Leadership and the Local Peak Syndrome

October 26, 2008

New leadership ideas and actions are particularly valuable when the going gets tough. A new book based on Culture Theory shows how to understand and overcome the local peak syndrome

There is a cartoon often shown during leadership programmes. It shows a mountaineer planting a flag on the summit of a mountain. But the drawing can be expanded to show what the climber had missed. He has reached a local peak, and the real challenge looms ahead. What’s worse, he has to get off the local peak before he can start climbing again. It’s a powerful visual image.

Local Peak Syndrome

Mountaineer and author Michael Thompson knows quite a bit about expeditions to conquer the world’s greatest peaks. He took part in successful yomps up Annapurna and Everest in the 1970s. He is also a pioneer of Culture Theory, and although he doesn’t use the term, he also knows about the local peak syndrome, which he outlines in his latest book Organising and Disorganising: A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and its Implications published by Triarchy Press

The title may put some potential readers off. That would be a pity. Readers may be pleasantly surprised at the enjoyment and benefit to be derived by signing up for the expedition.

For one thing, the author is a confident guide, and illustrates the journey by means of lots of interesting maps of other expeditions including investigations into environmental problems of the Napalese region, climbing expeditions, and (in some contrast) the move of Arsenal Football club from Highbury to The Emirates Stadium. The stories illustrate a rich version of cultural theory, and have implications for leaders of all kinds.

The virtues of ‘clumsy’ solutions

For example, the Arsenal story shows that The Emirates Stadium site would have been overlooked in favour of elegant but simplistic solutions favoured by three different groups of stakeholders some of whom would have made for implementation of these ideas difficult. Thompson calls the outcome a necessarily ‘clumsy’ (but effective) resolution as opposed to elegant but unacceptable front-runner proposals.

His point is that many well-intentioned policy initiatives, and strategic plans fail to take the complexities of change into account. This is particularly apt in the current environment of what Alan Greenspan referred to as an economic Tsunami.

Social solidarities

The next point in his argument is that complex systems have what he calls solidarities each favoured by some people involved. These solidarities are recurring patterns of social coherence. They are labelled the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the individualistic, the fatalistic and the autonomous solidarities.

These four terms can be derived from the celebrated work of Mary Douglas, and a more recent ‘two-by-two’ grid of them can be found in an essay by Aaron Wildavsky (try googling Wildavsky and Culture Theory).

Readers may be more familiar with ‘two by two’ management grids (high and low levels of structuring, and high and low levels of groupiness), or maybe the two-by-two of sociological paradigms by Burrell & Morgan.

We need to know a little about cybernetics to see where Thompson has taken such treatments. Essentially he grasps one of the nettles too often ducked. What might be the mechanisms through which people (and groups) move from one ‘box’ to another?.

Burrell and Morgan’s work helped generate a lot of debate about whether such movement was possible, or whether the belief systems of the boxes represented incommensurate paradigms.

Thompson’s solution is to add a fifth element. In doing so he mentions the principle of requisite variety, cherished by cyberneticians since it was developed by Ross Ashby, many years ago.

Ashby worked out the requirements for any configuration of any system to be stable (‘we could see the stable states as ‘solidarities’). These were the viable states of the system, which had the survival property of the appropriate degree of requisite variety

Dr Thompson takes Ashby’s principle a few steps further, invoking a formal proof that requisite variety for systems stability exists in five and only five solidarities bracketed together.

The formulation began to remind me of even more ideas, including one associated with Lawrence and Lorsch, a team of Harvard organizational theorists. They proposed that differing conditions shape organizations into different (sub)systems, with differing integrating mechanisms. This contributed to Harvard’s pioneering reputation for contingency models of organization.
Thompson’s integrating device (the autonomous ‘solidarity’) introduces his fifth component into the established ‘two by twos’.

How real is real?

The author makes it clear that he believes that organizational stability (viability) needs the existence of five solidarities. And not just any old five solidarities interacting in any which way, but mediated through his specified autonomous solidarity. In so doing he believes he gets around many of the difficulties of prevailing theories of social structures.

You will have to read the book to see if this ‘essay in persuasion’ works for you. I was partly already converted into accepting some of the basic ideas presented. Time will tell whether re-reading helps me reach a greater level of persuasion on other suggestions in the book.

I was fortunate to have taken part in discussions some years ago, with cybernetics theorist, Stafford Beer.

Stafford had developed a model of organization which I (and other colleagues) regarded at the time as a powerful metaphor. Stafford was emphatic that his model was more than a metaphor, rather an identity for an organization’s defining features.

I sense a similar conviction to Stafford’s in Michael Thompson’s treatment of his five solidarities. Stafford’s famous model also has five interacting systems. (It even has at its Level 5, a super-ordinate integrating mechanism similar to that of Thompson’s autonomous system) . Broading this further, we might reflect whether Senge’s fifth discipline (learning to learn) might not be a similar integrating mechanism within yet another systems theory of change.

Buy the book

If you find this half as interesting as I did, you must get hold of Organising and Disorganising. And, if you haven’t already, have a go at any of Stafford’s books still in print. Brain of the Firm would be a good one with which to start.


Ramos sacked by Spurs

October 26, 2008
Juande Ramos

Juande Ramos

Juande Ramos is sacked by Spurs after the team’s dreadful start to the 2008 season. What are the leadership lessons for the club?

When Tottenham Hotspur won the Carling Cup Final at Wembley [February 24th 2008] against a much-fancied Chelsea team, coach Juande Ramos received plaudits for the transformation achieved at Tottenham since his arrival earlier in the season.

I asked the question at the time whether Ramos had really made such a difference at the club. To be sure, he had shown exceptional skill a few months earlier when a tactical reshuffle seemed to have influenced the course of an important UEFA cap match

But in the longer term:

There is a wider issue that should be mentioned. The arrival of Juande Ramos, and departure of Martin Jols is a far more complicated story to untangle. It would be simplistic to suggest that the Board was correct in replacing a leader who had achieved rather unexpected success over five years at the club. That story requires a far more detailed study over a much longer time-scale than the ninety minutes of a football match.

So what happened next?

The Carling Cup final was the last moment of celebration at Tottenham for the appointment of Ramos. The new season began with gloom as the club parted with their talented (and key) strikers Berbatov and Keene. Poor results continued. Ramos received the usual endorsements of support from the board, but it was only a matter of time.

Leadership lessons

Ramos did not become a bad coach overnight. The situation at the start of the season was dire. The club has tended to survive by selling players to balance the books. The sales of Berbatov and Keene were always likely to make the job of the coach difficult.

If there has been a failure of leadership, the decisions of the board have played a large part in the story. The financial considerations, and the players’ indications of a wish to leave may have been critical. However, the board always had the option of giving Ramos a longer stay. But as with Jols, the decision was made, and another good coach is on his way out of the club.


Engineering firm A E Harris has Survived Ten Recessions. How did it do that?

October 26, 2008
Russell Lockcock

Russell Lockcock

There are few firms that have survived three generations of family ownership unscathed. Engineering firm A E Harris has done so and also battled through ten recessions. How did it do that?

The evidence suggests that the added value from family ownership diminishes in impact after two at most generations from founder to son or grandchild. Few firms survive into the fifth or sixth generation of family ownership, although European examples are perhaps more common than American, where market dynamics have tended to increase the proportion of firms succumbing to takeover or worse.

A powerful example from England is that of relatively small manufacturing firm A E Harris. Its survival for over a hundred years has seen it outface ten recessions, according to its current chairman Russell Luckock. He should know, he has been its leader for over fifty of them, taking over as a young man of 21.

He told The BBC about his experiences

“The company was founded 128 years ago by my great-grandfather just near the same central Birmingham site that we occupy today. The firm started out making hand made jewellery and tool making equipment and has gradually expanded to the company I run today. I started out at the firm as a favour, helping out for a few weeks, but I stayed on a bit longer and have now been here 53 years. It’s important to realize that you get a recession about every 10 years and each and every one you go through will be different …”

The seventy four year old leader sees a recession as a time requiring drastic and painful cost-management but also a time of seeking new kinds of business. He has recently been forced to cut back and close down unsuccessful sites, but the company survives.

I don’t think Mr Luckock would see himself as an example of servant leadership, but he captures some of its characteristics, such as a strong sense of duty and responsibility to his employees. He talks of fighting tooth and nail to save jobs, but has made the adjustments if needed for survival of the rest of the company. For example, in the last decade the business shrunk from nearly 200 employees to around forty, against competition from the Far East.

There are some parallels with Warburtons, another example of a UK family firm, and one that has survived into its fifth generation of the family.

This kind of firm is, arguably, an extended family, with strong family values. Survival through a tenth recession can not be guaranteed, but A E Harris has as much chance as any as it takes on its tenth battle against such tough economic conditions.

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