23 January 2009

EMD VI: Identity Crisis: Leadership in Transition

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

Ah, such a McLuhanesque subject line for a post. So many meanings, so little time. (To appreciate the possible nuances, re-read the subject line several times, placing the emphasis on a different word with each reading.) In a 1979 letter, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “When deprived of his identity, man [i.e., human beings] becomes violent in diverse ways. Violence is the quest for identity.” Little wonder, then, that the greatest challenge in effecting organizational change – particularly a transformation in organizational culture – is effecting change in the leaders. Both organizations among my research participants that successfully made the transition from BAH to UCaPP found that enacting true collaboration, giving up traditional hierarchical status, and ceding control in favour of authentic engagement challenged many people beyond their ability to cope. Both organizations experienced exceptionally high turnover throughout the transition period. And, one way or another, the reason came down to damaging the individual’s identity-valence relationship with the organization – especially the fungible aspects of identity-, and consequently, fungible-socio-psychological-valence relationships.

Let’s face it: leadership is a big and prestigious job. Traditional conceptions of leadership in a BAH context comprise taking responsibility for the organization’s vision, accomplishing its mission, ensuring that individuals align their personal objectives with those of the organization as a whole, and creating circumstances that provide appropriate incentives and motivation for all of this to be achieved. It’s a position that garners respect, conveys legitimation, offers significant responsibilities (and usually commensurate compensation), and provides tremendous challenges, opportunities, and a personal sense of triumph for a job well done. One of my participants is a true leader in this sense. Here he is, reflecting on himself and his role relative to his customers:
I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur if I didn’t like problems. So I like to solve problems. I also wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t have the value set that I do. … The business continues to grow. It will be a challenge to retain [excellent customer service] and to continue to deepen it, because it’s not… the status quo is not acceptable, in my opinion. We want to go deeper. So how do we do that? I think there are a number of exciting things we’re going to have to look at. Ways of communicating that, to me, [are] a whole series of challenges. How can we do that better than anyone else has ever done it before. That’s the way I look at that. It’s an opportunity, and it’s a challenge, and to me that’s energizing.
An exciting, engaging, and energizing kind of guy, right? A leader who takes ownership of the challenges, sets his goals, and everyone who’s with him comes along to join in the challenging work ahead. But what about those whose opinions differ from his? Those individuals who challenge the fundamental fact (fact, at least to the leader) that his role is to be the one who exclusively
see things, or know things for how things are going to be. Where they’re headed. I tend to live six months down the road, but if not further, in my head. And the things that are concerning me today are the things that are going to be issues in six months. … I can probably push through any decision I like, but I like to make sure that people understand it. … I’ve checked in with the other relevant decision makers, so we’re pretty much on the same page, and carry forward.
As is often the case, such dissenters eventually become branded with the reputation of not being a team player, and usually find themselves either out of a job or wishing they were. In the worst examples, individuals suffer from extreme organizational apathy and sometimes act out in problematic, unproductive, and sometimes violent ways.

Violence is the quest for identity.

In a BAH organization, leaders construct their identity in terms of providing leadership – figuring out what needs to be accomplished, anticipating the obstacles, and rallying the followers. Leaders will become violent if that identity is threatened, although the actual manifestation of that violence is sometimes subtle. However, in transitioning an organization from more-BAH to more-UCaPP, it is precisely the identity of the leadership that is most significantly challenged. That transition is characterized by augmenting the fungible aspects of valence relationships through strengthening their corresponding ba-aspects, and creating balance among all the aspects, effectively de-emphasizing fungible-economic as the predominant valence relationship for the organization as a whole. UCaPP leaders no longer lead in the sense of setting out objectives for others to accomplish; in other words, they are no longer in charge. Instead, UCaPP leaders’ primary responsibility is to enable and maintain an appropriate environment – ba-space – so that the correspondingly appropriate sets of objectives, goals, and accomplishments emerge, and are embraced by all members. After all, when no one is in charge, everyone is in charge. And that does wonders for identity.

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