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Multiple Ways of Organizing Beyond Just Hierarchy

Dr. Grace Ann Rosile talks about postmodern organizations, the ensemble theory of leadership and how to move beyond hierarchy.

Dr. Grace Ann Rosile is a Professor of Management at New Mexico State University. Her research interests include ethics, narrative, indigenous storytelling, restorying, and Ensemble Leadership. As an NMSU Daniels Fund Ethics Fellow for 5 years, Rosile produced and co-wrote a series of 7 films on Tribal Wisdom for Business Ethics .

Christophe Bruchansky: More than 20 years ago, you co-wrote a paper entitled “Pedagogy for the Postmodern Management Classroom: Greenback Company” with Professor David M. Boje. Is postmodernism still relevant today and how much has it influenced management practice?

Dr. Grace Ann Rosile: The term “postmodern” has fallen out of favour in academia, so I do not know of any companies today that use the term “postmodern” to describe themselves. However, if we go by the Boje and Dennehy definition in their 1993 (p. 12) book, they describe the postmodern organization as being against racism, sexism, eurocentrism, colonialism, and anti-bureaucratic. The continuing relevance of the ideas of postmodernism and organization is evidenced by the fact that Information Age Press re-issued the 1993 book in 2008. The good news is that it is apparent these ideas are still very relevant. The bad news is that these ideas are still relevant because we have yet to eradicate racism, sexism, and the rest of these ills of modernism.

Do you have any explanation of why the term “postmodern” has fallen out of favour?

I think that if you look at almost anything in academia, the way our process is structured, it’s always based on a new idea. And so you may get your reputation because you have introduced a new idea. And so now we have this fetish and performativity around new ideas when the old ones are still there. I think it’s the artificiality of the bureaucracy of professions, and it’s not just academia.

New leaders need new ideas to gain influence. Is there an alternative to this never-ending cycle? 

I have this kind of love/hate relationship with leadership. I really don’t like the term leadership because it implies there’s one person there and either it’s their fault that we’re in this problem or they’re the God that’s going to save us. I think that leadership has fallen into the same trap that other disciplines have of focusing on the new and the good versus the bad, the us versus the them.

More recently, you formulated an ‘‘ensemble’’ theory of leadership. Would you consider it a variation, an evolution or a departure from postmodern management theory?

​I consider “ensemble” theory of leadership to be an evolution from postmodern theory. Postmodernism questioned foundationalism, questioned the unquestioning following of a body of accepted foundational research. Even the fact that we have “foundational” research in a field called “leadership” implies that we cannot have a leader-less group or society. However, there is a difference between no one being a leader, and everyone being a leader. Ensemble Leadership Theory says we can perform organization with everyone being a leader. The term “ensemble” is drawn from theatre and the arts, where an ensemble performance is one where multiple performers are all the “stars” of the show. 

Is ensemble leadership a reality that we need to recognize or something that we need to build in modern organizations?

Coming out of Western capitalism, we are trained to create hierarchy. We are trained to see it everywhere and to reproduce it everywhere. But as things changed and as technology developed, hierarchies didn’t work anymore. And so organizations were forced to be agile, to innovate and adapt, to forget the strategic planning. So things have changed and organizations are moving more in that direction now than ever before. They’re not sure how to do it, and they usually end up recreating hierarchy, but that’s part of the training. I think still too many people feel that it’s more a system of control, so they feel more secure if they can recreate hierarchy and a rigid structure.

When leaders’ workgroups were created years ago, the way they did it was what they call greenfield corporations: they bring people in, train them in a whole new way. They believed that you could not take the existing organization and convert it. And I’m not sure I agree with that, but it’s a lot easier when you don’t have those already ingrained patterns, because they’re so subtle. Those patterns are what David calls antenarrative: they’re the things that make the story the way it is, invisible and taken for granted.

You argue that leadership should not be viewed as static and reified but rather as co-created within in-the-moment relationships. This kind of leadership is a radically different from that practiced in most modern organizations. What first steps could modern organizations take to adopt ensemble leadership theory?

One of the gifts of the postmodern perspective was that it freed us from constraining views of “consistency.” Instead of either-or, postmodernism was a proponent of and/also and of paradox. In Ensemble Leadership Theory, this translates into the idea of heterarchy.

Heterarchy is a concept derived from anthropologists’ studies of centuries-old Mesoamerican cultures. Heterarchy denotes not a dualistic rejection of hierarchy, but rather an acceptance of multiple ways of organizing beyond just hierarchy. Heterarchy is a dynamic, decentered, networked process which overall is more egalitarian while avoiding such dualistic either-or traps like authoritarian vs. egalitarian.  If an organization wished to move in the direction of Ensemble Leadership Theory, I would recommend beginning with adopting some first steps towards bringing more voices to the table. I have identified 7 Ensemble Storytelling processes which I observed in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers organization.

If we’re going to include more people, we need the social structures and the storytelling methods that emphasize inclusiveness rather than “I’m the storyteller, I’m going to stand up and tell my story”. Instead, we want stories that are co-constructed, that are constructed by the community and stories that allow multiple voices. Ensemble Together-Telling emphasizes letting people speak for themselves rather than selecting one representative for many voices. Ensemble Materiality refers to the physical material conditions of participation. For example, at public demonstrations, women shared the time at the microphone equally with men. Ensemble storytelling processes are the building blocks of Ensemble Leadership, and any of them would be a good way to start.

Are there any connections or parallels to make between ensemble leadership theory and “leaderful” organizations such as Black Lives Matter?

I do not feel qualified to comment on the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I can comment on Occupy. Some claim that the Occupy movement was leaderless and thus less effective. Here again, as I mentioned above, I would cite the difference between no one a leader versus everyone a leader. The highly-effective 20+year history of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose motto is “We are all leaders,” demonstrates how powerful and effective an organization can be with everyone being a leader.

An African American scholar and organizational consultant told me just this week that this concept of everyone a leader is also part of African tribal culture, and is distinctly different from the idea of no one being the leader.

Would you still recommend the Greenback classroom-as-organization pedagogy for teaching postmodern management in business schools?

​Yes, I would still recommend the classroom-as-organization exercise, as it allows students to structure their own organization. Also, it guides them through “deconstructing” their own group (or organizational “department”) meetings, by telling the story of the meeting and then deconstructing that story. For example, one group wrote a story of a problem that had arisen while the department head was absent from the meeting. The story suggested the poor results caused by the problem were the fault of the negligent department head. Then students deconstruct the story. There are at least 7 ways to deconstruct a story, including reversing the plot, reading between the lines, and paying attention to rebel voices. In this example, the students deconstructed the story by telling the untold story. The department head had actually met with a team member in advance of her absence, to prepare the other member to assist the group in the event of just such a problem as the one which did arise. Such ability to analyze a problem from multiple perspectives is perhaps even more important today than it was 25-30 years ago.

One thing both David and I would do differently now is that I would not push the students so much to elect department heads and CEOs. I did have one or two student groups in the mid-’90s who refused to create this sort of hierarchy. In the years since then, I have realized that hierarchy is not the only way to organize. This idea was nowhere that I could see in the business literature 25-30 years ago, although there were some hints in that direction in feminist literature.