are systems that contain formulas and procedures that, if followed, can lead to success. They are fully understandable because they can be taken apart and analyzed. From a management point of view, these systems are created by first designing the parts and then by putting them together. However, we cannot design and build a complex adaptive system from scratch and expect it to turn out exactly the way that was intended. These systems are complex because they contain multiple variables of interconnected parts. However, the positive attribute of these systems is that they are able to adapt to the context because they have the capacity to change and learn from experience.

There are a variety of examples of complex adaptive systems, even though they defy attempts to be defined in an engineered, prescribed, or mechanistic effort. They are complex because the systems can change through the interactions and relationships around them. They can be understood, and they can be influenced by a range of well-thought-out constructive interventions. Still, they are unpredictable. Some constructive interventions will fail as a matter of course. The most useful interventions emerge from within and will involve values that are becoming part of the system itself. The table below clarifies the differences between complicated and complex systems.[i]


Complicated Systems

(like sending a rocket to the moon)

Complex Adaptive Systems

(like raising a child)

Formulae are critical and necessary.

Formulae have limited application.

Successfully sending one rocket increases assurance that    the  next launch will also be successful.

Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next.

High levels of expertise in a variety of fields are          necessary  for success.

Expertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor       sufficient to assure success.

Rockets are similar.

Every child is unique and must be understood as an        individual – relationships are important.

There is a high degree of certainty of outcome.

Uncertainty of outcome remains.

In a complicated system, success is measured through cause and effect, and progress is measured much differently than in a complex system. In the latter, it is all about providing a focus and the atmosphere in which the various stakeholders in the organization can join together in conversations with a view to potentially change their practices to improve the way the wider system is functioning.

The differences in these two systems are profound. The leader of a complex system requires a remarkable amount of inner strength and skill to allow it to function. Too often, leaders approach particular challenges with the illusion that it is simply a complicated issue when in truth it is profoundly complex. This is not surprising. We find our confidence in what we know, and we ground our security in living with the illusion that there is a road map, blueprint, and fixed signposts along the journey of change. None of us like to live with either the reality or the feeling that there is no road map. It seems much too risky and uncertain, even if someone promises that you might actually achieve the hoped-for outcomes. However, success breeds trust, and eventually it feels like it’s worth the risk.

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership. For more, see his profile at and follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).

[i] See more at:

Leadership and Metaphor, by Peter Dickens

28 Jul 2015

I have been thinking about leadership for a long time. For me, that involves observing, reading, teaching and researching leadership. At one point, my fascination reached such a danger point that my partner, Marion Howell, put me on book probation: Amazon had come to the office seven times in one week, and I was getting way behind. She stacked all the unread books in a pile and made a small mark in the wall, about half way down the stack. I was not allowed to order new books until I had read my way down to the mark. A week later, Amazon was back at the door!

In my perverse way, I was not interested in studying great leaders, referred to by the academics as Great Man theory, or even the defined traits of effective leaders (Traits Theory). What I couldn’t understand was, if so much has been written about leadership, why does it seem to fail us more often than not? Why do we hear the media talk about “a crisis in leadership”? 

I am convinced that it is less and less about what a leader does that makes a difference, but rather it is about how he or she thinks – and at a very fundamental level. For the past 300 years or more, since the Age of Enlightenment, men have tried to tame the organizations they lead. Whether, countries or corporations, families or churches, they have tried to maintain order and control by developing detailed plans and then implementing those plans, with apparent disregard for the realities in which they operate – and the changes that they are experiencing. They want so desperately for the world to simply conform to their plan. I had a client once that developed a very detailed five-year operating plan. They did this behind closed doors and involved only the Board and the senior management. When it was finally rolled out, it was a complete failure. The market conditions that existed when they developed the plan were no longer relevant and the strategies they developed were irrelevant. Their response: go back behind closed doors and do it again. It was only on the third iteration that they realized the folly of their ways. Sadly, I see many organizations do the same think over and over. They often have a very fixed view of how the world should be: structured, obedient to rules, respectful of hierarchy, and so they plan accordingly. Then, when it doesn’t seem to work, they blame the people they are called to serve, as if those customers were somehow wrong.

What seems to be at fault is not the intent or the best efforts of the leaders, but their worldview. They see the ideal organization as some sort of machine, as evidenced by once popular titles such as “Reengineering the Organization”. 

I am convinced, the root cause is not intent or effort: They are there in abundance. The fault is in this notion of the machine. As an explicit metaphor, it has served organizations well since it was first articulated in the early 20th Century. By well, I mean it has delivered on its promise of efficiency and productivity. Sadly, it is incredibly dehumanizing. Henry Ford is credited with saying, “All I wanted was their hands, and I got the whole damn body.” In other words, people were simply extensions of the machine and the machine itself was very difficult to adapt and change. In a future entry, we’ll look at some alternative metaphors that might serve us better in a changing world.

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership. For more, see his profile at and follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).


People Aren't Machines, by Peter Dickens

08 Aug 2015

In my last entry, I talked about the failure of leadership and ascribed some of the fault to the fundamental mindset or metaphors that guide many leaders. I suggested that many leaders try to lead as if their organization was modeled after some sort of machine.

This is a very modernist view of leadership and organizations, shaped as it is by the Industrial Revolution and the intense desire for order and predictability that seemed to drive us for most of the 20th century. This machine metaphor, so ably assembled by the likes of Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan (GM) and expropriated by others across the management spectrum. This industrial age metaphor in turn shaped a specific view of leadership.

In Leadership for the 21st Century, Philip Rost’s excellent survey of leadership literature through most of the 20th Century, Rost summarizes this style of leadership as:

Leadership and management are both vital elements of any organization, but they are not the same thing. Simplistically, management is focused on the optimum utilization of resources in the here and now while leadership is more purpose-focused, sharing a compelling sense of a group’s calling or role. Until recently, the only formal education around leadership was found in a single course in an MBA program. In other words, it was almost viewed as a subordinate role to good management. Today, fortunately, one can pursue Masters degrees in leadership  – even PhD’s.  My own doctorate is in leadership and change.

Focused only on the leader:  
For many, the assumption is that “leadership” and “leader” are one and the same thing. When I ask my students to define leadership, more often than not they will provide me with some list of leadership traits. Leadership is not about a person; it is a process. It is a relationship of influence between leaders (of whom there may be several) and followers. Both are integral to the process – if you think you’re leading and no one’s following, then you’re just a crazy person going for a walk!

To an overwhelming degree, we measure the success and failure of a leader on their ability to achieve predetermined goals and objectives. These have all been neatly laid out in the “strategic” or “operating” plan. The unspoken assumption here is that the future is predictable and that we can, in some way, control. What is clear to me is that the future is anything but predictable and that perhaps this is the wrong measure of a leader.

Perhaps its greatest failing is that the 20th century literature completely ignores the contribution of women, and women’s unique insights into leadership. Until relatively recently, leadership was seen as the exclusive preserve of men. Fortunately, this is changing rapidly and women of enormous capability and capacity are filling leadership roles. Sadly, this is another area where some elements of the church often lag far behind society.

Utilitarian and materialistic in ethical perspective
:  The business scandals of the late 20th century demonstrate that the vital link between ethics and leadership has been lost. Peter Northhouse, a note scholar states quite firmly that “leadership begins with values.” Today, integrity, transparency, and humility are core elements of a leaders character, so alignment with values is paramount.

Being a leader is not to be taken lightly, but the need has never been greater. However, to really develop a generation of leadership that can impact the world in a positive way, we must start from the beginning. We need help them to rethink how they see the world in which they are called to lead.

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership. For more, see his profile at and follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).