Most rooms have elephants

Last month, CFO Services' Alexander van Caeneghem attended a Collaborative Leadership program at Harvard. The program focused on 'building the organizations of the future', addressing topics in organizational development and self-management. Sharing some initial thoughts on the program, Alexander ruminates on the human body as metaphor for the organization.

Article by Alexander Van Caeneghem, Blue Chip Boutique Leader CFO Services

With our world transitioning quickly and irreversibly to the knowledge economy, the structural creation of new knowledge has by now become a professional imperative.

As for me, there seemed to be no better place to address that imperative than the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, which boasts the word VERITAS in its shield. So, last month I attended a two-day Collaborative Leadership program in Harvard Extension School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Organizational development and self-management

The program focused on ‘building the organizations of the future’. It addressed a wide range of topics in organizational development and self-management. Its main mental framework revives the human body as metaphor, as cognitive tool through which we understand ourselves and the world (Lakoff & Turner). Protagoras claimed that man is the measure of all things, but is not man’s body the measure of all organizations, then?

We can actually understand organizations better if we consider their structure to be the bones in the body, and empowerment and collaboration the muscles. Of course, bones can be broken and put together, but that requires surgery or other medical attention. Muscles, on the other hand, can be flexed on one’s own initiative, with an intensity of choice. What it requires is not medical attention, but mainly discipline and willpower. And training, of course.

Empowerment and collaboration

The framework allows us to understand where to direct our attention and focus our energy. For most people, the structure of an organization is a given, but empowerment and collaboration are levers to be worked by a wide array of leaders. When preparing ourselves for the challenges ahead, we need to eliminate roadblocks. We can improve collaboration, for example, by stimulating collective intelligence and having better meetings. Group bias and a lack of psychological safety will be harmful, and need to be addressed. Most rooms have elephants.

Empowerment, on the other hand, is haunted by the ever-returning question whether accountability works without hierarchy. But social control (e.g. peer pressure), normative control (e.g. culture), professional control (e.g. expertise) and neo-bureaucratic control (e.g. transparency on responsibilities) can make up for command-and-control. And we can promote personal development to improve leadership at all levels. In the end, empowerment is about facilitating as many people as possible to claim personal power.

Paradigm shifts await us. But let’s not wait for the context and circumstances to change, or for mandates to be awarded. Let’s start to work on the parameters we can actually influence. Let’s self-start, and let’s self-propel.

And if you will now excuse me: I have some muscles to flex.

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Alexander Van Caeneghem Blue Chip Boutique Leader
CFO Services
+32 2 712 08 68