Leadership Unravelled – The faulty thinking behind modern management

By Mark Cole & John Higgins, August 16th 2021

There is a hamster-wheel quality to what passes for insight around matters managerial and organizational. There is a sea of cliché, of often well-intentioned maxims that give a sense of possibility and progress. Meanwhile organizational life for most simply wallows as restructurings and fantastical targets come and go, dreaming of the Harvard Business Review.

Measurement and the misapplication of the scientific method have got out of control. Inspection has become ever more intrusive, an end in itself with the reporting game eating up time and attention that could be better lived. Managers have been rebadged as leaders, inviting people to become passive followers, and leadership development has become another Holy Grail that fails to explain how powerless these ‘leaders’ feel to shape the world.

Work itself has become an empty shell for many, a process to be gone through, disconnected from any outcome that has personal resonance. Alienation from work may well have worsened since Marx first spoke about it back in the late 19th Century and now we experience it twice over, in the dual roles of producer and consumer. The thinking of the marketplace is now omnipresent, turning even our most personal thinking and ideas into brands and packaging, stripped of conversational context and denuded of individual expression outside of what makes acceptable economic sense.

As the purpose of work has disappeared, so a new belief has taken root that this purposeless can be offset by expecting people to embrace an imposed behavioural ideology, that demands the correct attitude. Then there’s the corporate infantilisation, a world of happy-clappy infographics in a magical world devoid of power, lust, greed and hate, where the lion lays down with the lamb and all you have to do is click your heels to make all the bad things go away.

The messiness of a world that doesn’t fit this sanitised version is acknowledged by most, they see it going on in the streets around them, at home and through off-the-record conversations with peers at work. But in the rush to action, amplified by the belief in the fixability of all things and the seductive promise of a future perfect that can live apart from the here and now, thoughtfulness gets lost.

The busyness of the established managerial discourse actively undermines our individual and collective capacity to step back and notice our habits of mind, which underpin what counts as worthwhile action and thought in the first place.

Looking to the headwaters

In our recently published book (which can be bought via this LINK directly from the publishers, Routledge) we explore the headwaters of our thinking about all matters organizational and managerial. We look at what gets taken-for-granted and how what passes for common-sense falls apart when scrutinised with rigour. There is no hidden hand to be found in the workplace, no strange attractor creating observable but inexplicable order, what creates workplace reality is the active presence of power in all its forms, shaping and being shaped by what passes for truth.

Our appeal to everyone who feels they can influence their organizational context is to notice and step back from approved habits that strip people of a felt sense of agency, that insist on prescribing how people should feel about and describe their reality – we prescribe an anti-prescription! We are advocates for a socially situated individuality, where people’s sense of self happens through their encounters and engagement with others. Self and other as two sides of the same coin, not conflicted opposites.

We stand for this form of individuality in contrast to the autarkic individualism that has emerged over the decades – where individuals can only be seen through an approved, marketized lens that strips them of any inner-life. Where comparability and economic usefulness are the only forms of being worth acknowledging. Where the individual is no more than a temporary cog in an ordered machine, wetware waiting to be turned into software, who must at the same time see themselves as the author of their reality independent of context. Where it’s always about you, never me or us.

An invitation

We are keen to become part of a growing academic and practitioner community who want to engage in a sustained critique of current organizational and management thinking – and find ways out of current morass that don’t fall into the traps we identify in the book and have touched on in this piece.

Our first tentative step in that direction involves the creation of a space and time next year where people can come together to have a conversation around these themes; details can be found HERE.

Overall, though, this is an open invitation to people to connect on these issues and to explore them in collaboration.

Let us know if you’d like to play.

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