Relational Leading: Connecting the Dots


Diversity-Shutterstock-998x615What the world needs now is a leadership model that recognises organisations as highly complex, highly diverse groups of people.

What we have, however, are reductionist forms of leadership characterised by the acronym KISS – “Keep it Simple Stupid”.

If you think this is exaggeration, hasn’t it struck you as ironic that most organisations have simplistic, unitary mission statements and branding even though their organisations are characterised by diversity, difference and messyness?

Mess’iology: The art of embracing the mess

There’s really no denying that organisations are not neat, tidy and simple entities. Every human system is made up of highly complex, knowledgeable, diverse, creative and purposeful people. In this context, the only thing that is the same is that we are all different! In this sense, organisations are collections of many realities — a multiverse, rather than a ‘universe’. These realities are expressed through diverse perspectives, views, opinions, values, etc, which often result in disagreements and conflict. As a Human Resources Practitioner, I see this on a daily basis! However, it must be said that I also collude to keep these shadow stories out of our branding and recruitment communication, even though it is a perfectly normal part of organisational life. However, I am coming round to thinking that rather than keep this hidden, we should be proud to trumpet our occupational health practice for co-creating healthy communities in the context of diversity.

I love the phrases ‘multiple voices’ or ‘polyphonic’. If these describe organisations more accurately than homogenous terms, then surely the contemporary model of leadership that universalises organisational reality to the views of one elite group, at best, denies this rich diversity, and at worst, may potentially subjugate or marginalise others..

A way of embracing the polyphonic nature of organisations is to re-frame leadership as the art of facilitating communal sense making and coordinating difference in a way that helps our organisations develop a communal sense of purpose. We can do this by intentionally by:

  1. understanding organisations in terms of the connections amongst its many parts, and
  2. focussing on the interconnected, interdependent and relational nature of human systems.

The Russian philosopher Mikhailovich Bakhtin thought of human systems as heteroglossic, i.e., made up of a diversity of voices, informed by a variety of assumptions. This makes so much sense to me, in which case, leadership should be about blending of worldviews through language that co-creates complex unity from a cacophony of utterances. This is in contrast with current thinking that mistakes uniformity for unity.

This emphasis on diversity replaces the notion of individual rationality with communal negotiation and sense making through whole systems (as opposed to just senior leadership) conversations. Modern day Philosopher John Shotter suggests that leaders can become effective change agents by seeing themselves as “practical authors”, working within the ethical framework of their organisations to co-ordinate conversations that leads to the co-creation of meaning and action.

I’ll conclude this segment with an example of how we can become practical authors of change.

If we truly value diversity (not just pay lip service to it) we can edit the meaning of leadership by moving our management vocabulary from evaluation to valuation, i.e., from diagnostic organising to dialogic organising.

The following is an example of how to move from diagnostic approach of leadership to a dialogical one.

Diagnostic Organising Dialogic Organising

  • Reality is an objective fact.
  • There is a single reality.
  • Truth is transcendent and discoverable.
  • Reality can be discovered using rational and analytic processes.

  • Reality is socially constructed.
  • There are multiple realities.
  • Truth is immanent and emerges from relating.
  • Reality is negotiated and co-created.

  • Collecting and applying valid data using objective problem-solving methods.
  • Change can be created, planned and managed.

  • Creating containers and conversational processes to produce generative ideas.
  • Change can be encouraged by mainly self-organising.

Table adapted from Bushe and Marshak, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s