Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The New Ecology of Leadership

The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The New Ecology of Leadership
    Book Description:

    David Hurst has a unique knowledge of organizations -- their function and their failure -- both in theory and in practice. He has spent twenty-five years as an operating manager, often in crises and turnaround conditions, and is also a widely experienced consultant, teacher, and writer on business. This book is his innovative integration of management practice and theory, using a systems perspective and analogies drawn from nature to illustrate groundbreaking ideas and their practical application. It is designed for readers unfamiliar with sophisticated management concepts and for active practitioners seeking to advance their management and leadership skills.

    Hurst's objective is to help readers make meaning from their own management experience and education, and to encourage improvement in their practical judgment and wisdom. His approach takes an expansive view of organizations, connecting their development to humankind's evolutionary heritage and cultural history. It locates the origins of organizations in communities of trust and follows their development and maturation. He also crucially tracks the decline of organizations as they age and shows how their strengths become weaknesses in changing circumstances.

    Hurst's core argument is that the human mind is rational in an ecological, rather than a logical, sense. In other words, it has evolved to extract cues to action from the specific situations in which it finds itself. Therefore contexts matter, and Hurst shows how passion, reason, and power can be used to change and sustain organizations for good and ill. The result is an inspirational synthesis of management theory and practice that will resonate with every reader's experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50414-0
    Subjects: Management & Organizational Behavior, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  4. Introduction: What to Expect
    (pp. 1-14)

    The New Ecology of Leadership is both for people with unformed management concepts who are looking for a guide and for active practitioners who are challenged to make sense of what is happening every day. It’s for leaders who have always used multiple perspectives and are happy to have a new one to expand their repertoire. It’s also for all those managers whose apparently solid conceptual frameworks have been badly broken by the events of the past decade and who are trying to put the puzzle pieces back into a coherent pattern.

    In Crisis & Renewal (published in 1995) I...

  5. PART I. The Dimensions of Change

    • 1 Lost in Management Thought
      (pp. 17-22)

      The root cause of the inability of management thought to grasp the relationship between stability and change, as well as that between reason and emotion, is clear. It is its academic aspiration to be a science in the mold of physics, which dates back to the 1950s. Flowing from this is the increasing influence over the last fifty years of neoclassical economics.¹

      Economics is, of course, the study of scarcity, of how resourceful individuals make hard, “either-or” choices among competing means to satisfy their wants, which are in principle unlimited.² At the turn of the nineteenth century, starting in Europe...

    • 2 Economics, Evolution, and Ecology
      (pp. 23-26)

      The claim that economics is the second or perhaps the third oldest science (after astronomy and physics) has stood it in good stead for most of its history, as it was hailed as a model for the social sciences. That advantage is now coming to an end as the Darwinian revolution moves inexorably through every field of study, changing our ideas of what it means for a discipline to be a science.¹ The advantage now lies with the latecomers, many of which have the adjective “evolutionary” in their names. Neoclassical economics, which long ago nailed its colors to the problem...

    • 3 Scale in Space and Time
      (pp. 27-33)

      How long is the coastline of the island of Britain (to the nearest thousand miles)? By way of a clue, the distance from the southwestern tip (Land’s End) to the northeastern corner (John O’Groats) as the crow flies is approximately six hundred miles. What is the perimeter of the island? Before reading on, select one of the multiple choices in figure 1.

      The best answer is “all of the above” or perhaps “it depends” because the length of the coastline depends on what scale you use to measure it. If you had a very large pair of dividers that could...

    • 4 Why Wal-Mart’s Growth Is like a Forest’s
      (pp. 34-40)

      The story of Wal-Mart’s growth from a chain of small, rural discount stores to its current position as America’s largest employer is the stuff of business legend. Numerous reasons have been given for its success, ranging from the entrepreneurial genius of Sam Walton and the logistical skills that the company has developed, to predatory pricing and the abuse of the labor laws. One of the causes that one rarely sees advanced is the firm’s very roots in rural Arkansas and the disciplines imposed on the fledgling business by that harsh context. Wal-Mart’s astounding growth suggests that scale in time is...

    • 5 The Ecocycle: Life, Death, and Renewal
      (pp. 41-45)

      Figure 4 shows the ecocycle, the idealized, infinity-shaped path that a complex system like a forest follows as it goes through a continual process of birth, growth, destruction, and renewal.¹ It is easiest to see in a forest, and I will apply it to human organizations shortly, for systems like forests, as well as families, firms, communities, and societies, endure well beyond the lives of their individual members and follow a similar trajectory. The slow processes of growth on the front loop (solid line) follow the sequence of forest succession as the ecosystem develops from the open patch (exploration stage)...

    • 6 The Ecocycle in Human Organizations
      (pp. 46-48)

      Figure 6 shows the bare bones of the basic ecocycle as applied to a human organization; the skeleton will be fleshed out in the next two parts of the book. I must emphasize that the ecocycle is not a theory or a hypothesis. It is a mental model, a refined and extended analogy that helps its users organize their experiences and thoughts and see the various possibilities in many situations. Its success depends on whether it does a better job than other mental models.

      As applied to human organizations, the ecocycle consists of three internal contexts: trust, logic, and power.¹...

  6. PART II. The Front Loop:: Nothing Fails like Success

    • 7 Communities of Trust
      (pp. 51-57)

      Business organizations are typically conceived and born in communities of trust. Certainly there must be individual ambition and passion, but the myth of the lone inventor or entrepreneur operating in a vacuum has been firmly laid to rest. Commercial innovation is a collective, improvisational activity, and the tinkering of pioneers invariably takes place within a community of some kind.¹

      Figure 7 shows the first phase of the front loop of the ecocycle as applied to a particular organization. It shows a new venture emerging as a result of a series of trial-and-error improvisations among entrepreneurs and within a community. The...

    • 8 Logic and Power
      (pp. 58-63)

      Many ventures fail in the entrepreneurial stage of the ecocycle and are heard from no more. Those that succeed are of many varieties, but they all have one thing in common—they help a customer to do a job that needs to be done. The founders and early employees of these young ventures often play multiple roles and have no clear job functions: structures are simple (if they exist at all), and communication is casual and informal. Physical premises may consist of a humble garage, a basement, or even just a kitchen table. This absence of structure gives the enterprise...

    • 9 Climbing the Ladder of Abstraction
      (pp. 64-69)

      With the emergence of the logic of management, other, more subtle changes begin to take place in the firm. As the enterprise grows and managers assume greater responsibilities, they begin to climb not only a ladder of promotion but also a ladder of abstraction (see figure 9).¹ Entrepreneurs may be characterized by their closeness to the ground and their ability to pay attention to fine-grained detail, but with a growing number of customers, products, sales, and geographic spread, it is no longer possible to take notice of every transaction. Managers need aggregated results in financial format and the reporting of...

    • 10 The Product Life Cycle Meets the Ecocycle
      (pp. 70-77)

      During his tenure as CEO at Procter and Gamble, A. G. Lafley reportedly insisted that the product life cycle does not exist. Yet it is one of the most broadly accepted concepts in marketing. Who is right? It turns out that both views can be right—it all depends on context. In the context of P&G’s marketing people, Lafley is right. Because the company is operating at a fine-grained scale, the marketing people have to think about how to revitalize their product offerings every day. The life cycle concept is useless to them.

      It’s the same in firms selling unbranded...

    • 11 The Pathologies of Power
      (pp. 78-84)

      Large-scale organizations attract people with a need for power and success. Such individuals can deliver tremendous organizational performance because of their ability to articulate a vision, rally followers around them, and challenge the rules about how things are done. Unfortunately, large organizations sometimes appeal to high-functioning but unhealthy, narcissistic individuals with excessive needs for attention and recognition.¹ When success confirms and reinforces these behaviors, they can become overblown.

      In their extreme manifestations such behaviors can take the pathological form of the so-called dramatic, emotional, and erratic personality disorders.² A vision coupled with success can lead to grandiosity and illusions of...

    • 12 The Onset of Crisis
      (pp. 85-90)

      As an organization begins to live off its accumulated physical, financial, social, and human capital, the long run is treated as a series of short terms. This approach appears to work and work and work . . . until one day it stops working. As a result, the organization’s entry into the back loop of the ecocycle is usually preceded by crisis.

      Established organizations are just like houses built on the edge of the California wilderness or on a Carolina beach. They are apparently stable, successful structures surrounded by multiple processes of change—changes in their components and in their...

  7. PART III. The Back Loop:: From Crisis to Renewal

    • 13 Wisdom from the Scriptures
      (pp. 93-98)

      When I joined Hugh Russel, Inc., a mid-sized North American industrial distributor based in Toronto, as a financial planner, there were no signs of trouble. The company’s core business, a chain of steel service centers, had been around for decades and was consistently profitable. Russel had been a public company for more than thirty years and for the last twenty had conducted a steady expansion via an aggressive acquisition program. It was a very safe business financially, using large quantities of working capital to fund inventory and receivables in the good times, when it was easy to borrow, and then...

    • 14 Into the Wilderness
      (pp. 99-103)

      The wilderness of the Hebrew Bible is physically a place of thirst, hunger, and deprivation. Psychologically it is a place of threat, chaos, and alienation, as well as of trial and temptation. However, the original meaning of the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, was a “place of herding,” a land without settlements or villages, so in the minds of the writers and readers of the scriptures the concept also triggers a memory of ancient nomadic roots. This nostalgia for a lost way of life is also found in the Hebrew word Eden, meaning both “paradise” and “hunting ground.” Perhaps it...

    • 15 Climbing the Mountain
      (pp. 104-109)

      In the last thirty years of the twentieth century many Western industrial corporations entered the wilderness. With revenues flat and their costs under constant pressure from cheaper, off shore manufacturers, they were caught in a vise and at the mercy of the business cycle. Many organizations never made it out.

      Westinghouse, once a rival of General Electric, is a good example. Founded in 1886 by George Westinghouse, a prolific inventor and an entrepreneur, the company had a storied history and a reputation for great technology. It brought America electricity (its AC system triumphed over Edison and GE’s DC system), commercial...

    • 16 The Logic of Leadership
      (pp. 110-116)

      The logic of leadership is quite different from the logic of management. If the latter is the instrumental, technical logic of the system, created with tools of abstraction, both linguistic and analytical, then leadership is the values-based, social “ecologic” of people.¹

      Leadership recognizes our complex human nature—an ancient selfishness, overlaid with cooperative, egalitarian values. These latter qualities probably appeared with our emergence as a separate species, homo sapiens, and in response to an era of rapid climate change that placed a premium on mobility, communication, and cooperation.² On top of these two deep layers is a thin veneer—our...

    • 17 The Complete Ecocycle
      (pp. 117-121)

      Figure 14 shows the complete organizational ecocycle that we have traversed in the last eleven chapters, with its two loops (slow processes of growth on the front, rapid processes of destruction on the back), three contexts (trust, logic, power), and eight stages. I have omitted the horizontal dimension of system connectedness and the vertical dimension of system scale (see figure 2 on page 35) for simplicity. One can think of time as a third dimension coming directly out of the page toward the reader: the past lies below the surface of the page, the future is above it, and the...

    • 18 Vice and Virtue
      (pp. 122-128)

      What’s the fastest lesson you ever learned? When asked this question, many people tell about the time they touched a hot burner on the kitchen stove. Sometimes they may even wince at the memory and point to the scar that reminds them of the incident. The hand-on-the-hot-burner story illustrates three of the most important criteria for feedback that leads to rapid, one-trial learning. The feedback must be:

      timely (immediate);

      specific (cause and effect must be directly linked); and

      tangible—the feedback should be visceral, not just cerebral; it must involve the body, engaging all the senses, not just the brain.¹...

  8. PART IV. Staying in the Sweet Zone

    • 19 Tools and Settings in the Sweet Zone
      (pp. 131-136)

      The complex, insidious nature of the trap that Starbucks fell into illustrates the scope of the challenge: how can one create the conditions where the feedback on progress toward desirable, abstract, long-run goals is as compelling as our reaction to physical situations like the hand on the hot burner? In short, how can an organization stay in the sweet zone?

      Figure 16 zooms in on the sweet zone outlined in the last chapter. It shows an organization zigging and zagging to stay in that space and avoid falling into the spiral traps at either end of the ecocycle. The intended...

    • 20 Power Tools and Settings: Instructions and Directions
      (pp. 137-143)

      Power is the capacity to get things done—anything done. Unfortunately, power is such a loaded word in management thought that it and its many aspects are rarely discussed. It is the giant gorilla/elephant/whale (take your pick) in the management field, whose presence cannot be mentioned and, with few exceptions, whose very undiscussability is undiscussable.¹ This has been the case for a long time, and it may be a trait deeply embedded in management’s DNA; after all, the study of management has usually been pursued by bosses and potential bosses, and understandably they don’t talk about power.

      In the Western...

    • 21 Management Tools and Settings: Rules and Incentives
      (pp. 144-151)

      Management tools and settings are concerned exclusively with the execution of strategy—tasks and means—getting things done right. Their objective is to help the organization to perform, to deliver value and to pursue its goals with discipline and efficiency in a changing environment but on a greater scale than before. To return to our navigation metaphor, the world has been mapped, and the choices have been made—the organization’s destination has been selected, and the course plotted. The role of these tools and settings is to aid the “helmsman” in steering the organization so that it stays on course...

    • 22 Leadership Tools and Settings: Images and Invitations
      (pp. 152-162)

      If no one is happy to talk about power in organizations, and fewer today are enthusiastic about management tools, everyone seems pleased to talk about leadership. The very word has a certain glow and glamour, an aura that conjures up visions of lone individuals acting heroically in archetypal make-or-break situations. With dwindling economic growth in North America over the past thirty years, business schools’ preoccupation with the need for corporate creativity, innovation, and hence leadership has grown hugely. Embracing the concept of leadership almost as an antidote to a heavy overdose of neoclassical economics, they have introduced courses with more...

    • 23 Culture Tools and Settings: Custom and Convention
      (pp. 163-173)

      Culture is to organization as character is to the individual. That is, organizations don’t have cultures; rather, they are cultures. They begin with the DNA of their founders or “parents,” but then that inheritance is modified by experience. Cultures accrete over time, and, like the rings on trees, they reflect the accumulated experiences of organizations with, as one might expect, trauma making its mark far more distinctly than the good times, although the latter usually occur more often than the former.

      Culture forms in layers:

      basic assumptions about human nature, reality, relationships and how the world works

      values and beliefs...

    • 24 Change in Depth
      (pp. 174-182)

      Fire changes a forest locally in great depth—right down to the ground. This suggests that change in depth (that is, on a narrow but deep front) is far more likely to be effective in a complex system than the broad, shallow change initiatives that one sees in so many organizations. John Kotter calls the latter “analyze-think-change,” which suggests that it is an abstract, left-brained, conceptual way of effecting change.¹ We have all seen it in use: someone at the top of an organization gets a bright idea, perhaps a strategy that promises all sorts of desirable outcomes. Plans are...

    • 25 The Design of Choice
      (pp. 183-191)

      It’s worth reiterating Jerry Sternin’s advice from the previous chapter about how to encourage the virtuous behaviors practiced by those whose are positively deviant: “It is not a transfer of knowledge; it is not about importing best practices from somewhere else. It’s about changing behavior. You have to design an intervention that requires people to act in a different way so that they will think in a new way.”¹

      What Sternin is reminding us of is the relative abstractness of concepts like “knowledge” and “best practices,” which are context free, and the difficulty of transforming them into the concrete, robust...

    • 26 Lean: The Practice of “Both . . . And”
      (pp. 192-202)

      In chapter 19 in the discussion of tools and settings in the sweet zone, I posed this question: How can managers and leaders create those conditions in which the feedback on an organization’s progress toward desirable but abstract, long-term goals is as compelling as that from physical situations like the hand on the hot burner? The philosophy and approach pioneered by the Toyota Motor Corporation is the best practical guide so far to answering this question. As we shall see, Toyota’s recent, well-publicized troubles and its tardy responses to them were not product problems but the result of not following...

    • 27 Prescribed Burns: Context, Conflict, Crisis, and Creation
      (pp. 203-215)

      Effective managers have always understood that conflict is an inevitable accompaniment to organizing and that it, together with crisis, can often play a constructive, healthy role in an organization. This is particularly true in the case of organizational change, where the role of crisis is well understood, and it has often been remarked that people don’t change when they see the light, they change when they feel the heat. More generally, however, most managers have a tacit grasp of the fact that organizations, like athletes, perform better if they are alert—optimally aroused—and even on edge. If that edge...

    • 28 Growing People
      (pp. 216-227)

      At the beginning of the book I suggested that Western management thought had failed to come to grips with the relationship between stability and change and between reason and emotion because of the malign influence of neoclassical economics. Nowhere has the influence of this discipline been more pervasive than in the business schools. How might management education look from an ecological perspective? In this penultimate chapter I look at the implications of the ecological mental model for the development of people within an organization, starting with the current situation of the business schools.

      We encountered Rakesh Khurana’s history of the...

    • 29 Don’t Throw the Past Away
      (pp. 228-240)

      “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, and many of us might agree. History is often seen as “tweedy, seedy, and dull.”¹ This book, however, does not support Henry Ford and the characterization of history as boring. Rather, it approves historian Daniel Boorstin’s aphorism that “Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”² Much of our recent “prosperity” seems to have been blossoms without roots.

      In this last chapter I explain why an appreciation of history is essential to managers trying to understand the roots of a present situation and...

  9. PART V. A Brief Orientation and Field Guide

    • 30 Using the Ecocycle: Key Concepts and Questions
      (pp. 243-256)

      The objective of this book has to been to outline and commend to the reader an ecological mental model of organization and change. We have seen how effective it is as a filing cabinet that organizes management experience, as well as multiple management concepts and tools. This perspective has numerous advantages over a purely economic framework:

      The mental model is dynamic and embraces change in both space and time.

      It enables a creative “both . . . and” point of view while not denying the role of the executive “either . . . or” perspective; in fact, it embraces it....

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 257-300)
    (pp. 301-322)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 323-346)