How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal

I'm reposting a beautifully written review by Michael Sales of an excellent and important book by two widely recognized consultants, researchers, and theorists in the Organizational Learning Field.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," and this is very much the frame of reference on this 2014 book on leadership. While so many, many books and theories propound the exclusive prominence of a particular set of ideas, Bolman and Deal have long been comfortable with the reality of ambiguity. For almost 40 years, they have explored the facets of the alternative lenses through which the data of organizational life can be viewed.

I believe that the authors' Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1991) is the best-selling organizational behavior textbook of all time. Here they laid out their central thesis that virtually anything that happens (or doesn't happen) in organizational contexts can be seen in several different frames simultaneously. Let's take the example of a promotion:

The Structural Frame would look at a promotion through the lens of goals, roles, rules, policies, order in relationships, and procedures. It is the stuff of thoughtful analysis and bureaucracy, which is not a negative term in this context. Policies developed over a long period of time might require decisions to be made about the viability of every associate in an organization on at least a three year basis. Vetting structures are needed to determine the criteria against which promotion should occur and measurements would needed to assess outcomes against goals. Promotions are part of the natural order of things: when people produce results, they are promoted. When organizations are in various stages of their life-cycle, as determined by product mix, markets, degree of innovation, etc., they need different types of people in the positions that are available. Salary should be based on the degree to which abstract and long term thinking are required. These are the sorts of considerations that go into structural thinking.

The Human Resources Frame would look at a promotion in terms of what it shows about how people are cared for in an organization. The focus is on how people feel. People who do good work are highly valued in an organization that emphasizes the human resources frame. People aren't overlooked. Sometimes, people are promoted because it will stretch them, be good for them in some way. Promoting some people and not promoting others can have a huge impact on team dynamics. Teamwork is essential to an organization dedicated to human resources development. Great relationships make for great organizations! You want great people to work for your organization, treat 'em right! Look at Google's perks!

The Political Frame would focus on what a promotion says about what agenda gets ahead in an organization. Which coalition of constituencies is on top? Is it Sales, Manufacturing, Research, Administration? What sort of "team of rivals" needs to be brought together to turn the conflicting demands of organizational chieftains into a successful governing coalition? How does a promotion make for peace or war within an organization or between an organization and its competitors? What organization wins over the best talent? How do they do it? Once that talent is there, what does it need to know about negotiation to be successful in a specific environment? How should promotions be used to motivate appropriate political behavior?

The Symbolic Frame would question the role that a promotion plays in an organization's narrative about itself. Does the selection of a person for a job resonate with a particular organizational myth, e.g., visit virtually any Apple retail store and you'll observe a higher level of racial and stylistic diversity than you'll find in almost any other complex private sector enterprise in the United States. It's a statement about who Apple is that's almost as powerful as Tim Cook's essay, "I'm Proud to Be Gay." This is a company that wants everyone to know that it values "thinking different." Its promotional practices are going to reflect those sorts of deeply held values.

For Bolman and Deal, leaders need to know their default frame, i.e., how they are instinctually drawn to view data and take action. Are they big believers in job descriptions? Do they "know" that associates will be intrinsically motivated under the right conditions? Are they confident in their intuition about what their competitors inside and outside the organization are going to do next? Are they ready to display their passion in a great speech because this is what always moves people to listen to the higher angels of their human nature?

And, perhaps, even more important, great leaders have to be able to move fluidly between and among frames when conditions require it and, maybe, even some times when they do not. Leadership is invested in results. If a leader isn't getting any hits with his/her most trusted approach, it's time to change up one's stance.

To do this, Bolman and Deal invent dialogs throughout the book to demonstrate how leaders from the four frames would handle differing situations. While they critique the limitations of being stuck in over doing one frame and not seeing the complexities and the opportunities of the everyday organizational situations they are presenting to leaders, they do not judge the rightness or the wrongness of one frame versus another. They simply show that leaders in one frame will see different possibilities than the leader grounded in another one. And, they emphasize that all the frames can be utilized to create solutions, strategies and tactics that engage the full breadth of personal profiles and organizational realities.

"Images of Leadership: Can Crooked Kites Fly" and "Leadership and Change" were particularly impactful chapters for me.

In "Kites" they posit the leadership configurations of executives like Jeff Bezos, Ursula Burns, and Steve Jobs using the four frames perspective. They point out that "If you recognize your blind spots, you can work on expanding your vision or collaborating with others who complement your worldview because they are attuned to things you might miss."

Alan Mulally's masterful "resurrection" of Ford demonstrates how a great leader drew on each of the frames to achieve change in and save a large industrial enterprise that was teetering on the abyss of a death spiral shortly before the outbreak of the Great Recession. Mulally may not have used their language, but the authors do an excellent job of showing how good theory can be applied to the comprehension of skillful practice.

The graphic below provides an overview to the framework: