I don’t keep fish, I keep water

by Nick on November 21, 2015

Which metaphor best captures what contemporary organisations are all about and what kind of leadership is most appropriate for them? 

The commonest current metaphor is probably the machine analogy in which the sum is made out of component parts (resources) which are disposable and interchangeable …. these include human ‘resources’. The machine-like organisation is an impersonal place where reason is king and those aspects that make us fully human – such as soul, spirit, creativity, and emotion – are locked outside the gates with the militants and trouble-makers. The leadership style and culture is based on autocracy, unilateral power, hierarchy, and control.

But another powerful metaphor of organisations has been slowly emerging over the last few decades and which is attracting more and more attention: the metaphor of the natural living system. In this environment power is mutually held and distributed, and control seen for what it largely is … an illusion. In this organisation teams and individuals are given autonomy. They are not told what to do or how to do it but encouraged to work it out for themselves and take full responsibility for the choices they make.

These organisations replicate the self-organising, self-managing systems that are the DNA of the natural world. And the extraordinary thing is that many of these companies, NGOs, and schools have become staggeringly successful in achieving not only commercial and professional success but have also enriched the lives of those who work there as well as the lives of their clients and the communities they serve.

Reading Frederic Laloux’s excellent and thought-provoking book on this very topic, Reinventing Organisations: a guide to creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness I was reminded of this story about flexibility and flow ….

Some years ago, Chris, a colleague of mine worked for a water company in the north of England. Those were the days when water companies were state-owned rather than a strategic part of a multi-national’s commercial portfolio. It was my colleague’s first job after leaving university; he was employed as a junior manager. He was also studying at night for his MBA.

One day his line manager asked him to take a message to the Senior Water Engineer who was working from home that day. He knocked at the door and the senior man opened it and invited Chris in. “Come on in lad. I’ve got a pot of tea brewing. It’ll be ready in a moment.”

While Chris waited he decided to take a look through the net curtains of the living room windows. He was expecting to see a typical suburban English garden of lawn and rose beds. Instead what he saw took him by complete surprise.

Every inch of the garden was packed with aquaria: row upon row of large fish tanks stacked neatly on top of each other and in each tank were different species of fish.

“I didn’t know you kept fish,” said Chris.

“Fish? Don’t be daft, lad. Of course I don’t keep fish. I’m a water engineer. I keep water.”

The engineer waited a beat or two for Chris’s confusion and puzzlement to settle. “Think about it. You’re a bright lad. Think about your MBA. Think about what you know about leadership. You’ll work it out.”

It didn’t take Chris long to connect the engineer’s message to his knowledge of chaos and complexity theories, of self-organising, self-managing systems. “Of course,” thought Chris. “Create the right conditions, the most appropriate culture or context, and everything in it has all the resources needed to look after itself; everything needed to engage with the complex realities of competing yet interconnected agendas as they emerge in real time. If the water’s right the fish, and everything else in the environment, can look after themselves …. leadership flows naturally through every part of the system!”

 

An earlier version of this story can be found in Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor: Stories for Leaders, Influencers, and Motivators, Crownhouse Publishing 2004, pp 11 – 12

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