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Understanding the role of leadership in successful organisational change sascha michel


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White paper on leadership and change by Sascha Michel

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Understanding the role of leadership in successful organisational change sascha michel

  1. 1. Understanding the role of leadership in successful organisational change 1
  2. 2. Table of Contents1. Introduction. Pg.32. Traits of Leadership. Pg.43. Behavioural Leadership. Pg.54. Contingency Theory Leadership. Pg.55. Distributed Leadership. Pg.66. Organisational Approaches to Leadership. Pg.77. Conclusion. Pg.108. References. Pg.11 2
  3. 3. IntroductionWe are living in an age of unrest and uncertainty. A rapidly changing environment, with newtechnologies, short product life cycles and on-demand lifestyles; safeguarding a move from westernsupremacy, to a reliance on the east. The only constant is innovate, adapt, compete or ‘die’.Organisations need to rethink and distinguish themselves between past successes and potentialcatastrophe, applying situational leadership and strategies, acting out in complex and diverse markets.This requires a new approach to leadership and a move away from a ‘one size fits all’. An approach,which is effective in dynamic environments, dealing with leadership complexity in challenges rangingfrom climate change, to CSR, biodiversity, economic, political and social. How might we understand which style or approach to leadership fits best with the context andsituation that organisations find themselves? Which approach best tackles uncertainty? And, howrealistic is it to assume we can in fact engender this in our own organisations? It is clear thatleadership matters, but recent evidence shows that dealing with change in these environments,requires ‘thinking out of the box’, ushering in new forms of leadership. Leadership that is congruentwith personality, behaviours, contingencies and distributed approaches. Perhaps, a more ‘holistic’approach, to change and the individual? Leadership in this way acknowledges the ‘analytical,conceptual, emotional and spiritual domains’ (Quatro et al., 2007, p.1). Individual mission, purposeand experience are the key drivers, underpinning behaviour and motivation; and giving way toawareness, intuition and ‘flow’ (Quinn, 1988). In this essay, I will look at the prevailing approaches to leadership in organisations, and how thesemight be relevant, or concurrent when embarking on future change programmes. I will then asses andgive my recommendations to how organisations might approach and assess suitable leadership styles,either fitting their agenda or model, or as a whole, looking at the possibility for authentic or ‘holisticleadership’. Finally, I hope to open up enquiry and research into ‘holistic leadership’, as a possiblenext generation approach, helping to untangle the very ambiguous, dynamic and complex nature ofchange. 3
  4. 4. Traits of Leadership Before we can recommend a suitable approach for a particular change agenda, we need to look atthe different ways in which we can understand leadership, asses pertinence and potential limitations orgaps in the thinking. Traits of leadership, is the first approach which looks at leadership as a set ofcharacteristics, identifying the most important personalities, indicative of a successful leader (Senioret al., 2006). Provided we are able to accurately asses and test, this approach can be useful bysimplifying the process, and defining specific criteria or personalities for a change agenda. This wayof looking at leadership creates a very simple ‘box ticking’ approach without the ambiguity. Not onlycould this help employers define and recruit talent, matching these characteristics, it can also helpindividuals embarking on leadership development, with a set of criteria, in which to select relevanttraining or work experience. While trait leadership holds some relevance in contemporary change leadership, it does so,notwithstanding its limitations. The main issue lies with testing and evidence. With the ongoingdevelopment of a taxonomy, predictive validity and reliability of personality dimensions testing(Perugini and Ercolani, 1998), we might be closer to establishing trust around trait leadership theoryas a ‘one best way’. However, this still raises concerns around which ones we can agree on asindicative of successful change leaders. Will these traits always be the best approach for any givenchange situation? Even if we were able to identify these traits, this still presents a dilemma. Identifying specific traits could neglect certain individuals and overlook those, who are yet todisplay these personalities. At worse ‘typecasting’, where leaders are defined by specific personalitydimensions, rather than experience, length of service or peer review. Lastly, this approach toleadership is sourced within our personality complexes, and with that, can we presume the ability tochange them? It makes sense to define and establish a set of traits for leading change. Traits, for dealing withconflict, teams, power and politics and those suitable for making decisions and taking risks. However,what these visible leadership traits do not account for is intuition, and the unconscious parts of theself. These are the unconscious traits and behaviours, affecting our success as change leaders, whenchallenged under stress and in uncertainty (Juch, 1983). 4
  5. 5. Behavioural Leadership Behavioural leadership, moves away from a defined set of characteristics, to how leaders shouldact and behave in certain situations. The attraction, comparing the trait leadership view, is theassumption that behaviours are transitory, are open to manipulation and change, and can be developedirrespective of innate personality. Where this would be applicable, from a change leader perspective isthe ability to adapt to certain conditions and direct or exhibit a range of behaviours, fitting thesituation. This could be especially useful when having to react to underlying group dynamics, andadjust to different environments and persona, working with individuals, groups, stakeholders and thepublic. Assuming we are able to define these behaviours, as with trait leadership, presents a similarconcern in our ability to measure and study, the effects on specific behaviours in different situations.We might identify a set of behaviours for a specific change project but every project involvesdifferent scenarios, contingency and group dynamics. Behaviours in groups are unpredictable, open tomanipulation, and external forces can place even more uncertainty in dealing with change i.e. powerand politics. If we presume that people can exhibit certain behaviour ‘on call’, in preferred states, thena degree of uncertainty in difficult or testing situations, could expose inappropriate or ‘out of control’behaviour, in undesired states. Are changeable behaviours or masks being played out in the ‘theatre of work’, or is this simplyour nature, deeply rooted in past social conditioning? Zaccoro (2007, p.9) critically questions‘whether leaders are capable of displaying significant behavioural variability; if not, then, indeed,persons can be leaders only in specific situations that are commensurate with their mix of attributes’.Nadler and Tushman (1990 as cited in Hughes and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.2010, p.137) warn that ‘different organisational changes require different leadership behaviour ininitiating, energising and implementing changes’. This suggests an approach to leadership, whichacknowledges the different change leader situations, and the relevant styles needed to perform well. Contingency Theory Leadership The contingency theory approach to change leadership looks at matching a particular behaviour ortrait of leadership to a specific organisational situation. This leadership style is different depending onthe situation. This approach allows organisations to look at their change agenda in a much morerational and planned way, with the ability to adapt and respond to a range of situations. This createssimplicity ‘box ticking’; by indicating specific roles or styles of leadership, organisational models, 5
  6. 6. anticipating different types of change and aligning leadership and change agenda. While this approachappears to apply deeper thinking, away from individual focus, to the organisational level and changecontext, it does, however, have its drawbacks. This approach suggests the ability for leaders to be able to adjust their approach depending onvarious situations. Stogdill (1948, p.65) argues, “Leaders in one situation may not necessarily beleaders in other situations”. If leaders are seen to be changing their styles, this could have a damagingeffect on how they are viewed by their followers. This could be seen as acting out of integrity, raisingfurther issues around trust, ethics and authenticity. Assuming leaders have all the necessary attributesto deal with any situation that inevitably comes their way, how we can accurately asses, identify andprove, not only the roles or styles associated with the leader, but also to that of the change context. This framework assumes broad leadership capabilities, and does not take into account motivationand incentives for leaders to stretch themselves, and move beyond their capabilities. It does not defineparticular leadership styles appropriate to specific organisational change i.e. culture change, mergerand acquisitions, but rather situational factors and organisational models. It is paradoxical to suggest arational, top down, contingent approach, whereas many change environments are developing rapidly,emerging and dynamic. Distributed Leadership Distributed leadership, however, is dynamic, collaborative, decentralised and shared, rather thanmanaged by a few select ‘hero’ leaders (Senior et al., 2006; Ancona and Backman, 2010). Thisapproach, unlike the classic top down; suggests a leadership team much closer to it’s customers, ‘intouch’ on a deeper level, responding quickly and appropriately. A bottom up leadership style supportsinnovation, learning, in rapidly changing, flexible and dynamic environments. Distributed leadershipdoes suggest a new radical way of re-thinking leadership, and care must be taken when consideringthis approach, especially in areas relating to organisational models, situational change, power andtransparency. The decentralised nature of this approach raises questions around implementation,power, politics and control. Unlike traditional leadership approaches, where adoption lies with a few, a collaborativeapproach presents a rollout issue and the need to facilitate training with possibly hundreds of staff.Group dynamics, individuals and the bottom up approach also poses issues, around control andaccountability in a more open system, and how best to tackle resistance to change, power and politics.Whilst assuming a more co-operative style, this alternative view of leadership might not suit all staff, 6
  7. 7. leading to added resistance to change and implementation. Staff might prefer sticking to old ways, andnot take on the extra burden and stress, that comes with leadership responsibility. With power and decision making being devolved, organisations do run the risk of losing controlof their strategy. Staff could make decisions to suit themselves, which don’t satisfy or fall in line withexternal strategy i.e. clients, government, share price and investors. Unlike traditional top down, thisapproach also makes it very difficult for everyone to see from a higher perspective, direction andchanges, affecting different departments, clients and international offices. Distributed leadership is more suitable in flexible, emergent and rapid change. However, ifchange is slow and incremental, there is likelihood that staff could become bored, unchallenged anddisempowered. For this approach to work, it is likely there would be a need for transparency, andinformation shared across the organisation. Some information might not be relevant to everyone andcould potentially open up issues regarding financial, confidential information, contracts and staff pay.Traditionally top management is paid to lead. No doubt, raising the potential issue in distributedmodels, regarding staff remuneration. Who decides on remuneration levels, and how? Each of the four approaches discussed, have relevance and limitations, depending on the changecontext. Suggesting a single approach, in uncertain and dynamic times, could be a risky solution. Acombination of approaches, or a more concurrent “holistic” approach, can give greater flexibility andavailable options, when selecting an appropriate leadership style. Having identified the fourapproaches to change leadership, I now turn to the areas, which help organisations to decide on themost suitable approach. Organisations might need to look very closely, at organisational models,structure, type of change, culture and growth stage. Organisational Approaches to Leadership Models and forms help indicate, which suitable leadership approach, is relevant in a current stateor a future state. Quinn (1988) sees organisations as contradictory, dynamic environments, whereleadership at the top becomes less predictable, suggesting a framework for identifying competingvalues, helping leaders and organisations identify various roles, and leadership styles contingent onorganisational models. For example, an open system model, suggests a need for innovation,knowledge working and a possible ‘learning organisation’. This would suit a bottom up or moredistributed approach to leadership. Open system models are dynamic environments, reliant on self-learning and flexibility. This is a move away from “hero” leadership, where organisations can stillchange and grow, and not be hindered by rational, top down leadership. 7
  8. 8. Structure and legal status can also have an effect on relevant leadership approaches. Organisationscan asses if their prevailing leadership structure is centralised or decentralised, and reflect on currentor future states i.e. functional or network structure. In a network structure you would be looking for amore collaborative, sharing environment, whilst in a functional setup you would need a moredirective, rational and autocratic approach. In the last 10 years, organisations and new startups areadopting new legal status and business models, as they diversify to deal with ethical, environmentaland social causes. Legal status can help choose a suitable leadership i.e. social enterprise or co-operative, suggesting a leadership style of shared values, participative, and with shared incentives toalign values and vision. While these rational approaches to selecting leadership style helps with the status quo or a futureplanned state, it does not take into account the leadership demands, in the face of emerging change.This highlights the need for a more concurrent approach. The different types of change anorganisation might encounter help to clarify this debate further. Some examples of these includemerger and acquisitions, corporate transformations, cost reduction, restructuring and culture change. Organisations going though merger and acquisitions; need to consider subcultures being created,bringing people together, working and participating, requiring transformational leadership to createand unify mission and vision (Schein, 1992). In rapid or sudden change, organisations might need toconsider more transformational or authoritarian styles, and in uncertain more confusing times, aparticipative or consultative style (Senior et al., 2006; Pettigrew and Whipp, 1991). Organisationsmight adopt a style depending on the rate of change, from stable slow incremental (participativeevolution), right through to turbulent environments needing corporate transformation(directive/dictatorial) (Dunphy and Stace, 1993). Beer and Nohria (2000) suggest a hard approach(Theory E) when looking at cost reduction, restructuring processes (BPR), and in areas like culturechange, a more charismatic, visionary, or soft approach (Theory O). Although a soft approach mightbe suitable in culture change, nonetheless, this does not acknowledge first, how difficult it is toestablish the defining culture, and secondly, the different dynamics and forces that either restricts orpromotes change. If we were able to identify the prevailing culture, whether dominant or weak, then this wouldhelp to clarify which approach to leadership is more appropriate. Handy (1978) as cited in Burnes(2009) suggests defining culture by power (single direction), role (more bureaucratic), task (expertise)or person (individual), establishing power points and approaches that help facilitate change. If there isa prevailing culture, which is very dominant and a high resistance to change, then you might need totake a more radical or directive approach. At the same time, being effective in dominant cultures, 8
  9. 9. suggests a need for being aware of the norms and values that people share. In weaker or non-dominantcultures, a more participative style, encouraging sharing and communication, could be more pertinent. Where culture is going through periods of change or uncertainty i.e. merger and acquisitions; amore transformational approach is needed. Transformational leaders convert followers into leadersbut dont necessary comply with their followers; they help shift beliefs, needs, values and realign thevision (Burns, 1978 cited in Kuhnert and Lewis, 1987). Kotter and Cohen (2002) on the other hand,warn against placing the wrong people at the top, especially during mergers, leaving politicallyconstructed groups, rather than confronting the residue of history. This suggests the possibility thatorganisational growth stages, history and prevailing leadership, could also have an impact on howorganisations decide on appropriate approaches to leadership. Organisations may take on different forms and go through many changes within their life cycle.This requires different styles and approaches to leadership. Griener (1988) identifies differentmanagement styles at 5 phases of growth, leading from a startup (entrepreneurial), through variousstages of crisis demanding specific leadership (directive/delegative/watchdog), as it grows andmatures into a much larger company (participative). In the absence of a future strategy, organisationscan look at past success and failures, to establish if prevailing approaches to leadership areappropriate, and if the status quo demands a leadership overhaul. Whilst some of the strategies discussed hold solidity, identifying a range of options, and taking arational view in dynamic environments, this creates complexity, confusion, and cause for criticism.Quinn (1988) argues that management theory tends to reflect hierarchical logic, filled with rules ofaction, in a dynamic world where individuals discover that rules are limiting. Quatro et al (2007, p439) warns against ‘leadership development activities that create narrowly focused leaders’. Dotlich etal. (2008) rallies for “whole leaders”; which use their “heads” to anticipate strategic direction, “heart”to see the world perspective from a range of stakeholders, and ”gut” to make tough decisions withclear values, navigating in diversity and complexity. This holistic approach to leadership alignsspiritual domains (mind, body and spirit/intuition), with the analytical (strategy), conceptual(creativity), and emotional (values) (Quatro et al., 2007; Krosigk, 2007). It is an intuitive way toreframe problems, creating high performance or “flow”, where dualities and dichotomies disappear, aspolarities become one (Quinn 1988). 9
  10. 10. Conclusion The nature of change is ambiguous, continuos and uncertain. It would be risky to view leadershipfrom a “one best way”. It makes sense to identify a combination of approaches, but which ones? Mostchange leadership literature points to a plethora of organisational models, critiques, lists, andapproaches, but very little on practical steps, leaders or managers can take to develop. It wasquestioned earlier if it is realistic to assume that people can change rigid behaviours, traits or evenleadership approaches. Maybe this calls for an approach to individual development, which accountsfor the uncertain, dynamic and evolving environments, in which leaders find themselves. A moveaway from traditional, ’one size fits all’ logic, to ‘holistic’ or authentic leadership frameworks. Authentic leaders know which personality traits to reveal, to whom and when; retaining theirdistinctiveness as individuals, not following someone else’s defined leadership traits, and relyingheavily on intuition, formed out of life experience, deeply in tune with their inner self (George et al.,2007; Goffee and Jones, 2005). This presents a challenge, and need for further research andunderstanding of the dynamic states of ‘being’, and the necessary developmental routes one can take,to foster individual excellence, creativity, authenticity and intuition. In summary, I identified four approaches to leadership, and the many ways in which organisationscan identify suitable options for change. Trait and behaviour leadership looked at the individual levelof leadership, defining personality dimensions and non-fixed behaviour traits. Contingency anddistributed approaches, on the other hand, looked at leadership at the organisational level, specificallysituational leadership, and bottom-up, decentralised leadership styles. Organisational models,structure, type of change, culture and growth stages, gave rise to a range of possibilities for leadershipapproaches. Finally, I argued that in dynamic and complex environments, attention must be placed onthe individual’s capacity, to broadly and intuitively meet the agenda, rather than restrict ‘flow’, bynarrowly focussed, rational logic. ENDS 10
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