Notes and Fragments from a ‘Leadership’ Day The psyCommoner

April 28, 2017 § 1 Comment



Today I attended ‘leadership’ training. Yet strangely, there is no context to our work. No mention of social welfare cuts, care worker’s low wages, endless organisational restructures or organisational penny pinching; this is all off the agenda. Something we must ‘park’.

We must also implicitly ‘park’ other messy realities that may not generate ‘value’: the anxiety, stresses, strains, impulses, pressures, incontinence, medication errors, poor judgments and living conditions – and instead try to stay focused on suffocating the human, social and political being within and instigate ‘positive thinking’. ‘Polly-Annas’ are here preferred to ‘Eeyores’.

I subsequently spend the most part of the day trying to reconcile this with what we intuitively know to be true about the current social and political moment. The austerity agenda obscured by the so-called ‘efficiency’ drive and the incumbent organisational actors, practices and processes that remove senior managers and policy makers from seeing or being truly responsible and accountable for the human consequences of their decisions.

This is being physically, socially and psychically absent. Disembodied decision makers. Facelessness, alienation and obscurity, a symphony of life under neoliberalism.

Where I see myself in this ideological haze is as ‘critical reconnector’, in the sense that I am trying to think of a situation where I can somehow reconnect decision makers with the consequences of their decisions. Something akin to speaking truth to power by stealth, if you will.

Coaching is one topic, technique and tool quickly onto the agenda. Can we empower individual staff members to ‘take ownership’ of their problems and improve a dysfunctional working culture? Can we really transplant bad values for good? What was there to begin with? We are again at the point where homoeconomicus clashes with homo reciprocans. 

Organizational change is the aim. Managers in organisations, once satisfied with planning, organizing and coordinating the hierarchy, must now inspire, innovate and ‘lead change’.

Yet change is taken as ahistorical, something we ‘do to’, like a surgical procedure. Bad cultures do not just appear, but grow in ‘a vacuum where there is no relatedness’ (1). They are characterised by structural fear and division, power inequalities, low levels of trust; exacerbated by being ‘done to’ by those in positions of absent seniority. Resistance is the natural social protective response to being ‘done to’.

Hungarian Economic Historian Karl Polanyi’s concept of the ‘double movement’ comes to mind, where the community takes measures to protect itself from the ravages of the free market.

I conclude the term ‘empowerment’ has profound limitations in relation to this sort of change.

Instead, ‘Change Management’ is the attempt to recalibrate the behaviours of ‘organizational participants’ with the who, what, where, why and how of change, as decided by leaders (‘change agents’), and usually the use of methods to redirect resources (nearly always, upwards) and operations to restructure an organization, often focusing on modifying the behaviour of the individual employee(s), who become the objects of change.

In relation to the management and/or leadership of this kind of change, ‘participation’, ‘empowerment’ and psychological ‘ownership’ are required by your underlings of the change decisions, policies, processes and activities to which senior decision makers in an organization have already decided to commit to. Albeit that psychological ownership, as pointed out by critical scholar Bill Cooke, does not translate into literal ownership: “…broader managerial goals are always taken as given and immutable, and, moreover, the desire and achievement of such ‘ownership’ are always externally, i.e. managerially impelled” (2).

This is one human severance that forms the basis of the dominant form of technocratic management and leadership. Social engineering. I contemplate whether I can opt out of this game. And yet I sense implied threat; constructive force backed up with latent bureaucratic power.

I also sense boundaries. We are being encouraged to act as if boundary-less – to continuously improve – but what real choice is there here except that of zweckrational, an instrumental consideration of costs and consequences akin to the machine-like selfishness of homo economicus.

We move on to discussing strategy. Fixed, natural and obvious, apparently.

This form of strategy resolves around the ‘production’ and market exchange of human relations and the pervasive use of abstract statistics and business models as a guide to decision making. Strategies revolve around business opportunities and ‘the business case’; primarily about growth and the commodification and marketing of a cultural message.

And, as a leader, you are required to channel and mediate these roles and goals of the wider organisation in a presentable, assertive and sense making way to communities of people who can display resistance, prejudice and rejection if you cannot sufficiently brainwash them.

We are given the strategic objectives and then, not trusted with determining the direction of travel, told we must ‘empower’ staff to take ownership of the means to achieve them.

Here, resistance is something of inevitability. The intrinsic motivation of many in the domain of social welfare – care workers, Social Workers, advocates, support workers and managers – many of whom care deeply about the welfare of others and of the common good – creates a value struggle between the operating logic of the money generating system and the logic of social protection against this marketization, often via the state (3). The resultant deadlock is too often filled with regressive, racist, xenophobic sentiments and nationalist values.

This is getting too close for comfort. Fascist authoritarianism compatible with the idea of free markets and capitalist work processes? (4)

There’s more. Anglo-American progress based on more, bigger, better. The endless demand of ‘economic necessity’ and the advancement of new technologies. As the pace of technological change quickens with each new gadget, upgrade or cultural fad, my intrinsic values, beliefs and actions have a shorter period of cultural validity; frequently inconsistent with the dominant drive for heroic entrepreneurship, organisational efficiency or technological change. Here, Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration seems to hold true, where ‘the one dimensionality of technical progress seems to be shrinking the present’ (5).

Entrepreneurs, wealth creators; those who take risks and ‘shape the future’. Inspiring, imaginative and adding value, but what sort of value are we adding here? Whose wealth? The problem being that the majority of people who most urgently need change are not ‘innovators’, ‘change agents’, or ‘entrepreneurs’, nor do they wish to be. But an untidy majority who must be subjected to managerial housekeeping, ‘managed’ as objects.

It’s a race to the bottom and it doesn’t trickle down.

How might we change the game? How might we instead demand of decision makers the four questions of values and power in Bent Flyvberg’s phronetic planning (6)?

  1. Where are we going with this strategy?

  2. Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power?

  3. Is this development desirable?

  4. What, if anything, should we do about it?

My mind wanders once more: what might a commons leadership programme look like instead? Can we develop organisational forms that are accountable to citizens and communities rather than bankers and bosses? Can we work in real partnership with the experience of marginalised individuals and communities to develop commons based strategies and initiatives, reversing the disempowering model towards an inherently empowering one?

Empathy and care embedded into an organisational form, something Global Commons Advocate James Quilligan refers to as a ‘customary or emerging identification with an ecology; a form of collective labour; a social technology; a community need or shared conviction; a cultural resource area; an ethnic, religious and linguistic affinity; or a historical identity.’(7)

Should we be challenging change, rather than managing change?

I jot down some ideas. A commons leadership might seek to inquire critique or develop:

The duopoly of ‘Economic necessity’ and state authority


Holding disembodied decision makers and organisations to account.

Eschewing the ownership separation in most hierarchical organizations of what is produced from who has produced it: ‘the crazy separation between human life and the conditions of human life, between the doing and the deed, between creative freedom and socially created objects, between human condition and its natural context, between social cooperation and its products.’(8)

Subject/object separations between spheres, e.g. economy vs. society

Community ownership, co-production, commons based peer production

Subjectivity and intersubjectivity: critical ‘realities’ vs. dominant cultural narratives

Critical management and critical leadership

Social advocacy

Individual ‘behaviour change’ vs. situational factors (consider the social, economic and political forces that delimit and disempower)

Strategies for developing leadership when the fundamental premise of democratic capitalism is broken. We are at odds.

Perhaps being a psyCommons ‘reconnector’ is first of all about a change in how we think about complex problems, as outlined by the Center for Ecoliteracy’s Systems Thinking: a shift in perception from isolated consumer-individuals striving against impersonal, uncontrollable market forces to whole systems; from objects to the relationships between them; from atomised individuals as the objects of knowledge to critical knowledge, context and subjective experience; from quantity to quality; structure to process and content to patterns(9).

Reconnecting the relational dots and developing organisational forms in partnership with communities to embed the values of care, cooperation and empathy. Learning from experience, a new power sharing symphony.

Still, on leaving I admit to feeling more like Eeyore, having tried exhaustively to find the Commons ‘in the “pores” of social labour that capital cannot control in spite of its always “revolutionary” management strategies’ (10).

  1. Existential Psychologist Rollo May

  2. Bill Cooke, The Management of the (Third) World, Critical Management Studies: A Reader 2005

  3. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

  4. Chris Land, Democracy at Work: Cooperation and Civil Society Seminar 4



  7. James Quilligan

  8. Massimo De Angelis

  9. Center for Ecoliteracy

  10. Massimo De Angelis, Does Capital Need a Commons Fix?


§ One Response to Notes and Fragments from a ‘Leadership’ Day The psyCommoner

  • Shirley R. Bullock says:

    The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation
    applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
    Bill Gates
    Thanks, you a lot, Cz I have found your writing efficient about describing the real demand of present era. It includes almost every important features to broaden outlook of deserving people.

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