Introduction: On Becoming a Clear Leader

All over the world we are witnessing a revolution in organizing. Just as the industrial revolution created its new form of organization (bureaucracy) the information revolution is creating its own new form of organization. We are moving from command and control to collaboration, from organizing based on a few leaders telling everyone what to do to dispersed leadership, with managers, professionals and teams authorized to make their own decisions. In the 80’s and 90’s I was involved in designing these new organizational structures – team based manufacturing, cross-functional teams, delayered and network organizations, and so on. The combination of information technology and new forms of organizing have resulted in an explosion in innovation in how we structure organizations, all intended to increase the capacity for people to collaborate – to harness the intelligence, knowledge, and commitment of everyone in the system. Yet, few of these innovations have lived up to their promise. Studies of innovative work systems show that most of them revert back to command and control within a few years.

In the 90’s I became fascinated with why that happens – why are we unable to sustain collaborative organizations?  Almost all the leaders I meet in the public and private sectors want to create collaborative work systems. Almost all the professionals, managers and employees I meet want to work in collaborative work systems. It’s not a motivation problem. I’ve come to believe that the problem is that we are using outmoded definitions of leadership, teamwork and people skills. Our images of how to manage people and teams are still rooted in the past. We’ve created amazing new organizational forms but we’re trying to run them the same old way. The core of the problem, as I see it, can be captured in the following story. It’s a story about a branch of a company run by a man who prides himself on being a collaborative leader. All the managers who work in it want to work in a collaborative organization. Many of them think things in this organization are pretty good. See if it’s at all familiar to you.

In their weekly meeting Lynette, a new manager in the customer service group, describes her unit’s poor performance results and what she intends to do to improve them. As she talks other managers listen politely and a few (always the same ones) ask a few questions “for clarification.” At the end of her presentation the boss thanks her and says he looks forward to reviewing the results of her plans in another month, and the meeting moves on. But many things have not been said. More than one manager at the meeting does not really agree with Lynette’s analysis of the problems but says nothing about it. Some say nothing to avoid embarrassing Lynette, others to avoid being seen as quarrelsome. Doug wonders if Lynette is competent and really understands the situation. Marlene believes Lynette knows perfectly well what is going on but has chosen not to talk about the whole story in order to protect people in her department. Bruce thinks Lynette is trying to protect herself by covering up the real problems in her unit. Sondra thinks Lynette is well intentioned but taken advantage of by her employees. Others have other thoughts and opinions which they keep to themselves.

After the meeting, some of them get together in smaller gatherings, over coffee or lunch, and the conversation turns to what they think is really going on in Lynette’s department, what Lynette is really going to do about it, and her reasons for what she is and isn’t saying about it. Differing opinions are examined and discussed, and in future interactions with Lynette people look for tips and clues to support or refute their different opinions about her real thoughts and feelings. In time, these managers come to develop firm opinions about Lynette’s real motivations and competence. Of course, none of this is ever discussed or checked out with Lynette. Over the next few months various images of Lynette, her strengths and weaknesses, her motivations, and her agenda develop among the smaller groups, and these guide future interactions with Lynette.

Lynette is fully aware of what is going on in her department and has some excellent ideas about what to do about it but, due to the perceptions she had developed of her current boss before becoming his subordinate, believes it is not a good idea to be completely truthful, especially since some of his behaviors are part of the problem. She is a little surprised by the lack of cooperation she is receiving from her peers. They don’t say anything in meetings but she notices the lack of follow-through on things she thought they had agreed to. She attributes this to people being too busy and overworked, unaware that her co-workers are actually concerned about the accuracy of her analysis of the problems and the motivations behind her plans. “Why waste energy and resources on a doomed effort?” is the thinking behind much of the non-cooperation.

In particular, she distrusts Bruce, whose cooperation she really needs. She sees him as unwilling to deal honestly, always covering his butt. She had heard that Bruce didn’t like women in management and had found her initial interactions with him awkward. He seemed uptight and never looked at her directly. She never talked about this directly with Bruce, of course. Instead, when his behavior got to be too much she talked to Marlene, who helped her ventilate and strategize how to work around Bruce.

Bruce, in turn, distrusts Lynette, who never seems to deal with him directly and always seems to be trying to go around him in ways that discredit him. The only explanation he has for her behavior is that she is trying to discredit him, either so he’ll take the blame for her problems or to take his job. He thinks Marlene, whom he finds a pain in the neck, is just that way because of her personality.

Unable to get others to put some real effort and energy into turning around her department, Lynette finds it difficult to implement her plans and get results, and this situation further reinforces those who suspect she isn’t really competent. In desperation, at another meeting she brings up the lack of concrete support from other departments to improve performance. A certain nervous tension fills the room, and her boss, a “team player,” moves quickly to smooth things over. Lynette’s complaint is not examined in much detail and everyone professes their willingness to be more supportive. While Lynette’s co-workers are well intentioned, their behaviors, and the beliefs behind them, don’t really change. An endless cycle of lunchtime conversations, unexamined assumptions, and avoidance of issues results in continued mediocre results, which all assume to be pretty much normal.

Interpersonal Mush

I believe this story is all too representative of what takes place in your average organization. What you see going on is that interactions between people are based on stories they’ve made up about each other that they haven’t checked out directly with the person. I call this condition “interpersonal mush” and I am convinced that collaboration is not sustainable in interpersonal mush. In this book I will describe to you where interpersonal mush comes from and what it does to destroy the potential for collaboration between people. I will describe the skills that are required to clear out the mush and create interpersonal clarity. Through numerous anecdotes and examples I will show you why interpersonal clarity is essential for sustaining collaboration and how to make it happen.

Partnership with Others


A relationship between two or more people who are jointly committed to the success of whatever process or project they are engaged in.

In this book I will argue that the key to leading and working in collaborative work systems is your ability to create and sustain partnership with others. Partnership is a relationship between two or more people who are jointly committed to the success of whatever process or project they are engaged in[1]. Collaborative teams and organizations require people to be in partnership. And for the most part people want to be in partnership with their boss, their subordinates, their colleagues, customers and suppliers – they want to be working with others who are committed to their mutual success. People always enter partnerships, whether they are business partnerships, a new team based organization or a marriage, believing that the partnership will be great. All too often the partnership breaks down in acrimony and hard feelings. This is a book on how to avoid that happening. But first, to lay some groundwork for what will come later, I need to talk a bit about organization theory, psychology and philosophy.

What about Organization Theory?

The information age first began to disrupt our old forms of organizing when the speed of technological innovation got too fast. Command and control structures are the most profitable way to organize if you can figure out the one best way to do something and then run that sucker for all it’s worth. They still are. The problem is that things now keep changing so fast that effective organizations need to be able to change and adapt – at increasing speeds. Command and control structures are not very good at that. The only way they can manage learning and adaptation is to spend lots of time and money on things that aren’t directly related to producing – things like research and development, creating coordination teams and positions, sending people away from work to training and meetings, and so on. Organizations face a paradox that the things that support learning and innovation seem to do so at the expense of efficiency and performance. Everyone recognizes that in the long run to keep performing you have to be learning, but in the short run these seem to work against each other. Think for a moment what it’s like to learn any skill. When you first start learning, you aren’t performing very well. As your learning curve goes up the performing improves but by the point where you are performing well you aren’t learning much anymore.

By the 1970’s we had two different kinds of organizing structures – those that were efficient (but not innovative) and those that were innovative (but not efficient). What seemed to work was to use efficient structures in stable businesses and innovative structures in unstable business environments. That worked for a while but the problem now is that all business environments are unstable. Everyone needs to be adapting and changing yet to be successful organizations still need to be efficient – they need to produce more products and services at a lower cost than competitors or they go out of business. How can we be efficient when the world is changing so fast?

The holy grail of organization design in the 21st century is how to create work systems that can be efficient and innovative at the same time – ones that can learn and perform simultaneously. This book is an attempt to answer one part of that puzzle. It’s about how to create teams and organizations were people can learn from their collective experience while they are working. Clear Leadership is about how to lead learning in the midst of performing. Virtually all the books written on leadership in the past 100 years are about how to lead performing. How do you get a group of people (large or small) to accomplish some objective? That’s half the problem and we have a lot of answers to that problem. But the other half of the problem is how do we learn from our collective experience to keep improving our processes of organizing? This book is an attempt to answer that question. And to answer that question we need to first acknowledge some things about human experience.

The Psychology of Experience

The Clear Leadership model is based on two things about how our minds work that make it difficult for us to learn from our collective experience. These are the nature of experience and sense-making.

We Create Our Own Experience

Ask five different people what happened at any event and you will get five different answers. Some will be more similar and some will be more different, but the point here is that everyone is having a different experience. I was once talking to an executive team about these ideas and saying that the problem of learning from our collective experience is that everyone is having a different experience. Coincidently one of them excused themselves to leave the room while we talked and the conversation turned to the recent establishment of a weekly “state of the union” meeting. One of the managers was talking about how they were uninspiring and probably not a good idea. The manager who had left returned and the leader said “let’s check that different experience thing – Murray, what do you think about the new weekly meetings?” He said “Fantastic! They’re really turning people on.” We all fell off our chairs laughing. But there it is.

I believe the most basic truth about humans is that we are constantly generating a stream of percepts, the building blocks of experience. We do this when we are awake or when we are asleep. We do this with or without sensory stimulation. From a position of the most extreme scientific doubt, we can never be sure if what we perceive is real (have you seen the movie The Matrix?) —but we can be sure that we perceive. There is strong evidence that our perceptions are shaped by what is going on both outside of us and inside of us. But even without anything going on outside of us, we will continue to generate perceptions. Sensory deprivation tanks, where a person floats on buoyant water in a completely dark and soundless chamber, proved that. If you stay in a sensory deprivation tank long enough, you will start to create experiences that you can’t distinguish from what we normally call “reality.” We call these “hallucinations.”

Percept generation is a constant, ceaseless process unless you have spent many years and a great deal of discipline to quiet the mind. Few people have. As a result it is almost always valid to assume that you and others are constantly creating a stream of percepts. In this book I will call this stream of percepts, and your internal reaction to those percepts, your experience. Even as you are reading this sentence you are having an experience. Your experience is made up of the percepts you are generating and your reactions to those percepts. Your experience comes from the inside out.

The perceptions you are generating are part of your experience and so are the reactions you are having to those perceptions. These are the thoughts, ideas, judgments, feelings, bodily sensations, wants, and desires you are having as you read this. For example, somebody might be thinking, “This is obvious, I already know this.” Another might be thinking, “This is an interesting way of putting these ideas.” Someone might be feeling frustrated at how “academic” it is and wondering if the book is worth reading any further. Someone else might be excited to find me putting words to things they’ve had a sense of before. The possible reactions to the varying perceptions of readers like you are extensive, maybe even infinite. That’s how it is with human experience.

Note that my way of talking about human experience is different from another common way of using the word: as a description of what happened to you in the past. From the point of view of clear leadership, experience is not what you’ve done in the past or the things you put on your resume. Experience is not what happens to you but the reactions you create out of what happens to you moment by moment[2]. And so a fundamental assumption is that you, I, and everyone else all create our own experience.

If you can believe that everyone reading this book will be having a personally unique experience, then I pose a question to you. Who is having the right experience? In a collaborative or partnership based organization the answer is “everyone” – but you see this makes the issue of how do we learn from our collective experience a lot more complicated than just reflecting together on what happened before. I think most of what goes on when people try to sort out problems of collaborating are attempts to figure out who is having the right experience. I’m convinced that these are unproductive conversations and reduce people’s interest in trying to learn from their collective experience. I also think this is one of the reasons why experiments in highly collaborative organizing revert to command and control. In the command and control organization it’s clear who is having the correct experience – the boss is. So we can all line up behind that.


The second key mental process that lies at the root of the problems Lynette and her co-workers face is sense-making. As human beings we appear to have a deep need to make sense of ourselves and others. When we make sense we explain our experiences within a framework that provides consistency and meaning to what we perceive. There are many aspects to this that I will take up in the next chapter, on sense-making, but let me point out here the key thing for being in partnership. When we try to make sense of other people’s behavior we almost always make up a story about their experience. That’s what Lynette’s peers were doing with her. They were making up stories about what Lynette’s “real” thoughts, feelings, and intentions were.

How much a story is pure fantasy or is based on some reality depends on two things: the quality of a person’s observation and the willingness of those being observed to describe what their experience is. Neither of these behaviors is well developed in organizations at the beginning of the 21st century. Skills of human observation depend first and foremost on self-observation and self-awareness, and these are not taught in schools or in many families. Describing our experience to others is also not taught in schools or many families and, more often, is frowned upon. As a consequence, most interpersonal encounters, especially those in work organizations, are best described as two or more people having different experiences while making up stories about what is going on in each other’s minds: stories that are never checked out.

These stories then become the input for further episodes of sense-making, shaping future perceptions and experiences that build on and reinforce each other, further making us certain that what we believe we see is the truth, and we almost never check that out with the people we are making up the “truth” about. Executives make up a story about workers and workers make up a story about executives. Managers in one department make up stories about managers in another department. People who work together every day make up stories about each other. On and on it goes, so organizations are composed of multiple, competing fantasies of what is going on and why, stories that are rarely discussed openly and almost never examined in a way that could prove or disprove them.

To build organizations where partnership flourishes we have to work with, rather than against, these two human processes. People are not going to stop creating their own experience and they are not going to stop trying to make sense of each other. The problem is that we don’t acknowledge these processes and make them visible. They aren’t things we talk about. Until we talk about them we can’t manage them. Clear Leadership is a set of skills and attitudes that will make you able to make these processes visible, make it possible to discuss them in ways that build partnership and lead to continuous improvement in your relationships, teams and organizations.

What is True?

The skills of clear leadership reflect a set of philosophical assumptions about people and society that are different from what most of us grew up with. Throughout this book I use the phrase, “telling the truth of your experience.” It’s an awkward phrase but the best I’ve been able to come up with for talking about a kind of truth that is different from “the” truth.

Objective and Subjective Truth

Believing that there is more than one kind of truth is one assumption of recent philosophers[3]. I bring this up because one of the reasons for the lack of clarity in organizations is the tendency to try to assess everything against the standards of objective truth. When it comes to managing and working with people, most of the “truths” we are dealing with are not objective. That is probably why people who are well trained in matters of objective truth, like engineers and accountants, are often viewed as having poor people skills. I don’t think it is an innate deficiency—just a lack of understanding and training in what “the truth of experience” is and how to go about thinking about it, talking about it, and learning from it.

Even as children, we learn the difference between objective and subjective truth. Objective truths are truths that can be measured and validated independent of your percepts or mine. This is the truth of science and technology. Subjective truth, on the other hand, is based entirely on what is going on in each individual. For example, there is an objective truth to how much you get paid at work. What you think, feel, and want regarding how much you get paid is a subjective truth. Objective truth is based on our ability to objectively measure whatever we are talking about. When someone says what they think, feel, or want, how do you know if it is “true”? Subjective truth has to do with the quality of a person’s awareness and the authenticity with which they express it. Subjective truth is what I mean when I talk about the truth of your experience. While modern society has made great strides in developing ways of assessing and validating objective truths, we are still novices at assessing and validating subjective truths. Yet subjective truth is an essential part of working with people, and its importance is amplified in collaborative work systems. One of the challenges of clearing out the mush, learning from collective experience and sustaining partnerships is to get clear about your subjective truth and the subjective truth of others you work with. It is impossible if we try to treat subjective truth the same way we treat objective truths.

Inter-subjective Truth

There is a third kind of truth, inter-subjective truth. This consists of things that are true because you and I agree they are. So much of what is “true” in organizations is inter-subjective truth. What is success? What is quality? Is Bob a good boss? What is an adequate return on investment? The “correct” answers to questions like these in any organization are inter-subjective truths. Inter-subjective truths are the essence of social reality and they are always co-created. Everyone involved contributes to the creation, maintenance, and change of the reality or truths they face at work. Again, we don’t have very developed methods of assessing and validating this kind of truth or even thinking about it. Building collaboration among people, however, is a lot about inter-subjective truth, and the skills in this book are very concerned with understanding, creating, and changing inter-subjective truths.

The Skills of Clear Leadership

Even though the title of the book is about leadership I want to be clear that these skills are useful to anyone, regardless of their position, who works in any organization based on principles of teamwork, personal initiative, and partnership. Any person, regardless of their role, provides leadership when they do something that helps a group or organization achieve its goals or increase its effectiveness. Anytime anyone helps a group of people increase their clarity, learn from experience and improve their ways of working together, they are providing leadership. You can provide leadership whatever your position in an organization. I will show you how managers and professionals use these skills to gain clarity and build partnerships among people working together.

The skills of clear leadership are

  • self-awareness,
  • descriptiveness,
  • curiosity, and
  • appreciation.

In this book I want to describe what the mastery of those skills looks like. When you master something, you embody it. When a great guitarist plays music, or a great fencer fences, they don’t think about what they are doing: something else in them takes over. The skill itself takes over. Similarly, to master the skills in this book a person must be able to embody them—to allow them, in a sense, to take over. In four chapters I will describe the nature of the Aware Self, the Descriptive Self, the Curious Self, and the Appreciative Self.

The Aware Self knows, moment to moment, what she is thinking, feeling, observing, and wanting. She understands the processes she uses to create her experience. She is clear how much of her experience is based on facts and how much is her sense-making.

The Descriptive Self is able to help other people empathize with him. He can describe all the facets of his experience clearly. He is able to describe difficult, confrontational aspects of his experience in a way that doesn’t make others defensive but elicits a willingness to listen and understand.

The Curious Self is a master at uncovering other people’s experience. She is able to observe, question, and probe until she fully understands, as much as humanly possible, what her partners are thinking, feeling and wanting.

The Appreciative Self works through imagination and conversation to amplify the best in people and processes. He builds partnership and a willingness to collectively learn from experience by seeing the normal human virtues in every person and bringing those out in interaction.

I will show you how to integrate these skills to create conversations, organizational learning conversations, where people clear out the mush, learn from their collective experience and build partnerships that really do lead to superior organizational performance.

The Attribute of Self-Differentiation

Clear leadership isn’t just skills and techniques. The personal attribute that underlies a person’s ability to use clear leadership and create an atmosphere that supports others using these skills is her level of self-differentiation. A person acts in a differentiated way when she is able to be separate from and simultaneously connected to other people. What that means is that her experience is not simply in reaction to other people. Her thoughts and feelings cannot be emotionally hijacked by other people. She doesn’t attain this state of certainty and clarity by isolating herself from others, however. A differentiated person wants to know what other people think and feel without taking responsibility for their experience or demanding that they have different thoughts and feelings. Most of us can learn to be more differentiated in our interactions at work. Most managers are too separate from their employees and disconnected from their experience, or they are overly connected, so their own experience becomes wrapped up in that of their employees. In the chapter on fusion, disconnection, and differentiation I will describe these issues in much greater detail.

The Issue of Authority

The issue of authority is an important thread that is woven throughout this book. Contrary to popular images and poorly thought through books on the subject, collaborative work systems do not decrease or eliminate authority even if they do flatten hierarchies and reduce command and control—quite the contrary. Authority and hierarchy are two separate things. Authority is the power to make and enforce decisions. Collaborative organizations create much more authority than command and control systems do because in collaborative organizations authority is dispersed widely. More people are authorized to make decisions and take actions that obligate others in the organization to make complementary decisions and take complementary actions. That is one of the reasons why you need many people using the skills of clear leadership for these organizations to work well. But collaborative organizations still require some hierarchy for focus and direction. Hierarchy, because of the uneven power it creates, can get in the way of people telling their truth to one another. The many ways in which managerial authority is a two-edged sword, both supporting clear leadership and being a barrier to clear leadership, are discussed in various parts of this book.

A Clear Leadership Example

Here is a true, summarized vignette (the actual episode lasted over 30 minutes) of an example of learning from their collective experience by a group of managers. Their leader, Pierre, is using clear leadership skills with a subordinate, Stan, who is also using the skills of clear leadership. It is an example of a group working in a culture of clarity.

It has been four months since the president, Pierre, declared his and the Board’s intent to change the sole emphasis the organization has had for the past ten years on Product A and introduce a new product, B. As he sits in a meeting of his executive committee, Pierre is worried that the vice-president of the unit responsible for Product A (Stan) is resisting this change. He was very unhappy with Stan’s performance at yesterday’s Board meeting, where he seemed confused and not in line with the new strategy. Pierre was also concerned by the very negative reaction some Board members voiced about Stan once he left the room. He values Stan, who has been an outstanding performer for many years, but realizes that he really doesn’t know what Stan thinks about the change in strategy. As the discussion turns to the new strategy, the president takes leadership in telling the truth of his experience:

“Stan, the Board meeting yesterday raised confusion for me and I want to get clear with you about where each of us stands on the Product B strategy. I raise this here because it affects all of us and we all need to be clear on what each of us thinks about this. So let me begin. I was concerned by your apparent confusion yesterday, as I thought we had discussed the new product strategy fully and were all in complete agreement. It raises in my mind some doubts about whether you really support the Product B strategy, and, frankly, I’m starting to be concerned that you might resist it because you’re afraid it will take resources away from Product A. I want you to be clear about where you stand on this and I want us to find a way for you to feel fully behind both products A and B.”

Stan, who is visibly disturbed by Pierre’s remarks, asks questions to get more clarity about Pierre’s perceptions.

Stan: “Could you tell me what, exactly, I did that caused you concern at the meeting?”

Pierre: “There were a number of times when you were fielding questions that you made statements that are contrary to the strategy the Board has endorsed. For example, when Brian asked about the marketing strategy you talked about a tie-in building on the brand recognition of Product A when we’ve decided it’s better to keep the two products distinct in our clients’ eyes.”

Stan: “Any other things?”

Pierre: “Well, yes. Your response to Marilyn about product launch, and what you said to Herschel about expected cost of capital were not what we had agreed to.”

Stan: “Just so I’m clear, Pierre, can you tell me what you think I said and what we’ve agreed to?”

Pierre goes on to describe what he heard Stan say at the meeting and what he thinks was wrong with what Stan said.

Stan: “OK, I think I’m clear on what you’re unhappy about, but before I respond to what you’ve just said, Pierre, I just want to check if there are any other reasons why you think I might not be fully behind the change.”

Pierre: “Well, since you asked, I was taken aback a week or so ago with a conversation I had with Barbara [one of Stan’s direct reports], who seemed to have some pretty confused fears about what effects this change is going to have on your department. Then I noticed a similar set of thoughts coming from Kevin [another of Stan’s managers]. It got me wondering just how much of that is coming from you.”

Stan: “Were they talking about having to shift people to the new business unit? [ Pierre nods] Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Anything else causing you to wonder where I’m at?”

Pierre“No, that’s about it.”

Stan: “OK, well let me start by saying I’m somewhat ta ken aback by all this—I had no idea that things went sideways at the Board meeting, so I guess I’m glad you are telling me about it and I do want you to know that I’m fully behind Product B. Let me deal with the meeting issues first. With Herschel I think I must have just not gotten my thoughts out clearly because I agree with what you are saying about our financing and how much debt we’re willing to take on. But I have to tell you that I am confused about our marketing strategy and launch plans because I thought we had decided to build on the brand recognition and tie-in with Product A.”

Pierre“No, no—that got decided at least a month ago.”

Robert: “I have to tell you, Pierre, I’m with Stan on that one. I thought the opposite as well.”

Susan: “I didn’t know a decision had been made.”

Pierre : “I don’t understand this; we talked about this issue for weeks and then at the last meeting of the Board’s Strategy Committee a decision was made to keep the two products separate and distinct in our sales campaign.”

Robert: “Well I remember the discussions but I thought we were all leaning toward product tie-in. I don’t remember hearing that the Strat Committee had made a decision.”

Errol: “I knew about it from the meeting you had with the marketing group, Pierre, but I don’t know if it ever came up here.”

Pierre : “Oh heck, I thought I had announced that at our last meeting.”

At this point Pierre tells the group about the decision the Board’s Strategy Committee had made and their rationale. A discussion ensues and it becomes clear that this is the first time the group has heard about and discussed this decision.

Stan: “To finish off with the issues you were bringing up, Pierre , it’s true that people in my unit are afraid that they are going to lose resources to Product B. I don’t think it’s going to be nearly as drastic as some of the concerns some people have, but obviously some resources are going to have to be redirected and we haven’t really decided on what this is going to be yet. Frankly, I think the sooner we decide that the better, because the uncertainty is starting to fuel a lot of speculation, and since I don’t really know what is going to happen there’s not a lot I can tell folks to calm them down. But you need to understand that as far as I’m concerned, bringing on Product B is absolutely essential to the future health of our company and I am 100 percent behind it.”

Pierre : “I’m glad to hear that, Stan, but why are your people not on the bus too?”

Stan: “Oh, I don’t think anyone questions the wisdom of moving into the Product B space, Pierre; it’s just that no one’s sure what the ramifications for Product A will be and that is creating a lot of rumors and unfounded gossip. Last week someone asked me if we were closing down the Product A unit.”

Pierre : “That’s ridiculous! Product A is the core of this company. Isn’t that obvious?”

Stan: “I think it is to us but there does seem to be some confusion in the ranks.”

Errol: “I’m having a similar experience, Stan. A couple of days ago I overheard a conversation in the cafeteria where some people were guessing how Product Unit A was going to be reorganized.”

Stan: “I think the buzz coming from below is causing some of the concerns you are hearing from my managers, Pierre.”

Pierre : “Are any of the rest of you picking this up?”

The group launches into a discussion about the effects that the organization’s culture, with 10 years of sole focus on Product A, is having on implementing the new strategy. Some of this is news to Pierre , and together they develop a picture of a pattern of misperceptions and misguided fears that are surfacing in the organization. Everyone affirms that Product A is still the backbone of the company and that a new emphasis on Product B should not have to mean a decrease in support for Product A.

Pierre : “We’d better do something to clear up the confusion we’ve created. I think Colette’s team on resourcing Product B is just about finished. I’ll ask her to speed up and we can use their report to make some clear announcements throughout the company that will end all the uncertainties about who is going to be working where. Susan, can you get the communications people geared up for this? I want to make it a priority. We don’t need a lot of unfounded fears and rumors getting in the way of moving Product B to market quickly and effectively.

“I’m sure glad we had this conversation, though I’m a little sorry that it started from my misgivings about you, Stan. I see that I have some responsibility for what happened at the Board yesterday so I guess I owe you an apology.”

Stan: “Thanks, Pierre , but I have to take some responsibility for not having checked out my facts before the presentation. I wonder if we can huddle before Board meetings in the future just to make sure I have my ducks in line.”

Pierre : “I think that would be a good idea.”

And the group moves on to deal with other items on the agenda.

Sound like fantasy land? If it does, you have spent too much of your working life in the interpersonal mush of organizations where leaders do not create a culture of clarity. You may not be able to see it yet, but by the end of this book you will recognize in this story a set of critical skills that these people were using to create this interaction. In this vignette you see an organizational learning conversation in action. I believe it is the basis for any sustained high performance in organizations that want their employees and managers to feel committed, take initiatives, negotiate agreements together, and coordinate their actions with one another. That is what this book is about.

Some months before the event I’ve described took place, this was a typical organization where people didn’t talk about their perceptions and concerns openly, where face-saving and backroom conversations were the order of the day, and where people often didn’t know what others thought of them and didn’t treat each other as trustworthy. As it turned out, virtually all the people in this organization were decent, trustworthy, and yearning to work in an organization that didn’t stress them out. It was not their lack of integrity or intention that made their system the way it was. It was simply a lack of the basic skills that I will show you in this book. Once they had those, and authorities willing to create a culture of clarity where telling the truth of one’s experience was accepted and valued, the result was a place where people could talk easily and honestly about what was really on their minds and so make sane and sensible decisions that got followed through on.

Clear leadership is about creating clarity in every interaction and every group you are a member of. It requires understanding the nature of experience and the reasons it seems so difficult to get people to tell the truth of their experience to each other. So let’s turn first to one of the key assumptions required for building cultures of clarity—that we are sense-making beings—and let’s examine the critical implications of that understanding for the kinds of organizations we create.

[1] I want to acknowledge my debt to Barry Oshry, President of Power & Systems Inc and author of Seeing Systems, from whom I first heard this definition of partnership.

[2] I learned this way of thinking about experience from Ron Short and John Runyon. See Ron’ s (1991) A Special Kind of Leadership: The Key to Learning Organizations. Seattle: The Leadership Group.

[3] Those familiar with critical theory will see the influence of Jurgen Habermas in this section.  See, for example, Habermas, J.(1984) The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1.Boston: Beacon.

"This book makes leadership accessible to all, even the quiet, shy, avoid eye contact ones among us.."
Peter Block
author of Flawless Consulting and The Empowered Manager
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