Over a century has passed since Frederick Taylor published his groundbreaking book, The Principles of Scientific Management. His influential work forged a paradigm for modern organizations based upon a systematic approach to management. Pre-industrial history highlighted craft or agricultural economies that demanded nothing more than simple management approaches to people and processes. Workers gained the skills required for their respective trades through hands-on experience and apprenticeships with master artisans. Over their lifetimes, they gained the deep intuitive knowledge about their trades that flowed into quality craftsmanship. However, as business professors Mikhail Grachev and Boris Rakitsky noted, the Industrial Revolution marked a significant jump in product demand and its supply that required mass production with higher degrees of productivity and efficiency. New paradigms were required to manage largely low-skilled workers who performed repetitive sets of rote tasks in careful coordination within larger, more complex organizations.
Taylor’s scientific management principles challenged the effectiveness of pre-industrial management practices for the new industrial age. His ideas recalibrated management to better fit industrial systems. Mass production required an integrated system of machines and workers coordinated by rational processes that maximized efficiency and minimized waste. Every task of the workers was analyzed with scientific precision to ensure efficient production and output.
Implementing the system required a hierarchy of management that oversaw the entirety of the system and directed the coordination of its operations. Scientific management stimulated academia to build theories of leadership that could be applied in practice to create greater systematic efficiencies. Theories of leadership focused on personal qualities, such as traits, skills, or behaviors, that business leaders needed to have to run the system successfully. Underlying these theories, according to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), was the foundational construct of leadership as influence. Essentially, it was believed that leaders influence followers toward shared goals.
In contemporary organizations, much of this scientific management framework still guides our leadership and decision-making. However, the environment in which organizations operate has changed drastically since this framework first emerged in the industrial age. Even over two decades ago, management guru Peter Drucker noted the rise of an emerging knowledge society that required workers to have the ability to acquire and apply theoretical and analytical knowledge to specific situations. Formal education, in his estimation, was the currency of the new job market.
Today, management experts recognize that the world is changing at a faster rate than any previous era due to globalization and technological advancements. Borrowing from the United States military, many leadership researchers use the acronym VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – to describe new environmental realities that require all employees, not just managers, to have the leadership skills to cope with unprecedented and discontinuous change. In a VUCA environment, changes in one part of the world will have tremendous implications for another part. Sociologist Anthony Giddens defines globalization as “the intensification of worldwide social relations that link distant communities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.” These contextual forces are placing enormous stress upon the traditional leader-follower-shared goals tripod of organizational leadership. The optimism of scientific management’s logical and rationalistic approach to management has been laid waste by an illogical world.
Drucker prophesied that the implications of the knowledge society were threefold: 1. Workers are no longer generalists but specialists; 2. Because they are specialists, they must work in teams to accomplish organizational goals; and 3. Leadership is therefore open to all within the team. A new, more fitting construct of leadership in the knowledge society assumes that leadership is a shared dynamic that is not owned by one individual but is continually exchanged within the team. In other words, leadership occurs between people rather than upon people. The new paradigms of leadership are supported by organizational learning practices in which teams make sense of the VUCA world together. Now, leadership is less about producing more widgets effectively. Rather, it’s focus is on creating something that shapes the world into new possibilities.
Making Sense of the World
The sense-making activity of learning organizations creates new cultural artifacts that give form and meaning to the world that they inhabit and with which they interact. MacArthur fellow and psychology professor Angela Duckworth defines culture as the shared norms and values of a group of people that gives it an identity distinct from other groups. Culture-making, as author Andy Crouch further explores, is the process in which a group takes the world as it comes, in its unformed and unfiltered substance, and transforms it into something that didn’t exist before – something that extends the horizons of what is possible for the organization’s mission.
The learning organization, as a culture-building organism, contains many webs of social interaction within its internal and external environments. These interactions continually build new knowledge organically within the organization that is then transformed into new cultural meaning through relationship, teamwork, and dialogue. In fact, researchers Lachlan Whatley, Adrian Popa, and Heidi Kliewer argue that the act of knowing is not disembodied from local contexts and relationships. As team members interact with their environmental context and with each other, the new meanings they build through those interactions allow the team to respond creatively and agilely to the continuous change they face. The team can re-prioritize resource allocations, social relationships, and processes to maintain an alignment through the change with its ultimate vision.
Organizational culture is not fixed or static. Scientific management principles, with its formulated systems thinking, neglected the contingency of environmental forces upon culture in its estimation of efficiency and productivity. Rather, healthy organizational culture is a dynamic journey toward an ultimate good. As ethicist Bernard Adeney argues, theoretical principles and abstract concepts are helpful in making sense of the world, but their real value lies only when applied practically in tangible experiences. He notes, “As cultural and finite beings, we can see goodness only as it is enfleshed in real times and places and peoples.” Effective organizations embody an overarching cultural narrative within specific, contingent cultural forms that are continually reassessed in response to the forces of environmental changes. Ongoing learning, then, must become the foundation for new leadership paradigms within contemporary organizations.
Organizational Learning: Direction, Alignment, and Commitment
When Drucker wrote of the knowledge society, he anticipated that organizational cultures would value continuous learning. Historically, as Drucker noted, workers were generalists in the sense that they did whatever needed to be done. But, in the knowledge society where organizational life is global in scope and technologically advanced, workers must have the capacity to acquire and apply knowledge to solve more complex work problems. Worker knowledge becomes much more specialized in order to remain productive. Consequently, Drucker argued that the fundamental work unit is no longer the individual but rather the team. Diverse individuals with different specializations and from different perspectives must share knowledge with one another so that the organization can perform well in response to its dynamic environment.
Wilfred Drath, senior fellow with CCL, argues that this calls for an entirely new principle of leadership. He asks, “When there is shared work among people who make sense of that work and the world from differing worldviews, how can those people accomplish the leadership task while holding their differing worldviews as equally worthy and warrantable?” The knowledge society places a strain on historic typologies of leadership. Drath argued that these leadership models assume the dominance of the leader in organizational knowledge, strategy, and direction. But the knowledge society calls for more collaborative models of leadership. Leadership must now be distributed throughout the organization so that the specialized knowledge embedded within teams can surface in the complex meaning-making dynamics necessary to accomplish organizational goals. Drath labeled this leadership principle relational dialogue and positions ongoing learning as its primary engine.
Relational dialogue presents leadership as an ongoing conversation. Drath states, “A person can only change the subject of a conversation from inside it, while deeply immersed in it with others; changing the subject means knowing what the subject is now, where it might be headed, how changing it might make it head in more productive directions.” As diverse and specialized members of teams interact through thought, word, and action, they make sense of the world that comes at them at various speeds and from various directions. When they share their knowledge with one another, they create new knowledge that they can apply creatively to their tangible circumstances and create new cultural artifacts that give form and impact upon the environment in which they want to accomplish their vision of success.
Relational dialogue recasts leadership as a dynamic social process of meaning-making in which the collective, rather than a specific person, bears responsibility. In a VUCA world, organizational contexts call for leadership that is increasingly peer-like and collaborative. Collaboration, rather than hierarchy, is the bedrock of learning organizations. The adaptive challenges that learning organizations face require the group, rather than any individual, to produce the essential leadership outcomes of direction, alignment, and commitment. Direction is a shared sense of goals, alignment is the coordination of knowledge and work within the team to achieve those goals, and commitment is the willingness of all team members to prioritize group goals over individual goals. Collaborative leadership models based on these outcomes honor the contributions of every team member in creating the culture that moves the organization toward its vision.
Leadership Development for Learning Organizations
Noted author on organizational learning Peter Senge defines team learning as the “process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire.” In a knowledge society where teams, rather than individuals, make sense of the world through culture-creating learning and activity, the development of leaders must focus more broadly on leadership culture. Leadership culture is the beliefs about and accepted practices of leaders in our specific context. Focusing on overall culture has a downstream effect on the development of individual leaders. Duckworth notes that culture powerfully shapes the identity of individuals. As individuals swim in the waters of a particular culture, they begin to accept, embrace, and embody the norms and values of that culture as their own. Therefore, leadership development programs for learning organizations must prioritize the development of competencies aimed primarily toward healthy team interactions that facilitate learning. Three primary leadership development agendas for today’s organizations include the art of discourse, experiential learning, and the development of leadership storylines.
The Art of Discourse. The primary competency for collaborative leadership – that which produces direction, alignment, and commitment in teams – is the art of discourse. Meaning making within teams and organizations is born out of healthy relationships. Healthy relationships produce fruitful interactions that give clarity and order to the team’s vision of the world. Healthy interaction, or what Senge describes as discourse, takes two forms. First, dialogue is the free and creative flow of meaning between people facilitated by active listening and the suspension of personal opinions. In dialogue, the group accesses greater meaning than can be reached by individuals in isolation from each other. Discussion, on the other hand, is the respectful argumentation within the group as it searches out the best perspective to embrace for effective decision-making in specific situations. For healthy dialogue and discussion to occur in groups, members need to excel in the skills that enhance healthy discourse. These skills include listening actively, providing constructive feedback, reflecting upon and uncovering personal self-interests and motivations, identifying embedded mental models that influence group mindsets, managing conflict, and understanding the distinction between the underlying interests of others versus their overt positions.
Experiential Learning. Research by the CCL uncovered the importance of stretch assignments and developmental relationships in adult learning. Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) posits that adults transform experience into new knowledge in a four-step process: concrete experiences, reflective observation about those experiences, assimilation of those reflections into abstract concepts or theories, and active experimentation of those abstractions into further concrete experiences. Organizations can embrace experiential learning as vital to their leadership development strategies by crafting well-defined competency models that explicitly identify the skills, knowledge, and behaviors they expect to be acquired and displayed by team members within their organizational leadership cultures. These competency models provide the foundation upon which experiential learning can be designed and implemented within teams. The organization can strategically launch cycles of experience-reflection-abstraction-action that build leadership learning and culture. As members participate in these routines in community with others, they are shaped holistically – mind, heart, emotion, behavior, and will – by the culture that emerges from that discovery process.
Inseparable from experiential learning, organizations must prioritize communities of practice. The CCL defines these developmental relationships as groups of people with similar expertise and responsibilities who share information or best practices and provide support to one another for common challenges. Communities of practice develop leadership culture through experiential learning. They provide a safe space for developing leaders to reflect upon experiences with others who can help guide and reinforce their leadership identity.
Leadership Storyline. The world of rapid, discontinuous change creates an opportunity for leadership to be distributed among members of an organization. They create a web of social interactions in which leadership is continually exchanged in the pursuit of learning and meaning making. This dynamic requires group members to develop the ability to make strong judgment calls about people, strategies, and crises. Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis explain that leaders who make good judgment calls have cultivated a leadership storyline that gives focus to their sense of direction, who they want to become, what they want to accomplish, and how they will proceed.
Developing a leadership storyline enhances experiential learning by providing a framework against which team members can reflect critically upon their experiences. The storyline gives coherence and focus to group interactions as the environment bombards the group with thousands of messages. As the group reflects on these experiences, what they learn further strengthens their storyline by revealing new insights or nuances that give a clearer vision of their ultimate hoped-for destination.
Leadership development practices in learning organizations must provide margin for teams to craft and continually reflect upon their storylines. For example, rituals such as celebrating achieved team goals, sharing success stories through company meetings or newsletters, or acknowledging noteworthy behaviors (such as above-and-beyond customer service) reinforce the storyline in the hearts and minds of team members.
Encouraging leaders to craft their own leadership manifesto is another opportunity for leaders to develop and reinforce their storyline. A leadership manifesto is a document in which leaders describe their personal leadership philosophy, declare a vision and purpose of their leadership, define the guiding principles that will help them live into that leadership vision, and commit to the action steps they will take as they grow into leadership. When challenges or choices confront leaders, their entrenched storyline equips leaders to make strong judgment calls that moves their leadership storyline forward.
Conclusion: Humility as the Catalyst for Learning
As a VUCA world deconstructs traditional leadership paradigms, emerging leadership is focusing on the space between members of a team: their interactions that foster learning, meaning-making, culture development, and movement toward vision. Collaboration is the heart of new leadership models defined in terms of the leadership outcomes of direction, alignment, and commitment. Whereas former models emphasized the strength of the leader’s dominance in decision-making, new models require the humility of leaders. Humility is the ultimate competency in learning organizations. In humility, leaders approach interactions with others from a primary desire to learn, rather than to manage. Humility produces leadership that values the contributions and knowledge of others as indispensable for mission accomplishment. Ultimately, leadership development for today’s organizations must prioritize healthy relationships forged in humility to create effective organizational performance.