chapter  3
The paradox of involvement and detachment: the importance of practical judgment
Pages 23

In this chapter I want to consider the ways in which managers and leaders are called upon to take a more detached, long-term view of the development of their organizations at the same time as they are caught up in daily processes of organizational life. And yet it is precisely these ordinary, everyday activities which can have a profound effect on how the organization will evolve over time. As I explained in Chapter 1 drawing on insights from the complexity sciences, I am assuming that organizations develop as a result of what everyone is doing and not doing in the organization, and because of their relationships with others in other organizations, developments which may or may not be anticipated or reflected in formal plans. We are all subject to longer-term social processes and trends over which we

have little control and which shape what we find ourselves talking about and having to respond to. At the same time, the precise way we participate together in making sense of particular social or organizational trends and the way these impact upon our pre-reflected plans, the way we cooperate and compete to get things done, is not predetermined. In other words, it is a paradox that we are shaping whatever it is that we have to deal with at the same time as it is shaping us. I have been making the case in this book that what I have been calling the

dominant or orthodox management literature pays much greater attention to the longer term and the more abstract aspects of organizational life, and assumes that the manager or leader is in control of these. Planning and strategizing are considered to be the most important parts of their jobs with the supposition that managers and leaders are better able to steer organizational futures than I think they are. The reason I question the notion of control is because my experience of work is that social life in general and organizational life in particular are both predictable and unpredictable: managers are both in control and not in control at the same time. Indeed, sometimes our efforts to manage and direct bring about the circum-

stances that we seek most to avoid. The most obvious example of this is the

creation of complex financial derivatives in the early 2000s. The idea was that designing highly abstract financial products could parcel up debt and spread it throughout the financial system, making risk almost disappear. Instead, it had exactly the opposite effect of distributing risk to the degree that none of the banks knew the extent of the risk they were exposed to. I am certainly not saying that leadership and management in organizations are

not required. I am merely encouraging a more measured discussion of what leaders and managers are capable of achieving. The alternative to doing so, it seems to me, is to leave leaders and managers in a vulnerable position of having highly unrealistic expectations about what they might accomplish with others, including the myth of the transformational manager. As I have mentioned previously, the sociologist Norbert Elias was particularly

interested in the way that the warp and weft of social life was driven by the interweaving of intentions, and how the past informs the present. In order better to understand the unique flow of social life, he argued (2001), we must adopt the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer. Unlike many objects in nature which are relatively unchanging, society is riven by tensions, disruptions and explosions. ‘Decline alternates with rise, war with peace, crisis with booms’ (2001: 12). These disruptions are driven by the interweaving activities of highly social,

interdependent people like ourselves competing and cooperating to get things done. Elias argues that it is only from the perspective of the airman that we are able to gain some detachment, a relatively undistorted view of the order of the long course of historical changes and the way we are forming and are formed by them. These long-term historical trends are extremely hard to resist, even by very powerful coalitions of people or groups. However, there is nothing inevitable about our actions and reactions to the

processes in which we find ourselves participating. Only by adopting the perspective of the swimmer, who is obliged to take action in the moment itself, is it possible to see how varied are the different pressures that are brought to bear on the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves acting, in order that we might create opportunities to bring about outcomes of a different kind. Thinking about the implications of Elias’s ideas for leaders and managers, then, it

seems to me that he is suggesting the importance of our learning to be both involved and detached at the same time. Opportunities for doing something different, of responding to potentialities, only arise in the messy reality of the moment. However, moments are also inextricably linked in longer-term trends, which are very constraining. How might managers and leaders develop their dual focus?