26 August 2010

Salsa, and the Art of Organization Effectiveness and Leadership Development

Among other things, I am a salsa instructor—a passion that is completely in tune with everything else I perform professionally, and the values that pervade my life. The key to becoming a great salsa dancer is the same as creating a great organization (and, not coincidentally, the foundation of great, contemporary education): connection, context, complexity, and connotation. Leads and follows must, first and foremost, be connected and in touch with each other. They must learn to clearly signal and read the next move, the next pattern, and the changes in direction and momentum that flow throughout the dance. Advanced dancers know that, while the lead directs the movements, the follow sets the style, and both must complement each other, dancing collaboratively to create a beautiful, flowing, and passionate dance.

Regardless of their relative skill, the partners must respond to the context provided by the music. They must follow not only the tempo, but the mood, theme, and sometimes lyrics should also be reflected in the grace and passion of the shared movement. Rather than simply responding to the external context of the music, the dancers must allow the music to flow through them, enabling meaning-rich connection to emerge as they combine their connected interaction with the environment of the music. This necessarily means that the dance is complex: a number of simple elements that interact among connected, but otherwise independent, autonomous agents, resulting in the emergence of patterns that cannot precisely be predicted beforehand from the starting conditions.

Finally, the fourth “C,” connotation, or the creation of meaning. When I dance in the role of instructor-with-student, we create a certain and very particular meaning, irrespective of my partner's gender or our relative dance roles (that is, me in either the lead or follow role). That meaning emerges from the other three “Cs”: the connection in our roles; the context of both the music and the instructor-student relationship; and the complexity of the learning process. On the other hand, when I dance with one among some of my favourite partners, the connotation or meaning is completely different, particularly with a passionate song.

Reinforcing and augmenting the foundation of the four “Cs” is one simple idea—what it is that I do, whether in my role as dance instructor or as lead with a partner:

I create a great environment of engagement.

When I perform in the role of Organizational Therapist, when I’m invited as a Leadership Coach, when I’m asked to facilitate processes of Organization Transformation and Change, the same principles apply: I create a great environment of engagement that enables organizations and their leaders perform like advanced dancers.

Organizational leaders must, first and foremost, be connected and in tune with the other members of their organization—and those members extend beyond those who might merely be on the payroll or attend at one or more particular offices. There must be clear and consistent signals indicating the next move, the next pattern, and the changes in direction and momentum for the organization. And although the leader might direct the movement, it is the other members – all the participating constituencies who are affected by the organization’s motion – who set the style of interactions. All members and constituencies must mutually complement the collective organization, and “dance” collaboratively in accomplishing the organization’s goals and aspirations. Most important, this collaboration is responsible for creating the desired effects in the total organizational environment, and enacting the organization’s emergent and collective values.

Healthy organizations are thus informed by the 4 Cs: connection, context, complexity, and connotation. They are connected among their members and constituencies through valence relationships. Because of these connections, each constituency introduces an often unique context that flows through and is incorporated into the organization and affects its emergent behaviours. In this sense, the organization does not instrumentally respond to an external context like a beginner dancer counting out the rhythm, but rather becomes part of the overall environment, allowing the “music” – the environmental stimuli – to flow through it and provide organizational impetus. This, in turn, means that simple, deterministic analyses (such as those provided by the more instrumentally focused structural contingency theories) are not entirely helpful; a more appropriate analysis is based in complexity. And that means that leaders must learn to be cognizant of emergent meaning, or connotation, as they consider both more immediate tactics, and strategies to address longer-term objectives.

More than all of this, healthy organizations are passionate. They are passionate about being present in the environment of their connected constituencies. They are passionate about engaging with their various partners. They are passionate about creating a beautiful and elegant flow of desired and intended effects throughout the metaphorical ballroom floor of their industry, or market, or community, or other social environment on which they dance and enact their collective organizational aspirations.

In my role as therapist, coach, and facilitator, I help organizations, their leaders, and all their constituent members collaboratively create this passion through authentic connection, appreciation of diverse contexts, understanding organizational complexity, and enabling emergent connotation or meaning.

Most of all, I do one, consistent thing: I create great environments of engagement.

(For those who might be a little more left-brain-oriented, here is a detailed, specific exposition of what I do.

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