I recently posted on the characteristics of learning organizations, which I excerpted from chapter 20 of Edgar Schein’s lovely book Organizational Culture and Leadership, which is in general a must-read for anyone who believes in the first sentence of paragraph two of this blog post (and how could you not, really)? In any event I now want to talk a little bit more about what Schein says in that chapter regarding the leaders of learning organizations, which is interestingly different, I think, than a lot of assumptions we make about successful leaders.
First of all, the background. Schein assumes (as many do) that organizations and people who are committed to “perpetual learning” are the ones that will be successful in an era of unpredictable change (our era, that is). He notes a paradox–that organizational culture is normally a stabilizing force that resists change, made up of internalized assumptions about what it takes to be successful, and which individuals are understandably reluctant to revisit once they’ve worked them out. But learning, of course, requires the surfacing and adjustment of just such assumptions. Uncovering and changing these assumptions, which Schein calls “unfreezing” the culture, requires “disconfirmation, a process that is inevitably painful for many,” and that releases a lot of anxiety, the very thing the culture evolved to defend us from in the first place.
The leader of the learning organization has a sort of double responsibility to both encourage this discomfiture and pain and to be a salve–to also provide, that is, a kind of temporary stability to replace the structure previously provided by the now-obsolete cultural assumptions. As a leader, says Schein, you must be as it were half out and half in your organization (my words). Out to gather the perspective and alternatives and disrupting information, in to help people work through them. You need “the capacity to surmount your own organizational culture, to be able to perceive and think about ways of doing things that are different from what the current assumptions imply;” you need to be “somewhat marginal” and “somewhat embedded in the organization’s external environment.”
But you also must be half-embedded in your own environment, play an “anxiety-containing” role, putting people at ease, providing emotional reassurance and stability during the natural rise in anxiety that occurs when people learn, creating a space that is “psychologically safe,” where people can be temporarily vulnerable. Schein reminds us that you can’t get people to learn unless they want to; as he says: “learning and change can not be imposed on people. Their involvement and participation is needed in diagnosing what is going on, in figuring out what to do, and in the actual process of learning and change.”
A key side note is that in the world of change the leader herself may not really know what the right answers are; therefore a kind of cultivated naiveté (my phrase), or a spirit of “humble inquiry,” is needed, which allows and encourages information to come from all parts of the organization. The front-line staff member is just as important an information gathering point as is an executive, but the executive needs to be open to that.
For those that hate the touchy-feely, navel-gazing quality of self-improvement, look out. This is what you need on an individual and group level if you want to learn perpetually. Schein notes that as counseling and psychotherapy help individuals learn about themselves, learning organizations could benefit from similar kinds of activities, like group counseling, as it were, or “training and development programs that emphasize experiential learning and self-assessment.” Lots of experiments in a culture of intense self-awareness, not normally part (I suggest) of the average workplace.
On another side note, it seems to me that even in a perpetually-learning organization, we can’t be surfacing and changing all assumptions all the time; that this needs to be an iterative process; that we’d only really address at any given moment a limited sphere of assumptions that seem to be holding us back in a particular, focused area. Otherwise it would be too chaotic even for me, which is saying something. This is why Schein makes a point of telling us it’s about surfacing and changing “some of the group’s assumptions” (emphasis mine). Not all.
So, my summary. The leader of the learning organization has to be half-out and half-in, a provocateur on one level (with a benign an holy purpose in mind of course), and a conciliator on another. She has to use the existing culture to get buy in to change the existing culture, and this in successive and continuous cycles. She must be humble and open but also visionary and determined, precipitous and calm, strong but also lovable; she must cause pain (indirectly) and slake it. She has to do for the organization what psychotherapy does for the individual–help make it a thoughtful, reflective, adaptive, aware, adjustable, learning team. Isn’t that different than the general image of leaders, on the one hand the driving, type A model of a CEO? Or on the other the imminently competent operations manager rising through the ranks to much-deserved leadership position? And it sounds challenging! But also so very fun.