Can we ever be clear with each other?

Over the past couple of months I have come across Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership method being promoted by a number of OD practitioners and institutions, so I thought it would be worth spending a blog post discussing the ideas that he puts forward and to offer a critique from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. By inquiring into this set of methods I am interested to know if there is anything genuinely knew in what is on offer.

Clear Leadership – the basics

Clear Leadership is a set of tools, techniques and practices which promise to change the culture in organisations. They help turn organisations away from management methods more suitable for outdated notions of command and control management, which do not promote collaboration, and into flattened organisations where genuine partnership and collaboration are possible. A student interested in learning to exercise clear leadership can do so in a four day course, and the methods  can then be cascaded throughout their organization.

What are the basic premises of Clear Leadership? Firstly, Bushe argues that it is not possible to create organisations where genuine partnership and collaboration can take place without changing the leadership culture. Secondly, changing the culture means clearing away the ‘organizational mush’, by which Bushe means the inevitable miscommunications and misinformation that is generated in any organisation by people making up stories about each other which are not true, and thus creating distrust. They do this because they are frightened to say what they are really thinking about each other, or they do so unskillfully by making judgements and putting others off. He adduces research to claim that four out of five conflicts in organizations are due to people making things up about each other: ‘people need to be able to get conflict out in the open, uncover the real level of alignment or lack thereof, get clear about what everyone really thinks, feels and wants, and clear out the mush.’ [1]Thirdly, Bushes claims that his techniques help people communicate with each other skillfully and clearly so that much of this ‘mush’ is avoided. The techniques he offers are about holding ‘learning conversations’ with others where people speak from something called an experience cube so that they become clearer about their own experience, and thus known to others. The experience cube describes what he considers to be the four areas of experience: observations, thoughts, feelings and wants. The idea is that when leaders/managers express themselves with greater clarity about how they understand their own experience, speaking about their thoughts, or their feelings, their wants or their observations, so it becomes less easy for others to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. They are less able to make up stories because leaders have said what is really going on for them. This clear communication enables people to identify and resonate with the positive intent of each other and so task, responsibility and accountability all become much more transparent. One company that Bushe worked in even had an experience cube rug made so that managers could go and stand on it and identify which of the four areas of their experience they were speaking to at a particular time.

Conceptual underpinnings

Here are a number of assumptions which I think are either implicit or explicit about Bushe’s set of methods.

Firstly, the method rests upon the familiar idea of organizational alignment, parts with whole, individuals with each other, and alignment with the ‘organizational values’. It is assumed that organizations work best when we all conform and chime with each other’s positive intent. In this sense the method borrows heavily from systemic, appreciative and humanist traditions, which rest upon assumptions that life in organizations can enable us to realize our best selves in a state of appreciative equilibrium with each other. In this sense many forms of OD formulated in this tradition are a kind of utopianism, which appeals to the religious imagination.

Secondly, and in this utopian vein, the method turns on a number of idealizations which involve dualisms of a moral kind. So partnership and collaboration are an assumed ideal, as is clear, uncluttered communication which is without ambiguity (Bushe claims that there is psychological research to prove that when humans encounter ambiguity they interpret this as a threat. Clearing away the ambiguity thus mitigates people’s anxiety). So partnership is good, command and control is bad. Clear communication is good, ambiguity is bad. Trust and transparency are good, unmanaged conflict and making up stories about each other is bad. Alignment based on shared values and commitment to Clear Leadership are good: lack of alignment, particularly with Clear Leadership principles, comes with organizational consequences, which I deal with more below under discipline.

Thirdly, Clear Leadership appears to be informed both by social constructivist ontology and sender received communication theory – that is to say that individuals apprehend the world separately and discretely, and then only latterly find ways of socializing their perceptions through unambiguous communication. There is an assumption in the theory of communication that what people intend to communicate is exactly what is communicated, and subsequently, with the application of the recommended techniques, it will be understood by the receiver of the communication unambiguously. In this we recognize the same distrust of ordinary every day conversation common to many manifestations of OD so that talking to each other needs to be proceduralized, step-wise. Recommendations for how to do this are quite abstract: speak from your here and now experience; check out that you have understood each other; own what is true about what the other person says about you. With all of these prescriptions, there is little guidance to know when we will know that we  have understood each other, that we can be confident that we are speaking from our here and now experience unambiguously and that we have ‘owned’ what is true about us.

In Bushe’s social constructivism ‘reality’ is both disavowed and avowed at the same time. So, for example, he asserts that everyone has their own unique experience, and this experience is incommensurable with everyone else’s: we are each monads separated from each other unless we learn to relate through unambiguous communication. So, there is no one truth but many truths about ‘what really happens’ in organisations. At the same time these many truths can be brought together through clear communication, speaking from the experience cube in learning conversations with openness and transparency, so that everyone can learn from the collective. Everyone then has access to the same information and can thus participate fully. We are able to transcend our separateness and misinformation about each other and be part of an unambiguous transparent whole. We can learn from the collective. So, on the one hand there is no reality, just many truths, yet on the other we can discover reality by communicating unambiguously about what’s ‘really going on’. The transition is achieved by following Bushe’s ‘breakthrough insights’, which achieve trust, cooperation and true partnership.

Fourthly, and as is often the case with high-sounding OD methods which appeal to the best of what it means to be human, the disciplinary and authoritarian aspects of Clear Leadership are implicit and/or understated, but are nonetheless there. For example, Bushe gives an example of one organization he has worked in where there was an expectation that everyone would use Clear Leadership methods to the extent that: ‘It became a “cultural annoyance” to run into a part of the organization where clarity had not taken hold.’ Using the language and techniques denotes membership of the in-group, but also a willingness to conform: over time it becomes unacceptable to resist Clear Leadership principles. Bushe goes on say that by year three of using his techniques in one organization ‘more poorly performing directors were made more visible and were let go a greater number than anyone can remember.’ One of the markers of success for Bushe of applying Clear Leadership in an organization, then, is that it acts as an effective appraisal system weeding out those who won’t comply, can’t be transparent or are not sufficiently ‘motivated’ to align with the values. Clear Leadership is also a self-referential disciplinary method, and one marker of success is that more and more ‘underperforming’ managers will leave.

Lastly, unusually for OD recipes, in Bushe’s method recommendations come in fours rather than threes, and are illuminating about his theory of the self. So ‘my’ experience is parceled out into thoughts, feelings, wants and observations. Meanwhile, adherents of Clear Leadership are exhorted to be an Aware Self, a Descriptive Self, a Curious Self, and an Appreciative Self, again a clutch of four. Being aware means speaking from the experience cube, using clear language, talking about the right here and right now in order to get round my defences about being aware, and identifying my mental maps. Notice how Bushe’s monad leader is a discrete and cognitive self, expected to achieve awareness through self-scrutiny – a Clear Leader pulls herself by her own bootstraps. Being a descriptive self involves becoming transparent without being intimate (?), making statements before asking questions, describing the impact of what’s being said before responding (although, perhaps, this is a response) and describing experience not judgements. Becoming a curious and appreciative self involves many of the same kinds of prescriptions which assume that it is possible to stop reacting, to withhold judgement, and to confront each other ‘constructively’. The idea of appreciation is based on the social constructionist (on this occasion constructionist, rather than constructivist) idea that the world is created through language. Paying attention to the ‘positives’, ‘fanning’ what we want to see more of, creates a more positive world.

Bushe’s monad leader is best described in his concept of the ‘differentiated self’. Contradicting the idea of alignment expressed earlier in terms of values and commitment to Clear Leadership principles, the differentiated leader takes responsibility for herself and avoids being fused with the group. Leaders come to know their own inner mind. On the other hand they also have to avoid disconnection and isolation from the group. The recommendation, then, is that the leader brings these twin poles into balance, although it is not clear how they do this, so that they are neither fused nor isolated, but take responsibility for themselves and are curious about others. They are a discrete self in harmony with a group of other discrete selves.

Brief critique from the perspective of complex responsive processes

I am guessing that regular readers of this blog may already be formulating their response to this set of tools and techniques if they take a perspective interested in the radically social self, engaged in dialectical processes of becoming with others.

So just to push things along and to set out a few obvious differences with what I have described above:

From a complex responsive process perspective, organisations can never be ‘aligned’ to an abstract set of values, because abstract values always require functionalizing, to be made concrete, through everyday conversation involving conflict, negotiation and power relating. There is never an  ideal equilibrium state of perfect alignment with each other and with an abstraction: indeed if there were possible to bring about equilibrium in social life one would be committing to no evolution, no creativity, no change. The idea of alignment carries with it abstract parts and whole thinking. Instead complex responsive processes understands organisations as a figuration, an ever-changing pattern of relationships which are constantly in flux and never perfectly stable. The relationships have the quality of stable-instability or predictable-unpredictability common to complex systems modeled in the complexity sciences.

Rather than formulating dualisms where it is thought possible for leaders to choose one side of the dualism at the expense of the other, i.e. transparency good, ‘mush’ bad, positive alignment good, misalignment bad, a complexity perspective reframes dualisms as paradox. For example, Ralph has written about the paradoxical properties of trust here, pointing to the positive aspects of mistrust and the negative aspects of trust (ie, blind trust). From a Hegelian perspective, becoming a self simply and only because there are other selves generates a variety of paradoxes, which I explore in much greater depth here. From a complexity perspective there is no Goldilocks position: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Nor can there be unalloyed communication which is unambiguous and clear, but a conversation of gesture and response where we call out in ourselves a response similar to one(s) we call out in those with whom we are engaged in conversation. Without the similarity there would be no possibility of our anticipating or understanding each other (or ourselves); without the difference there would be no improvisational quality to conversation. So there is always room for misinterpretation, misunderstanding and ambiguity, and it is from this very ambiguity and difference that emergence, movement, creativity, are possible. The responsive conversation of gestures is also paradoxical, being responsive to both the general other and the particular other. So I would not go so far as Bushe in claiming as he does in a radically individualist move, that everyone’s experience is different and so everyone’s truth is different. Foulkes, the founder of group analysis, sums up the alternative position well with his idea of the paradox of resonance: there are experiences in groups which are of a general and universal kind at the same time, to which everyone in the group will resonate in their own particular way. Experience is particular and general both at the same time.

When the pragmatists, Dewey in particular, write about experience they do so from a social perspective. What I mean by this is that I imagine Dewey wrestling with the idea that experience is just four things, or even that there is such a thing as ‘my experience’ and ‘your experience’, any more than it makes sense to say ‘my conversation’ and ‘your conversation’. Conversation is only possible because we both participate in conversing. Experience, like conversation, is only possible because we are immersed together in nature – there is no ‘inner’ experience of nature, of which we are all part, which stands discrete and alone. As Svend Brinkmann puts it in his book on Dewey:

‘Experience is Dewey’s name for the entire process by which we actively intervene in the world and feel the consequences of our intervention, and by which both organisms and environment are changed. The process of experience is not exclusively individual but is also social and collective, for all knowing and creation of experience takes place in a specific social context.’ (2013, 51)[2]

Moreover, from a social perspective we need each other to discover experience, to understand what we mean by what we say, through the radical difference of the encounter with otherness. This is not a process which is individually generated, as though it were possible to scrutinize ourselves, identify our mental models, or even be honest with ourselves. We may never know which part of the ‘experience cube’ we are speaking from, and what little insights are available to us only come from radical engagement with each other and with nature. Nor can we take a view on an equilibrium spot midway between taking and interest in others and not fusing with the group – there is no such ideal spot, but we will always be wrestling with the paradox of inclusion and exclusion, individual and group identity, self and other as long as we are alive.

From a complex responsive processes perspective organisations are necessarily imperfect places where misunderstandings and misapprehensions may be destructive, and they may also be helpful and move things on. There will always be conflict and discord, but not necessarily of a positive kind, not even of a kind which can be ‘managed’, but there will also be laughter, agreement and mutual understanding. The complex responsive process perspective assumes that we can only come to know ourselves through and with others as we wrestle with who ‘we’ think ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ think ‘we’ are doing together. When organizational conversation is free-flowing and improvisational, when people are struggling to understand one another, it is as far removed from Bushe’s prescription for a ‘learning conversation’ as you can imagine. Indeed, people often need to overcome the idea that there is a particular way to have a ‘quality’ conversation in order to have one, and to let go of the all the rules and techniques they have previously learned.

As with many methods for sale which promise ‘breakthrough insights’ and enhanced performance if you follow the prescriptions, and particularly those which originate from North America (acknowledging that Bushe is based in Canada), Clear Leadership is brimming with positivity and boosterism which threatens to cover over politics and the exercise of authority, which is imminent in any method of managing.   The ideological sleight of hand that I perceive in this particular method is that is purports to appeal to our best selves – who reading this blog is against honesty, transparency, participation, collaboration? – while at the same time creating cult-like conditions in an organization where to belong, to show oneself to be properly motivated, is to conform to Clear Leadership principles and methods. Of course, to a greater or lesser degree, this is the way of managing in any organization – all employees need to demonstrate to an extent that they conform – but discussions of how to belong and what this means usually admit to more than one way of behaving with each other. This is disciplinary control dressed in idealized and humanist clothes and one of its intentions is to ‘rank and yank’ managers and keep them under scrutiny. If you have expressed yourself ‘clearly’ then you are on your own and responsible for your own actions.

Concluding thoughts

I started this blog by asking the question as to whether Clear Leadership brings anything new to the discussion of what it means to develop organizations. I am of course interested to find out from readers of this blog what they think, but from my perspective it seems that Clear Leadership is underpinned by a variety of contradictory and sometimes untenable assumptions about social life and human behaviour, which have been recycled again and again in a variety of different packages for decades. The idea that we can all get along better by learning to be more open and honest with each other and acting with authenticity, is of course very uplifting; many political movements are inspired by similar ideas of bringing about utopia, where things get better and better endlessly into the future and help us to realise our best selves. Is this part of the appeal to well-motivated, thoughtful OD practitioners who want to do good in the world. Or have you seen it all before?

The interesting thing to ask, then, is how it is we go on co-creating this phenomenon of attending endlessly ‘new’ types of leadership training, servant leadership, distributed leadership, strengths-based leadership, dialogic leadership, even complexity leadership, which promise to reveal to us the secrets which we long to know about how to get along. It strikes me that they are both new because have a new label and promise new insights never before realized about human relating, but also familiar because they repeat what is already taken for granted. From whence comes our hunger for simple recipes, particularly for those of us who have been round the block who know that things are never as easy as they are presented?


[1] This post draws on Bushe, Gervase R. and O’Malley, J (2013) Changing Organizational Culture Through Clear Leadership, New York: John Wiley throughout, and sundry YouTube videos where he explains his methods.

[2] Brinkmann, S. (2013) John Dewey: Science for a Changing World, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

13 thoughts on “Can we ever be clear with each other?

  1. Tony Nicholls

    Thanks for this Chris. I’ve got the book, but somehow haven’t managed to read it. I have three or four other “leadership” books, also waiting to be read. In all honesty they don’t get read because I know in my heart I won’t learn anything and will come away disappointed at the recycling of concepts into new frameworks with new names.

    Part of me is ok with this recycling on the basis that a fresh coat of paint at least attracts attention to the subject. The other part sighs as we continue to avoid the reality that is the messiness of human relating and organising.

    A book that helps us engage with the philosophical, physiological and ethical aspects of life in organisations, that is attractive enough for the masses to pick up is much needed. But is it possible?

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Tony,
    I’m not sure it’s possible to write something that’s accessible to the masses, but I hope here on this blog and in other writing we are going part way to making some ideas accessible to intelligent and well read practitioner-scholars. Chris

  3. Chris Rodgers

    Brilliant, Chris.

    A great exposition of the gulf that exists between the seemingly never-ending flow of “And they all lived happily ever after” prescriptions and the complex social reality of people’s everyday lived experience. I particularly liked your notion of the “Goldilocks position”.

    I’m glad that, on this occasion, you decided that it was worthwhile to beat about the Bushe.

  4. grant evans

    Thanks Chris.That was a thoroughly thoughtful critique. I am always perplexed by formulaic step change solutions. So many appear to be written by white, male, north Americans who present ideas as if they are the absolute “truth”. This sadly misses out on the iterative nature of meaning as a transient phenomona .

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Thanks Grant. I am also interested in the way they are presented, as ‘breakthrough insights’ -as though we are gaining access to some mystical truth about the human condition.

  5. Beatrice Hirr

    Stumbling on this site, I found the description of Clear Leadership simplistic and misinformed. It did, however, allow me to witness Bushe’s concept of interpersonal mush in full display, as each person in the conversation’s description of Clear Leadership is increasingly divorced from any resemblance to the actual book, which NO ONE involved in this conversation has actually read. Just as Bushe predicts, as the narrative is embellished it becomes more negative and less accurate (the story is worse than the reality).

    It’s disquieting that someone claiming to be a scholar of social and organisational processes would allow the gratuitous bigoted comments that make Bushe out to be some kind of Muppet because he’s ‘American’ go unchallenged. It’s disgraceful, however, to find such nativistic sneering in the blog post itself.

    I dearly hope that this sort of contemptuous and mean spirited conversation is not what the faculty and students at Hertfordshire have come to expect from their leader.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Hi Beatrice, my review of clear leadership seems to have made you rather cross. I wonder what that’s about. Indeed, without engaging with my argument at all you seem to think that what I say simply reconfirms what you and Bushe thought all along. Apart from making an ad hominem attack on me as ‘mean spirited, could you go on to indicate where exactly you have problems with my critique? Thanks, Chris

  6. Andy Smith

    I think there is mush going on here. And I am not sure that evidences either of the perspectives that are presented here as more polarised than maybe true. That’s the beauty of blogs – they work when they are provocative. The downside is that I know when I am being provocative, I can sometimes ignore bits of the argument that are at odds with my provocation or position.

    So where am I coming from on this – best you know my own biases.

    I have the benefit of knowing Chris Mowles and others contributing to this blog (which from what I can tell and know probably has an over representation of white, middles class men like me apart from Beatrice I guess). Anyway leaving that aside, I am a scholar/practitioner with a foot in both perspectives (plug one you can read my chapter on complexity theory and its application to OD I am informed by gestalt so I like the notion of authentic contact in the here and now but can see how this is something we create between us not on our own. I have also had the benefit of reading all of Gervase’s book and spending a day alongside some colleagues with Gervase to learn more about clear leadership.
    From these perspectives/experiences, I did not recognise the take that Chris has taken on the book. I am not a great fan of alignment but didn’t pick up in this as a key assumption and, even if I had, don’t think I would have discounted other bits as a result. I certainly don’t think Gervase presents an idealised notion of organisations that fully explains them. I am not sure any perspective including the CRP can or should claim to do so.

    So my take is that Gervase’s book offered some useful and helpful ways of describing my own experience of organisations both as a leader and consultant: I could really identify with the notion of interpersonal mush as the warp and weft of organisational life – I did not see this as characterised as either good or bad as Chris suggests – rather just is
    What to do about such phenomenon in a way that seems useful is a challenge for all people working in organisations I think – not just leaders. Here I found Gervase’s model offered some practical ways of thinking and applying relational skills and conversation to move things on. This might lend itself to a more systemic way of seeing conversation but for me that was not the point. At a lived experience level I could see the value of this approach. Taking something akin to it had certainly helped me navigate some challenging situations in a way that I felt better about things and I think others did too, or said so at least. That is not idealistic I think but was occasionally good for my soul and seemed to help get things done more productively. That at the end of the day is what I think those of us who work in the field are concerned with. That might be humanistic – probably is and OD as a field has never sought to hide its humanistic roots.
    So great to have perspectives critiqued (but Chris might be good to read the whole book and be aware of the limits of your own CRP lens or at least acknowledge them). But good too to have perspectives, whether recycled or not that provide those working in organisations with some insights/awareness of the inevitable challenges, contradictions and weirdness of organisational life and then do something about them. I don’t need things to be new for them to have value. In fact I often rage against the tyranny of the new. I am much more interested in developing craft whether stimulated by the new, not so new, or even the ancient.

    Finally, as I have often heard Ralph Stacey say ‘if you change the way you think, you can change the way you act’. I think the reverse is true too. I think Gervase’s model provides both a way of thinking and acting in the world.

    Hence at Roffey Park (plug 2) we will be hosting Gervase’s first run of his 4 day leadership programme in UK. I shall be attending the programme myself and maybe I’ll pick up this thread in a differently informed way then. Perhaps others could join us….to be continued.

    All the best


    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Hi Andy, thanks for your comments, which are helpful. And yes, the point of this blog was to be provocative otherwise I would chosen a different medium, like an academic article. Writing a blog post enables you to set out a clear position and not have to express it as ‘tentative persuasion’ as one of our keynote speakers at our annual conference described academic writing.

      I don’t have to be tentative here, but I agree that sometimes it can make the distinctions over-sharp. I intend to be provocative rather than offensive, but then we do not control the meaning from gesture/response.

      But just to engage with your comment that somehow my own perspective is unacknowledged, particularly when the post appears on a blog about complex responsive processes, of all places! I think I begin the whole critique section with ‘from a complex responsive processes perspective’, and later, ‘from a social perspective’, and again later ‘from a complex responsive processes perspective’. Of course, I am making an assumption that the reader understands what that means, but I don’t think, on a complexity and management blog my own position is in any way unacknowledged. It may be that I haven’t pointed to the limitations of my own understanding, but I guess the onus for that rests with you, the readers of the blog.

      And I am genuinely interested to hear from you and Beatrice where you think I have misunderstood or misrepresented Gervaise’s ideas.

      I hope I haven’t given up on the rest of the ideas at the first hurdle – the idea of alignment and equilibrium. Rather I tried to set out a number of theoretical difficulties I have with this method: the theory of self, the theory of communication, the idea of appreciation, the splitting of paradoxes where leaders get to chose the pole of the paradox they most prefer, just to name a few. Then there is the whole problem of whether leadership really is different from management, and whether all this obsession about leadership really gets us anywhere, which I didn’t open up at all but could have done.

      I have met Gervase – in fact, we once co-presented in a workshop together in Copenhagen. I am assuming that he would welcome the robust engagement, or at least be very unbothered by it. He is very successful at what he does, is a very prolific writer and doesn’t need either my approval or agreement to go on being successful. The words ‘water’ and ‘duck’s back’ come to mind.

      I’m with you that whatever helps you make sense of what you’re doing counts for something, and also with you when you say that the ancient has as much to offer as the new. But my assumption, also is that some ideas are more useful than others, and only by getting into the nitty gritty of discussion will we come to know what helps and what is less helpful.

      Looking forward to hearing more about the course.

      See you soon.
      best wishes,

  7. Beatrice Hirr

    Dr. Mowles,

    I don’t agree that it is an ad hominem attack to point out that you are creating the illusion of critiquing a book you have never read, and sanctioning anti-American bigotry. I am however, surprised and impressed you chose to publish my note so I suppose I owe you a bit more.

    I am very familiar with professor Bushe’s book. The perspective and techniques I learned (and keep learning) have not only changed the quality of my relationships at work but in my personal life. So as I read your shockingly inaccurate portrayal of this model, I got increasingly cross, and then, at the end, when I discovered your critique was based on a short article in a book for consultants and some marketing videos, I had some steam to let off. My bad temper was only amplified by reading the accolades that followed from a now badly informed readership.

    I am not going to go through your blog point by point as my main point is, as a scholar and the head of a doctoral program, I think you have a greater responsibility than the average blog writer, and if you are going to denigrate someone’s work and claim “nothing here to see, move along, move along” you at least ought to know what you are talking about.

    But I will note that in just the first few paragraphs of critique you go down a rabbit hole of your own construction and continue in that unfortunate direction. His model has nothing to do with alignment. Indeed, his is the opposite message that everyone is having a different experience and it is not the job of managers to try to get people to have the right experience or share a value, but rather to allow people to have and voice their differing thoughts, feelings and wants. There is absolutely nothing about shared values in the book. He never says something is good or bad, but he does counsel us to look at our results and see if we are getting what we want. He says his model works if you want to be in partnership, and the other person wants to be in partnership as well. He explicitly says there are other ways to lead and organise and he makes no claim that any one is “good” or “bad”, though he does provide an explanation for why so many businesses are now trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to be more collaborative and less rules based. I could continue pointing out ways in which your so called “brilliant critique” is simply a fantasy you have constructed, but what’s the use? If you are interested I suggest you read the book.

    I was left wondering what was in the article you did read and it was easy enough to find on the internet – a 13 page, double spaced draft, half of which is taken up describing a case so that you are critiquing at most a seven page summary of a 200 page book, and this summary only covers the first few chapters of the book. The first thing I noticed was that you failed to tell your readers that this is a case where those who used his models claim it had a significant, positive impact on the culture of their large hospital, and that this claim was verified by an independent, third party survey company that found employee engagement scores increased by 50% in three years. If there is nothing to these techniques, then how would you account for this very remarkable result?

    Indeed, I found your out of context descriptions of the case often misleading. For example you state “Bushe goes on say that by year three of using his techniques in one organization ‘more poorly performing directors were made more visible and were let go a greater number than anyone can remember.’ One of the markers of success for Bushe of applying Clear Leadership in an organization, then, is that it acts as an effective appraisal system weeding out those who won’t comply, can’t be transparent or are not sufficiently ‘motivated’ to align with the values.” What that paragraph actually says is “One very notable difference was in the ability of the organization to handle conflict more effectively. Prior to the program there tended to be poor communication between executives and the “director” level and widespread tendency for each level to blame the other for organizational problems. Through using the tools to increase clarity, they got past blaming individuals see the systemic issues causing their problems. By the third year, however, the increased clarity and communication between these levels also led to poor performing Directors being much more visible. Lack of achievement on targets and commitments were now clear, and this has led to a greater number of Directors being let go or reassigned than at any other time anyone can remember.” I think this paints quite a different picture from what you assert and, frankly, it is not at all clear whether he considers what happened in the third year a good thing or not. I’d imagine that many people in that organisation did (though probably not the directors who were let go).

    I don’t know if there is much in Clear Leadership that is new, I am no scholar of organisations, but what I do know is that it has been useful to me and others. I think it would really be a shame if your poorly informed caricature caused others who actually have to get things done with and through people in organisations to pass this gem of a book by.

  8. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Beatrice,
    well the first thing to say is well done for staying in the debate. I don’t know why you assumed that I wouldn’t post up your comments because they didn’t agree with what I had said. I post up all comments as you see, whether i agree with them or not. And i don’t agree or sanction what people say. Following this exchange I will be more careful to point out where I don’t agree, or have a mroe nuanced understanding than my interlocutors. The irony of white middle aged men arguing that white middle aged men are the problem (including me) was not lost on me at the time, but in replying on the move I should have taken more time with it.

    What I actually said on the blog about N American scholarship, or OD, was that:

    ‘As with many methods for sale which promise ‘breakthrough insights’ …those which originate from North America (acknowledging that Bushe is based in Canada), Clear Leadership is brimming with positivity and boosterism which threatens to cover over politics and the exercise of authority, which is imminent in any method of managing’.

    I still stand by this. There was even a book published recently which claimed the End of Power by Moises Naim, which is apparently Mark Zuckerburg’s favourite read. So apart from some very notable exceptions, Stan Deetz would be one, whose work I have read and learnt a lot from, I would still claim that N Americans have a problem talking about power when it comes to organisations. One would have to ask why, and one reason that i would give is that capitalism in its current form is more taken for granted in N America than it is in some parts of Europe. So to ask questions about power, leadership and what we mean by an ‘effective organization’, effective for whom?, is harder to ask there than here (although it is not that easy to ask that here either). I will say some more below about Bushe’s understanding of power below.

    The second thing to say is that I take your assurance that you are not making an ad hominen attack on me at face value, despite your telling me that what I wrote was simplistic, that I am mean spitited and that I encourage nativism.

    The third thing to say is that you have clearly got cross about this. Good on you. Getting cross I think is closer to what I think of as a realistic human exchange, accepting the problem there is with realism, than the idea that we can ‘clear out the mush’ with clear leadership techniques. So we’re not speaking from the experience cube, we are not engaging step wise with each other and having a learning conversation. We are attempting an exploration that may or may not go somewhere. It is heated because it matters to you. You seem to say that there is no use in engaging with me, so you’re right, it may not go anywhere no matter how ‘clearly’ we express ourselves about ‘our’ experience. So human exchange is always with heat, because often things matter to us. We can’t speak and withhold judgments as Bushe suggests, and we can’t always agree, get along or establish a partnership. Compare what we are doing with Bob and Sue conversation in the Clear Leadership book 2011.

    The third thing to say is that I make no particular apology for not reading Bushe’s book to the end. I rarely read any book to the end, even if it is worth reading, because I simply don’t have the time. I watched a number of Bushe’s videos on YouTube, I downloaded any papers on clear leadership he has written that I could find, I bought the 2011 book on my I-pad and I checked and cross referenced with what I already discovered, but you’re right I didn’t read it closely and to the end.

    At your urging I have now read the book from beginning to end, and I think the majority of what I said above still stands. You may find this disappointing and think that I haven’t read it closely enough, but the fact is the book does:

    Where I now disagree with

  9. Chris Mowles Post author

    Sorry, posted without meaning to. The book does turn on a number of dualisms: my experience, your experience; fused self/integrated self, hierarchical organisations vs partnership orgs and more, which Bushe thinks you can resolve by taking a middle point, or by chosing one of the poles. So he does talk about paradox, but he also suggests that the leader can always resolve them by taking a middle position. The theory of communication is sender-receiver when, on clearing out the mush, we can understand each other just as we want to be understood. The theory of self posits an inside and an outside, and a mind has ‘maps’ of the world where we can unproblematically lay them on the table and compare with other people’s ‘maps’. He claims his perspective is social constructionist, but it is at times constructivist, with an organisation full of monads shut off from each other.

    There are any number of contentious claims in the book, I am sure offered in a well-meaning way, but at the very least leave me shaking my head. I’m sorry it is hard to relate the page numbers in my copy of the book on the I-pad with the original book, but claims such as: ‘if you’re truthful the environment will be less mushy’,..’telling the truth of our experience is really quite simple’…’ when we use language that clarifies, we don’t confuse objective, subjective and intersubjective reality.’ It’s hard to know where to start with statements like these, which is also connected with the question of whether i want to read such a book from beginning to end. I suppose I can’t imagine why anyone would take this at face value without having the same reaction that I do to it.

    I agree with you that I have overstated the emphasis on alignment. However, a lot of the book pivots on the idea of alignment with people’s positive intent. it also argues that the problem in organisations is when fragmentation into sub-groups occurs, so the idea of alignment is definitely implied. It also claims that ‘human systems are sense-making systems’. So the idea of alignment, parts and whole thinking are definitely there. Just a note on positivity and appreciation. I get the inquiry part of appreciative inquiry, but not the appreciative part. And here I think there is a cultural difference between N America and what Donald Rumsfeld dismissively referred to as ‘Old Europe’. I think there is more of a ‘can-do’ appreciative culture in N America than there is on this side of the pond, and I am interested to know what it covers over. One of the things it covers over is power.

    So Bushe does talk about power, mostly as ‘authority’. But he writes in various places about power getting in the way of partnerships. For example, he writes about leaders who ‘sought partnerships without having to resort to power or tactics that diminish partnerships.’ What kind of power would that be? Bushe’s organisation is an idealized organization where ‘real partnership means giving everyone equal voice – and that means everyone’s needs to have access to the same information’.

    Bushe perpetuates the usual myths about leadership: ‘Outstanding organizations require leaders who have a vision of the team or organization at it’s best and are willing to push to accomplish that.’ They are responsible for creating cultures, and for cascading clear leadership principles throughout the organisation (also a theory of alignment by the way).

    There were sections in the book I enjoyed until Bushe tried to push them into another step-wise tool or technique. So, for example, I have learnt the Bushe is a therapist and brings these skills to organisations where I think they are sorely needed. i quite enjoyed his section on shame, although I don’t agree with all of it. Mostly i disagree with his instrumentalising and simplifying tendencies.

    So I have gone on quite long enough. I’m genuinely pleased if this kind of thinking and writing makes a difference for you. Great. Am I impressed that ’employee engagement’ scores increased by 50% over three years – well, I fill in these forms myself. One would have to hope that the people in the survey fill them in more seriously than I do.

    One last thing – you talk about the responsibilities I have as director of a postgraduate programme and these i take very seriously and welcome your invitation to consider them again. I also think that someone who makes claims to be offering ‘breakthrough insights’, which amount to a truism and a contentious claim: that we all have different experiences and that we can clear up ‘organizational mush’ using his tools and techniques, also has a responsibility to stand up the claims. This makes him a legitimate subject of critical inquiry and polemic.

    It’s been fun rapping with you.


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