“The Monkey on your Back” – Management, Leadership … and Storytellers of Complexity.


How do you distinguish the attributes of Management, Leadership … or whatever lies beyond? How does the responsible advisor or storyteller help corporate  executives to deal with the monkey on their backs?

Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’ gives an excellent perspective of how the evolutionary process is working on the world of the  industrial/post-industrial corporation. Just as political organisation evolved through feudal kingdoms, autocracies, city-states, republics and democracies, so the dominant form of social organisation in our time – the workplace – is also driven by change.

I’m just getting into “Theory U” and still have a lot to learn. But it makes profound sense.

Because “Management” as a form of social organisation is barely a century old, it is experiencing its burst of Darwinian “speciation” around about now. We are already able to detect certain evolutionary “losers” or dinosaurs being swept away in cataclysmic alterations of the earth’s business atmosphere. We know some companies – Tyco, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Merrill, the old GM – are losers. However there is no linear proof that certain companies fail purely because they followed specific organisational models. Evolution is too complex a process to pinpoint a single source.

Likewise it is not yet clear which characteristics will define the dominant evolutionary types that will take possession of an earth deprived of its dinosaurs. As the evolutionary dust clears we see that the form of social organisation  (management) is a critical factor: but the huge speciation of the management publishing and consulting industry is proof that little or no consensus exists as to the future.

Nevertheless decisions taken today determine the evolutionary rules of tomorrow – and they define three approaches to viewing the world.

For the first type (which he calls Dynamic complexity), Scharmer uses the metaphor of global warming. Here, yesterday’s emissions are only now starting to show their effects, while the consequences of today’s emissions are the subject of informed guesswork. So it is with management choices taken for the future. Systems built of interacting forces with feedback loops are familiar to every manager who every wrestled with product or process.

The second type (Social complexity) takes account of multiple perspectives and the need to reconcile diversity. Organisations are about people – and aligning the different needs of stakeholders is a type of work familiar to every leader who ever fine-tuned systems or competencies.

Scharmer’s third type of complexity — Emerging complexity — is built around the kind of world we see today: disruption, ambiguity, absence of clear polarities or reliable guidance from the past. The established diagnostic tools no longer work – and classical management or leadership skills don’t resolve everything. This is evolution and  Scharmer describes the skills needed to work with this complexity with his trademark “presencing” or the “inward look” that precedes action. This sounds very much like what the rest of us call inspiration and is familiar to any creative who’s had a brainwave.

So: let’s use these three categories Manager: Leader: Inspiration, to help us define the evolutionary shift in organisations and see if this helps us to define how we  (the consulting and advice industry who work to help companies  create, tell and deliver their institutional stories) can serve the needs of today’s and  tomorrow’s CEO.

The table below posits that left-to-right  is evolutionary advance for the company (always with the caveat the  “full spectrum” advance means companies still remain perfectly able to deliver the attributes of “earlier” evolutionary stages, e.g. efficiency or process optimisation).

Three columns define the modes of viewing complexity, while the rows show company culture attributes in each evolutionary stage.

Role Management Leadership Inspiration
DELIVERABLE Product & Process Systems & Competencies Meaning
ORGANISING PRINCIPLE Efficiency Fitness & Purpose Spirit of Innovation
RESOLVING COMPLEXITY Impose discipline Seek simplicity Improvisation & ambiguity
EMPLOYEE PARTICIPATION Hierarchy “Voice but no vote” Co-creators
LEARNING EXPERIENCE MBA Coaching Experiential ‘theatre of change’
COLLECTIVE MODEL Centralise Decentralise Collaborate
NARRATIVE Message Story Dialogue: inspiration and creativity

If we now read the Inspiration column vertically, this should provide some of the attributes that a storyteller with something serious to offer, would need to include in any leadership development program dedicated to helping executives “get the monkey off their backs.”

Are these transferable skills/categories? Can we help here?  Can we add anything new?

  • If the question is applied to the first column named Management, my guess the answer is “no.” There’s a whole industry doing this.
  • If the question is applied to Leadership, my guess the answer is “perhaps.” There’s another industry applied to this, proceeding more (or less) effectively.
  • If the question is applied to Inspiration and they that  corporate storytelling can  help, the answer is a definite “yes.”

If there is interest  from other storytellers in this analysis of ‘Inspiration,’ the role-players around it and its attributes within the modern corporation, I will write more about this and share my Scharmer-related discoveries as I try them out with our own corporate clients seeking change and growth.

Richard House

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