Of Parts and Wholes: three perspectives on transformational leadership Michael Chew
This paper explores the relationship between conceptions of the part and whole in the ideas of transformational leadership outlined in the articles of Senge et al. (2003), Mindell (1992) and Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007).
Transformational leadership is becoming crucial to the context of the contemporary world, with the selected articles positing contrasting reasons. On one hand, economic globalisation accelerates multinational competition and the development of knowledge-based organisations, requiring new forms of leadership to keep up with the pace and uncertainty (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey 2007). On the other hand, the inability of current social, economic, and political structures to deal with persistent global environmental and social issues invites the search for new models of leadership (Senge et al. 2003). The concept of transformational leadership itself is multifaceted, encompassing a broad range of definitions.1 For the purposes of exploring the relationship between the part and the whole we will focus on the distributed aspect of transformational leadership. O’Sullivan and Taylor (2004) describes this leadership ‘as a shared and functionally based partnership activity that benefits the entire human system’. This view sees leadership functions as not restricted to individual leaders themselves, but instead emerging through their relationships with others and their operating environments. This concept implies a creative tension arising from the relationship between the part and the whole, or the individual and group. We will consider this relationship and how it is expressed through the selected articles. Senge et al. (2003) frames transformational leadership as a mechanism for paradigmatic change from our contemporary unbalanced society to one that is in harmony with its environment and its peoples. A pre-condition of this 1
For instance (Brown and Treviño 2006) and (Fry 2003) outline some general definations.
change is the ability for individuals and organisations to see themselves and their context in a fundamentally differently way – as complex, living wholes, rather than just the sum total of isolated parts. By expanding our ‘part’, namely our individual and organisational self-awareness, to include the natural environment and social systems which make up our ‘whole’, contemporary business-as-usual logic such as compulsive growth of a part are revealed as pathologies. The essence of transformational leadership is this expanding of awareness from the part to the whole. This process condenses into action via necessary changes to our current approaches to learning. In environments of profound tension and change this greater awareness of the whole allows us see beyond our immediate event-horizon and overcome our associated short term and reactionary mental models to perceive possibilities for transformational change. The article focuses on this mechanism as fundamentally an act of seeing, locating its description and analysis for these processes at a general level with few specific details. Mindell (1992) goes beyond this notion of ‘seeing’ to encompass ‘doing’ – providing a more detailed coverage of transformational leadership processes in a specific context - group dynamics in community groups and organisations. Here the relationship between parts and wholes constellates around the role of the facilitator – who takes the dual role of standing outside and holding the delicate awareness of the whole group, whilst continually making informed interventions in the group as a group member herself. The whole group here is conceptualised as a ‘field’ - a metaphor for groups that are in the midst of ‘turbulence’ – facing crisis or difficult change. Growth in this unstable context happens through iterative stages of oscillation between equilibrium and chaos in the group, these phase transitions being prompted by the group allowing all of its constituent parts to fully express their feelings, views, and ideas. The expression of – and listening to - all parts is crucial to ‘balance’ the field – allowing the whole to grow collectively. There are resonances with Senge et al. (2003) here – where with self- knowledge of
the whole, the part can be transformed and emerge through crisis to grow as its own microcosm of the whole. Transformational leadership in this context is supporting the inherent tendencies in the field for this continual self-balancing. Mindell (1992) uses the concept of ‘awareness’ to describe the varied ways by which the facilitator can be highly present to the state of the group, whilst also reflecting this knowledge back to the group. The facilitator may also need to actively step out of her neutral role and use various techniques to ensure that the hidden, disavowalled parts of the field express themselves fully and are collectively recognised by the whole field.2 Senge et al. (2003) has an analogous concept of ‘presence’ that describes this necessary recognition and engagement of the part with the whole. By experiencing presence, the tension between action and awareness becomes the paradox of the inspired creator – who experiences a ‘paradoxical state of great confidence and profound humility… knowing that their choices and actions really matter and feeling guided by forces beyond their making’ (Senge et al. 2003, p. 7). In a similar manner the group facilitator operates within the paradox of intervention and stillness. Future states of the whole are related to present actions of the part in different yet related ways by the two articles. For Mindell (1992), it is through awareness of the whole that the facilitator can guess at the future state of the group, appearing often as the opposite of the current state, as fields have the tendency to self-balance. In Senge et al. (2003), it is the task of transformational leader to articulate a vision of the future where parts are aware of their interconnections and connections to the whole. However, in contrast to Mindell’s view in which foreseeing the future enables one to be better prepared for it, Senge’s visioning is explicitly aimed at having a transformational effect on others so that they realise that they can make choices that shape and create the future that they want.3 Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007) develops the most comprehensive leadership theory of the three articles, exploring a concept of ‘complexity’ leadership based on how 2
There are various mechanisms for this – including switching roles and modeling individual’s behaviour. Mindell (1992, p. 37-43). 3 ‘The key to making potentially fearful futures generative is to see that we have choices, and that our choices matter’ (Senge et al. 2003, p. 9).
Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) behave and co-exist within structured organisational contexts. Basing the need for this new model on the production of knowledge and innovation within organisations, the article makes a case for three types of interconnected leadership modes - adaptive, administrative and enabling, each serving different functions in the relationship between the formal organisational structures and the emergent, informal dynamics of CAS. The latter systems are ‘neural-like networks of interacting, interdependent agents who are bonded in a cooperative dynamic by common goal, outlook, need, etc’ (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey 2007 p. 299). It is these systems which provide the generative capacity for innovation and which manifest through the process of adaptive leadership. This contrasts with administrative leadership which operates through formal decision-making structures, and enabling leadership which acts to mediate the relationship between the other two. This concept of adaptive leadership has a similar but distinct relationship to the dynamic of the part and whole from the previous articles. Adaptive leadership is fundamentally an emergent quality – it is not a function of a particular individual, rather arises from the workings of groups immersed in CAS processes. While leaders influence this dynamic, it actually happens in between people through their interactions together. One example of this is the ‘aha moment’, which is ‘when interdependent individuals who are debating conflicting perceptions of a given issue suddenly, and perhaps simultaneously, generate a new understanding of that issue’ (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey 2007 p. 307). While adaptive leadership is not an individual quality, neither is it located on the level of the whole; rather the dynamic comes from connections within the group. Some of the individual mechanisms of adaptive leadership echo processes outlined by Mindell (1992). The former’s notion of state changes in groups that can serve to invoke new insights is analogous to the ‘non-linear suddenness’ or ‘phase transitions’ (Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey 2007 p. 303) that characterises emergence. In both cases dissonance leads to creativity; the latter driven by the interaction directly, and the former guided by the facilitator, coupled to the group’s interactions. Similarly the ongoing tension between unstable and stable behaviours in CAS resonate with the
idea of group evolution through alternating phases of chaos and equilibrium (Mindell 1992). This emphasis on generative tension between the dynamic interactions of parts in both these articles differentiates from the idea in Senge et al. (2003) on the journey of the part to (re)discover the whole. Here creative potential does in fact lie in tension – however it is the tension between the individual’s quest for creativity through self-actualisation, and her recognition of herself as a locus for expressing the collective creativity of the whole. This is to ‘release the hand from the marble that holds it prisoner’ (Senge et al. 2003 p. 7). Perhaps the key difference between the articles centres around the actual role of transformational leadership. Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007) are the most goal-oriented in terms of specific need for transformational leadership to enable knowledge corporations in the developed world to perform better in global, hyper-competitive environments (Uhl-Bien et. al 2007 p. 301). In doing this the article validates the established system of secular, globalised late capitalism in which the leadership examples are located. In contrast Senge et al. (2003) argues that the new awareness of the whole that transformational leadership provides will enable us to address systemic social and environmental issues – many of which arise from globalised late capitalism itself. Mindell (1992) is located somewhere in between these positions, sharing with Senge et al. (2003 the emphasis on the quasi-spiritual concept of awareness and the healing power of connection to whole, while also sharing with Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007) related ideas of various specific mechanisms of field interactions amidst complexity. However despite the above differences, in addition to difference in context and in detail level, all three articles share a similar thread - namely that leadership emerges from a complex relationship between the part and whole; whether through the concept of presence in Senge et al. (2003), the active/still dynamic of the facilitator in Mindell (1992), or the adaptive leadership emerging from the multitude of part-interactions as described in Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey (2007).
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