What, then, is really needed to exercise learning leadership that will stimulate cultural learning?
1. Perception and Insight
The learning leader must be able to perceive the problem, to have insight into the culture and its dysfunctional elements. Such boundary-spanning perception can be difficult because it requires leaders to see their own weaknesses, to perceive that their own defenses not only help in managing anxiety but can also hinder their efforts to be effective. Successful architects of change must have a high degree of objectivity about themselves and their own organizations. Such objectivity results from spending portions of their careers in diverse settings that permit them to compare and contrast different cultures. In the development of future leaders, many organizations are therefore emphasizing international experience.
I ndividuals often are aided in becoming objective about themselves through counseling and psychotherapy. Learning leaders could benefit from comparable processes, such as training and development programs that emphasize experiential learning and self-assessment. From this perspective, we should also note that one of the most important functions of outside consultants or board members is to provide the kind of counseling that produces cultural insight. It is therefore far more important for the consultant to help the leader figure himself or herself out than to provide recommendations on what the organization should do. The consultant also can serve as a “cultural therapist,” helping the leader figure out what the culture is and which parts of it are more or less adaptive.
To become learning oriented, leaders also need to acknowledge their own limitations. As the world becomes more turbulent, it will be more and more difficult to develop clear visions. Instead, leaders will have to admit to not knowing the answer, to admit to not being in control, to seek help even from subordinates, to embrace trial-and-error learning, and to become supportive of the learning efforts of others. As I have argued in a recent book, the leader must be able to seek help from others, even the subordinates, and must develop the skill of “humble inquiry” (Schein, 2009a).
Learning leaders require not only insight into the dynamics of the culture but also the motivation and skill to intervene in their own cultural process. To change any elements of the culture, leaders must be willing to unfreeze their own organization. Unfreezing requires disconfirmation, a process that is inevitably painful for many. The leader must find a way to say to his or her own organization that things are not all right and must, if necessary, enlist the aid of outsiders in getting this message across. Such willingness requires a great ability to be concerned for the organization above and beyond the self, to communicate dedication or commitment to the group above and beyond self-interest.
If the boundaries of organizations become looser, a further motivational issue arises in that it is less and less clear where a leader’s ultimate loyalty should lie—should it be with the organization, the industry, the country, or with a professional community whose ultimate responsibility is to the globe and to humanity in some broader sense?
3. Emotional Strength
Unfreezing an organization requires the creation of psychological safety, which means that the leader must have the emotional strength to absorb much of the anxiety that change brings with it and must also have the ability to remain supportive to the organization through the transition phase, even if group members become angry and obstructive. The leader is likely to be the target of anger and criticism because, by definition, he or she must challenge some of what the group has taken for granted. This may involve such powerful symbolic acts as closing down a division in the company that was the original source of the company’s growth and the basis of many employees’ source of pride and identity. It may involve laying off or retiring loyal, dedicated employees and old friends. Worst of all, it may involve the message that some of the founder’s most cherished assumptions are wrong in the contemporary context. It is here that dedication and commitment are especially needed to demonstrate to the organization that the leader genuinely cares about the welfare of the total organization even as parts of it come under challenge.
4. Ability to Change the Cultural Assumptions
If an assumption is to be given up, it must be replaced or redefined in another form, and it is the burden of learning leadership to make that happen. In other words, leaders must have the ability to induce “cognitive redefinition” by articulating and selling new values and concepts or creating the conditions for others to find these new values and concepts. They must be able to bring to the surface, review, and change some of the group ’s basic assumptions. In Ciba-Geigy, this process had only begun in the redirection program project described in the previous chapter. Many managers were beginning to doubt that the organization’ s commitment to science-based technical products could sustain the company in the long run. The eventual merger with Sandoz and the concentration on pharmaceuticals clearly stimulated this redefinition.
5. Ability to Create Involvement and Participation
A paradox of learning leadership is that the leader must be able not only to lead but also to listen, to involve the group in achieving its own insights into its cultural dilemmas, and to be genuinely participative in his or her approach to learning and change. The leaders of social, religious, or political movements can rely on personal charisma and let the followers do what they will. But in an organization, the leader has to work with the group that exists at the moment because he or she is dependent on the people to carry out the organization’s mission. The leader must recognize that, in the end, cognitive redefinition must occur inside the heads of many members of the organization, and that will happen only if they are actively involved in the process. The whole organization must achieve some degree of insight and develop motivation to change before any real change will occur, and the leader must create this involvement. All of what has been said so far becomes more complicated when macrocultures become involved and when the work units become multicultural.
Another way of saying this is that the leader must have the process skills to manage relationships and groups across macrocultural boundaries and across hierarchical and occupational boundaries.
Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition