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The fishtank metaphor

The fishtank metaphor appears frequently in The Search for Leadership and the Systemic Leadership Toolkit. The description below is an extract from the Toolkit.

We can liken an organisation to a fishtank, with the managers and other employees as the fish. The system elements listed above become social and environmental influences on the fish.

The fish (people) need to navigate, swim and survive in these waters. The waters contain essential nutrients, but they are rarely pure, clear and favourable. In fact, they are often toxic and opaque, the cause of much confusion, unclear vision and stress.

The waters contain unseen but strongly felt undercurrents in their shadows that are part of what surrounds everyone, including managers when they try to take a leadership role. The result is frequently a collapse of over-stressed individual fish, and in extreme circumstances the tank as a whole (‘systemic failure’).

In this murky environment managers are expected to exercise leadership. It is also their job to clean the tank. Unhelpfully, the toxins may come from above, though that’s not the default management assumption. Not able to see the tank for what it is, and not knowing how to set about cleaning their environment, some flounder in the shallows and do what is easiest: they seek out the small fry. When not bearing down on them, they take them out, tell them to smarten up, make them look good with a little training, say if they’re good they’ll reward them with a bonus, and plop them back into the same murky water.

Some of the system elements have aspects that are as intended and designed; they comprise the legitimate or official system.

Other aspects are unintended, including ‘unwritten rules’, politics, grapevine, friendships, etc; they comprise the informal or shadow system.

Both the official/formal system and the unofficial/shadow system have positive and negative effects on the fish: both systems can be supportive, and both can make the ‘water’ toxic and inhibit the free exercise of honourable, transparent and energetic leadership.

The system’s combined effect on permitting or frustrating leadership is more powerful than any individual manager’s skills, behaviours or personality.

All of which leads to the moral of this story: (as one book reviewer put it) “stop polishing the fish and tackle the water they swim in”.

You may also like to see ‘How to improve the fishtank.

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