index_img1.gif Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership by Richard Farson
1. Content
1.1 Introduction
1.1.1 Life is not rational
1.1.2 Rational, logical approach will not solve all problems
1.1.3 Rational, logical, technique-driven management cannot achieve its ends
1.2 A Different Way of Thinking
1.2.1 The Opposite of a Profound Truth Is Also True
All actions have unintended consequences.  All developments have unexpected repercussions.
Opposites co-exist. Granting authority does not diminish the authority of the grantor, just as giving information does not make you know less.
A healthy organization needs both clear and full communication, and distortion and deception. The author suggests tact and diplomacy as examples of the latter.  I would add the kind of rose- tinted glasses that seem to be a functional part of optimism.  That rosy outlook, while not promoting the most accurate assessment of situations, seems to promote the most effective actions toward a goal.
1.2.2 Nothing is as Invisible as the Obvious
My older son teases me about having "a firm grip of the obvious."  I've retorted that this is neither as common nor as useless as he suggests.  Apparently, Dr. Farson agrees.
He points to the ability to see new meaning in routine observations, such as James Watt conceiving the steam engine after observing steam escaping from a tea kettle.  This would be "breakthrough thinking" about a "Klondike problem" according to David Perkins.
He also points to "going to the source" of problems for their solution.  For example, asking former robbers how to lessen the likelihood an establishment will be robbed.
"Deeply held ideologies and cultural values, tunnel vision, selective perception, deference to the judgment of others -- these are all enemies in our efforts to see what is really going on.  And when the invisible obvious is pointed out to us, we will reject and ignore it, or, more likely, we will simply say, 'Of course!' thinking we surely must have know it all along."
1.3 The "Technology" of Human Relations
1.3.1 The More Important a Relationship, the Less Skill Matters
When asked what particular actions of their parents they remembered from their childhood that seemed of particular value and importance to their development, not one person interviewed by the author recalled something that might be called "skilled parenting."  Rather, it was thigs like sitting down in the grass to play with a doll while dressed in a suit,or some silly song, etc. 
Likewise, when interviewed about a time a manager did something that made a difference to them, the answers did not point to the importance of managerial skill.  Rather, the author received responses recalling the time a manager kidded the respondent about paint in her hair, or broke down and confessed how unsatisfactory his career had been, or disclosed that he only hired that person to "piss someone off", but the person had been one of the best hires he ever made.
Dr. Farson suggests that it is not what we do, but what we are that matters most in important relationships. 
NOTE:  Of course, if a person is genuine, caring, and basically a decent human being, he or she is likely to DO a lot of things right, as well as have those spontaneous moments that connect with individuals.
1.3.2 Once You Find a Management Technique that Works, Give it Up
As a corrollary to the suggestion that skill is not what matters in an important relationship, the author suggests that a manager who finds a technique that works, rather than "using" it to "manage" people, should abandon it as a conscious effort.  Otherwise, the "managees" will sense that they are "being managed", resent it, and the technique will therefore no longer work.  In some sense, it is the same as suggesting that a great artist "transcends" technique.
1.3.3 Effective Managers Are Not in Control
And, of course, neither are ineffective managers.  As human beings, we cannot "control" others.  We do not have the ability NOT to be vulnerable and surprised from time to time.    By recognizing and accepting this, we can be IN the situation with others, rather than attempting to be apart from it and controlling. And only by being in the situation can we hope to work effectively with others.
1.3.4 Most Problems That People Have Are Not Problems
Abraham Kaplan:  Problems can be solved, but predicaments can only be coped with.  Predicaments in human relations are created by things we highly value, such as feedom, independence, genuineness, spontaneity, creativity, caring, sensitivity, etc.
Predicaments must be interpreted, not solved.  They must be seen in a larger framework for actions to have any chance of success.
1.3.5 Technology Creates the Opposite of Its Intended Purpose
Although this is not the author's example, it works for me:  E- mail is intended to make communication easier, and it does.  But, it also increases expectations for rapid response, tailored messages, etc., thus putting demands on companies and individuals for responsiveness that did not exist previously.  There are always unintended consequecnces, and some of these are always contrary to the desired outcome.
1.3.6 We Think We Invent Technology, but Technology Also Invents Us
The author's point is that major technologies so change us, and in so many non-intuitive, unexpected ways, that we might as well say that the automobile invented modern society (25% of our economy involved with it in some fashion, suburbia and the loss of community, changes in courting and sexual practices, etc.)  Or, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out, the modern skyscraper is a result of the telephone (and, today, e-mail!). Without such communication technologies, we could not build sufficient elevator capacity into such buildings to allow for the in-person transactions that would have to take place.
1.4 The Paradoxes of Communication
1.4.1 The More We Communicate, the Less We Communicate
Beyond just the information overload of current society, Dr. Farson suggests that efforts to "bring everybody in on everything" do not work. Instead, such actions tend to paralyze the group.
One indivdiual can establish with another that he or she completely understands a communication, but it takes a great deal of energy and focus.  The author suggests that accurate and complete transmission of information is rarely the only role of communication in our lives.
Further, some forms of open communication may exacerbate problems.  Dr. Farson gives the example of marriage counseling, where asking the partner who feels rejected to tell why he or she feels that way risks making him or her look week and vulnerable and needy to the other partner, and therefore more likely to rejected.
More and better communications will not solve all problems in an organization, and may either exacerbate existing difficulties, or create new ones.
Finally, the data generated by most "management information systems" doesn't address the predicaments that top executives must manage, so better or more timely access to it won't improve management performance.  If the systems were designed by top executives, rahter than for them by others who don't understand the real issues they face, then such systems might work.
1.4.2 In Communication, Form is More Important than Content
Like other chapters, this one does not have just one point. Rather, it has several examples that are thematically related:
  • A receptionist with a British accent  creates a positive impression of the company.
  • Oorganizations and experiences carry "metamessages":  non- articulaged but powerful communications of meanings based on context, form, structure and manner of an experience or communication. Here, he uses Ivan Illich's suggestion that "school" really teaches a hidden curriculum: to sit still, raise our hands, obey authority, etc.
  • Management training programs convey the message that managers can become skilled enough to "control" the people and events for which they are responsible.
  • The organization of the setting for a meeting (table or not, type of table, arrangement of participants) significantly affects the type of meeting.
  • Remember the rituals.
1.4.3 Listening is More Difficult than Talking
Listening is very rewarding in any relationship, but it requires much effort and focus. Moreover, there are times when it is not appropriate; when a leader must lead, not follow. And, despite having helped bring the term "active listening" into the language of managers, Dr. Farson rejects it as a "technique" for "managing" others.  Rather, he stresses the importance of genuinely caring about others.
1.4.4 Praising People Does Not Motivate Them
Praise is tricky.  In the first place, giving praise suggests that you are in a position to do so.  Second, it tells the recipient that he or she is subject to your judgment. 
Many workers have received the "praise-criticize-praise" abuse from managers so often that they are conditioned to listen for a "but...".
When credible, praise is powerful, but, as with so many other aspects of management, the underlying issues are respect and trust.
1.5 The Politics of Management
1.5.1 Every Act Is a Political Act
Well, of course.  At least, that's my reaction.  Maybe it's from having run for and held political office.
Dr. Farson focuses on group politics and consciousness raising, and suggests that we can never know and will always be surprised by the source of the next liberation movement.
1.5.2 The Best Resource for the Solution of Any Problem is the Person or Group That Presents the Problem
While acknowledging the power of this insight, the author suggests that "participative management" is not widely practiced because:
  • it requires trusting the group, something managers often don't, and don't want to take time to develop, and
  • the group has to believe in itself and not resist the idea of involvement, and
  • finally, such groups can often test their freedom by tearing into the manager.
Conservation of Resources:  start by asking the group to identify their most valuable resources  -- often the leader and the most creative members, and to explore ways to protect, enhance, and conserve these resources.
1.6 Organizational Predicaments
1.6.1 Organizations That Need Help Most Will Benefit from It Least
"Most often what gets organizations into trouble are faulty leadership styles, poor internal relationships, and managerial blind spots.  The delusional hope of a troubled organization is that it will be saved without having to make changes in these highly personal areas."  p. 86.
Those who are capable of changing have to do the changing, which, paradoxically, often means that those who need to change the least often are called upon to do so.  The tempermental but productive employee may need to change the most, but be least able to do so.  So, it is often the more healthy, balanced members of the group who have to change so that individual can continue to contribute.
1.6.2 Individuals Are Almost Indestructible, but Organizations Are Very Fragile
Individuals are resilient and resourceful.  They can bounce back, even from horrifying circumstances. But an organization is nothing but relationships built on trust, and they can be destroyed in a thoughtless instant.
1.6.3 The Better Things Are, the Worse They Feel
As things improve in an organization, you don't get fewer complaints, just a grumbling about higher- order issues.  Abraham Maslow suggested that low-order grumbles (deficiencies in the work setting) indicate an unhealthy organization. Grumbles about fairness, equity, etc. are of a higher order.  And "metagrumbles" of "I don't feel my tallents are being utilized," or "I'm not in on things enough" signify the higest level of health.
1.7 Dilemmas of Change
1.7.1 We Think We Want Creativity or Change, but We Really Don't
Change threatens our identity. "I want to be different (but then I wouldn't be me!)"
We can stifle creativity by:
  • playing intellectual games
  • judging and evaluating
  • being absolute ("That's not how we do it around here.")
  • holding on to sterotypes
  • distrusting our experience, and encouraging others to do the same.
Manageable creativity is the filling out and implementing of the break-out change. 
Major creativity usually only happens in very small organizations.
1.7.2 We Want for Ourselves Not What We Are Missing, but More of What We Already Have
The intellectual pursue intellectual development.  The social pursue friendships and networks, etc.
The author seems to see this as a problem, but the "strengths-based" approach of Now, Discover Your Strengths suggests otherwise.  Of course, where he suggests organization strengths can create organizational blind spots, he's talking about a different and more reasonable idea.
1.7.3 Big Changes Are Easier to Make Than Small Ones
Bold moves are given the benefit of a fresh look. Everyone knows it's different and new, and so compares it less in small ways to the old. Small moves, espcially when rolled out in a seemingly never- ending stream, begin to generate resistance regardless of their value and disproportionate to their disruptional factor.  If the organization needs a big change, go for it all at once.
1.7.4 We Learn Not from Our Failures, but from Our Successes -- and the Failures of Others
We can often identify the key cause of another's failing, and possibly learn from it.  For our own part, however, that cause often lies in a blind spot where we have trouble seeing, remembering, and applying any lessons.
Our successes, however, come from our strengths, and we can "feel" them.
Of course, don't forget, it may all be mostly luck. Remember that Level 5 leaders tend to attribute their success to luck.
1.7.5 Everything We Try Works, and Nothing Works
The "Hawthorne Effect": simply paying attention to a problem, especially if that attention is viewed by those involved as intended to help, will improve results.  But the results fade with the attention is removed.
Change takes practice!
1.7.6 Planning Is an Ineffective Way to Bring About Change
See Strategy Safari.
  • blind spots
  • not from top management
  • not organization-wide
  • does not account for political realitities
  • detailed implementation would require authoritarian regimes
  • trendy
  • self-interest can subvert

But, planning, as in scenario planning (especially very radical and long range) can help an organization see change as it starts to happen and react more quickly.
1.7.7 Organizations Change Most by Surviving Calamities
Disasters can create change: bankruptcy, loss of a charismatic leader, huge layoffs, etc.  But, of course, we rightly seek to avoid this experience, so this awareness is of now help to managers (except, perhaps, when trying to survive such a calamity!).
1.7.8 People We Think Need Changing Are Pretty Good the Way They Are
How we perceive folks affects how we design organizations, and that design can bring out the best or the worst in individuals.
Michael Kahn:  "barnraising" approach to efforts -- make all ideas into something useful, rather than trying to make ourselves look smart at the expense of others.
Strengths imply non-strengths; team for coverage.
1.8 The Aesthetics of Leadership
1.8.1 Every Great Strength Is a Great Weakness
And, weaknesses can be strengths.  Fearfulness can leade to appropriate caution. Intelligence can fuel caustic, destructive criticism.
1.8.2 Morale Is Unrelated to Productivity
Morale as in "happy and satisfied" does not equate with productivity.  Note that groups often don't want productivity (rate busters). Moreover, once again, "techniques" for raising morale demean both the implementer and the objects of those techniques.
1.8.3 There Are No Leaders, There is Only Leadership
Leadership is situational.  "In a well-functioning group, the behavior of the leader is not all that different from the behavior of other responsible members of the group." p. 145.
Most actions of leaders don't work, and their are many different styles of leadership. It's complicated!
1.8.4 The More Experienced the Managers, the More They Trust Simple Intuition
"Go with your gut." 
A managing partner at a law firm once told me of the importance he placed on "instincts" in young lawyers.  "I can change their hair cut, their clothes, and even their manners, but I cannot change their instincts," he said.  "If they usually make the wrong first step in a matter, they'll be forever trying to catch up. Those that instinctively make the right first step are always ahead."
Time:  stop and ask your gut.  Sometimes we're so busy trying to "figure things out", we fail to consult our often more accurate and helpful "feelings."
See:  try to look with fresh eyes, to see the obvious you may have learned not to see.
Risk:  don't let pressure keep you from trusting your gut. Just because you can defend a decision doesn't make its failure any better.
One gut:  guts and groupthink aren't compatible.
1.8.5 Leaders Cannot Be Trained, but They Can Be Educated
Training leades to skills and techniques, and suggests the possibility of control.
Education leads to infromation and knowledge, which suggests the possibility of understanding, even wisdom.  Wisdom involves humility, compassion and respect -- esential to effective leadership!
Don't try to train leaders. Educate them!
1.8.6 In Management, to Be a Professional One Must Be an Amateur
"Amateur" from the Latin amator, or "lover".  Amateurs have passion, they do it for love, and passion is critical to excellence and to leadership.
Professionals have mastered knowledge and skills, but only amateurism can take them beyond mundane results to the truly magical.
1.9 Avoiding the Future
1.9.1 Lost Causes Are the Only Ones Worth Fighting For
"Lost causes are the ones most worth fighting for because they tend to be the most important, most humae ones. They require us to live up to the best that is in us, to perfect ourselves and our world.  Lost causes cannot be won, but, because they are so crucial to us, we nevertheless must try." p. 163.
In consulting, the author found that groups could usually easily identify "lost causes" in their work.  But, talking about them, instead of leading to despair and depression, actually resulted in enjoyment, energy, and renewed effort!  That which is worth our time and effort is worth our time and effort, regardless of the potential for success.
Finally, leave rake marks.  That is, the truly successful do the little, aesthetic things that are the hallmarks of excellence.
1.9.2 My Advice Is Don't Take My Advice
No simple advice!  Think about it.  Plus, we probably can't change in some of these ways. Just not possible not to praise! But, think about it.  Change, if it comes at all, comes from a profound understanding of a new way of thinking:  paradox.
2.1 Relationships
Recently, I've read where several school superintendents have said, "I didn't come here to make friends."  Well, why not? I understand leaders have to make tough calls sometimes, and to lead in a political environment requires a willingness to be abused.  But, at least with those close to you, who are on the same team, why not be a good friend, as well as a leader.  It seemed to work for Shackleton.
Ultimately, genuineness in relationship is the only way to lead professionals.  And only by truly leading professionals can one get growth and improvement in schools.
2.2 Being who you are
Genuineness is important.  If it is "not you," then whatever it is -  a technique, strategy, whatever - it won't work over the long haul.
2.3 Becoming more than you have been
We can grow.  It is not easy, but the lesson of Learned Optimism and Primal Leadership is that personal, emotional growth and change is possible with sustained effort and practice.  And, the payoff for such effort isn't just at work, but in all of one's life.
2.4 "Rolling out" programs
I am not sure how the leaders of any school system can read this book and come away with any belief that they can "roll out" a "change program" and have any serious effect on schools.  Yes, the relationship part is harder.  It means you cannot ignore either the need to help all your leaders grow, or to deal with those who may not be functioning well enough in their interpersonal relationships to be allowed to continue.  But, working to build capacity, to help folks to grow and to engage, will, definitely work better in the long run (3-5 years), and, if Schmoker is right, perhaps in the short run (1-2 years) as well.
2.5 Trusting teachers
Although it is not mentioned often, many educational leaders don't trust teachers.  Of course, this view is pretty easy to see in what comes out of the federal government and state legislatures in the form of tests and punishments.  But, the lack of trust also exists in large measures in the administrative leadership of systems.  I don't think teachers are the problem, but, for those that do, perphaps some of Dr. Farson's wisdom could help them bring teachers into leadership roles for learning improvement.
2.6 Level of grumbles
Great reminder for those working for change:  don't expect the grumbles to go away, but do expect them to change!  Feedback systems should be attuned to sort grumbles into higher order and lower order.  Low order grumbles would be a signal that attention and action is needed. Higher order grumbles might be a signal for celebration!
2.7 Big Changes
Big changes may be easier, but small changes can be important.  Remember, changes at the margin both require more resources and produce more results.  But, don't be afraid to go for a big change when necessary.  And, if it is necessary, don't piecemeal it.
2.8 Passion
"They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."
Education is about relationships.  If the relationships aren't working, not much is going to work well. Student relationships, teacher- student, between teachers, principal-teachers, between administrators and administrators to school personnel, superintendent to staff and superintendent to board, between board members, and from all levels with the public.  If folks don't trust and respect each other, if relationships are manipulative and cynical and caustic -- kids aren't going to get a good learning experience.  Deal with it.
index_img2.gif 3. Richard Farson
Dr. Farson is a psychologist (having studied and worked with Carl Rodgers), education, CEO and Consultant.  He is co- founder and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, and has been president of the Esalen Institute and the International Design Conference, as well as Dean of the School of Environmental Design at the California Institute of Design.
3.1 Western Behavioral Sciences Institute
See related topics and documents
3.2 Esalen Istitute
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3.3 International Design Conference
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3.4 Carl Rodgers