Leadership and management as language games

I remember confiding to Ken Gergen that I could never be a scholar because I found complicated theories difficult to comprehend. With a glint in his eye, he told me that “the world needs more practitioners with something to say, rather than more acadamics”.  It is in this spirit that I tentatively offer the following thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about how Wittenstein’s concept of ‘language games’ may be relevant to leadership and management development. In particular, Lyotard’s development of this theory into the notion of metanarratives in the context of power, authority and legitimation.

Imbedded in any leadership or management thinking is a set of values, assumptions and logic – sometimes referred to as a ‘worldview’.

For me, it has been useful to think about various worldviews as different ‘stories’, each with its own ‘language game’. Stories have a moral logic that contain patterns of felt obligations for action – in other words, what is required, prohibited, or permitted.

Consider the statement “I do”.

In one context, saying this joins you in marriage for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.

In a legal context, if you say ‘I do’ and then tell a lie, you can be sent to prison for perjury.

In yet another context, to say “I do” means that you are the one who has the key to the house in your pocket, or that you know the answer to a teacher’s question, or that you know how to play the saxophone.

I was watching an episode of ‘Law and Order’ the other day. At the end of the episode the accused was sentenced to death. The defence attorney asked that the jury be polled. And the judge asked each of the jury if they had voted for the death penalty and each one of them said “I do”. In this case these two words can lead to the ending of a life.

So what is the meaning of the phrase, “I do?”

The phrase is not tied to some objective event or object in the world such that every time you use it, you point to that object; rather it is tied to the way it is used in particular instances.It also depends on the language game associated with the cultural/social context in which it is used.

In the same way, leadership and management words and phrases have different meanings depending on the worldview we are speaking out of. In each discourse they have different consequences which in turn reinforces our worldview, and legitimises the existing relational patterns, in particular, how power and authority is exercised within that social context.

I would like to suggest therefore that to change a social or relational pattern (eg, an organisational culture based on the values of capitalism, bureaucracy, imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, post-colonial guilt, etc), the change agent will have to develop skills for recognising, transcending and re-framing the ‘language game/s’ that informs the organisational culture you are working with. I’ll give examples pioneering work in this area in future blogs.

Let’s talk leadership

Language is constitutive, ie, how we talk about things shape our reality. In this connection, a scan of the literature on leadership today, reveal that it continues to be talked about as a person’s status or as a set of personality traits. In my view, these concepts create and reinforces hierarchical cultures; and, perpetuates the phenomena of personality cults.

This is why I am excited to see alternative perspectives on leadership gaining prominence – in particular, the notion that ‘leading’ is more about the effective coordination of communal sense-making, and, in this context, inviting people to collaborative action. This type of leadership requires a different set of competencies, including the ability to foster inclusive, participative, purposeful, ethical processes for decision-making and action.

The following are some practical ideas for exercising relational leadership.

a) Co-mission rather than tell or direct;

b) Value diversity and difference;

c) Value commonality and community;

d) Engender an appreciative culture.

a. Co-missioning

Collaborative practice begins when people ask: who else should be involved in a decision or initiative, and to make a determined effort to co-work with them. Who are the relevant and affected parties in this situation or endeavour? Who needs to be involved to create the most coordinated and corporately owned initiatives?

This change in grammar can create inter-dependence, collaboration and cooperation in human systems, as opposed to the ‘command and control’ ways of organising we are all familar with.

A dramatic way of reinforcing the change is to have ‘public’ conversations. Most organisations are good at having ‘meetings’, but these are essentially private conversations. The inclusive nature of public conversations with as many people as possible present has the potential to be transformational!

Of course, it may not be practical to include all those who have a stake in every decision. In this case, we could simply adopt a ‘relational orientation’ by inviting discussion from the point of view of those affected but not present. This is a key skill in relational leadership, ie, the ability to call on, and coordinate different and diverse voices in a meaningful and coherent way.

b. Valuing Diversity and Difference

In any human grouping, there is difference, diversity and multiplicity. In fact, it is our differences that make each of us unique and individual. On the one hand, we believe in celebrating diversity. In practice, however, many organisations continues to organise its people into a unified whole, in the believe that this will help achieve its organisational goals. In most cases, unity is mistaken for uniformity.

The world is full of examples where institutional power is [ab]used by people on the higher echelons of a hierarchy to subjugate differing views and perspectives, and to enforce a unitary (particular) perspective. I believe that this form of leadership is becoming passé. Organisational purposes are more likely to be realised when differences are valued.

Valuing begins with listening. Everyone knows that listening is important. However, how we listen is important.

Healthy and productive relationships comes from “valuing listening” not “adversarial listening”.

Adversarial listening

In a competitive environment (let’s face it, there is the competitor in all of us!) listening can be inadvertently adversarial. We listen in order to debate. We debate in order to get what we want. What is it we don’t like? What’s the problem? Why won’t your ideas work?

Valuing listening

A valuing approach to listening is an orientation towards looking out for what makes positive contributions. How is the offering helpful, creative, and significant? In this way the positive contribution can be woven into the final decisions – what is problematic can be left behind. In doing so, people will feel heard and valued.

Real open listening is the ability to be firm about what you believe, while being profoundly open to others.

c. Valuing commonality and community

While valuing diversity is important, it is equally important to seek out commonalities. What are our common aspirations, goals, values? By focusing on commonalities otherwise divided factions can come together.

One way to do this is to set up (self organising) communities of practice that bring people together because they are passionate about a common issue/s. This is an effective technique for learning, as well as encouraging and mobilising people. It is a practical way of affirming ‘shared’ leadership.

“Whole systems thinking”, that is, getting as many people in a room together to think and talk through critical issues can have transformational effects. This is a great way to build fruitful and purposeful community. It is labour and time intensive but the prize is significant – coherence of purpose, and a sense of community.

d. Engendering an Appreciative spirit or culture

Our day-to-day reality is constructed through communication, particularly through our use of language.

Marketers and PR people apart, it is interesting to see how many organisations have refined ways of describing themselves in ‘deficit’ terms, using words like “dysfunctional”, “sick”, “schizophrenic”, “cancerous”, “damaged”, etc.

To make matters worse, many management tools are based on the assumption that organisations are ‘problems to be solved’ (trouble-shooting, problem-solving, gap analysis, re-engineering, etc). Such approaches have produced people who are extremely articulate in defining what is wrong with their organisations. This, in turn, leads to a blame culture. This is undesirable in two ways. When we blame others we typically alienate them. Those who play the ‘blame game’ develop a misleading sense of superiority and the result is antagonism, hurt, even spite within the organisation.

Relational leaders are those who transform their organisations by valuing others. They create change by bringing out the best in people, and by co-creating action for the future, that compels, inspires and uplift.

Doing this well requires developing an ‘appreciative’ spirit. Appreciative Inquiry is an approach that explores and creates life-enhancing possibilities through constructive and collaborative conversations. It requires us to move out of deficit language into an appreciation of what works well – with the belief that you get more of what you pay attention to. It is about seeking the best of “what is” in order to provide a collaborative way for imagining “what might be” in these turbulent times.

Relational leadership is not a by word for good leadership. This very much depends on the leader’s view of what counts as legitimate use of power. In this connection, I have found Cardona’s paper (The Leadership and Organization Development Journal vol 21, No 4, 2000, pages 201-206) extremely helpful. He points out that there are at least three forms of leadership within the relational discourse, viz, transactional leadership, transformational leadership and transcendental leadership.

In transactional relationship, the leader is concerned with the results of the relationship. In this context, relationships are a means to an end. The means of influence open to transactional leaders are rewards and punishments depending on outcome or performance. The stereotype of a good transactional leader is that s/he is a good negotiator, authoritarian or even aggressive so that they obtain the maximum benefit from the economic influence relationship that they have created.

In transformational leadership, the leader too uses relationships to achieve results but is also concerned with aligning the follower’s interest with those of the organisation. Transformational leaders focus on creating an attractive vision and good work conditions for employees. A key competency is the ability to communicate and sell an attractive vision. Transformational leadership is a subtler, more seductive form of transactional leadership. Such leaders know who they are, what they want, why they want it and how to communicate what they want to others in order to gain their cooperation and support.

The transcendental leader, however, while also interested in results, and in aligning the motivations of employees with those of the organisation, is mainly concerned with the people themselves and tries to contribute to their needs and development. S/he does this with integrity and is not averse to sacrificing themselves in the service of others, even at the expense of their own interests.

Psssst – the secret of relational leadership…

Once in a while you get an email so moving and profound that you just have to share.

This message is from my bud Phil Simpson. He says he’s going to expand these thoughts in a blog. I can’t wait. Here’s the taster. I hope this encourages you as much as it has me!

“Thanks for your support. I ‘happened’ to read this paragraph inUndefended Leader by Simon Walker today and thought of you….. 

“As long as we fear for our job, as long as we fear for our salary, as long as we fear for our reputation, as long as we fear for our popularity, as long as we fear for our credibility, as long as we fear for our wealth, as long as we fear for our control, we cannot be truly free in our leadership. (Because) …we will defend ourselves against the loss of the assets we value most. Only the person who is secure against the loss of all these things can be truly undefended, truly free. The secret of effective leadership is the freedom to live the undefended life” (pg 103).

It’s all about facing failure and loss, and embracing it, which is only possible when you know those you respect unconditionally accept you:

“Freedom comes from knowing that you are approved of. Freedom to perform comes form the knowledge that there is someone rooting for you in the audience, whose opinion you value more than anyone else’s and who is smiling and cheering for you” (pg 102).

Ultimately that is a Divine acceptance, but it also helps when that acceptance has a human face. So thanks for rooting for me!

Blessings – Phil”

Thank you Phil for taking the time to write this. I feel moved to bless others by accepting them unconditionally. I’m am posting your comments in the hope that it might have the same effect on others.

A Song for Mission…

A couple of years ago some friends and I decided to combine our love of music and our passion for mission and create a worship song. Steven Sim from Singapore wrote the melody and the rest of us recorded our parts individually, on our computers at home; then we mailed or emailed the tracks to each other and mixed them. We’re really happy with the result and we hope you will be, too.

For a small donation (£1) you can download the mp3 and score of “We Give to You.” All proceeds will go to Jigsaw Kids Ministries in the Philippines, which aims to share the love of Jesus with Manila’s thousands of homeless children.

The more downloads (and donations) we get, the longer we can keep this worthwhile project going. Click now! www.cms-uk.org/song

Thank you!


Jade, Ben, Russell, Wil, Alister and Patrick

Special thanks to:

Steven Sim from Singapore who wrote this lovely song and for allowing us to tinker with the lyrics;

Tom Lockley from Soul Survivor played the drums for us!

Tom Tunney who recorded Jade on his Macbook

Christian unity in the context of diversity and difference –

Krish Kandiah’s post on Facebook, “Why is genuine unity for the sake of mission so difficult both locally & nationally?” prompted me to reply “probably because many Christians mistake unity for uniformity”. This misunderstanding has created relational episodes that are not generative. What people argue about might be different but the sentiment is usually the same… “I will only work (relate) with you if you agree with me” (ie, my version of the truth).

Like a broken record, we are stuck in a conversational ‘hex loop’ that probably explains a puzzle described by an Organisation Consultant I know. She observed, “Christian organisations are often characterised by external pride but internal pain”.

In my view, modernism has a lot to do with this. For example, the term ‘exegesis’ is based on the assumption that you can ‘mine and extract’ absolute truth in biblical texts through scientific scholarship. Once you get to a truth, we turn this into a proposition, and invariably get stuck in a dualistic discourse of ‘agree or disagree’, ‘in or out’.

Kish’s question speaks to me about the desperate need for Christians to learn how to express and celebrate diversity in the context of unity. Our propositional approach has inadvertently created a culture where we will only work others, once know that they agree with us.

The modern world is littered with examples of how adversarial forms of communication have led to violence and atrocities.

Indeed, it is still a tradition at the House of Commons that front bench politicians are required to speak from behind a red line drawn on the floor, calculated to keep them at a distance beyond a sword’s length from their opponents. This strange tradition is an example of the underlying adversarial basis of communication in the West.

In his seminal book, God is Rice, Japanese theologian Masao Takenaka likened the Western concept of debating to ‘ya-ya chambara’ – a form of Japanese sword-fencing where combatants say their name, shout “ya-ya” and then proceed to do battle. He noticed that in theology, this is an approach based on deductive metaphysics rather than inductive learning. It is an approach of confrontation rather than mutual sharing.

From a Christian perspective, my great hero, Andrew Walls reminds us that because of the diversity of contexts, mission is always about learning.

Andrew coined the phrase ‘the Ephesian Moment’ to describe the social coming together of people of two cultures (Jewish and Hellenistic believers) into Christianity in the first century, This led to a distinctive new Christian lifestyle that corresponded with their ethnic and cultural differences. For Walls, the Ephesian moment has come again. He wrote:

“Developments over several centuries, reaching a climax in the twentieth, mean that we no longer have two, but innumerable, major cultures in the church. Like the old Jerusalem Christians, Western Christians had long grown used to the idea that they were guardians of a ‘standard’ Christianity; also like them, they find themselves in the presence of new expressions of Christianity and new Christian lifestyles that have developed or are developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to display Christ under the conditions of African, Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Latin American life. And most of the world’s Christians are now Africans, Asians or Latin Americans.”

While, Andrew is referring specifically to cultural diversity, I believe that this applies to denominational, gender, age and world-view differences as well.

So back to Krish’s post… a united, genuine mission engagement requires vulnerable learning. In particular, learning how to express, celebrate and embody difference in the context of sharing the good news of the gospel to a fallen world.

Click on this link to check out Andrew’s book, “The cross-cultural process in Christian History

Management Speak

Management Issue: What do you do when the horse you are riding dies?

Here are some of my “Strategic Answers”:

  • Convene a Senior Management Team meeting to devise a Strategic Plan and Vision Statement for the dead horse.
  • Engage an external consultant to conduct a ‘process consultancy’ on the dead horse.
  • Engage a coach/mentor for the dead horse. Give this project an acronym, eg, DHWP – Dead Horse Whisperer Project.
  • ‘Re-engineer’ the dead horse.
  •  Arrange to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses.
  •  Identify core competencies of dead horses.
  •  Appoint a HR Business Partner to support the dead horse.
  •  Implement training sessions to increase employees  riding ability.
  •  Divide riders into Matrix Riding groups.
  •  Commission an executive search for a Chief Executive Rider whose core competency is riding dead horses.
  •  Compare the state of dead horses with today’s environment.
  •  ‘Stick to the knitting’ on the dead horse.
  •  Harness several dead horses together to try to increase speed.
  •  Go ‘in search of excellence’ re techniques for riding dead horses.
  •  Provide additional funding to try to increase dead horse’s speed.
  •  Contemporary re-branding of dead horse. Eg, “Dead Sea Biscuit”
  •  Do a cost analysis to see if others can ride the dead horse more cheaply.
  • Conduct an ‘agility’ study on the dead horse.
  •  Form a quality circle to find uses for dead horses.
  •  Conduct a 360 appraisal on the dead horse.
  •  Devise a Sustainability Plan for the dead horse.
  •  Get accreditation for Investors in Dead Horses.
  • Conduct an audit on who stole the dead horse’s cheese.
  • Promote the rider of the dead horse.
  • And finally, one for the faith-based sector, pray for God to heal the dead horse.

An old Dakota tribal wisdom says, “When you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount”.

Which goes to show… the old ones are the best ones.

Please post your suggestions below!

What London needs now is Flower Power!

The Heliotropic Principle

Sunflowers in the bud stage move towards what gives them energy and life. At sunrise, the faces of most sunflowers are turned towards the east. Over the course of the day, they follow the sun from east to west, while at night they return to an eastward orientation.

This ‘heliotropic’ principle has been applied to Organisation Development, by an innovative approach to organising called ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ (AI). The idea is that people move towards what gives life and energy.

AI is increasingly being recognised as a positive approach to developing communities and organisations.  It is a technique for engendering change by unleashing positive energy amongst people. Research has shown that focussing on what gives life (rather than the problematic) can lead to ‘human floushing’ in communities and organisations alike.

Recriminations have well and truly begun after the recent troubles in our wonderful City.  My sense is that we shouldn’t dwell too long on finger pointing and blame. Rather, we need to create a momentum for change by re-imagining community life in our conurbation. We can start by asking what life-giving initiatives can offer hope and help transform our beleaguered communities.

One group of people working for this kind of change is ‘Imagine Chicago’ . I really think they are on to something worth looking at:

               a city where…

young people are leading the way forward
public schools are thriving community learning centers
neighborhoods and institutions work together to share ideas and resources
and all citizens recognize and apply their talents to create a positive future for themselves and their community 

Click here to find out more about this movement.

Appreciative inquiry in the face of wanton destruction, death and hopelessness…

In the aftermath of the riots, there have been numerous inquiries about why the authorities did not meet force with force? Why wasn’t justice in the form of water canons and rubber bullets dished out? Why can’t we respond to civil unrest in the way that the Americans or our Continental cousins do – decisively and with a show of strength? Why didn’t we call in the army? Where were the parents of rioting youths? In the days to come, there will be no doubt be yet more questions about the underlying causes of this malaise.

As I watched the events unfold, I found myself just asking… why?

In this connection, I applaud the Archbishop of Canterbury’s (ABC) speech to the House of Lords yesterday.

The ABC said,

“Seeking explanations, it is worth remembering, is not the same as seeking excuses, and in an intelligent and critical society, we do seek explanations so that we may be able to respond with greater intelligence and greater generosity”.

It seems counter-intuitive to be talking about Appreciative Inquiry (AI) at a time like this. However, I do believe that AI can be used, even in the worst of times. When things are at its bleakest, we can still try to be generative in our inquiry by asking what gives life, even in the face of wanton destruction, death, despair and hopelessness.

The ABC is pointing to something generative in the midst of the destruction and is  inviting us to build on this by inquiring into it:

“…I’ve spoken a little about the way in which communities have responded (to the rioting), not only volunteer bodies, but local businesses and also individuals, building new friendships, new networks. People have discovered why community matters. They’ve discovered why solidarity is important. They have begun to discover those civic virtues that we’ve talked about in the abstract. In other words, …I believe that this is a moment which we must seize, a moment where there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of civic solidarity, sufficient awareness of the resources people have in helping and supporting one another, sufficient hope (in spite of everything) of what can be achieved by the governing institutions of this country, to engage creatively with the possibilities that this moment gives us. And I trust, My Lords, that we shall respond with energy to that moment which could be crucial for the long-term future of our country and our society”.

In this speech, the ABC, of course, is calling on the government and in particular the House of Lords to thoughtful action. My sense is that, in our postmodern, consumerist, individualistic culture, real and lasting change can only come from the grassroots. The rediscovery of community and how we respond as community to such dire events is crucial for the long-term future of our country and our society.

For those of us in international Christian ministry, the events of the last week is a stark reminder that mission begins at home.

For a full transcript of the ABC’s speech click here.