Dynamic Leadership: Thinking and Acting Dialectically.


Dynamic Leadership: Thinking and Acting Dialectically.

If you read any serious review of strategy or public sector reforms in one guise, or another, you will find the leadership theme writ large. “More leadership is needed” or words to that effect. In terms of my own professional practice I moved away from more ‘fixed’ conceptions of leadership based, for example, on traits or a personality type many years ago.

That is not to say that they don’t have a part to play. Just not in the style of coaching and development that I specialise in. My niche tends to be for those in current leadership positions or roles and are leaders de facto. Therefore, my needs are different. Quite distinct. Unique? Well… not quite that far! But each of them is without a doubt a unique individual.

One model I have found that adds value is one that I developed around 7-years ago whilst completing some first-person inquiry work. I thought I might share it and you can see if it catches your imagination, interest or even curiosity?

Rather than seeing key concepts as ‘fixed’ it creates a context that is much more dynamic or fluid. It is grounded by leader-member exchange theory (LMX) and then fused or integrated with dialectical theory or dynamics.

For those of you that have not heard of this before consider a form of magnetic power like the one in the picture.


You might remember at school a simple experiment that used magnetic ‘power’ to drive a small object such as a toy car, for example? If not, then imagine one now.

Dialectical power is stating things as plainly as possible… the real energy from the two opposing forces: like the two poles of a magnet, North and South or positive and negative. You’ll soon notice that lots of practical things have two opposites: good and bad; eternity and mortality; the sacred and the profane; inside and out; back and front; etc.

In terms of developing leadership awareness or ‘talent’, skills and responsiveness to a given context my clients have found the following model adds value. For our model imagine two sets of poles or opposites:-

  • Vision/Far Away versus Present/ The-Here-and-Now
  • Individual/Team Needs versus Task/Delivery/Execution

Most of the leadership empirical evidence tends to support the view that leaders will have strengths or preferences for one of the two poles. For example, a Visionary leader may have a compelling strategy. And they might also prefer to meet the individual and team’s emotional, psychological and training needs. However, as you can see their ‘blind spot’ is that they are not strong on focussing on the here and now and the absolute need to deliver a product and/or service to their customers or service users. This analytical framework can be found in many organisations, as well as many a discussion in the staff canteen when front-line staff are ‘getting it in the neck’ from disgruntled customers due to delivery delays!

My clients report that they have found that the practical added value of this model lies in the ability to empower them in these five key realities:-

  1. More flexibly in harnessing organisational energy (a great part of the model is making energy explicit. I’ll blog soon on various organisational energy flows especially around innovation).
  2. Responding to emergent business/customer intelligence in more responsive and effective ways
  3. Team members connecting their work-load to the broader Vision and thereby enhancing meaning; job satisfaction and retention rates
  4. Improved delivery of key products/services to customers
  5. Improved cognitive and emotional capacity through reflective professional practice

I hope this model might help you to see yourself in a dynamic, fluid and changing leadership context and that you can respond in more grounded and reflective ways.

Take care Jason

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Jason is a Business Psychologist as well as a qualified Project Manager professional.

Organisational Transformation: New Talent Might Be Essential!


One of the most accepted leadership paradigms is that of the transformational leader. Work/Occupational Psychologists have been promoting this model for those organisations that have transformational programmes or strategies to implement. Thus, Work Psychologists have been helping such organisational to identify, recruit, and further develop the right individuals that fit this model and the strategic need. To be fair to the leadership field this is a plethora of robust empirical evidence supporting this model.


Over the last 35-years I have worked in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Over the last 15-years I have also been a Coach to Senior Directors/Leaders within those sectors too. Over this time I have questioned whether it is better to bring-in new top talent or external strategic Consultants to develop the existing leadership team (or more likely a ‘blend’ of all three approaches). I have often wondered when a top team is struggling to make proper in-roads whether Senior Directors can become too familiar with their organisations. Can you get over familiar with the culture and does this prevent the necessary challenge and energy to implement change?


I guess stated simply my question can be framed as: Can over-familiarity prevent the next stage of the transformational journey?


With these questions in mind I was delighted to come across a neat research paper developed by Russell Guay (2013). It is entitled “The relationship between leader fit and transformational leadership” and you can locate it in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. Vol.28(1), 2013, pp. 55-73.


Guay (2013) draws on the transformational literature and develops a model that explores 3 types of fit between the leader and the organisation:


  1. Person-Organisational fit: the extent to which their own values fit with those of the employing or host organisation
  2. Needs-Supplied fit: the extent to which the job meets the leaders own need
  3. Demand-Abilities fit: the extent to which the leader has the knowledge, skills and experience to meet the demands of the job at hand


For those of you with a research bent- he uses structural equation modelling to statistically demonstrate the best fit of the data-set/ results. Now in my view…here’s comes the fun part! The insights and application!



Guay (2013) reports a negative relationship (-0.17) between 1 and the outcome measure of transformational leadership. He also reports that as he hypothesized there was a positive relationship between 2 & 3 (0.14 & 0.24 respectively). Lastly, he also reports a negative relationship between tenure in the organisation and transformational leadership behaviours.


So what might this mean in practice?


Evidently, we are ‘bang on the money’ when it comes to our well established transformational leadership model. When any job supplies our personal needs for development, challenge and growth (2), and we have the pre-requisite skills, knowledge and experience then we can empirically anticipate, in all good faith, the organisational transformation.


Then, here comes the caveat. Or at least, here comes my interpretative caveat…over familiarity with the organisation may well prevent the leader from implementing the transformational necessary. So it seems there is an ‘upper limit’ for some Director posts (and one could sensibly argue any post associated with the transformational programme or strategy) to stay in the same organisation. This also helps explain the negative relationship between tenure and a lack of transformational outcomes/behaviours too.


Of course, as with all empirical inquiry there is the classic ‘more research is needed’ and this holds true here too. Just how long is the question and, of course, if we take any existing ‘top team’ can we inject some new transformational energy/blood by changing one or two of the Directorship posts and, by so doing, refresh the energy, the focus, and the necessary challenge.


These insights also help to explain why external ‘Change Consultants’ earn their buck… because if you want to keep a fairly stable, senior team (for identified stability or even organisational political purposes), then having a ‘fresh but critical’ pair of eyes can have the same effect. However, this latter tactic would seem to hold true… just as long as you employ some ‘fresh transformational blood’ further down the organisational hierarchy to get into implementing the identified transformational programme.



Yes Minister! Survival Skills for Public Sector Leaders?

Yes Minister



“Yes Minister” is a totally hilarious sitcom (full of wit and loaded with satire) and in my view one of the best of very British TV programmes. It was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. According to Wikipedia it was first transmitted by the BBC between 1980 and 1984 and was split over three, 7-episode series. It had a huge critical and popular success. The series also received a number of awards; including several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Best Sitcom poll. Quite a success story!

It was so popular that the BBC very wisely produced a sequel entitled “Yes, Prime Minister”, and this ran between 1986 to 1988. In total there were 38 episodes which is a significant achievement by today’s standards. What I have also learned is that several of the very best episodes were then adapted for BBC Radio, and later a stage play was produced in 2010.

So what is it all about? Before I describe it can I just say that one of the main reasons I find it so fascinating and entertaining is that I have family, friends and old school chums that are currently civil servants and they all testify that the key themes and ideas resonate with rich authenticity.

As you might have guessed Yes Minister is set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the (fictional) ‘Department of Administrative Affairs’ in Whitehall, London. So the programmes substance or dynamic interplay, is the ways by which the British civil service ‘comes-up against’ Ministerial politics, policies and tactics. Stated simply, Ministers want to get things done quickly whereas the culture of the civil service is risk averse and cautious. Therein sets the tension!

With the scene set it..the series follows the hilarious ministerial career of The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, who is superbly played by Paul Eddington. You cannot but ‘howl’ as his various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or even effect quite simple departmental changes are frustrated, or subtly opposed, by the British Civil Service, and in particular his Permanent Secretary Sir Appleby (who is skillfully played by Nigel Hawthorne).

Jim Hacker’s Secretary is a chap called Bernard Woolley who is played by Derek Fowlds. What is equally amusing is the ways by which he is constantly caught between a ‘rock and a hard place’ of the dynamics between his commitment to his Minister, Jim Hacker, and then his loyalty to the Civil Service. The pressure from the latter embodied and enacted all too skilfully by the commanding presence from Sir Humphrey. As the Psychologist, Jung, once remarked the most emotive and memorable human albeit psychological drama’s can be traced to a ‘triangular dynamic of relationships’.

So what can we learn as we apply this to us and leadership development and even leadership career longevity?

What strikes me is that in this series the civil service acts as an effective ‘buffer’ between key public sector and business leaders and the Minister. This acts as a form of relational protection and, of course, ‘saves face’ when disagreements might arise. What do I mean by this? Well, putting this bluntly what any public sector leader does not want is any Minister having to put things very directly to them ‘mano a mano’ in any form. This is process failure!

This latter ‘end point’ reminds me of the proverbial ‘kiss of death’. Consequently, a wise, mature and ‘grounded’ public service leader would be actively looking for and rightly understanding any Ministerial ‘clues, hints and points’ from which to ‘get under the message’ so as to prevent the process failure noted above from actually occurring. And, in this same way, an effective and bright civil servant would also be looking to make active facilitation to this same end.

So, my advice is.. when the Minister speaks- pay full attention and when he provides ‘hints and tips’…pay even more attention. #survivalskills


“Let’s kick their ass and get the Hell out of here”



Within a short 60-minutes some 226 US soldiers has been massacred by the Indians. The latter had over 1,500 warriors and had more reliable and effective Winchester rifles. Ambrose (1996) rightly notes that the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ is arguably the most written about military event in American history which is quite something!

From my very own experience, it is fair to say that I have met three leaders that remind me of General Custer over the last 16- years of working as a Work/Business Psychologist. Recently, I have been reflecting on what leadership insights we might gain from re-examining General Custer from a Work Psychology perspective. By way of methodology I have adopted the type of discourse analysis as advocated by Parker & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). In this way I have completed a short intensive research review and consequently completed an analysis of the key themes. Lastly, I mapped these across to psychological evidence-base.

Up front and central I’d like to argue or construct a view of Custer as embodying the psychological ‘dark triad’. This is a ‘diabolical trinity’ of three key personality constructs, namely:-

  1. Narcissism which can be witnessed by pride, egotism, a lack of empathy and grandiosity.
  2. Machiavellianism which is characterised by the exploitation and manipulation of others for one’s own ends and a strong motivation and focus on one’s own self-interest. This also includes tactics such as deception, lying and lack of moral values
  3. Psychopathology which can be witnessed by anti-social behaviour, impulsivity, callousness and a lack of remorse.

You will notice that although these three components are conceptually ‘teased apart’ in practice they overlap. I have noticed in at least two clients that these components seem to ‘spark off’ one another. Lastly, each component has a statistical normal distribution. That is to say, a less ‘acute’ type can be found in non-clinical settings such as the workplace. This resonates with Lowen (1985) in his first-class and very accessible book on Narcissism has found a similar pattern.

  1. Narrcissim

“In years long numbered with the past, when I was merging upon manhood, my every thought was ambitious- not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great. I desired to link my name with acts and men in such a manner as to be a mark of honor, not only to the present, but also to future generations.

“The largest Indian camp on the North American continent is ahead and I am going to attack it”

Both quotations from George Armstrong Custer, 1867.


OK let’s take a look at Custer’s narcissism. Firstly, we have the display component. For example during battle he would ride on a white horse; whereas his troopers would be on black horses as a key differential in terms of the positional display of power, authority, as well as the visual impact signifying difference and the element of deferral. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be a very expressive ‘executive’ car. Andrist (2001) states that he was “greedy for fame” and many commentators (e.g. Kershaw, 2005) have noted how he enjoyed making public speeches- primarily about himself and his successful campaigns to date (see Macnab, 2003).

It is also fascinating to note that Custer frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns to report on his military skills and prowess. It is also sad to note that two of them lost their lives at his ‘Last Stand’.

Ambrose (1996) noted that within the U.S. Army Custer was described as being a vain, self-seeking and glory-wanting individual. Andrist (2001) believes that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer; which from a narcissist frame of reference literally speaks volumes!

Custer also loved dressing very flamboyantly. He often wore or ‘sported’ a uniform that included shiny boots, tight olive trousers, a tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. To ‘top it off’ he was had a wide brimmed slouch hat, and styled his hair in ringlets with cinnamon scented hair oil. Quite the image!

  1. Machiavellianism

“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”

Next, let’s briefly explore some of the ways by which Custer was a Machiavellian Connell (1997) reports that many of his peer-group saw Custer as someone that “really wanted to be seen as important but not caring how he got there.”

Connell (1997) reports how during the course of his military career Custer was prone to disobey orders, as well as openly criticize those senior to him in the military hierarchy. For example, he charged the Secretary of War of ‘hypocrisy’ saying that they were signing treaties with the Indians with one hand and them killing them with the other.

Custer also had the classic Machiavellian tendency ‘show-off’ to those in positions of authority/power when it was the right time to do so when seeking his own shameless self-promotion and vain ambitions. One of the most telling examples is when on May 24, 1862 General Barnard and his senior staff were assessing a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River. Custer was waiting for his ‘moment’ so when General Bardnard said to his team “I wish I knew how deep it was”…with that Custer gently wiped his horse and rode- out to the middle of the river and shouted victoriously “That’s how deep it is, Mr General”.

What unfolds next is very important for our interpretive purposes as Custer was consequently given permission to lead a successful attack across the River and this resulted in the capture of over 50 Confederates. Following this successful campaign, he is also then personally congratulated for his gallantry by the General.

These details are psychologically relevant as this set-up the ‘reward’ frame of reference for the type of ‘heroics’ that Custer was in far too desperate need for. Of course, this deep-seated need for achievement and recognition was a classic ‘double-edged sword’ and would lead to his demise along with his brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer who died with him along with his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and nephew, Henry Armstrong Reed.

  1. Psychopathology

“They tell me I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death” (Chief Sitting Bull).


For me the most telling psychopathological moment is back in 1866. By way of context the western frontier was conflict ridden. Unaccustomed to the tactics of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Custer spent months fruitlessly chasing after elusive bands of warriors. At one point, he became so frustrated that he abandoned his command and dashed 150 miles in 55 hours just to spend one day with his wife.


For this insubordination and deserting his post the records state that he was court-marital and consequently suspended from the Army for a year. However, General Philip Sheridan came to his rescue and recalled him to lead a winter campaign against the Cheyenne. In a bloody dawn attack along the Washita River in 1868, Custer and his men killed 103 Indians. The records demonstrate that very few were in actual fact were warriors. Tellingly the majority were women, young children and old men. Custer demonstrated neither mercy, nor compassion nor any element of empathy. This was a massacre!


As time progressed Custer noted that the military culture turned a blind eye to some of his more brutal methods of ‘leadership’. As with all mavericks this was mainly because he ‘delivered results’. Unfortunately, given his personality problems Custer became extremely ruthless. For example, it is reported that on at least three occasions when he was challenged by subordinates he did not hesitate to kill them for ‘insubordination’. There was no room for any ‘critical friends’ in his psychological space.

I would argue that Custer’s lack of empathy was one of the factors which meant that he rejected help from new technologies and instead relied too heavily on his own military skills and methods. He outright rejected the Gatling gun. Next his forced his men to use single-shot Springfields, whilst the Indians used much more reliable and effected Winchester rifles.

On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command in the face of vastly superior numbers into three battalions. Thus, the refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and then rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.

To be fair, prior to the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ Custer had experienced some measure of campaign success. But he ascribed this more to his own method of the ‘Custer chase’ which relied heaving on three factors:

  • having first-class reconnaissance intelligence,
  • the element of genuine surprise, and lastly,
  • Outnumbering the enemy.

Most historians note failure on all three tactical components with his fateful and infamous ‘Final Stand’.


Like Achilles, it seems that Custer achieved in death, the lasting fame that eluded him in life. For many years, the public saw him as a ‘tragic military hero’ and ‘a gentleman’ who ‘sacrificed his life for his country’. To this end, Custer’s wife, Elizabeth helped construct this narrative with the publication of several books including: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887).

My own analysis is that General Custer was a psychologically flawed individual and that this can account for:

  • his exponential rise through the ranks with little/limited actual military experience
  • his very brutal treatment of the ‘enemy’ more especially the vulnerable (e.g. unarmed women, children and the elderly)
  • his reliance upon his own skills and rejection of help or new technologies
  • ultimately- his key military failure



Interested in Further reading?


I enjoyed reading Stephen E. Ambrose (1996): ‘Crazy Horse and Custer: the parallel lives of two American warriors’: New York: Anchor Books.


Ambrose, S.E. (1996). Crazy Horse and Custer: New York: Anchor Books.

Andrist,R K (2001). The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian, Editorial Galaxia.

Connell, E. (1997). Son of the Morning Star. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Custer, George Armstrong (1874) My Life on the Plains. New York: Sheldon and Company.

Kershaw, R. (2005). Red Sabbath: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Ian Allan Publishing.

Lowen, A. (1985). Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. Touchstone Books, New York.

Macnab, D B (2003). A Day to Remember: Introducing the Drama, Irony, and Controversies of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, iUniverse.

Parker, I. & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). Lacan, Discourse, Event: New Psychoanalytic Approaches to Textual Indeterminacy. Routledge. London

Perrett, B. (1993). Last Stand: Famous Battles Against the Odds. London: Arms & Armour.



Coaching Welsh Directors: Can you pass The Statesman Paradox?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had several one-to-one personal coaching discussions with Executive Directors in the Welsh public sector. Whilst each session has been deeply personal, different and unique that has been an overarching ‘meta-narrative’ in and between them, that has been bubbling away with my own sense-making. The reality is that I am not quite sure how to fully or properly express this. And, therefore, this blog is my own personal attempt to ‘get it out of my heart’ and on to a page that it may invite challenge, and also help me to write to my-self as a part of my own first-person inquiry process (see Reason & Bradbury, 2002).

Stated briefly, it has struck me how successful leaders are getting ‘stuck’. Each has significant personal strengths which will not come as too much as a surprise given that they are Executive Directors with a median budget of £ 1.1 billion of public sector money. Each of them has strengths around strategic design; personal resilience; influencing and negotiating skills, and political acumen for working in complex, political systems. In the same way, as we review their personal and organisational achievement there are evidence-based success that bring to mind a deep sense of achievement, meaning and pride (in the positive sense) not avarice.

But here comes the thing. It is slightly elusive. These skills, strengths, experiences and values seem to turn in on themselves. But why? The Welsh Government policy framework calls for a new leadership skill. It is a word used often and understood, it seems, just a little. Collaboration. Suddenly, we ask highly competitive, driven, challenging and individual leaders that fully appreciate, and can energise, systems under their ‘span of control’ to drop these skills to the ground.. and surrender their own organisational strategic needs..as we ask them to think, feel and value something very different. Almost odd.

To give this some texture, in my own psychology, I call this the ‘statesman paradox’.

We suddenly ask Directors to start with a fresh, new frame of reference. But it gets more demanding as the question is underpinned by a new value-system too. We get them to ask: What is in the best interests of the citizens of Wales? For clarity-this is just over 3.0 million men, women and children that live in Wales.

The paradox it seems to me is this. To date, each of these successful Directors and CEOs have worked incredibly hard under their own ‘span of control’ and each of them (that I have talked this through with) have a profound internal locus of control too. They are highly skilled at making things happen that fall under their legitimate authority. That is to say, their own organisations. They are fantastic at strategically bringing scarce resources to bring to bear evidence-based outcomes on…their own patch. They are organisers par excellence. Their career paths demonstrate (both to themselves and others) that these skills, strengths and experiences help them to succeed. Therefore to gain promotion, and consequently high credibility, so that you can rise-up ‘through the ranks’ these are the skills you need. You will recognise this pattern I am sure.

But then…and here comes the paradox. At the very ‘pinnacle’ of their careers; we ask them to “give-up their most cherished and deeply held beliefs, values and skills” (as described by one of them recently to me) and do something completely different. Totally at odds. In complete contradiction!

We ask them to start first with a statesman like frame of reference by asking: What is the right thing to do for all the citizens of Wales? In other words: Forget competing for scarce resources for your organisation for just one moment. Forget the embodied value of competition that has successfully brought you to this point in your career. Forget your own span of control; because much of what we are now asking of you will be in other organisations over which you have no control. And, to make matters even more complex, by definition when working at this all-Wales level- you are looking around a room that is full with people with the same set of skills, strengths and values as yourself! Oh my goodness!

When Directors ‘pass this test’ they go through a more or less ‘agonising’ stage in their personal life, in their careers, and in their embodied values. One says it like this:

When I heard the words come from my heart that said I was willing to implement a system that was not in my own organisations self-interest so that other organisations would realise the benefits as well as my own something peculiar had happened. That night I had a sleepless night. I wondered if I had ‘lost my edge’ or that this meant I was becoming weak. It is nine months later and I realise now that this was a marked transition. Am I stronger or weaker? Neither. I simply understand collaboration in a different way. A more profound way.”

It seems to me that any future Welsh leadership development should include this paradox as a key leadership stage of we are to suceed in our ambitions as a devolved Country. I will leave aside, for the moment, of whether there are different values from Welsh ‘home-grown’ talent when compared with other leaders developed from outside Wales- as I think such a debate is a red herring. What we do know, empirically, is that leadership in the main, can be trained, coached and developed. This assertion seems a healthy response. There is, of course, sound evidence that a diverse workforce is a good and worthwhile thing.

As for the question around core cultural/personal values I will explore this for a future blog.