Bill Critchley Executive Coaching

‘The dirty little secret of leadership’

I think the “dirty little secret” of leadership, is that, despite legions of books on the subject, nobody really knows how to do it.

The problem, as I see it, and as I say on my web-site, is the prevailing way of thinking about organisations as if they are somewhat like machines to be engineered. If we listen to the discourse in most organisations we will hear such words as ‘engineering’, ‘driving’, ‘leveraging’, and talk of human ‘capital’ or ‘assets’ or ‘resources’; such language suggests an engineering mindset.


This mindset supports Taylor’s view of management as science, with the manager’s role being to analyse, predict and then direct; to create certainty out of uncertainty.

An alternative way of thinking, and one that I think is closer to our lived experience, and supported by the emerging study of complexity, is to think of organisations as complex social processes where the core process is ‘conversation’, and where uncertainty is taken as an existential reality which cannot be engineered away.

Conversations in organizations give rise to patterns which are both stable and unstable at the same time. Repetition creates a sense of stability which is necessary for maintaining quality and consistency in operating processes, while instability (messiness, unpredictability) gives rise to novelty which is necessary if the organisation is to be capable of regenerating itself. Unfortunately, most management practice is predicated on the assumption that stability is the preferred state while instability is an aberration to be avoided.

This preference leads to an over-emphasis on the importance of, and need to control the legitimate system, through structural, procedural and programmatic solutions, while the potential novelty from which innovation comes is dampened down. As the well know saying approximately goes, “if you always do what you always do, you will get what you always get”

What most leaders are not taught is how to foster innovation, because what is needed to make a real difference means letting go of a measure of control. Here are a few ideas:

How leaders make a difference

• Release yourself from many ‘formal’ meetings; only go to those where your input is really needed, or have something to offer which will make a difference
• When you catch yourself about to say what you always say, or do what you always do, say or do something different
• Never criticise anything without suggesting an alternative (in other words don’t join the ranks of the passive aggressives – most organisations have enough of them)
• Never make an important decision on your own; bring together an eclectic mix of people who span departments, grades/levels, age range, rather than the ‘usual suspects’.
• Convene such conversations to think about strategy, culture, all the big issues
• Most people tend to defer to those in power, or at the least tread carefully around them, so be aware of how you exercise power; you have the potential to empower or disempower others
• encourage full participation (responsibility in action); legitimise challenge, provocation and ‘out of the box’ ideas.
• Notice how often you come up with reasons why novel ideas cannot be tried
• Have the courage to question the many procedures and rules which inhibit novelty and change
• Remember the over quoted Ghandi aphorism; ‘be the change you want to see’.


(TAYLOR, F. W. 1911 Scientific Management, New York, Harper.)


Bill Critchley EMCC Supervisor

Bill Critchley Consulting Limited, a company registered in England and Wales. Company number 06485962

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