The Obama administration and the new leadership models

participants need to have “confidence that better outcomes emerge from joint work when the quality of interaction truly matters, rather than when tasks are the sole and primary focus.” This requires a “relational stance.” That is, members are open to the perspectives of others and the possibility that “any contribution by any group member can be a source of intelligence for the group…In sum, the view here is that contentious problems require leadership grounded in processes of joint and individual learning rather than influence (or authority) and that these learning processes must be conducted in a highly relational manner.”

The above quote is from a recommended review by Russ Volckmann in last issue of the Integral Leadership Review of the following book:

Don Dunoon, In the Leadership Mode. Vancouver, Canada: Trafford Publishers, 2008.

In the same article, Russ also reviews a special triple issue of Ervin Laszlo’s World Futures, Vol. 64 Nos. 05–07 (2008): Postformal Thought and Hierarchical Complexity with Guest Editors Michael Lamport Commons and Sara Nora Ross.

The whole review discusses Obama’s leadership nominations in that context.

First, an excerpt to understand the model of hierarchical complexity, which Michael Commons includes in his introduction to the special issue.

The Model of Hierarchical Complexity…offers a standard method of examining the universal patterns of evolution and development. It is a quantitative behavioral developmental theory…There are two kinds of hierarchical complexity. The commonly recognized one refers to the ubiquitous linear hierarchies that are described in many fields of study. These are descriptive. By contrast, the Model of Hierarchical Complexity offers a standard method of examining the nonlinear activity of constructing the universal patterns of evolution and development. It accounts for evolution and development by recognizing their patterns are comprised of tasks, or actions, performed at specified orders of hierarchical complexity. Whereas the Model’s unidimensional measure is linear, the tasks it measures are nonlinear performances, as this special issue conveys. The nonlinear activity of tasks is that of organizing, or coordinating, information. Hierarchical complexity applies to any events or occasions in which information is organized. The kinds of entities that organize information include humans and their biological systems as well as their social organizations, non-human organisms, and machines, including computers.”

“The hierarchical complexity of tasks, or actions, is defined in words as follows. Actions at a higher order of hierarchical complexity: (a) are themselves defined in terms of actions at the next lower order of hierarchical complexity; (b) organize and transform the lower-order actions; (c) produce organizations of lower-order actions that are new and not arbitrary. These next higher order actions cannot be accomplished by those lower-order actions alone.”

How is the Dunoon book and the Michael Commons review related to Obama’s choices and leadership practice?

Some excerpts from the commentary by Russ Volkmann.

Obama’s approach to leadership:

And this brings me back to Barack Obama, his team, and their approach to solving contentious problems. As I understand the message that Obama has repeatedly expressed, he believes in strong personalities. Strong individuals are able to put forth their opinions and perspectives, one of the requirements that Dunoon points to for learning-centered leadership. Cautious of “group think,” however, Obama doesn’t want these strong personalities to hold back their opinions, information and ideas out of respect for other strong personalities in the team(s). He does state that he wants these strong personalities to present their positions, to be prepared to discuss them…and then leave it to him to make a decision.

I think I got that right. Shades of “I am the decider!” But from a different set of beliefs, assumptions and values, we must trust. That is important solace. Yet I cannot help but wonder how Obama’s approach, while giving a jittery nation (over economics and national security and social issues) assurances that there is a strong leader in place, thus creating a bit of calm and confidence, will fare given the perspective offered by Don Dunoon and informed by Ross and others’ discussions of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. It does seem, as problems become more complex, that we need individuals capable of addressing those problems through sophisticated, higher stages, of capacity for problem solving and decision making at these higher levels. Isn’t that likely what Koplowitz is arguing for? (We shall see, but not here.) It is possible that this reflects a misunderstanding of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity on my part, but for the time being, let’s assume I am on track.

So Obama’s approach is a mixed bag, as I understand it, and one that needs to consider the capacities of his team members and, perhaps, some of the considerations that Dunoon is writing about. For example, there are two benefits of the learning-centered leadership approach that would be important to the Obama administration:

1. It “opens up the possibility that a wider range of people can contribute to the work of leadership…because potentially any person in a group can contribute specific, relational interventions…That implies more intelligence, experience and insight being applied to contentious problems.”
2. Members “can potentially [sic] bring a greater depth of knowledge and insight to bear on contentious problems. In specifically engaging with the implicit or hidden domain of assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge, this form of leadership seeks to draw forth, examine, and integrate the mental resources that people hold in relation to the problem, but might not otherwise volunteer.” [33]

Sounds just like what the doctor ordered for the Obama administration, at least as far as input to the problem solving and decision making processes is concerned. Dunoon might argue that leadership-mode interventions are just what is needed. “To act ‘in leadership mode’ is to intervene in a relational manner toward building shared meaning in a context of efforts to enable deep-reaching change with a contentious problem.” [47] And let’s not glide too fast by the phrase, shared meaning.

Shared meaning is about building a common understanding of an issue. For me it is closely related to the notion of shared goals. Facing collective decision making on contentious problems without shared goals just doesn’t make sense, unless you are seeking only a temporary political position that defers resolution. I would contend that our goals, aspirations and intentions contributed to shaping our meaning. Without shared goals, shared meaning is unlikely. Furthermore, resolving differences without shared (or at least compatible) goals is highly unlikely. Another way of thinking about this is that we may be able to get to the point of managing our differences without resolving them, thus leaving the door open to revisiting those differences at the earliest opportunity. Our actions today reflect a political position, rather than the resolution of a contentious problem.

At this point, Dunoon gets into some major challenges in leader and leadership development that would be relevant for the Obama administration and would require members to be able to operate at higher levels of task complexity:

1. Relational working
2. Mindful working
3. Practice-basis.

Obama he is selecting his administration members based in part on experience. They have been engaged with efforts to solve contentious problems in many contexts. But Dunoon points out that practice is about both doing and reflecting. It is interesting that in some of the literature on CEOs there is a theme that they take time to reflect. To me, this is the individual equivalent of a post action or post project review. It is a time to reflect on intention, intervention, outcomes and meaning.

Relational working is the challenge Obama faces, according to some media analysts. I heard one reporter on National Public Radio refer to the Obama team as a kindergarten that he was going to have to shepherd. The implication was that there were a lot of strong personalities with their own individual agendas and that keeping them all on the same page would be difficult. Of course, one way to attend to this is through collective reflection.”

1 Comment The Obama administration and the new leadership models

  1. AvatarKare Anderson

    As a paid Obama campaign staffer and fan of p2pfoundation here’s my thoughts
    re encouraging a “relational stance”:

    • Forge teams for single tasks and/or to be collective subject matter experts for a topic that is vital to the top goal of the organization, team etc.
    • Tell each team member the top goal + the specific talent they bring to the task
    • Speak to the Sweet Spot of mutual benefit for all players
    • Agree on Rules of Engagement, tasks and timetables
    • Be specific and open in discussions – and adhere to a collective thread of conversation
    • As all member to suggest ways to improve any of the above
    • Agree on a lead facilitator of the group
    • Agree to be open to changes in any of the above – and the method by which you’ll make changes
    • Do not penalize mistakes but ask “what should we do now?”
    • Celebrate along the way and when goal is reached
    • De-brief in candid, concrete ways – what we did well and what we could do better
    • Explore follow-up opportunities for all or part of the team

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