Leadership and Authority in Systems

by Barry Palmer. Quotes from Philip Boxer February 1999.

1. Over the years the group relations conferences have become professionalised. By this I mean that Directors can make up their staffs with men and women who have considerable previous experience of taking staff roles, many of whom have directed conferences themselves. Whilst they are invited in part because the Director believes they have something distinctive to offer, their main qualification is that they have the necessary conference experience. They are invited, and accept, primarily because it is a group relations conference, and not because of the particular title and aim of the conference. They can be assembled twenty four hours before the conference begins, in the knowledge that in broad terms they know what to do.

2. The effect of this is that the role we take up in a conference is shaped primarily by internalised ‘professional’ criteria, rather than by an appraisal of the unique circumstances of the particular conference. This can be described in terms of a person taking up a role, but this is not the most illuminating way of describing it. I would prefer to speak of the conference consultant role as a way of being, which the subject [1] takes up or invents as a way of being himself (or herself).

In other words, the notion of ‘role’ can be approached in terms of a construction in relation to task; and also as a construction in relation to desire. Interesting on this latter point that Lacan’s notion of the structure of a “discourse” is as a construction of social being. I think Barry is trying to get at the way in which the person invests himself (or herself) in a particular way of being-in-the-world, understood by that person’s relation to their own desire(s), rather than in terms of the ‘external’ characteristics of the role itself. But I don’t know enough about how the Grubb languages these issues to be able to make a clearer connection….. For the time being, let us refer to these two aspects of role as its “inner face” and “outer face”.

The Grubb Institute concept of finding, making and taking a role is thus, in this instance, inadequate, because the one doing the finding, taking and making is already a conference consultant self. There is no naked ‘person’ who finds and puts on a role like a suit of clothes. The Institute concept does not problematise this ‘person`.[2]

3. In a conference staff working to this professional ethos there is no difficulty about discussing the activities of the conference (what happens), or how these activities should be organised in a programme and staff deployment. But it is impossible to raise questions about the fit between these organised activities and what the members have a right to expect (that is, who we are as a conference staff, and who they are, from the members’ point of view),

Another way of thinking about this distinction might be (e.g.) that the staff’s professionalised view of themselves was more in the discourse of the University/Knowledge, while the members’ view of them was more from the position of the discourse of the Hysteric/Symptom. i.e. that the staff were in the relation of discourse of Science (in the members’ experience).

or about what may be the desire which has brought them to the conference, without calling into question the professional way of being themselves which the staff have adopted, and so raising anxiety which is expressed in anger or bewilderment.[3]

4. My recent experience of the Leicester conference is that what I have described does not arise there as a problem, because the conference is what the professionalised staff deliver, and that is what most participants come for.

This reinforces the hypothesis that the participants want to learn about the Knowledge/Science axis. Perhaps in the Study Groups they have the opportunity to be Sceptics?!

The staff do not discuss the advertised definition of the primary task of the conference: there is an opportunity to discuss it, but it is not taken. The advertised focus upon leadership, authority and organisation becomes in practice a focus upon feelings and fantasies about people in designated leadership roles upon the transference. Questions about who we are as a staff for the members, and about why they have come – their unconscious desire do not arise, except from a few marginalised members.

5. My perception is that Bruce directed the recent Grubb Institute conference in a way which called into question this who-we-are-and-for-whom level of conceptualisation of the enterprise we were engaged in. By this I mean that he did not allow us to assume that our learned and habitual way of participating in the activities of the conference was necessarily providing the kinds of opportunity for learning which had been advertised through the brochure.

6. What were the key moves through which the Director[4], directly and through the text of the brochure, interrupted the usual way in which conferences unfold?
(i) Perhaps most radically, Bruce proposed that management meetings in the latter half of the conference were convened to examine whether and how we were creating a context, in which members could learn about leadership and authority in systems (ie in working contexts construed as systems). The structure and concept of the Institutional Event made it possible to distinguish between the question, ‘What is going on in this institution?”, which we sought to answer within the sessions of the event, and the question: “Are we enabling participants to learn about leadership and authority in systems?”, which was raised in the staff meetings outside the event.
(ii) Implicit in (i) is the intention to conduct staff meetings as strategic rather than operational and co-ordinating management meetings[5].

This is an interesting distinction that could be thought about in terms of the strategy ceiling: the “strategic” intention would be to critically examine/raise the strategy ceiling, whereas the “operational” intention would be to operate in relation to the strategy ceiling as it is.

(iii) He sought to lead a shift of discursive practice[6] towards seeing and experiencing the events of the conference as task systems (as systems set up with an intended output), and not solely as social systems like organisms, ‘whose meaning is uncertain and sometimes indeterminable’ (brochure, p 2).

I do not accept this opposition – I would want to argue that ‘meaning’ as it emerges in social systems has to be understood more in relation to the ‘inner faces’ of its roles, rather than their outer faces. This means that we are thinking about (what I think of in terms of) the Discourses….. and the question of how the two come together is a question of how Economies of Discourse are formed, and how these get privileged qua establishing strategy ceilings.

(iv) He sought to remove “group” as a privileged object within our discursive practice. (This process was not complete, since we could still see the holes where the word “group” had been. The title “Small Study Event” doesn’t really make sense unless there is a deleted group for the word “small” to apply to.)
(v) He repeatedly reiterated the aim and operating process of the conference and of events and staff meetings.
(vi) He did not take part in the Small or Large Study Events, which I took to be a recognition that, because of the power of the professional ethos, it is almost impossible for the Director to take a consultant role in either of these events and hold on to the aim of the conference[7].

7. The difficulty and strain of all this was considerable. Members of staff were not merely bewildered but disconfirmed by these and other changes of language and practice. Zanne Lorenzen said that even when she got it right she didn’t know why it was right; it might just as well have been wrong. We talked about “this is not the way I am used to working”[8]. I found I never could remember the wording of the aim and operating process of events in spite of the reiteration. I think the staff were able to work together and weather some serious confrontations, not because we came together round the written definitions, but through some congruence of ethic or desire which was superordinate to these definitions and barely articulated at all. The word ‘transformation’ was perhaps closer to representing what we associated round than words like ‘authority’ or ‘system’.

8. I don’t suppose Bruce underestimated what he was up against. But, as I have already tried to indicate, I think the conceptualisation of what was required, in terms of persons searching for, finding, making and taking roles, does underestimate what is at stake. This metaphor does not capture the transformation which is entailed in redefining one’s self within a new discursive practice. In Praxis Event I David Gutmann talked about transformation in terms of creating a new role, so he was on to this. (I think now that what I mean by transformation is transformation of the subject.)

9. One of the challenges of acting to induce transformation is that the first moves have to be made within the untransformed system. So Bruce acts to transform the professional paradigm from within the professional paradigm.

This may well be what Bruce was trying to do, but it doesn’t sound right to me. The whole point of ‘across-and-up’ in the step-by-step diagram is its opposition with ‘up-and-over’ – privileging metonymy over metaphor or vice versa. To privilege desire over meaning is to go across-and-up, whereas the questioning and intervention on meaning itself is to privilege (the deconstruction of) metaphor over metonymy. I would want to know where the desire of staff was in relation to the praxis of the event…… it would be in relation to this that any change could come about in the paradigm.

He assembles a staff who I presume he feels share some of his aspirations[9], but who have nevertheless been acculturised within the group relations tradition. The wish to have an in¬ternational staff, within what are taken as economic givens, means that he cannot assemble a staff before the brochure is written and start to hack out the language and practice of the conference with them. So by the time we arrive many strategic decisions have already been taken and publicised. He adopts a programme whose deep structure is that of the Leicester type conference of the 1960s, in spite of the renaming of events and the introduction of Praxis Events[10].

…. the point being that what drives people beyond the limits of the current paradigm is precisely that – drive qua desire.

10. The experience of being repeatedly confronted with these angular definitions of aim and operating process had the effect on me of taking away my sense that I knew what I was doing. This was a necessary process, insofar as my feeling of knowing what I was doing was derived from slipping into the familiar behaviours of the professional paradigm[11]. But with the wisdom of hindsight – I’m doubtful whether it was the optimum strategy for bringing about transformation in the staff. (The way Bruce and others of us became infested with spelling mistakes and slips of the tongue may be an indication of unconscious awareness that what we wanted to do could not be done with this way of using language.)

11. Well, what would you do, if you’re so clever? I don’t know (and it would require other things besides knowledge to do it), but what has emerged from writing this note is that it is necessary for a Director and staff to reach beyond a redefinition in language of aim and operating process. They have to do this, if they are to be able to achieve a redefinition in language which they can accept as standing for a shared desire[12] which can never be fully articulated. Imagine, in a game of golf, trying to putt on a green where the hole was on the edge of a precipice immediately on the far side of the hole. You would not dare to hit the ball hard enough to get into the hole, for fear of hitting beyond it. The ‘beyond’ of the stated aim of the management of the conference is the desires of the various staff what we each really want. These are a kind of precipice, because they take us beyond language and into the unconscious. But if we do not acknowledge what is left over and left out by any statement in language, we get into fundamentalism.

12. Having pursued the line of thought which was most important for me from the conference, I want to look more briefly at David’s position in, and contribution to, the staff. First, David’s interpretative practice was new and mind boggling to me, and seemed to come out of a distinctively French rather than Anglo Saxon box. By this I mean the way he worked with phrases, words and even letters as signifiers of unconscious intention. On the face of it, it is batty to suggest that the word ‘Release’ on someone’s shoes, or the word ‘Liberty’ on the back of my tie, are manifestations of unconscious processes; batty, that is, if David is meaning us to entertain the idea that the unconscious is influencing people’s choice of shoes or flipping my tie over at the crucial moment. It makes sense to me, however, if David is using his own associations to suggest how the unconscious of every subject is making meaning out of the fine rain of signifiers of every sort, in which we live and move and have our being. We walk around plastered with emotive words, and take up residence in rooms with emotive letters on the door[13]. Why should people who are sophisticated in this kind of work assume that this doesn’t have any effect?

13. Secondly, David, as I understood him, wanted to conduct all the business of the staff as management within the sessions of the Institutional Event, once it had started: not only the work of trying to understand the state of the conference, but also the work of assessing whether we were delivering the conference we had led the participants to expect. This is an intelligible strategy but I don’t know whether it is rational or optimal for learning. It generates paradox, by creating a space in which there is no inside or outside a kind of Mobius strip. I have at other times criticised the way in which Ken Rice’s diagrams, representing the individual, the group and the organisation as closed figures with an inside and an outside, are taken as literal representations of these entities. So why am I hesitant when David proposes a practice which subverts this conception? I think it comes back to the importance I attach to construing the conference as a purposive enterprise.

Remembering the moment of what-is-going-on-here when Bruce and I were discussing the ‘split-screen’ methodology, and the significance of separating the formal organisation from the organisation of task (thus leading into the N-S-E-W formulation) “purposive” in that moment appeared to be a characteristic of task + formal organisation…. albeit with task being that which was privileged. I think there is a problem here in the way in which “purposive” is being privileged…. we need to get clearer on what is being privileged here, particularly in the light of Barry’s arguing that this is in some way put in opposition to the privileging of “unconscious”.

It is not possible to act with authority, I think, without provisionally defining a world in which their are boundaries defining me and not me, inside and outside a world constructed in the domain of the Imaginary, in Lacanian terms.

These two distinctions belong to different registers – inside//outside in relation to the imaginary, me//not-me in relation to the Symbolic.

The trick is of course to remember that they are constructions in Bradford Keeney’s phrase, that they are not illusory, but not real. And we might wish people who come to conferences to learn this. But is the construction of Mobius strip events the best way to provide that opportunity? I don’t know.

14. I think Bruce is right in saying that group relations conferences have evolved in a way which pursues the exploration of unconscious processes at the expense of learning about leadership and authority in purposive (task) systems. I say ‘evolved’, but my impression is that this ambiguity was there from the beginning, and that Harold Bridger parted company with Ken Rice at an early stage because, as Bridger saw it, the Leicester conference ignored the work related desires which in those days brought the participants to the conference[14]. (I’m now noticeably doubtful whether the basic Leicester design, however tweaked, is compatible with learning about leadership and authority in purposive systems.) I think that a conference for the study of unconscious processes is what David wants that he is less interested in purposive systems and that this was one cause of conflict between him and Bruce.

Here is this presenting dilemma – I am very unhappy with its form, since I think we are actually dealing with something else – professional dilemmas, conflicting constitutencies, different forms of addiction/attachment, an incommensurability serving particular interests…..

15. However, I think Bruce is wrong in making something absolute out of the conflict between purposive systems and working with the unconscious. He asked whether there is purpose in the unconscious and I said ‘Yes’. Desire and intentionality are unconscious; they enter conscious thought and talk as statements of purpose. To put this I hope more lucidly, it is necessary for directors and managers and governing bodies to define boundaries of task, time and territory. But it is psychoanalytically naive to suppose that these judgments are based solely upon an objective and rational appraisal of needs and resources in a real world, or ever could be. These judgements always and inevitably go beyond the logic of needs and resources. And what is `beyond` is the unconscious desire[15] of those who draw the boundaries – what is in it for them, as persons, as subjects. I don’t know whether the group relations conferences, in any form, can be tuned to this frequency.

8 November 1996

Barry’s Notes to the Text
[1] I’m using the Lacanian term ‘subject’ in order to avoid using the words ‘person’ or ‘individual’. ‘The subject is not simply equivalent to a conscious sense of agency, which is a mere illusion produced by the ego, but to the unconscious; Lacan’s “subject” is the subject of the unconscious.’ (Evans D, Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Routledge 1996).
[2] I realise that the Institute does not equate ‘person’ with ‘individual’, and that we regard ‘person’ as a systemic concept. But I don’t think this is taken account of in the concept of taking a role.
[3] This formulation draws upon Philip Boxer’s theory of levels of strategy, set out in part in his ‘Intent and the Future of Identity’, in Boot P, Lawrence J and Morris J (eds), Creating New Futures: A Manager’s Guide to the Unknown, McGraw Hill 1994. This paragraph (3) is not as lucid as I would like, but I hope this ‘levels of strategy’ concept will become clearer as I go on.
[4] This way of telling the story builds up a picture of Bruce contra mundum which glosses over the complexity of what went on in the staff and in the conference as a whole. Other staff and members worked with, against and without reference to the moves I am describing, at different times and in their unique personal ways. The running controversy between David Gutmann and Bruce was on a different axis which I shall refer to later. There are other illuminating ways of reading the events of the conference. It would be more scientific to describe the processes I am interested in impersonally, as a conflict or confluence of discursive practices (see note 6) as a complex negotiation over what were to be allowable ways of ‘conferencing’, and of talking about our ways of conferencing. But I shall continue to tell the story in an individualised way, because it makes for an easier read.
[5] Maybe too cryptic a statement but it is not sufficiently important to spell it out.
[6] `Discursive practice’ (Foucault): a way of talking; more precisely, a way of using language to construct or evoke a ‘reality’, within which people then communicate, act and make decisions.
[7] We make a public ritual of installing the administrators as management before the Director takes up another role in Praxis Event I. Why has this not been necessary in the past, before he has taken up a consultant role in the Large Study Event? Because he and others are still in staff roles? But that begs the whole question. Bruce’s practice, this year and last, is a statement that the management role cannot responsibly be vacated.
[8] This phrase reminds me of an incident in The History of Mr Polly (H G Wells), in which Mr Polly rescues an old woman from a burning house by escaping with her across the roofs. As they scramble perilously across the tiles she says: ‘This is not what I’m used to!” (Associations on a postcard to B Palmer by 31 December 1996.)
[9] As Bruce said, his anxiety about Zanne, which made its presence felt in the opening plenary, was that he had never met her before. He had therefore had only twenty four hours in which to intuit whether she shared the kind of desire or aspiration around which he had assembled the rest of the staff.
[10] This is not a criticism, in a negative sense. Thomas Kuhn said that paradigm shifts come about not because people self consciously set out to do something different, but because they push the existing paradigm to the limit, until it breaks down. Or something like that.
[11] In the language of The Dynamics of Religion, this practice tended to push us into a state of extra dependence.
[12] A ‘shared desire’ may not be possible; perhaps what Boxer calls a ‘federation of intent’.
[13] I think the “G” of Room G was “Grubb” for me, and also the name of my younger son Gareth, who we sometimes call “G” in the family. Room G was Bruce’s office for a while when I worked in that building. Bruce, heaven help him, has been in the place of a father to me, so I have been “G” to him…
[14] “Despite the overall success of Leicester, I was still disquieted about… study groups. It seemed to me that the idea of a group of participants with the task of ‘learning about groups by being a group’ meets Bion and Rickman’s (1943) conditions for the ‘study of its own internal tensions’ only when the participants are patients prepared to join such a group with the expectation of ‘getting better’. Then the real life task of the group is for the patients ‘to get well’. It did not seem to me that there was a compelling real task in the non patient groups that I had experienced.” Bridger, in Trist E and Murray H (1990), The Social Engagement of Social Science, London: Free Associations, p 223.
[15] What in an earlier incarnation Bruce referred to as `basic need’, or something like it.

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