Parabolic Leadership


Parabolic Leadership

Parabolic Leadership recognises the importance of organisational structure to consolidate collaborative behaviours.  Parabolic Leaders create parabolic structures and parabolic organisations (or parts of organisations).  These organisations (or parts) promise superior and sustained outcomes that include greater productivity, profits and benefits for all of the stakeholders when compared to pyramidal (traditional) organisations.  Parabolic organisations foster achievement and knowledge development and downplay the role of status and hierarchy.  Parabolic organisations encourage people to put the good of their organisation ahead of self interest or the interests of small sub-groups.   Character is actively developed in people which contributes not only to the emotional maturity of the organisation but to a greater cultural resilience in the broader community.

Organisational structure is a major shaper of behaviour

‘A bird does not know it is a bird until it is out of air.
A fish does not know it is a fish until it is out of water.’  
- The Koran

The impact of structure is so pervasive that at first sight it is almost always overlooked.  Often it’s not until we step outside the structure or become exposed to a different structure that we can understand its influence.  Imagine attending a traditional Christian church service (or Jewish or Muslim services).   Where would you sit?   Most people sit in rows with the priest or pastor at the front.   Now contrast that structure (and shape) with that of a typical Quaker meeting where it is common for people to sit in a circle.  If you’ve ever been to a Quaker meeting you will immediately recognise the difference. See Fig 1.01. 

In the traditional church, authority comes from God through the priest whereas in the Quaker meeting there is no single authority figure.  In Quaker meetings people speak when they feel moved to do so.

The different shapes align with the values and cultures that underpin these religions.  Traditional religions are hierarchical.  In Quaker groups there is minimal hierarchy.  In traditional religions questioning authority is discouraged.  In Quaker groups anything can be questioned.  Traditional religions are dominated by men but in Quaker groups equality between genders is the norm. 

Structures and shapes exist in our minds as much as on an organisation chart.  We carry the organisational structure with us whenever we meet someone new from the same organisation or become aware of their presence.  Are they above us?  Are they on the same level?  Or below?   It takes great maturity to remain unaffected.  There is a temptation to try and impress the other person.  To flatter the person of higher status, inflate one’s own contribution to a project or claim that an idea came from you.  

There are few aspects of organisational functioning that aren’t shaped by structure.  Just as the hallmark of a pyramidal organisation is the pyramidal structure, the hallmark of a parabolic organisation is the parabolic structure.   Although most organisations are predominantly pyramidal many are hybrids with small elements of parabolic functioning often at an informal level.  (See Figures 1.02 to 1.05)   A highly effective worker will have many working relationships throughout the organisation across several disciplines.

Figure 1.04 shows a parabolic organisation “chart”.  It is derived from a pyramidal organisation chart that has been rotated 90 degrees in an anti-clockwise direction.  The pyramid’s apex will be to the left and its base to the right.  Now imagine each of the boxes becoming the apices of slightly smaller parabolas.  Note how the transverse orientation invites openness and movement towards a purpose.  Although there are different orders of responsibility, hierarchy and status is minimised. There is no top  and no bottom.

Figure 1.05 is a “notional” distribution curve based on 20 years of study, reflection, consulting experience and anecdotal evidence from clients and colleagues.  Most organisations are hybrids with a skew towards pyramidal.  The 100% parabolic organisation does not exist. 

At first sight it might seem strange to be writing about an organisation that is idealised and non existent.  However we often use the idealised form in other areas.  For instance when we talk about the ideal parent we know that in reality it is a figment of our imagination.  The strange thing is that the more someone strives to be an ideal parent the less ideal they really are.  Parenting is more about process.  It is the way we handle the mediocrity and flaws, in ourselves, in our children and in others.  The child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott talks about the “good enough parent” to help people understand that “perfect” or wanting to be perfect is the enemy of good. 

The parabolic leader works to a set of principles to establish a parabolic organisation that, by its very nature, can never be fully parabolic.  No matter how effective we are as a leader we can never be perfect, the people we work with will never be flawless and our organisations can never be pure.   

Yet paradoxically, if you look again at Figure 1.05 you will see that we are suggesting that some organisations are 100% pyramidal.  And the reason has to do our nature as human beings.  We all have innate behavioural tendencies that are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.  We have inherited the pyramidal structure from our evolutionary ancestors.  We have carried this structure with us from birth.  It is the archetypical default structure and complements the heroic leader archeotype.  This is an important issue and needs further elaboration which we will do elsewhere.  For the moment let’s return to our discussion of structure. 

Structure shapes most aspects of organisational life and it does so 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, every year.  To help understand its influence it is useful to use the differentiation of stem cells as an analogy.  An embryo begins life as a single “original” stem cell.  As the cells divide and multiply they begin to differentiate from one another eventually becoming nerve, blood, liver cells and so on.  Gravity, which causes an ever so slight difference between what is in the top half of a dividing cell compared to what is in the bottom half, is the initial shaper of this differentiation.  Position, that is whether a cell is closer to the middle or closer to the outside, also contributes to this differentiation process.  (See Figure 1.06) 

Just as gravity and position determines the differentiation of cells within a developing embryo so too organisational structure determines the differentiation of an organisation’s subsystems. 

The “people” component of an organisation can be separated into a number of subsystems. Figures 1.08.1 to 1.08 illustrate the impact of both the pyramidal and parabolic structures on the subsystems. The subsystems are the: 

In Figure 1.08.1 above the pyramidal structure supports the command and control leader / dependent follower dynamic.  Chris Argyris noticed the relationship in the 1950s and was the first to name these leaders “pyramidal leaders”.   Command and control (aka Model I ) leaders are most comfortable with dependent followers.   These are complementary roles.   Parabolic structures support a facilitative leader / engaged follower dynamic.  These are also complementary roles.  We have used the word facilitative in the diagram to describe the parabolic leader.  Other terms such as collaborative or Model II leaders are interchangeable.

In figure 1.08.2 below, the pyramidal structure supports a hierarchical culture in which status often overrides purpose.  There is a strong belief that intelligence is a  function of status and hierarchy. Silos and silo behaviour are common.  A premium is placed on good news.  Challenging news is not welcomed.  FIBS behaviour is common. (See Our Unique Concepts/FIBSROCK Model)  Parabolic structures favor collaborative cultures where purpose and achievement are paramount.  There is a strong belief in developing the intelligence of the organisation as a whole, ie distributed intelligence.   There is a desire to hear the truth.  ROCK behaviour is actively supported. 

In  figure 1.08.3 pyramidal structures support linear accountabilities between manager and employee.  Team accountabilities play little part.  Parabolic structures support the development of mutual accountablilities.

Figure 1.08.4 In pyramidal structures relationships between people are not valued.  Relationships that cross divisions are often treated with suspicion by more senior managers or used as furtive sources of information.  With parabolic structures relationships between people are seen as very important.  People are encouraged to seek information and learn from one another’s experience and perspectives. 

In figure 1.08.5 the pyramidal structure the individual is valued primarily for their skills - their hands, their eyes or their brains.  Parabolic structures  support the development of an.individual’s character.  The organisation values emotional maturity to maximize learning, creativity and good decision making.     

When I first understood the extent to which the pyramidal structure influenced the organizational subsystems it became crystal clear as to why most attempts to bring about organizational transformation fail.   An initiative aimed primarily at leadership development was destined to fail because it was only tackling one in a series of subsystems.  Similarly most attempts at cultural change or work practice redesign could only be short lived in pyramidal organisations.  

This new understanding suggests that to maximize the likelihood of sustained transformational change it would be useful to move from a pyramidal to a parabolic structure and make interventions in each of the subsystems.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Before we consider how to bring about change we need to understand just why pyramidal organisations are inefficient.  To do so I would like to introduce you to the productivity pipeline and also acknowledge where I first came across an early version.  

Each subsystem makes a contribution to productivity.  Collectively these subsystems form a productivity pipeline. See Figure 1.09.  The inputs include people, money, time, resources and relationships with stakeholders (eg relationships with customers).   The outputs include profits, products, services, competencies and developed people.  For an organisation to survive the value of the outputs need to exceed the value of the inputs.  The higher the Output : Input ratio the more successful the organisation.  A major determinant of this success is the degree to which the pipeline leaks.  See Figure 1.10.  

Now let’s compare the pyramidal productivity pipeline Figure 1.11.1 to Figure 1.11.3 with the parabolic productivity pipeline, Figure 1.12.1 to Figure 1.12.3. 

The Parabolic Leadership Journey

It is easy to poke holes in the parabolic leadership model.  For a start you could point out that I have used the “straw man” argument.  That is, I have placed all the dysfunctional elements of organisational behaviour in the pyramidal category creating a straw man that is just waiting to fall over all by itself.  But I am not alone in doing this.  Chris Argyris first wrote about the problems of pyramidal cultures and its impact on personality fifty years ago.  He suggested that the pyramidal organisation fostered systemic immaturity and that dysfunctional behaviour was a natural consequence.  Argyris Chris, Personality and Organisations, Harpur New York 1957.

You could point out that as yet I haven’t identified one organisation that could be described as 100% parabolic.  Whilst this is accurate every now and then I come across organisations where sections or divisions “act as if” they are parabolic for most of the time.  And when people become aware of the parabolic model they say “Yes that is a good description of how our leader works.” and “It is so good to be part of those organisations.” 

Having said the above I can say that this is often how I work.  I want to be a parabolic leader and although at times I don’t live up to my aspiration when I do lead “parabolically” I lead well.    The model guides my leadership, my relationships and my interactions with many organisations and community groups.  

The great child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about what he called “the good enough parent.” He wanted parents to know that being the “perfect parent” or even striving to be the perfect parent was counterproductive.  It was the journey of learning how to be a better parent that was important.  And so it is true for the leader choosing to take the parabolic leadership journey.

So here is an outline of the Parabolic Leadership Journey – a fuller description of the steps can be found elsewhere.

Step one.   Work out what sort of leader you want to be.   Do you really want to be a facilitative (collaborative, participatory, model II) leader? 

Step two.  Become acquainted with Kurt Lewin’s equation  B = f(P,E).  Behaviour is a function of the Person and the Environment.   When you truly understand this equation you will also understand how a leader needs to take responsibility for the structure they create and thus expand the equation B = f(P,E,S) where S is the structure.  If you are a leader of a team / section / division / organisation help your group(s) understand the equation as well.  

Step three:  Develop your understanding of the power of the pyramid.  When you understand the power of the pyramidal paradigm you are more able to act wisely and to not react when you identify dysfunctional behaviour.  Remember if you handle dysfunctional behaviour in a pyramidal way you will undermine your parabolic initiatives.  

Step four:  If  you are within an organisation you will need to develop first your circle of influence (See Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People) and then your parabola of influence.  You now need to act on some of the behaviours you want the organisation (or part of) to adopt particularly ROCK behaviours*.  You will need to be open to and actively seek challenging feedback that shows that you are not acting on these behaviours eg FIBS behaviours.  You need to keep people in the loop about your learning. 

Step five.  Develop your collaborative leadership ability. This involves developing frameworks and skills that foster collaboration.

Step six:  Intervene thoughtfully according to the characteristics outlined in each of the differentiated subsystems ie the; 
Leadership / follower dynamic,
Organisation of work
Relationships between people
Step seven: Develop your understanding of the importance of integrating a personal, group and organisational purpose and help to make this live. 

Step eight: Develop your own and your group’s ability to think and learn.

Step nine: Develop your own and your group’s ability to become systems strategists. 

Step ten:  Develop your own and your group’s ability to take action. 

Step eleven:  Enjoy your own development and that of the development of your people and feel proud that you are having a really positive affect not only on your organisation but on the lives of many more people as they interact inside and outside the organisation.


* For a description of the FIBS : ROCK model see our FIBS-ROCK web page.


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