Kataphatic aspects of leadership

January 22, 2021

Dave Price from FlickrTwo days ago I wrote a post that looked at what leadership theory is not indulging my love of language to introduce the word apophatic to a wider audience.  Today  I want to look at the more positive aspects, the positive things we can say, and do, hence the word kataphatic.  But in simple form the last post was what not to do, this post is what to do.  Last time I also chose an image of a static hill fort as the banner, this time something more fluid as understanding leadership is all about constant change with occasional eddy currents and frequent waterfalls.  It carries the ideas of path dependency and irreversibility that are a key aspect of complexity-based thinking so it’s a good metaphor.  I’ve also used another Bronze Age monument, the White Horse of Uffington which is just along the Ridgeway from Barbary Castle and has a wonderful fluidity to it, it captures the essence of a horse but leaves an element of mystery.  it is also a symbol of power and mobility and that is significant in itself.

That question of mystery is deliberate and one reason for picking up the theological references.  On the negative side, the vision of the leader as the great patriarchal magician is all too frequent in politics and industry alike but otherwise, there is an ineffable quality to leadership and considerable ambiguity about what it is and what it means.  We all know it exists, and we all agree, to varying degrees, that it is either necessary or inevitable.  What is clear is that is no recipe either for leadership or for leaders.  But there are things that we can say and do which will make a difference.

A couple of days before Christmas I revisited my ASHEN perspective question which is a part of knowledge management and in the second post used it to take a look at leadership.  Specifically, I looked at the need for experience with a reference to the development pathway I had to take to be a General Manager.  That post is hereby incorporated into this one, including its criticism of maturity models in leadership development.  Also the final post where I raised some issues with more common approaches to leadership and organisational development.  I promised then that I would return to the theme of leadership and this post and its predecessor are a part of that.  But I want to add to those earlier posts, rather than repeat them so if you are not familiar pop back and take a look.  If you want a list of various leadership capacities by the way then head for Table 7.1  of The Flow System (Forward by yours truly and lots of good stuff on complexity and Cynefin) which is a comprehensive and daunting list compiled by John Turner.  The sheer volume of the necessary capacities demonstrates in part why I suggested leadership has ineffable qualities.  No one person could possess that in whole, or in substantial part, but yet we still have leaders.  Attempts to remove leadership, such as Holocracy end up in the type of bureaucratic inertia that was so well described by Ursula Le Guin in The Dispossessed.

So in my last post, I identified three things that one should not do, with the qualification that the third was more not now.  So symmetry demands three things that one should do, so here goes

  1. One of the key phrases I put together for the forthcoming Field Guide to managing in Complexity (and Chaos), a shared effort between the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, and the Cynefin Centre., was the simple rule of Distribute decision making, centralise co-ordination.  You will see a lot more on the field guide next week by the way.  There are a range of reasons for that but in effect what a good leader does is to create a wider dispositional system which means they do not really have to make decisions other than in extremis or to trigger a shift.  Remember the Children’s Party Story punch line of managing the emergence of beneficial coherence, within attractors, within boundaries.  Managing a complex system is about managing linkages and that is a key skill.  We can complement that with artifacts.  Our work with SenseMaker® allows mass real-time engagement in situational assessment, an abductive technique, designed to make the overall ideation patterns of an organisation visible to the leadership function and more specifically to identify outliers, people to whom attention should be paid.  Deliberative entanglement of the system, which includes managing and stimulating informal networks with fast pathways into the formal system reduced the burden on the leader, and on the organisation as a whole.  This will be one of the areas explored in our coming Exploratory which looks at the links between network and complexity theory.
  2. Leadership is always collective in nature.  If you look at organisations Leaders often take their core staff and support teams with them.  I’ve always had people around me whose strengths complement my weaknesses.   That process is formalised in crews where people are trained in role and role expectation.  As a result, the crew has more cognitive capacity than the sum of the individuals who make it up.  Crews can also delegate authority without loss of status and are better at sharing failure (it was the role, not the person) than teams.  In leadership, the idea is defacto practiced but still maintains the cult of the individual at the top.  In a crew there is always a pilot, but who is the pilot at any time can change.  If you look at operating theatres in hospitals you see something similar.  The professions also largely develop core concepts such as trust by collective practice over time rather than exhortations and mission/purpose statements.  Ritual is a key part of a crew as well, allow clear liminality between who I am and what the role represents which is important.
  3. Context is everything.  In my early days as a General Manager, the organisation pretty soon worked out I was good at two things.  Starting things up, and closing things down with minimal pain.  The skills and attitudes needed for both are similar.  So when we took over a new company I got all the stuff the other GMs didn’t want with the option of either building or closing.  If I built something then a year or so later I always had to hand it on to someone more able to scale.  I got bored and started to innovate where more stability was required and I was (and am) always curious, seeing something new and moving on.  Different leadership styles suit different contexts.  I remember Andy Roberts who turned around DataSciences saying, after the IBM acquisition, by way of explaining why he was leaving that he preferred to be the captain of a frigate, than an officer on the bridge of a battleship.  Crews are a way of interacting roles, but to that, we need to understand the wider context of the environment we are working in.  There is an old adage that it takes a year or so of war for the peacetime generals to die off and allow the wartime generals to come through.

Now all of those need expansion and I will be picking aspects of them up from time to time.  But I have also written a lot over the years on this subject.  A search on the website will give you more material.  But you might want to take a look at this post, which also has the advantage of being illustrated!  That did focus a little more on the individual than I have here.  So that is it for now, tomorrow I want to talk about resilience.


The banner picture is of the Bhatinda waterfalls in Jharkhand, India by Bitan Basak on Unsplash, the image has been trimmed to fit a 1240 by 450 px slot

White Horse of Uffington is by Dave Price on Flickr and is used under a creative commons license



Dear Reader, while we have your attention: we are on a determined drive to expand our network around the world. We’re certainly living in uncertain times (sic), and we believe that it will take a large collective of like-minded people to help organisations and societies navigate stormy waters, make sense of the world and make good decisions. Consider joining the Cynefin Network by clicking on the banner below. Links to eBook and paperback copies of our latest book are also available on this page.

Join the Cynefin Network Banner 8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev

An apophatic view of leadership

- No Comments

There is some continuity here with yesterday’s post on the mystical, or ineffable aspects of ...

More posts

Next >

Comfort, the Páramo perspective

- No Comments

This is a two-part post.  Today I want to establish the context by talking about ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram