The Dialogic Mindset: Leading Emergent Change in a Complex World

By Bushe, Gervase R.; Marshak, Robert J. | Organization Development Journal, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Dialogic Mindset: Leading Emergent Change in a Complex World


Bushe, Gervase R., Marshak, Robert J., Organization Development Journal


In this article, we describe the dominant leadership narrative, which focuses on establishing visions and plans, assumes organizations are mostly stable entities, and presumes that data and analysis can solve problems. We argue that this dominant leadership narrative is no longer viable in a complex, interdependent, and multi-cultural world. A new narrative of leadership is forming that is more capable of guiding the emergent, generative organization and change processes required of interdependent systems in a multi-dimensional, diverse world marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA). This narrative also includes new organization development practices that do not fit the dominant paradigm. Our ongoing study of these newer change practices (Bushe & Marshak, 2009, 2014, 2015) leads us to argue that successful leadership will require very different assumptions about organizing and leading from the prevailing "Performance Mindset" that emphasizes instrumental and measurable goal setting and achievement. We identify seven assumptions of a "Dialogic Mindset" we think underlie successful leadership practice in a VUCA world. The continuing emphasis on being a heroic, strategic thinker who can envision viable futures and the path to those futures does little to prepare today's leaders for the complex, ever-changing challenges they face. Instead, leaders need to utlize complexity and uncertainty in ways that encourage and enable generative and transformational change. We conclude by discussing three key attributes such leaders will require: the capacity to manage their own anxiety about "letting go" as well as the anxiety emergent leadership creates for followers who expect leaders to provide answers; practicing high levels of self-differentiation; and operating from advanced stages of ego development.

The Leader As Visionary Model

The prevailing narrative of leadership is based on the assumption that great leaders must have vision and the ability to lead followers to that vision. Leaders, followers, and commentators alike assume that being a visionary is indispensable to organizational leadership. For example, more than 70 years ago, Dimock (1945) described the requirements of executive leadership, one of which was "a clear vision of his goals and how to achieve them" (p.139). Later, management gurus began to distinguish between vision and goals. Some noted vision is abstract while goals are concrete (Locke & Latham, 1990) while others suggested that having vision is the ability to see the goals realized in a possible future (Levin, 2000) with enough clarity that paths to those goals become visible.

The ability to set and achieve a vision or goals continues to be central to definitions of leadership (Rupprecht, Waldrop, & Grawitch, 2013; Sternberg, 2013). However, there are other models advanced in recent years that better address the realities of today's VUCA world. After all, what if things are too complex and changing in our multi-cultural, global world for any executive to know what products or services to make, what markets to pursue, or how best to structure and manage their organization? How do we know if a vision is the right vision, except in retrospect? What about all those organizations that have followed a "failed" or failing vision (e.g. Nortel Networks, Blackberry, Washington Mutual, Circuit City, Ames Department Stores, Lehman Brothers, and so on)? The complex realities of what leaders must deal with on a daily basis now challenge the traditional views of leadership and have begun to stimulate alternative ways of thinking about leadership and change.

For example, a leading voice supporting an alternative paradigm is Heifetz's (1998) leadership model that indirectly challenges the heroic, visionary orthodoxy. He divides the decision situations leaders face into technical problems, which can be defined and solved through a top-down imposition of technical rationality; and adaptive challenges, which can only be "solved" through the voluntary engagement of the people who will have to change what they do and how they think. …

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