Leadership from the Dead

Posted by jlubans on August 22, 2010

August 23 update: I thought I'd share one of my definitions for what it means to be empowered, like the Dead Head staff is said to be:
Empowerment is an overall freedom for the individual to do good in and for the organization in pursuit of agreed upon organizational goals. It includes an awareness of others and their contribution, and a willing, active support for others.
Do we recruit people who can put that philosophy into action? What does this real empowerment look like? How is it made manifest?
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My book, Leading from the Middle, has two chapters (The Invisible Leader & Peer Coaching for the New Library) and several allusions about and to a musical organization (Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), along with a chapter (Orchestrating Success: A Profile of Simone Young, Conductor) about a musical leader.
So, it is only natural that I was drawn to an organizational theory discussion of the musical group, The Grateful Dead, written by management professor, Barry Barnes: “Strategic Improvisation: Management Lessons from the Dead.”*

When I first saw the title, I was reminded of a bit of office humor posted in a cubicle: If you doubt there’s life after death, come around here at quittin’ time!

Professor Barnes applies and explains Frank Barrett’s strategic improvisation technique to the long run and huge success of the Grateful Dead. He quotes Barrett from 1998: “…when improvising musicians get together they ‘do what managers find themselves doing: fabricating and inventing novel responses without a pre-scripted plan and without certainty of outcomes; discovering the future that their action creates as it unfolds.’” (p.269). Of course, Mr. Barrett is referring to managers who proactively seek a solution to an anticipated challenge. Passive managers often avoid or delay taking action by following management formulas, like strategic planning.)
Strategic improvisation has seven requirements that transcend beyond music to other types of organizations.
1. Interrupting habits
2. Embracing errors as a source of learning
3. Allowing maximum flexibility through minimal structures
4. Continually negotiating toward dynamic synchronicity
5. Relying on retrospective sense making
6. Learning informally and developing group norms
7. Alternating between soloing and supporting

When I applied these requirements to my observed “Take-Aways for the Non-Musical Boss” from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, I found several similarities:
Take turns leading, take turns following (Barrett’s #3 & 7).
Encourage independent and articulate critical thinking (1, 2 & 4).
Manage self, disagree agreeably (4 & 6).
Listen with all your heart (4).
Be responsible toward the organization (2 & 6).
Demonstrate a philosophy of work that values followers and leaders (1, 2, 4, & 7).

Employee empowerment is a much misunderstood, misapplied, and, subsequently, maligned term, yet genuine empowerment is highly desirable according to Prof. Barnes: “Alternating between soloing and supporting is a critical ingredient for organizations where employees must not only follow but also lead from time to time … as they deal with the novel and unexpected situation.”
For the Grateful Dead, “Even with the greater degree of formality and structure of a corporation, they (the band) continued to alternate between soloing and supporting with the role of president rotated among willing band/board members.” (p.276). In other words, genuine empowerment.
I whole heartedly second Professor Barnes that strategic improvisation can produce a healthier and more responsive organization, one that is more able to anticipate and respond. The question that needs answering for an older non-improvisational culture is how does one become a Dead Head?; how does one implement this new way of working? What has to change in your workplace for it to align more with the way of the Grateful Dead or the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or Southwest Airlines? Starting with yourself, what would you change? Play on!
* The Grateful Dead in Concert : Essays on Live Improvisation edited by James Alan Tuedio and Stan Spector. Jefferson, NC : McFarland, 2010 (pp.267-278)

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Posted by Barry Barnes on August 23, 2010  •  14:27:02

John, you've done a nice job of describing real empowerment, and you pose an important question "how does one implement this new way of working?" It's extremely important for each of us to answer this question for ourselves if we ever hope to create an empowered workplace. And I'm convinced it really starts with us. As a management professor, I think in business terms, so my recommendation for anyone who wants to be more empowered is to provide a "business case" whenever you have a suggestion or see a problem that needs to be solved. What's the cost/benefit associated with the suggestions or problem? This process alone is empowering, and better yet, it makes it easier for the decision maker to whom you present the business case to make a decision.

Posted by UpNorthLibrarian on August 23, 2010  •  15:48:23

As one with a couple of careers; formal and informal education; professional positions and regular jobs; lots of experiences -- I gotta say...."...what a long strange trip it's been". Sometimes I wonder why the good was so good and the wrong was so ugly.

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