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.