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But this turnaround of responsibilities, as it would be viewed from the perspective of traditionally hierarchical organizations, creates its own complexities. The leader is not in charge of the project, but is just another team member in a collaborative endeavor and he or she has to adhere to the decisions of the project manager. However, as a leader, she or he remains responsible for the overall performance of all projects and project managers within a traditional, linear, and hierarchical power structure. This puts the leader in a paradoxical position towards employees in general and towards project managers in particular.

The turnaround of responsibilities raises the questions of what accountability and responsibility should look like in a co-creative environment in general and if co-creative environments can emerge within traditional hierarchical organizational structures. The paradoxes of leadership and followership are a challenge for many leaders and followers. Instead of perceiving paradoxes as a problem, the experiential knowledge of leaders reveals that, within a positive organizational culture, paradoxes provide the ultimate opportunity to learn.

The paradoxes leaders face within an organizational setting invite leaders to find ways to deal with the tension of opposites. By their very nature, paradoxes surface continually. Paradoxes often manifest when elements of our feelings, conducts, and deliberations, which seemed logical when viewed in a relative isolation, appear mutually exclusive when perceived alongside one another in a broader context and when expressed linguistically.

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Paradoxes encourage leaders and followers to tap into their creative potential and invite leaders to search for new answers. As Burns argued, the leadership—follower paradox can be transformed into a generative force for organizational change and leadership innovation. Instead of identifying individual actors simply as leaders or followers, the whole process is perceived as a system in which the function of leadership is more like a theatre, with leadership at center stage, and with the actors moving in and out of leader and follower roles, depending on the situational requirements.

Many transformative leadership practices undergird the value of leaders who learned to embrace the transformative power of paradox, such as Bishop Walker from the Diocese of Manchester.

The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life

The Bishop runs his Diocese as an enabler, who lets different groups find their own solutions and ways of acting and knowing. For too long, leadership epistemology and leadership development have been based on the idea that people are born leaders who only need to develop their latent leadership qualities. But leaders have no special pedigree at all; they are just ordinary humans.

Few people are born leaders. And leadership is not limited to a specific role, or an ethnicity, gender, professional field, or organizational context. Research indicates that adults will only develop characteristics of effective leadership if they want to be a leader Boyatzis, But leadership cannot be taught; it can only be learned and is not necessarily within the reach of everyone.

However, leadership skills can be learned just like the skills required to walk, talk, write, play sports, cook, and make music.

The Paradox of Control in Organizations

Some talent is helpful for leadership development, but perseverance comes first. Passion and perseverance are the foremost conditions for leadership development Geerlof, Many people acquire a leadership position when a career opportunity emerges, not because they have a degree in leadership. For many people who are appointed to a leadership position, training unfolds largely as a process of learning by doing. However, for many leaders, the most difficult aspect of leadership is not acquiring these aforementioned skills, but of how to balance the paradoxical nature of being a leader.

Mere order and stability do not stage an environment for the emergence of effective leadership; the systemic interaction with disorder and instability does. Life is a process, a process of becoming a better person and of generating a better world Wheatley, What holds for life in general also holds for leaders and leadership development. Leadership emerges through a process of personal and professional growth that is nurtured by unforeseeable and surprising events, and the developmental process has holistic and systemic properties that are encumbered by paradoxes Montuori, ; Volckmann, The context and its ecology are essential to this process.

The perspective of leadership as an emerging process conflicts with the prevailing paradigm in mainstream organizational leadership development theory and leadership development practice, in which leadership development is too often presented as a six-step developmental model Benton, A dissection of leadership development into a linear, predictable stage-like model is a simplification of reality that conflicts with the basic parameters of complex thinking.

As complexity theory informs us, one cannot rely on changing just a single element of a system or on a step-by-step process of transformation.

This phenomenon explains why transformation on a personal, organizational, and societal level is an inherently difficult and unpredictable process, enhanced by the many paradoxes that can surface in situations of change. The theory of complexity perceives paradox as a key characteristic of life. Paradoxes provide the perfect platform for personal growth and transformative learning Morin, Complexity theory defines transformation as an integral process, which has its bearing on personal transformation, organizational change, and societal development.

It calls for multi-level awareness and an understanding of the intricate relations within and between levels of the individual, organizations, and society at large Boyatzis, In some contemporary models of leadership development, three interconnected levels for development are distinguished: a the public—outer level, b the behavioral level, and c the inner level Clawson, ; Scouller, In general, the first two levels are outer or cognitive—behavioral levels.


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Leadership development should focus on all three levels simultaneously. In other words, development should focus on the individual in his or her specific context. When the angle of the prism is changed, the light projects a different reality. As a consequence, thoughts, behavior, and actions, which once seemed logical, can become juxtaposed and can appear mutually exclusive.

However, the light has not changed, the perspective and the context have. A crucial element of leadership development involves learning how to juggle the paradoxical, contextual characteristics of organizational and personal life. In the continuous dialogue between mind, soul, and environment, the complexity of life emerges and paradoxes surface as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person and as a leader.


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  • The groundedness—detachment paradox is an overarching metaphor for the journey of leaders that is encumbered by the duality of everyday human life on different levels—individual, organizational, national, and within evolving contexts. In this evolutionary journey, leaders are invited to embrace seeming juxtaposition as an opportunity to come closer to the absolute and undifferentiated unity, which all spiritual traditions have described in different ways. Cosmologically, this unity prohibits any ultimate distinction between the human, nature, and the divine, and epistemologically it precludes the distinction between the knower and the known, and between the observer and the observed Bohm, ; Schuon, The attempts to define leadership within a robust epistemic framework, and within a concise leadership development model, should allow leadership to remain the paradox it is supposed to be.

    The paradox of leadership is best captured as poetry, the art of creating and the desire for learning Gauthier, , which implies that this specific nature of leadership should be integrated into future leadership development theories. Complexity theory offers a powerful framework for the emergence of a novel epistemology of leadership and for leadership development models that embrace the ambiguity of life and the transformative potential of paradoxes.

    Although complexity and leadership is currently not a broad field of inquiry, the contextual, complex, systems perspective of leadership is gaining ground in leadership discourse Dinh et al. These data provide a fertile ground for further research. Complexity theory offers a commanding framework for the emergence of a novel epistemology of leadership and for leadership development models that embrace the ambiguity of life and the transformative potential of paradoxes.

    Future leadership should be based on the acknowledgment of paradoxes can only unfold as a form of labor, as an life-long and emerging process of transformative learning, rather than in terms of achievements Fernandes, Consequently, leadership development implies going through a process of self-inquiry, and a willingness to accept the necessity of deconstructing those aspects of the mind that require reconstruction. The process of leadership development must rely on the self-relevant meanings that leaders connect to their life experiences—worldly and otherworldly—and to the living experiences that emerge in their relational circles, such as in their family, community, and the social group with whom they chose to identify.

    Such relational development will prepare leaders to embrace the complexity of life in general, and it will prepare leaders to lead effectively in a complex environment, amid the multitude of paradoxes that life presents as an opportunity to learn and grow. Leaders should not only embrace paradoxes, but society, as a whole should also acknowledge paradoxes and their systemic and transformative power. Benton, D. Executive charisma: Six steps to mastering the art of leadership.

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    Foreword: Paradox in Organizational Theory - Oxford Handbooks

    Model of complexity leadership development. Human Resource Development International , 16 2 , — Clawson, G. Level three leadership: Getting below the surface. Als macht niet meer werkt en innerlijke kracht de oplossing is [Spirituality and leadership: Inner knowing as the ultimate solution when the exertion of power does not work anymore]. Downton, J.

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