PART ONE – Foundations

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Three Vines in the Forest of Leadership

Drawing on the 1994 discovery of the Wollemi Pine, a species thought to have become extinct two million years ago, we invoked the image of leadership as a forest representing the diversity of books, frameworks, and other materials generated over the past half century. Most of the forest is ensnared with “vines” representing conventional assumptions about leadership. These assumptions include the idea that leadership is the province of leaders, that leadership involves the exercise of authority, and that leadership is essentially an influence process. (Another vine concerning the relationship between leadership and management is discussed in Chapter 4.) Although most of the forest is covered with these vines, nearby—but difficult to see— is a gorge where a different form of leadership grows.

This chapter explored some ways in which these vines (assumptions) constrict our contemporary concepts of leadership. We looked at how the terms leadership and leader tend to be used interchangeably, making it difficult to conceive of a concept of leadership without leaders figuring centrally. As well, we discussed how the common confusion between leadership and formal authority limits our thinking about possible leadership contributions from those not in the upper levels of their organizations. One common theme, which we examined with reference to Kouzes and Posner’s book, The Leadership Challenge, is the notion of the leader having, and communicating, a vision that inspires others. We considered some of the difficulties common to a transformational approach, including the possibility that the leader may not receive critical feedback from those he or she is trying to influence.

The aim is not to do away with conventional perspectives, but to notice and contemplate them, and to offer some critical appraisal, particularly in terms of how such perspectives constrain our ability to work with contentious problems. Understanding these current realities—and then setting them aside—will enable us to see more clearly our alternative, a learning-centered perspective on leadership.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Leadership from a Learning Perspective

The chapter featured a case story in which Bernardo sought to get his executive colleagues to engage with the issue of fostering innovation in his company. Using the case as a launch pad, we considered learning-centered leadership as involving people in jointly constructing meaning in relation to a contentious problem by drawing out, examining, and integrating diverse perspectives.

We saw that a relational orientation is critical to learning-centered leadership processes. This is characterized by intentional efforts to put processes of joint thinking and action ahead of direct task achievement; it also entails a willingness to pay attention at a deep level to the views of others, as well as to reflect on one’s own views and assumptions. A relational orientation is critical in view of the pervasiveness of defensive behavior patterns in most organizations. Only through relational processes can we possibly tap into the unspoken wisdom and intelligence that stakeholders to a contentious problem possess.

We looked at learning-centered leadership through two “lenses.” One lens emphasizes the “higher-level” leadership processes that need to unfold in a group over a period with a contentious problem. This work involves people jointly establishing current realities, clarifying a preferred future (including sound purpose and shared vision), and harnessing energy for deep-reaching change. The second lens focuses on the same processes, but emphasizes learning-centered leadership interventions—actions taken by individuals at specific points in time. These interventions, which must be made relationally, primarily involve acts of speaking, such as giving voice to previously undiscussed topics, or asking questions to reveal deeper aspects of issues, in order to help the group move toward the changes it desires. When we make these learning-centered leadership interventions, we are functioning “in the leadership mode.”

We drew on the case story to illuminate the higher-level processes of establishing current realities, clarifying preferred futures (purpose and vision), and harnessing energy for deep-reaching change. In relation to current realities, an image of an iceberg was used to suggest that the work of establishing what is real to stakeholders involves delving below the waterline to surface hidden, implicit, or subtle aspects so that they may be scrutinized and integrated with other insights. We looked at how the work of engaging with implicit aspects is made difficult because of pervasive defensive practices and patterns. This creates some risk, which we must acknowledge. Relational working helps ameliorate these threats, as we saw with Bernardo.

In relation to clarifying preferred futures, we saw, firstly, the importance of being clear about our purposes. Learning-centered leadership implies a purpose that involves making a worthwhile difference for others, that can be stated explicitly, and which is contestable. The second aspect of clarifying preferred futures was developing a shared vision. Here, we emphasized the importance of vision as a process, distinguishing it from vision as a product. Building momentum for change was presented as an ongoing process of creating and sustaining intrinsic motivation through actively engaging stakeholders in change-related processes.

While the processes of establishing current realities, clarifying preferred futures, and harnessing energy for change may unfold over an extended period, we recognized that making learning-centered leadership interventions is something done in the present moment. Undertaking such action is the essence of acting “in the leadership mode,” which we defined as intervening relationally toward building shared meaning in a context of efforts to enable deep-reaching change with a contentious problem.

We also reviewed the differences between learning-centered leadership and transformational leadership. We noted that while learning-centered leadership has its own challenges, it offers particular benefits, including the prospect of involving more minds in the work of leadership, and bringing more of the available intelligence to bear on the contentious problem.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

The Roots of Leadership-Mode Action

This chapter delved into three concepts underpinning learning centered-leadership and leadership-mode action: relational working, mindful working, and practice-basis. The story of Alice’s efforts—with the assistance of her external coach, Juanita—to bring about change in teaching and learning practices in her school illustrated these concepts.

Relational working implies seeing yourself as at least partly within the system that concerns you, and acting accordingly. As well, it asks you to inquire into others’ views while also holding your own views open to review. Relational working asks you to adopt a receptive stance even in situations where you have already established, and perhaps difficult, relationships with other stakeholders, and to accept the reality that others may not reciprocate by displaying receptiveness to your views. Detached working, in contrast, sees the intervener as an external agent operating upon the system, applying strategies and tactics to bring about change involving others.

The discussion of mindful working drew on the work of Ellen Langer to look into two aspects: the need to work towards differentiation in perceiving—rather than applying sweeping generalizations and unchanging categories—and the necessity for attention to process. Process was considered both in relation to the subtle change-related dynamics occurring over a period, and—at a more micro level—the dynamics occurring within a particular conversation. Critical to process work is the ability to step outside of the conversation’s content to deal with shifts in mood or atmosphere, such as when someone (ourselves included) displays anger, or the conversation seems stuck or stalled.

A practice-based perspective goes to the idea that the leadership-mode concept is about taking actions of a particular type (relational, deep-reaching, and change-oriented). The question is not how good a leader any particular person is. The more relevant question is, What kinds of interventions they are making? And, How well are they making those interventions? As with any discipline, practice is a critical element. But this is not just a matter of trying harder. The challenge is to engage with the inner dimension: to become more adept at observing one’s internal processes, at intentionally trying out different approaches, and at reflecting on the results—without adopting an overly self-critical stance.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Reinterpreting the Leadership-Management Relationship

In this chapter, we set about untangling the fourth “vine in the forest of leadership,” the assumption that leadership and management cannot be gainfully separated. We recognized a need to set aside questions of leaders and managers in order to distinguish leadership processes from those of management. Without a process emphasis, we would bump up against the problem of leader-manager comparisons relegating managers to a second tier. We saw also how the other vines—those identifying leadership with authority and influence—contribute to confusion regarding the leadership-management relationship.

The management mode was defined in terms of a focus on the explicit aspects of problems and a concern with task accomplishment, with its legitimacy deriving from authority. The leadership mode was defined earlier as involving relational thinking and action in order to build shared meaning on contentious problems in the pursuit of deep-reaching change.

While both modes are necessary, it is the management mode that predominates in most organizations and settings, often overwhelmingly so. Some reasons for this dominance were canvassed. One consequence of the pre-eminence of management processes is that leadership can become little more than an espoused value, while most action reflects a management-oriented way of seeing.

The leadership mode is different to, but not the opposite of, management; they are complementary. Maintaining an awareness of the differences between the modes—while recognizing a degree of overlap between them—opens up the prospect of making much more informed and intentional choices in our use of the two modes. We can utilize one or the other mode, or interweave both, in particular circumstances, as well as become more aware over time as to the relative attention we are giving each mode. Some examples were provided to illustrate how interventions can draw upon the complementary nature of the two modes, and to show the power of doing so.

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Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Active Choice and the Leadership Mode

Our attention in this chapter was on the choices and consequences of intervening in the leadership mode as distinct from the management mode. We focused first on the challenges of so-called “underground rules.” These are the unwritten organizational codes that people intuit about “how things get done around here.” By following these rules they minimize the prospect of harm for themselves and others. To function in the leadership mode, one needs to be aware of these underground rules and be prepared to bring them out in the open and scrutinize them; not in a blunt or confrontational way but in a manner that helps people talk more authentically about how they work together. We used a case story to examine two possible courses of action, one in the management mode, and another in the leadership mode.

We then looked into choice in the context of undertaking leadership- and management-mode interventions when others are behaving in ways we find difficult. In discussing the case featuring Maria and Ivan, we saw that management-mode interventions can have particular value in controlling or limiting a problem (in this case Ivan’s aggressive behavior). Leadership-mode interventions, though, potentially give us greater traction in making sense of the problem from a variety of perspectives.

We saw that our learning-leadership interventions can be less risky for both others and ourselves if we follow these guidelines: work from observation, attribute reasonableness to others, and seek to act authentically. We also considered some pointers to assist in weighing up the risks and opportunities of possible leadership-mode interventions. These included: being alert to situations of heightened risk; preparing well, without over-preparing; adopting a learning attitude to setbacks; and recognizing the possibilities and opportunities for action, not only the risks.

PART TWO – The ARIES Framework — Practices and Tools

ARIES is a set of practices and tools for supporting leadership-mode intervention with contentious problems. Part 2 includes a chapter on each of the ARIES practices: Attending, Reflecting, Inquiring, Expressing, and Synthesizing.

Each of the five ARIES practices can be seen as a response to one of the following clusters of behaviors:

  • Interacting with others and the environment around us in ways primarily oriented to achieving our particular objectives – rather than being truly open and receptive to other inputs and perspectives;
  • Forming – and acting upon – judgments we make about what people with an interest in a problem think and feel – but without testing those judgments;
  • Making limited use of questioning, and, in particular, avoiding asking questions that delve into the hidden or unspoken domain;
  • Advocating our own views as if they were “the truth”, and as if the challenge were to persuade others of this truth;
  • Dealing with disagreement by seeing it as something to be coped with or prevailed over – rather than as a resource for enabling more productive engagement with contentious problems.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6


Drawing on a case story of change in a library system, we considered attending, the first of the ARIES practices. Attending has three facets: giving one’s full attention, perceiving holistically, and differentiating between observation and inference.

Giving full attention is a matter of being present with others without allowing distractions to get in the way. We tend to be only partly attentive to those we are communicating with, as our attention moves from one thought, idea, or fantasy to another, with the constant mental activity reinforced by the pressures of keeping on top of day-to-day demands.

Perceiving holistically refers to practicing a wider, contextual awareness, rather than a narrowly framed concentration. This facet is highlighted because of the ease with which we can become entrapped in a restrictive or “hard” concentration, characterized by a “screening out” of signals that might distract or interrupt our focus.

The need to differentiate observation from inference reflects a common tendency to apply technical problem-handling skills to problems in which multiple realities are at play. Rather than trying to rapidly diagnose and “solve” contentious problems, the need is to first truly take in “the data” before thinking about possible interpretations.

We also discussed means of achieving a greater degree of centeredness when intervening from a learning-leadership stance, including through breathing more consciously. Such practices may help avert the mind’s tendency to wander, enabling our attention to stay directed to those we are interacting with and the surrounding context.

Chapter 7

Chapter 7


This chapter explored the ARIES practice of reflecting, which involves making sense of observations and experience. A tool, the Reflection Matrix, was introduced as an aid in appreciating and analyzing the various perspectives bearing on a contentious problem by looking at four facets of the implicit domain. The tool, illustrated with reference to the library change case from Chapter 6, involves asking what hidden assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge seem to be implied by the actions of the various stakeholders. The Matrix exercise can be conducted as a private reflection, preferably with the assistance of a coach or skilled colleague. It can also be conducted “live,” in a group setting, to assist a stakeholder group in better comprehending the differing perspectives that make the issue contentious.

The preparation of a Reflection Matrix helps us develop a testable account of what appears to be going on for individual stakeholders, as well as a picture of the interplay or dynamic between the stakeholders. This reflective process can help circumvent superficial analyses or knee-jerk reactions, such as attributing the problems to one group. We also looked at how the kinds of assessment undertaken in the Reflection Matrix process can be incorporated into more informal forms of reflecting.

Chapter 8

Chapter 8


With the aid of a case concerning a manager’s handling of a conflict between two team leaders, the chapter differentiated inquiring in the leadership mode from result-oriented questioning, which is an expression of the management mode. Rather than being oriented towards finding a “solution,” the purpose of inquiring is to enable learning in relation to a contentious problem in order to generate deeper insights and fresh understandings. Reflecting the relational nature of leadership-mode work, the person asking the questions also needs to be open to learning.

A typology of questions was presented to aid in the practice of inquiring: Checking—for confirming interpretations; Gathering and Clarifying—for seeking information and establishing meanings; Exploring—for drawing out deeper thoughts and feelings relevant to the matter at hand; Testing—for examining responses to information and inferences; and Futuring—for thinking about “where to from here.”

We considered ideas to improve your practice of inquiring. These centered on the need for preparation; on paying close attention so that questions are timely and that they build on what the other person is communicating; and on utilizing the three guidelines from Chapter 5 (work from observation, attribute reasonableness, seek to act authentically) to minimize threat and maintain safety when asking questions.

Chapter 9

Chapter 9


Expressing was differentiated from advocacy on behalf of a point of view, party, or cause, in which a premium is placed on communicating “to win.” In contrast, expressing is directed towards seeking a more encompassing truth which is built from the contributions of multiple voices.

As with the other ARIES practices, a relational orientation is critical. Expressing attaches importance to presenting your views in a way that:

  • Recognizes your own connection to the problem of concern;
  • Demonstrates your receptiveness to other viewpoints; and
  • Gives voice to assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge that might be otherwise concealed.

To express effectively implies being attentive to how you are framing and presenting the problem, idea, or opportunity to others. Attention to the process of communicating with others is critical; expressing is not about being consumed with the “truth” of one’s own viewpoint.

A framework was presented to assist you in preparing to express your thoughts and feelings on contentious matters. The framework comprises five elements:

  • Introducing—describing the larger context, the topic, and your purposes in raising it;
  • Asserting and Supporting—stating your key propositions and providing supporting evidence to back them up;
  • Illuminating—offering illustrations, stories, and examples as to how your ideas could work out in practice;
  • Disclosing—declaring relevant but previously unspoken assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge; and
  • Inviting—creating opportunities for others to engage with you.

This chapter featured a story concerning financial problems at a golf club to illustrate the application of the framework and the practice of expressing. The intent of the expressing practice is to enable us to give a well-rounded account of our thoughts and feelings that is both fine-grained and nuanced.

Chapter 10

Chapter 10


We began by noting some of the potentially adverse consequences of our over-reliance on the management mode when dealing with differing viewpoints on contentious problems. These consequences—which flow from a tendency to rush towards convergence—include losses to the group intelligence, as it does not benefit either from hearing quieter voices, or from those advocating views outside the dominant standpoints. The group’s ability to achieve creative integration of diverse viewpoints is restricted because it has difficulty facing any uncomfortable present realities and there is an over-emphasis on task-based work.

The practice of synthesizing was offered as a range of four types of interventions that can help us.

The first two types, connecting and integrating interventions, are undertaken within a particular conversation. Connecting interventions pick up on salient thoughts and feelings that members have contributed, but have not been given sufficient attention by the group. These interventions weave these contributions back into the conversation in a way that fosters coherence and reduces fragmentation of thought. Integrating interventions build on two or more contributions in a conversation by proposing a way of mixing and/or reframing those contributions in a way that shows the problem in a different light. Integrating interventions enable group members to gain fresh insights and new knowledge—critical to building shared meaning.

The second two intervention types, transformational and relational challenges, frame the leadership-mode work to be done. The transformational challenge is an overarching definition of the problem a group faces, incorporating an expression of both current realities and a vision of a preferred future. A transformational challenge is our interpretation of how the different viewpoints of group members might be interwoven to provide a framing of present circumstances and the desired future. We offer it so others can contest it, adopt it, or build upon it, as the case may be. This challenge serves as a reference point; it helps establish where the group stands in relation to the overall challenge of change. The transformational challenge assists us in considering the problems and potentials in moving between the present and future states.

Relational challenges name specific contentious matters on which we need to establish shared understanding with particular stakeholders in order to advance the intended change. We specify relational challenges to focus the group and ourselves on achieving those critical joint understandings.

The benefit of defining transformational and relational challenges is that they help us avoid the trap of over-reliance on management-mode-oriented planning processes, such as identifying strategies, actions, and measures, to the detriment of the more subtle, but necessary, learning-leadership work.

To Buy In the Leadership Mode

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