Did I invent this? Unlikely .. but it makes a lot of sense to me and I don’t know where it comes from:
In explaining my perception of how organisations work and what the role of leadership is, I’ve been using this model a lot recently. The magnetic forcefield analogy.
An organisation is a group of individuals. Structures, organisational diagrams, hierarchies, job descriptions, line-management trees etc are all just attempts to create some kind of order out of the complexity of relationships that criss-cross any large group. But they don’t change us from being highly individualistic and autonomous. I liken this to us all being separate plotting compasses, that can spin around in any direction.
In the absence of a force field, we tend to drift around; there is no automatic direction and our alignment to each other becomes weak and randomised over time. However, if there is a force field, the arrows begin to line up; the stronger the field, the greater the alignment. If the field fluctuates, the degree of alignment fluctuates and if the field fades away, the arrows slowly drift back to their loose-linked or randomised state.
What does the leader do? The leader is responsible for the force field. If an organisation is going to be strongly pulling in one direction towards a common goal, you want all the compasses aligned nicely. How is this done:
1. You impose it: a strong, coercive culture that demands and enforces alignment. Autocratic Heads, this is you. My way or the highway…! It can work, but obviously there is a price to way. And nobody likes it!
2. You inspire it: you sell a vision so inspiring that everyone spins towards it freely; your personal powers set the direction that everyone wants to go in: Hero Headteacher, this is you. The Messiah, (cue ‘God music’)… the shining beacon with a band of followers. (Do you actually exist?)
3. You work at it: you engage with the various spinning arrows to shape a direction that mostly everyone agrees with. You work with the people at an individual level to maximise their alignment; you expect people to drift from time to time and you continually try to reinforce or magnify the field to keep everyone with you. Obviously, if the agreed direction was easy to find, there is less work to do for the leader; if everyone is going in all directions to begin with, you have work really hard to pull them round. This is Real-life Headteacher. You will have opportunities to inspire on a bigger scale, but mostly you will go about it at a micro-level, nudging, encouraging and directing, keeping the alignment as strong as you can, person to person.
For me, the model is useful because it reminds me that
a) everyone is an individual with perfectly legitimate personal and professional goals of their own. As soon as you start talking about ‘the staff’ assuming a homogenous set of views or assuming you have total buy-in or total opposition, you start making mistakes. Everyone is different, everyone is complex, everyone’s views are valid to them even if you don’t agree.
b) I need to work continually to make sure there is direction; there is an overarching vision. A clear vision is often better than none, even if it is an imposed one. Working somewhere that feels directionless is utterly demotivating. Despotic leaders are a drag too… but at least you know what is going on. If you yourself are not sure where things are going, chances are no-one else does; time to stop and get your bearings.
c) I can never take it for granted that the field is in place, in tact, and strong enough to achieve our goals. I need to reinforce it all the time. It is a mistake to assume you’ve done the vision thing; to think that it’s job done and now you can just get on with it. No. The core purpose, the mission needs to be reinforced continually… its amazing how quickly things start drifting if we’re not clear on our priorities and the overarching goal.
d) the best way to do this is to continually involve people in the process. There is room for a good whole-staff set-piece vision-building activity. However, mostly it is through small groups, working parties, think tanks, informal feedback systems, and the general culture of openness and dialogue. Not everyone wants to lead, to go to the front, but most people want to have a say!
Can you feel the force!!??
(PS I made this picture myself. Always a Physics geek at heart.!)