Category Archives: leadership

Disruptive change required to avoid existential threats

Decorative ink drawing by Zahrah Resh 2005It is easy for ideas or plans for transformational change to transition into transactional processes that deliver only incremental change.  Transformational change is about major shifts in culture, strategy or technology that causes substantial alterations in structure, organisation, behaviour and performance; whereas transactional changes occur within the existing structure and organisation.  Leading transformational change is hard and requires courage, vision, a willingness to listen to all stakeholders, decisiveness and communication, i.e. procedural justice and fair processes [see ‘Advice to abbots and other leaders‘ on November 13th, 2019].  If any of these components are absent, especially courage, vision and decisiveness, then transformational change can transition to a transactional process with incremental outcomes.  When the need to change becomes urgent due to existential threats, the focus should be on disruptive change [see ‘The disruptive benefit of innovation‘ on May 23rd 2018] but there is a tendency to avoid  such transformations and retreat into transactional processes that provide the illusion of progress.  Perhaps this is because transformational change requires leaders to be selfless, courageous and to do the right thing not just the easy thing [see ‘Inspirational leadership‘ on March 22nd, 2017]; whereas transactional processes occur within existing frameworks and hence minimise psychological entropy and stress [see ‘Psychological entropy increased by ineffectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021].  This tendency to avoid disruptive change happens at all levels in society from individual decisions about lifestyle, through product development in companies, to global conferences on climate change [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021].

Image: Ink drawing by Zahrah Resh, 2005. See ‘Seasons Greetings in 2020‘ on December 23rd, 2020.

Acknowledgement: thank you to a regular reader of this blog for the stimulating this post with a comment about transformational change left to the last minute becoming transactional.


Do you know RIO?

Infrared image of group of people in meetingDuring the pandemic many political leaders have been heard to justify their decisions by telling us that they were following advice from scientists.  I think it was Thomas Kuhn who proposed that the views of a group of scientists will be normally distributed if the group is large enough, i.e., a bell-shaped curve with a few scientists providing outlying opinions on either end and the majority in the middle of the distribution [see ‘Uncertainty about Bayesian methods’ on June 7th, 2017].  So, it depends which scientist you consult as to what advice you will receive.  Of course, you can consult a group of experts in order to identify the full range of advice and seek a consensus; however, this is notoriously difficult because some voices will be louder than others and some experts will be very certain about their predictions of the future while others will be very cautious about predicting anything.  This is often because the former group are suffering from meta-ignorance, i.e., failing to even consider the possibility of being wrong, while the latter are so aware of the ontological or deep uncertainties that they prefer to surround their statements with caveats that render them difficult or impossible to interpret or employ in decision-making [see ‘Deep uncertainty and meta ignorance’ on July 21st 2021].  Politicians prefer a simple message that they can explain to the media and tend to listen to the clear but usually inaccurate message from the confident forecasters [see ‘Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts’ on September 2nd, 2020].  However, with time and effort, it is possible to make rational decisions based on expert opinion even when the opinions appear to diverge.  There are several recognised protocols for expert elicitation which are used in a wide range of engineering and scientific activities to support decision-making in the absence of comprehensive information.  I frequently use a form of the Sheffield protocol developed originally to elicit a probability distribution for an unknown uncertainty from a group of experts.  Initially, the group of experts are asked individually to provide private, written, independent advice on the issue of concern.  Subsequently, their advice is shared with the group and a discussion to reach a consensus is led by a facilitator. This can be difficult if the initial advice is divergent and individuals hold strong views.  This is when RIO can help.  RIO stands for Rational Impartial Observer and an expert group often rapidly reach a consensus when they are asked to consider what RIO might reasonably believe after reading their independent advice and listening to their discussion.


Anthony O’Hagan, Expert knowledge elicitation: subjective but scientific, The American Statistician, 73:Sup.1, 69-81, 2019.

It is hard to remain positive

Frequent readers of this blog will have noticed that I am regular reader of the FT Weekend pages.  I particularly like the ‘Life & Arts’ section for its balance of opinion and reviews.  However, one weekend last month I was depressed by two articles I read in quick succession.  Shannon Vallor described life as an ageing roller coaster with failed brakes and ‘accelerating climate change, a deadly pandemic and unravelling global supply chains’.  While on the facing page Nilanjana Roy wrote that the ‘past few decades have brought humankind and most other species on Earth to the brink of destruction’.  I was depressed because I agree with their analysis and our leaders seem either unaware of the impending crash of the roller coaster or unable to construct a global strategy to avert the looming destruction.  However, spiralling into negativity does not help because negativity tends to promote fight-or-flight survival mechanisms that can lead to narrow-mindedness, a lack of creativity and limiting one’s options to the tried and tested actions which are unlikely to avert destruction.  Whereas a positive outlook broadens your repertoire of options and builds physical, social and psychological resources.  Positive psychological capital, associated with hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism, leads to higher positive outcomes including commitment, successful outcomes, satisfaction and well-being.  In the face of apparently insurmountable challenges it is difficult to remain positive whether you are leading a small team, a department, an organisation or a country; nevertheless it is important to remain positive because research shows that the ‘happier and smarter’ approach works better than the ‘sadder but wiser’ style of leadership.  Of course, extreme positivity is usually delusional or irresponsible and can lead to complacency; so, you need to dodge that too.


Kelloway EK, Weigand H, McKee MC & Das H, 2013. Positive leadership and employee well-being. J. Leadership & Organizational Studies, 20(1), pp.107-117.

Nel T, Stander MW & Latif J. 2015, Investigating positive leadership, psychological empowerment, work engagement and satisfaction with life in a chemical industry. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology/SA Tydskrif vir Bedryfsielkunde, 41(1):1243.

Nilanjana Roy, Lessons from 1971 for eco-activists today, in FT Weekend 9 October / 10 October 2021.

Shannon Vallor, Tech’s future shocks, in FT Weekend 9 October / 10 October 2021.

Youssef-Morgan CM, Luthans F. Positive leadership: Meaning and application across cultures. Organizational Dynamics 42:3:198–208, 2013

On being a leader

Decorative photograph of a sunrise in CornwallLast week I was a part of a team delivering an intensive one-day course on leadership and ethics to a small group of technologists from industry as part of our CPD programme [see ‘Technology Leadership‘ on January 18th, 2017].  It was the first time that I had interacted face-to-face with a group of students for more than eighteen months.  We are being cautious on campus and so all of the delegates wore face masks and I wore a visor.  It can be hard to hear what people are saying in a group when they are wearing masks but we managed to have some useful discussions about ethical dilemmas [see ‘Engineers, moral compasses and society‘ on October 21st, 2015], leadership styles [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2016] and the meaning and development of self.  Wilfred Drath tells us that as individuals we are engaged in a life-long activity of constructing meaning with respect to our self and others.  I described some of my reflections on being and leadership in an effort to encourage the delegates to reflect on their own sense of being.  Being is a process and human being is the process of organising meaning or making sense of oneself, the world and one’s place in the world.  Robert Kegan has described the process of making sense of the world in terms of self and others using six states through which we progress from birth and childhood to adulthood. These states are: State 1 – Incorporative in which an infant sees the world as an extension of itself; State 2 – Impulsive in which an infant recognises objects as separate to itself but believes objects change with its perception of them; State 3 – Imperial in which a child recognises that others have perceptions and needs but sees its own needs as paramount.  In adulthood, there are three further states: State 4 – Interpersonal in which you recognise that you are one amongst many with whom you have relationships leading to a strong desire to conform; State 5 – Institutional where we have a sense of personal identity which leads to autonomy; and State 6 – Inter-individual, one who is capable of holding many identities and embracing paradoxes.  We never quite lose old meanings and the differences between states are subtle but important.  Research suggests that about 60% of adults are predominately in State 4, about 35% in State 5 and 1% in State 6.

Drath suggests that most management structures have been designed by and for people in State 5 who are self-possessed, self-regulating and autonomous managers that see with and not through their identity.  This leads to two major weaknesses: they find it difficult to handle interpersonal relationships objectively which leads to difficulties in being empathetic and resolving conflicts; and they are blind to the demands of their internal system of self-regulation which drives them towards workaholism and impedes their ability to be reflective [see ‘Wading in reflections‘ on October 31st, 2018].  These weaknesses hinder their progression towards becoming leaders who can maintain and enhance the processes of a collaborative community, using for example the ‘fair process’ of procedural justice described by Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne [see ‘Advice to abbots and other leaders‘ on November 13th, 2019].  A primary reason for resisting progression from state 5 to 6 is the fear of losing effectiveness by tampering with a winning formula.  This is something I realised that I suffered from when I first started teaching leadership and was unwilling to define my successful approach [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2016].  I found that Goleman’s model of leadership styles allowed me to identify retrospectively the different approaches I have used in various roles.  The transition from state 5 to 6 requires relinquishing a deep personal meaning and a fundamental way of understanding self and its relationship to the world. Ultimately, these are replaced by a deeper understanding of life, a celebration of diversity, a willingness to accept that things will go wrong, and an ability to enhance the processes and share the fruits of collaborations.  These are rewarding at a personal level but also lead to your teams being happier and more successful [see ‘Leadership is like shepherding‘ on May 10th, 2017].


Drath WH, Managerial strengths and weaknesses as functions of the development of personal meaning, J. Applied Behaviorial Science, 26(4): 483-499, 1990.

Goleman D, Boyatzis R & McKee, The new leaders: transforming the art of leadership into the science of results, London: Sphere, 2002.

Goleman D, Leadership that get results, Harvard Business Review, 78(2):4-17, 2000.

Kegan R, The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Kegan R, In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Kim, W.C., Mauborgne, R., Fair process: managing in the knowledge economy, HBR, 3-11, January 2003.