EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 8 of 12. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 12 are online.
Nicole M. Rishel
Calls for better governance throughout the 21st century have often been met with recommendations for reforming organizational structures in order to achieve greater accountability. The focus on public administrators’ behavior, particularly positive examples of positive leadership, has been largely ignored. When leadership is acknowledged as a key component to increased accountability, the traditional “trait” leadership approach continues to have a lasting impact on scholarship, practice, and common perceptions of who constitutes a leader and what their acceptable role as leader is/ought to be. Recently, the “ambiguity” approach to understanding leadership has gained prominence, adding to and countering some basic assumptions underlying trait leadership. I argue that a more expansive treatment of leadership as seen in the ambiguity approach should serve as a vehicle for promoting greater accountability in 21st century governance. In this essay, I will provide an overview of the ambiguity approach. Specifically, I will focus on the following key components of ambiguity leadership: the nature of ambiguous management environments, the need for meaning-making, and the “organic” means of leading through ambiguity by constructing and promoting organizational vision, mission, goals, and values. Ultimately, I will demonstrate the utility of the ambiguity perspective for increasing accountability in governance.
According to Montgomery Van Wart, in his March 2003 Public Administration Review article titled “Public-Sector Leadership Theory: An Assessment,” the progression of major leadership theories in public administration can be summarized as follows: “great man,” notions of rational social change by uniquely talented and insightful individuals; “trait,” emphasis on individual traits and skills (physical, personal, motivational, aptitudes, ability to influence); “contingency,” emphasis on situations variables leaders must deal with and behavioral science, “transformational,” recognizes leadership as a drastic change in structure, culture, or process; “servant,” responsibility to followers, stakeholders, society; and “multifaceted,” integrating major leadership schools. As our understanding of the world around us changes, so does our recognition of what is possible and desirable of a leader. Beginning with the contingency approach, all leadership theories thereafter recognize and address the external environment in terms of structure, process, performance, and other actors. These different understandings can impact the way organizational accountability is defined and promoted in practice.
The public manger’s work environment is fraught with ambiguity. Underlying most post-trait theories of leadership is the need for meaning-making in ambiguous contexts. A public manager must make sense of complex organizational settings in order to create a knowledge scheme or structure for which the organizational will operate based on shared understandings. Constructing meaning among multiple knowers is central to ambiguity leadership. Kronenberg and Khademian in their 2009 International Public Management Journal article titled “Beyond ‘Connecting the Dots’: Toward the Strategic Managing of Organizing,” understand leading to be “a design effort to critically challenge established meanings and influence the assignment of new meanings and the action implications of those meanings within both extant and emergent effort to influence the assignment of meaning and the action implications of those meanings.” This form of leadership as meaning-making begins with a different set of assumptions than the trait perspective; namely, the trait approach does not hold that knowledge creation and promotion is necessary. Trait leadership assumes that reality exists independently of knowers and that the primary goal of the leader is to use her own capabilities to mobilize employees to act on that knowledge.
Returning to the ambiguity approach, a fundamental question is: how does the leader actually make meaning and connect meaning to action under conditions of ambiguity. Smirchich and Morgan, in their 1982 The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science article titled “Leadership: The Management of Meaning,” recognize four important aspects of leadership in meaning-making: it is a social process defined through interaction, the definition of reality is sensible to the led, this is a dependency relationship that involves the surrender of power to define reality, and finally, the emergence of formal leadership roles represents an additional stage of institutionalization. The early stages of ambiguity leadership involve defining the organizational context, which could be done in terms of basic assumptions, underlying problems, purpose, structure, and actors, which can be understood as what Weick, et al. in their 2005 Organization Science article “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking,” call “sensemaking.” A leader, by the ambiguity model, is charged with making sense of the organizational environment, and directing action through discourse, artifacts, and structure within the organization, as opposed to perfecting interpersonal skills under the trait model.
Ambiguity leadership entails this organic approach to leading by constructing and promoting organizational vision, mission, goals, and values through practical knowledge of experience and continued adjustment. Robert Behn, in his 1988 Journal of Policy Analysis and Management article “Management by Groping Along,”explains, “An excellent manager has a very good sense of his objectives but lacks a precise idea about how to realize them,” he advocates “groping along” as a successful strategy to leading in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. To grope along, the leader must be clear in her vision, while remaining flexible in the process of achieving the vision through mission, problem, and goal definition that is compelling and expressed by/with employees. Smirchich and Morgan emphasize that create a shared understanding of what the fundamental values and goals of the organization should be, the process of framing experience is needed. To do this, language, ritual, stories, myths, and symbolic construction can all provide the means to achieving a desirable set of actions. Framing is necessary for both the trait and ambiguity leader; however, the trait leader is framing herself, while the ambiguity leader is attempting to frame each employee in the context of the organization.
With added flexibility in an ambiguous organizational environment, creativity is necessary. In a 2002 Leadership & Organization Development Journal article, Sandford Borins argues for effective leadership in the public sector to focus on innovation. From political and scholarly history, Heifetz and Sinder, in The Power of Public Ideas, recognize that leaders provide new visioning in organizations, institutionalize values and norms, and exercise the ability to align the organization with their own vision or goals for the organization. Ultimately, the basic idea of ambiguous leadership remains rather consistent: when members of an organization face uncertainty or complexity, they look for answers. Individuals who provide information, or “answers” to organizational challenges are considered leaders.
Kronenberg and Khademian provide an example of how ambiguity leadership can be practiced with innovation and thinking in “big picture” terms. This limits the target of groping, in Behn’s terms. Kronenberg and Khademian explain that the key questions their Multiplex Theory focuses on is: “What leads to the creation, maintenance, and dissolution or transformation of collective social entities in their ongoing organizing processes? How shall we think of social complexity in a more integrated way?” Kronenberg and Khademian understand empowerment to be a key aspect of the power dyad (and actionspace), which involving defining individual identities and acquiring discretion in social relationships. In Multiplex Theory, empowerment is key for shaping information and assigning meaning. This theory demonstrates that under ambiguous conditions the meaning-maker, or leader, wields power. The final aspect of ambiguity leadership that distinguished it from trait leadership is its dispersion of power. Ambiguity leadership necessitates that all actors (human and nonhuman) have the ability to contribute to meaning in the organization. Ultimately, ambiguity makes room for multiple, competing perspectives and values, as opposed to a concentrated, single, perspective instilled by a trait leader.
Managerial success in the public sector involves leading through ambiguity in the sense that the public administrator must initiate and reshape the public sector enterprises in ways that increase their value to the public in both the short and the long run. This approach of creating meaning and value from ambiguity involves normative dimensions that take the “publicness” of the constitutive role of public administration seriously, according to Brian Cook in his 1998 Public Administration Review article “Politics, Political Leadership, and Public Management,” while the traits approach focuses on more the instrumental logic (ex. Moynihan and Ingraham’s emphasis on managing for results, guiding behavior to achieve a result that is largely rooted in personal attributes such as ability to persuade and communicate). Philip Selznick, in his 1957 book Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation, explains, “In going beyond efficiency, leadership also transcends ‘human engineering.” The theories of institutionalization, constitutive leadership, leader as conservator, and difference that underlie the ambiguity perspective are useful for understanding these normative dimensions of leadership that have the potential to create more ethical and accountable administrators.
Emerging from this tradition of institutionalization, the constitutive theory promotes meaning-making with normative dimensions and public values at the forefront of leadership. Cook moves away from trait leadership and leadership concentrated in a single individual: “Although leadership is presumably something that only individuals exercise, I want to be careful not to allow an individualist or single-actor orientation to dominate the field of vision completely. To constitute a regime is ultimately a collective process.” Speaking to the constant process of meaning-making, Cook emphasizes that “Questions of practice are normative, despite the best efforts of some to keep the two sorts of questions separate . . . Questions about what is effective also raise questions about what is right . . . A central responsibility of all political leaders is to reconcile the constitutive and instrumental or at least to hold the tension between them to tolerable levels.” This emphasis on normative concerns and larger public purposes are useful in guiding leadership amidst ambiguity, where opponents of this approach may argue that “anything goes.”
“As long as it values leadership, governance should embrace the art of just, rather than heroic, leadership.” Not only does Farmer call for a more fluid method of creating meaning and leading in public organizations, he explicitly calls for a more decentralized and communal process of leadership. To do this in practice, the ambiguity leader should seek multiple, diverse perspectives from different sources of knowledge in meaning-making. The leader under the ambiguity model should be inclusive of difference. Feldman, et al. (2006) ask, “How can public managers intervene constructively in the creation of opportunities to deliberate by engaging different ways of knowing a policy issue?” Inclusive management is one means of achieving this recognition and incorporation of difference in leadership. Feldman, et al. explain the value of this approach, “The public manager as inclusive manager facilitates the practice of democracy by creating opportunities for people with different ways of knowing public problems to work together in a collective space to solve problems.” Inclusion of difference is effective for leadership, because it provides the freedom to creatively play with multiple meanings and practice, test new approaches, and solicit others to be meaning-makers in a more central way, making it more democratic both inside and outside the organization. This moves away from the static assumption of “one best way” or management principles that are too rigid in their technical prescriptions to meet the challenges of ambiguity.
The ambiguity approach to leadership promotes greater accountability by forcing leaders to keep the “big picture” questions for the “public good” central, while serving as a means for assessing what values are being furthered within organizations.
Nicole M. Rishel is a student at Virginia Tech. Email: email@example.com
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