So what do leaders actually “do”? (Part 1)

A previous post of mine depicted Garibaldi who unified Italy into one state in the mid 1800’s.  His heroic act is perhaps most neatly summed up as “that bold guy on top of that snorting steed”.  This style of leadership is very visceral (particularly for the opponent who is being subdued and occasionally even eviscerated).

It is fairly straightforward to see what this type of “conquering” leader does – know your enemies, build coalitions, mobilise armies, plan battles and spring the trap!  When business borrows the concept of “strategy” from the military – where it has been honed for thousands of years, from before Sun Tzu to after von Clausewitz – this is what many think is the chief job of the top leader…to be the Chief Strategy Officer.

English: 150th day of death of Carl von Clause...
Carl von Clausewitz (1780—1831) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think this led to the deification of strategy as the Holy Grail for questing CEOs.  And most particularly competitive strategy.  Steve Denning wrote a powerful piece in the wake of the Monitor Group’s recent demise.  In it he pondered why the boutique strategy consulting firm made famous by Michael Porter (he of the Five Forces) went bankrupt and got snapped up by Deloitte.

Here is a snippet from Denning’s tour de force:

The important question is not: why did Monitor go bankrupt? Rather, it is: how were they able to keep going with such an illusory product for so long?

Read it for the full take-down of these high priests and their hubris…

My point is simpler.  Military strategists have one huge “ontological” advantage over the rest of us living in modern civilian times.  They can simplify the world into us-versus-them.  They go even further…

They impute all the goodness in the cause to “us” and all the evil to “them”.  That’s a powerful sleight of hand.  The demonisation of “them” dramatically simplifies planning.  Have you ever pondered why winning wars is so much easier than winning the peace?

That is because the latter is complex while the former is at most “complicated”.

So beware of over stretching the applicability of competitive strategy to the world-of-humans-in-(contested)-community!

Dave Snowden warns against this abuse of “single ontology sense-making”.  Chaotic situations best lend themselves to the dramatic polarisation of situations into black-and-white.  Recall that these are times to act and not reflect (beforehand).

But authentic leaders, in many roles in our lives, are not (or ought not to be) regularly operating at this edge of chaos where “victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat”.

Instead they are creating Works.  My sagacious colleague Professor Dominik Heil in his post-grad days pondered what an organisation literally is.  His PhD thesis worked from the position that this question cannot be answered in the realm of science which is too narrow a frame, but only in philosophy.  Using the ontological frame provided by Heidegger’s “hermeneutic phenomenology” he finds that organisations ARE works.

Deutsch: Paris: Eiffelturm und Marsfeld
Paris: Eiffel Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Heidegger a work (like the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa or Les Misérables) “sets up a world”.  These works actually create the worlds which we then inhabit.  [I wonder how similar this is to when some sociologists speak of the “social construction of reality“?]

It is primarily the leader’s role to (at)tend to this Work.  Not doing so will allow the ravages of entropic forces to accelerate its decay and then its demise.

The next post will speak more to this “(at)tending” aspect.  I will introduce the perspective of another sage, Luc Hoebeke!

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