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The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective, William Tate (Triarchy Press, May 2009)


The book begins with a conversation with the world-renowned OD consultant W Warner Burke, who points out the benefit of thinking of one’s client as the spaces in an organisation, because that is where a consultant adds value (Tate, 2009a: xi). This wise advice confirmed the author in his view that (i) performance escapes down all manner of gaps (the book analyses 22 categories), (ii) what happens at the edge of a job matters more than what happens at the heart of it, and (iii) the competence of individuals is not the prime factor that determines the organisation’s performance. Burke’s insight also helped William Tate clarify his thinking about the dangers posed by gaps and the opportunities presented by spaces.

These important messages need to be understood by managers who aspire to be effective in their leadership roles, as well as by those who claim expertise in leadership development and especially in OD (organisation development) approaches to improving leadership in organisations. They are a crucial part of the unlearning process needed to undo a myriad of false assumptions and misperceptions; for example, that:

  • leaders and leadership are inseparable
  • leadership is a property only of individuals
  • talk about leadership is necessarily talk about development
  • development is the only means of improvement
  • the organisation and the business are one
  • the organisation is its people.

Any systems-based ‘search for leadership’ in organisations includes inter alia a need for leaders and developers to possess a sophisticated understanding of what really makes organisations tick; what the limits are to the individual model, and how the parts work together to produce an effective whole. Tate expresses this as a symbiotic recognition of how leadership affects the system, and how the system affects leadership. The system’s effect may be both conscious and planned, and unconscious and unplanned. And its effect may be positive and/or negative. The key question for us here is ‘How can the organisation, conceived and managed as a working system, enable appropriate leadership to flourish?’.

Senior managers and organisation developers have to ask ‘How does leadership need to apply itself to the organisation, and how does the organisation need to apply itself to leadership?’ The point is that while the organisation is the vehicle for leadership (at once, car, road and destination), the organisation is an active player in enabling managers to make the leadership journey with confidence, safety and purpose. That purpose (of leadership) is to benefit the organisation and help its members and systems work together more healthily and perform better as an entity in order to safeguard its future, not merely help individual managers be successful in their jobs and career and with today’s challenges. The organisation is on a journey too.

To wean readers off the individual heroic model, Tate talks about leadership as a process that engages many of the organisation’s variables (e.g. rules, protocol, hierarchy, rewards) as well as colleagues, thereby rendering leadership a property of the organisation, being concerned with how a well-led organisation comes about and functions successfully. Given this perspective, if one wants to find leadership, the place to start looking is inside the organisation to see what is happening there, and what needs to be happening there to bring about improvement, both to leadership and to the organisation (Seddon, 2009). This is the opposite of the usual approach which takes managers out of their organisation context and assumes that they need some generic skills polishing, such as how to influence, how to give an effective presentation or how to communicate a vision.

Of course, as seen by any manager, other managers (including one’s boss) are part of the manager’s environment. Managers exist in a context and their behaviour is shaped by it, but they also help to form that environment and have a responsibility to others for improving it, thereby releasing others’ leadership.

Tate shows how leadership/leading is a different process from management/managing, although somewhat confusingly both leadership and management activity are undertaken by the same managers, but at different times and with different intentions. Also, senior executive leaders need both management and leadership and abilities. The question to be answered is: ‘What can leadership achieve that management can’t?’. He explains how management can be viewed as concerned with delivering today, while leadership safeguards tomorrow. Management accepts the rules of the game; leadership challenges them. Management accepts current targets as the goal; leadership challenges the status quo and takes continual improvement to be the goal.

This leads to a key point about the book: that the leadership process paradoxically needs to be managed. Leadership cannot be assumed to happen merely by letting newly developed managers loose and expecting that they will thereby choose to, and be able to, lead. They may not know to what they need to apply new-found leadership abilities. These may be the wrong things for the organisation, or the managers may lack the will to try. If they do try they may experience obstacles that the organisation puts in their path. Above all, individual managers lack much leverage and change capability beyond their own job; leadership is best seen not as an individual activity but as something that depends on the organisation coming together and making a contribution. Yet most organisations have few suitable organisational processes in place. Instead, they rely mainly on the improbable sum of many unconnected individuals achieving appropriate changes for their organisation.

Faced with the multiple difficulties, pressures, isolation and constraints in being a leader, it comes as no surprise when managers default to their managing role. This means looking after the immediate knowns while neglecting the longer-term but important uncertainties associated with leading.

That takes us to a discussion of other components in an effective leadership process. These include the question of what the leadership agenda is when managers are attempting to function as leaders. What is leadership for? What do the managers want to use their leadership for? What do they believe are the organisation’s needs? How do managers decide their leadership priorities?

Senior managers also have to decide when to lead and when to let others lead. When doing the latter, they take on an overseeing or supervising (or ‘super-leadership’) relationship to other manager-leaders. The book explains this role in terms of providing the challenge, support, permission, definition of success, readiness for change, disturbance of status quo, necessary departmental interdependencies, and managing the accountability process.

The latter aspect is important and much neglected. What is the organisation process by which leaders (singly and as collective leadership teams), as well as the leadership process, are properly held up for examination and called to account? Who initiates that process? Who fulfils that role (it may be a body such as a board of management), and what equips and qualifies them to do this? How is leadership accountability managed proactively, and not invoked only when something has failed and the public is baying for blood?

The book looks at a number of real examples of systemic failure in actual organisations. These include the tragic death of Baby Peter Connelly in the London Borough of Haringey in 2007. It includes the killing (without discussing its legality) of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes by Metropolitan Police. The book shows how any systemic organisational failure is de facto a failure of systemic leadership. That is, senior managers charged with understanding, cooperating, designing and conducting complex organisation systems operationally failed catastrophically at a crucial moment.

The failure in such cases is always collective, systemic and one of leadership culture. In instances like those cited, we know from organisational post mortems, how high-profile key players such as Sharon Shoesmith and Sir Ian Blair, among others, failed. They failed the system, but the system failed them too. The book provides examples of how systems fail, or contribute to the failure of leaders. Such failure is often political (such as needing a scapegoat) or systemic (such as a mandatory but dysfunctional regulatory or inspection regime).

Any needs analysis has to look at these systemic dimensions (for example, how the power structure works or fails, or a lack of cooperation and turf disputes), rather than confine itself to individuals and – even worse – to their training needs. The book discusses the inevitable entropic process that leads to decay, until renewal action is taken. Power falls victim to this natural force, as does energy level and new ideas, sometimes fuelled by what may become too-lengthy and naturally corrupting tenure.

Summarising, the author explains that ‘systemic leadership’ captures two important ideas: (i) that it is leadership of an organisation conceived of, understood, and managed by senior managers as a system, and (ii) the application of aspects of systems thinking to the subject of leadership. This leads to a formal definition of systemic leadership:

‘Improving the way an organisation is led, based on an understanding of the organisation as a system, focused on the interdependency between leadership and the organisation, concerning how leadership is applied, managed and developed.’

A systemic perspective includes many elements that would rarely feature in any discussion about leadership; for example, how can we join up the various related HR levers to improve leadership, and how is the organisation wasting leadership, and what can be done about that? He says that leadership is wasted when ‘it remains loose, tentative, infrequent, hazardous, and hidden below the parapet. In the absence of direction, challenge and security, many managers will continue to believe that their best personal strategy is to keep their heads down’.

Waste occurs where leadership is misapplied, in missed opportunities to use leadership potential, and in unsuitable development. Waste also occurs where a development mindset is allowed to predominate. The organisation is treated as a grateful, largely passive recipient – like an open vessel into which developed leadership talent can be happily poured. No matter that the other end of the pipe is open and squandering talent and opportunities.

Tate maintains that most organisations are confused about leadership:

  • They are unclear about what they want it for, how to plan for it, how to handle it, how to release it, how to supervise it, how to hold it to account, and how to improve it.
  • They variously sponsor, license, support, thwart, and squander their managers’ attempts at leadership.
  • Not knowing what they want, what they are doing, or what to do, they dump the leadership agenda at HR Development’s door.

The book’s advice is a response to this. The systemic approach helps to:

  1. develop the organisation’s systemic leadership capability
  2. expand the organisation’s leadership capacity
  3. link leadership development with business aims and objectives
  4. align leadership with where the organisation is going
  5. unite and build corporate leadership cohesion and spirit
  6. address conflicting perceptions of leadership in the organisation
  7. join up disconnected ‘levers’ at the service of improving leadership
  8. cement leaders’ individual and collective accountability
  9. solve thorny leadership problems (e.g. shortage of leaders)
  10. stop the waste of leadership

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Copies of the book can be ordered either from the author ( or the publisher Triarchy Press (

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