The Leadership Dance says something both valuable and, I think, unique about applying complexity studies to organizations. Rather than mining complexity principles for ways to think about and run organizations, Knowles takes an almost entirely practical approach. In this book, he tells the story of how, as an operations manager, he discovered an alternative to command-and- control management that enabled him to increase production and reduce accidents on the job, and only then learned that this style of management conformed to the principles of complexity studies. If you are looking for a theoretical explanation of how organizations can work, this book probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you want to understand what it feels like to be a manager letting go of a command-and-control management style or how to present a more “self-organizing” approach to managers who will respond best to an operational approach, this book may be exactly what you want.
I first met Dick Knowles at an ISCE conference in Boston in 1999, where he told me many of the stories he includes in the book. He had been a traditional command-and-control manager at a Dupont manufacturing plant where he realized that the plant ran better when his people were doing what they knew to be best. In subsequent years, he studied with Margaret Wheatley and many of the people in her circle, as he
worked to understand what this more “self-organizing” style of management was all about. Eventually, he developed a philosophy of organizations as living systems and a tool to help managers move in that direction. He has since consulted with a variety of organizations using that tool, the “process enneagram,” with a great deal of success.
The Leadership Dance tells the story of Knowles’s journey. One of the most valuable things about the book is his honesty in describing what it is like for someone who has always believed in command and control to give it up. He describes the shock he felt when he asked how the people who worked for him perceived him: They “spent an hour with me telling me what a jerk I was.” He describes the fear and confusion that became his constant companion during the first few years of practicing his new approach to management. He also tells us about his sources of support and, ultimately, his satisfactions, both personal and organizational, along his journey.
What makes this approach unique is that, unlike Arie de Geus or Dee Hock in their books, Knowles seems uncomfortable with theory. He does talk a little about “self-organization” and “attractors,” but the discussion is superficial, occasionally even mistaken, as when he talks about “strange attractors” but appears to mean “basin attractors.” His only sustained theoretical construct is the distinction between mechanical and living organizations, which is only peripheral to complexity studies. In addition, unlike Susanne Kelly in The Complexity Advantage, Knowles acted on his own authority before he had learned anything of chaos and complexity. In this way, his approach grew from purely practical responses to his day-today management chores.
The Leadership Dance is also valuable because Knowles presents a series of tools that appeal to practical managers like him. Many complexity consultants in business know the frustration of trying to convince operational managers to implement practices derived from complexity studies. The problem is not that these managers aren’t intelligent. Rather, it is that they have been trained and socialized to think operationally, not abstractly. The tools that Knowles introduces are accessible to managers with such operational intelligence in a way that I haven’t seen in any other writings.
Most significantly, Knowles has adapted the enneagram as a tool for making the transition from command and control to a more self-organizing management style. The enneagram maps nine personality types and their relationships. Knowles has translated those types into functions of any working group: identity, intention, issues, relationships,
principles and standards, the work, information, learning, and structures. These are functions that any manager will immediately recognize. Knowles’s intervention is to change the order in which these functions are performed. While this change may seem too simple to be effective, Knowles’s discussion of a variety of examples that demonstrate the power of that change suggests that it may be among the most effective tools for teaching a complexity-oriented management approach. I have also talked with a number of people who have learned to use Knowles’s process enneagram. They are uniformly enthusiastic about what it can help managers to do.
Knowles presents a couple of other tools that consultants may find useful. Nevertheless, my guess is that his process enneagram is what The Leadership Dance will be remembered for.
It would be easy to nitpick with this book. Knowles’s writing is sometimes clumsy and some of his observations made me wish that he could have examined their theoretical implications. However, these are minor points.
For consultants looking to introduce a complexity-oriented management style without confusing many practical-minded managers or for managers who want an insight into how it feels to move away from the command and control that they have always known, this is a powerful book. It even offers some interesting opportunities to those of us who are more theoretically inclined than Dick Knowles. For me, complexity studies examines the patterns that emerge as complex systems evolve. It strikes me that Knowles’s process enneagram may be just such a pattern, operating in the realm of human social systems. As such, The Leadership Dance may be a mine for exploring the ways in which social systems are unique among all complex systems.