Bernard Bass: Transformational Leadership

Bernard Bass was a world class scholar whom the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology describes as having invented organizational psychology. His vast array of interests within his field led to over 400 scholarly articles and a huge archive of unpublished work, alongside 31 books, of which he wrote 21 and edited 10. But of all his work, Bass will be remembered for one area where his passion and persistence led him to focus for over 20 years: leadership.

Bernard Bass

Short Biography

Bernard Bass was born in 1927 in the Bronx, New York. In 1949, he gained a PhD in Industrial Psychology from Ohio State University, and started a career in academic life.

A series of academic appointments took him from Louisiana State University to Binghampton University (part of the State University of New York), via UC Berkeley, University of Pittsburg, and  University of Rochester.

In the late 1970s, he read and reviewed Leadership by James MacGregor Burns (1978), in which Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership. Bass put these ideas together with his experience of meeting someone who had worked for a leader that had motivated him to ‘perform beyond expectations’ and started to work on transformational leadership.

In 1985, he published Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations and this was followed by a string of other books on the topic of leadership. The fourth edition (finished shortly before he died in 2007) of The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications is widely regarded as the most authoritative resource on leadership.

In 1987, he founded the Center for Leadership Studies at Binghampton University, which continues to this day.

Transformational Leadership

The story of transformational leadership starts with James MacGregor Burns, but Bass moved it on in substantial ways and with a more forensic academic approach. Whilst Burns was interested in the moral dimension of leadership, Bass was more focused on its efficacy.

Bass was interested in how a leader influences their followers. Followers look to a leader because of their charisma, and  because they trust the leader. The leader transforms the followers by having these qualities. Bass wanted to understand how a leader can generate this charisma and trust.

He argued that a leader must be a role model, but must also must challenge the existing order. He saw revolutionary leaders do this and formed a morally neutral approach, unlike Burns’ more moralistic vision of leadership.  In addition to the more transactional leadership roles of getting tasks done, and focusing the team on shared goals, Bass saw the transformational role of a leader being one of appealing to people’s higher-order needs.

To do so, he developed a model of transformational leadership, with four roles for the transformational leader:

Inspirational Motivation

The leader as a visionary, who makes people feel like a part of something big and worthwhile – energising and concerned with purpose and meaning.

Individualised Attention

People-focused leadership that celebrates diversity and builds relationships. Each member of the team feels that their leader knows me, respects me, is interested in me, and helps me.

Intellectual Stimulation

The leader stretches their followers to learn, grow and perform to exceptional levels. He or she values intellect, encourages imagination, challenges the old ways. They also place emphasis on developing their people, strategic thinking, and constructive challenge. They are adept at seeing and working with different points of view.

Idealised Influence

The leader as linchpin. They are a role model who inspires respect and the desire to follow, through their personal integrity. They set and display high ethical standards, walking the talk, being honest, open, fair, and principled, and setting and living up to strong values.

Bass also engaged in research into the psychometric and personality factors that influence leadership styles. This work has mostly been pursued by others. What Bass did, however, was to give a powerful behavioural prescription of the four roles of a transformational leader that nicely compliments John Adair’s roles for a transactional team leader.

The Leadership Pocketbook is a pragmatic guide to all aspects of leadership.

Ikujiro Nonaka: Knowledge Management

Ikujiro Nonaka has been described by a long-term colleague and collaborator as the ‘Father of Knowledge Management’. He takes a radical view – in the true sense of radical: he goes to the route of how we acquire, create and share knowledge.

Ikujiro Nonaka

Very Short Biography

Ikujiro Nonaka was born in 1935 and grew up in Tokyo. He studied political science at Waseda University, gaining his BS in 1958. He started work that year at Fuji Electric, where his principal accomplishment was to create their management programme. He went on to further develop this, in alliance with Keio University.

Nonaka left Fuji in 1967, to study in the United States, at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded his MBA in 1968, and his PhD in Business Administration, in 1972. He took posts at US universities (Claremont Graduate University and then the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley), before returning to Japan, as a professor at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University.

There he collaborated with another staff member, whom he had known as a grad student at Berkeley, Hirotaka Takeuchi. It was the latter who describes Nonaka as the ‘Father of Knowledge Management’.

The Knowledge Creating Company

Together, Nonaka and Takeuchi have written numerous articles, and the highly influential 1995 book, The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Two of their Harvard Business Review articles have been particularly influential:

A more recent article is also well-worth reading:

At the heart of Nonaka’s thinking is the rejection of the common view of Knowledge Management as fundamentally an IT function. The data management part of knowledge management is a minor – indeed, incidental – component. The fundamental part is the creation and sharing of knowledge, which takes place via the relationships between people.

He therefore asserts that spending tens, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology systems misses this essential truth and argues that true knowledge creating companies are ones with a generous community feel.

Ba

‘Ba’ is a word Nonaka coined to mean a meeting place for minds. Whilst it can be a physical space within the organisation, Nonaka sees it more as a mental state, where people are able to share and create knowledge together. He likens the concept to that offlow – in the sense that both are states of total focus and immersion. However, unlike flow, Ba is a shared mental state.

The SECI Model

Nanak and Takeuchi’s most notable contribution is their SECI Model of how knowledge transforms in organisations. Regular readers of Pocketblog will know just how much we love models, so here goes.

The SECI Model - Nanaka & Takeuchi

The SECI Model is a representation of the dynamic way that knowledge flows from explicit to implicit and back. It sets out to unite the Western preference for Explicit knowledge (‘Know why’ or, to use the ancient Greek term, ‘episteme’) and the Japanese focus on tacit knowledge (‘know how’, or ‘techne’).

Nanaka and Takeuchi start their cycle with social knowledge sharing to build tacit knowledge and move around to internalization of explicit knowledge to make it implicit, or tacit. They then see that knowledge being shared, restarting the cycle (they originally drew it as a continuos spiral, but I prefer the loop metaphor). At each stage, knowledge is converted, and made more useful.

Phronesis

In his latest work, Nanaka draws the ancient Greek analogies of episteme and techne, and highlights a third sort of wisdom that the ancients cherished: ‘phronesis’, or ‘practical wisdom’. He describes phronesis as the wisdom to know what must be done – judgement, if you like. He sees this as the antidote to an overly rigid focus on theoretical know-why knowledge, or practical, know-how. In Aristotelian ethics, phronesis is usually seen as rational thinking and prudent judgement.

Nonaka thus connects up knowledge management with leadership.  Phroneis gives us a clearer understanding of how our organisation relates to the rest of the world: purpose, choices, actions. This can give the organisation a resilience that a less self-aware organisation will lack. Nonaka argues that phronetic leaders can foster improved judgement and decision-making by creating a culture of sharing, nurturing, and creating knowledge through informal social connections: ‘Ba’.

Nonaka in his Own Words

Herminia Ibarra: Outsight

Herminia Ibarra is ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the world’s top-ranked management thinkers- at number 8 in 2015, since you asked. Her interests are professional and leadership development, gender, and how we can adopt a DIY (do it yourself) approach to making a step up in our careers.

Herminia Ibarra

Very Short Biography

Herminia Ibarra was born in Cuba*, and moved to the United States as a child. She graduated from the University of Miami with a BA in Psychology. She was a teaching fellow at Yale from 1985-1989 and was awarded her masters in Organizational Behaviour, and then her PhD, in 1989.

From there she joined the faculty of Harvard Business School, where she remained until 2002, when she accepted a chair at INSEAD. She is currently Professor of Organisational Behaviour and The Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning.

In 2003, she wrote Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. This is a book of case studies of how people made significant changes in their careers. While working on it, she came to realise that often people stay stuck in a job because they don’t know what to do next. Reflection and analysis fail to help them figure out what next. What makes the difference for many of her case studies is the impact of outside activities or initiatives with which they get involved, outside of the normal run of their work.

This led Ibarra to the ideas in her latest book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which we’ll discuss.

Reversing Common Wisdom

Conventional wisdom has it that we should think then act.  But in studying career changers, Ibarra started to take an interest in managers who are increasingly expected to act as leaders, but who don’t get promotions or formal job moves that create the opportunity for this transition.

With changed expectations, but the same role, these managers must find their own way – a ‘Do It Yourself’ approach. Ibarra argues that they need to change what they do, who they connect with, and how they think of themselves. And the first step is to do things differently.

Ibarra has coined the term ‘outsight’. In contrast with insight, outsight is the external perspective we get when we take on fresh and new experiences. New and different activities change us, and Ibarra advocates experimentation and experience as the route to change: what I call ‘trial and learning’.

We can get this opportunity to be different and try different things from the side activities we engage in within and outside work. Many of the people she studied for her first book had career changes triggered by these kinds of projects, initiatives, and task force roles. By looking for these, a manager can try out new ways of acting – and then reflect on them.

These experiences provide opportunities for the three shifts Ibarra challenges managers to make:

  1. Redefine your role as being more strategic, as you shift from manager to leader
  2. Broaden your network of contacts, taking on more opportunities to connect across wider spans and with more influential people
  3. Evolve your personal style, trying out more ‘playful’ approaches that may redefine your sense of self (without challenging it)

This ‘act-first’ approach seems to me to be a positive one for making changes, and chimes nicely with Amy Cuddy’s injunction to ‘fake it ’til you become it’.

Ibarra in her own Words

 

If you are interested in the topic of career progression, try out these Pocketbooks

The Career Transition Pocketbook

The Self-Managed Development Pocketbook


* I am going to ignore the date of birth given by Wikipedia – her CV says she graduated in 1982 (although this may be the date she started her undergraduate studies). If her Wikipedia birth date is correct, then she graduated at age 12 – or at the latest, 3 years later!

Richard Branson: Virgin

Richard Branson went from academic under-performer to being the first serial entrepreneur to create eight $8 billion businesses (and many other successful ventures too). He is an adventurer, a risk taker, and a visionary. Above all, he is a business person who sees business as a means to an end or, in his case,many ends. But despite the galactic scale performance of his business mind, there are many lessons we can learn from him, that apply equally to the day-to-day business and management practices of Pocketblog readers.

Richard Branson

Short Biography

Many acres of newsprint (and Branson’s own autobiographies) have documented the life story of one of the world’s favourite entrepreneurs, so here it is in brief.

Richard Branson was born in 1950  in South London, to a comfortable professional middle-class family, which was able to send him to a privileged private school, Stowe. However, Branson was not academically strong, due to dyslexia, despite being evidently highly intelligent, so he left the education system at 16, only to return for a number of honourary degrees in later life.

His first business, so named because he and his staff felt themselves to be business virgins, was a mail order business selling records below store prices, which he set up in 1970. This allowed him to enter the high street in 1972. In the same year, he created Manor Studios where his first recording artist was Mike Oldfield. The Tubular Bells album became (and continues, 30 years later, to be) a massive seller for the new Virgin Records label.

Branson’s achievements span far more than his business ventures, but we’ll leave it to the glossy magazines to cover his record-breaking, kite-surfing, books, island buying and publicity-seeking activities, and simply list a selection from his business ventures.

1973 – Virgin Records record label
1979 – Buys the gay nightclub Heaven1983
1984 – Virgin Atlantic Airways and Virgin cargo
1985 – Virgin Holidays
1987 – Virgin Records to the United States
1987 – The Virgin Group, along with Granada, Anglia and Pearson, founds BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting)
1987 – Virgin Airship & Balloon Company.
1987 – Mates condoms
1988 – Virgin Broadcasting
1991 – Virgin Publishing (Virgin Books)
1993 – Virgin Radio
1994 – Virgin Vodka and Virgin Cola
1995 – Virgin Direct Personal Financial Services
1995 – Virgin Express (a European low cost Airline)
1996 – Virgin Brides (indeed!)
1997 – Virgin Trains
1997 – Virgin Cosmetics
1999 – Virgin Mobile
2000 – Virgin Energy
2000 – Virgin Cars
2004 – Virgin Galactic
2006 – Virgin Fuel, to produce a clean fuel in the future
2007 – Virgin Media
2008 – Virgin Healthcare
2009 – Virgin Money Giving
2010 – Virgin Racing, a Formula One team
2010 – Virgin Gaming, for people to play competitively on popular Video Games
2012 – Virgin Money buys Northern Rock
2012 – Virgin Galactic announces the development of orbital space launch system LauncherOne.

Five Management and Business Lessons from Richard Branson

Lesson 1: Have Fun

It is easy to look at a multi-billionnaire and say ‘of course he has fun; he is rich and can leave other people to run his businesses’. The fact is though, that Branson remains fully engaged with the strategic aspects of his business, and that he prioritises having fun and spending time with his family. There are plenty of comparably wealthy people who do neither. If he can make these choices, so can you.

Lesson 2: Get Things Done

To make these choices, Branson is ruthlessly efficient at making lists and getting things done. He disparages those who write off To Do lists as a waste of time and is a compulsive note-taker and list maker.

Lesson 3: Persevere and Fight Back

Branson’s ventures have often faced opposition from incumbent market leaders and sometimes political figures. Branson has deployed every form of response he can to fight off this contention and see his ventures succeed. His battles with British Airways (on behalf of Virgin Atlantic) and, more recently, with the UK Department of Transport (supporting Virgin Trains) are notable successes.

Lesson 4: Master Public Relations

Brand and public perception are a vital, and maybe central component of Branson’s business strategy. Very few of his ventures have eschewed the Virgin brand. Branson is a charismatic figure who has been adept at using his own personal brand to gain media attention, which of course has assisted in his public battles on behalf of his corporate brands.

Lesson 5: Be an inspirational leader

The central holding business of Virgin is tiny (much like Berkshire Hathaway’s) and there Branson leads, rather than bosses – recently setting highly innovative and permissive HR policies in place, which truly demonstrate exceptional levels of trust in his staff. When Virgin Atlantic won a legal case against British Airways and both he and the company received  significant sums in compensation, he distributed this to the staff as a ‘BA Bonus’.

Richard Branson in his Own Words

Here is Richard Branson speaking at TED 2007.

Robert Greenleaf: Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf was a successful corporate manager, who read a book that crystallised his thinking. But he only started to change the world once he retired. His thinking goes against the grain for many corporate and political leaders, who want to exert control. Instead, he argued, leaders need to be servants first.

Robert Greenleaf

Very Short Biography

Robert Greenleaf was born and grew up in rural Indiana, and studied mathematics at Carleton College in Minnesota. He graduated in 1926, and went straight into a career at the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T as it now is). He stayed there, playing a series of important managerial roles, until his early retirement in 1964.

From the earliest days, Greenleaf was aware that big corporations did not serve their employees well. He strove at AT&T to change that from within, and had some notable successes. But in 1958, reading Herman Hesse’s novella, Journey To The East, Greenleaf had a revelation. The pivotal character Leo, whilst seeming to only serve a group of travellers, is in fact, taking upon himself the role of motivator, teacher and guide. When he leaves, the group flounders. Leo has, in truth, been leading the group.

This led Greenleaf to form his concept of Servant Leadership.

On his retirement, Greenleaf founded The Center for Applied Ethics (which was renamed The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, in 1985). He wrote several books on Servant Leadership, most influential of which was: ‘Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness‘ (1977 – re-issued in a 25 anniversary edition).

He strived to live according to his philosophy of ethical leadership, and died in 1990. The Greenleaf Center continues to promote his work.

The Genesis of Servant Leadership

Arguably, Greenleaf’s work has been based on a mighty misinterpretation of Hesse’s message. For Leo tells the central character that, in abandoning their goal when he left, the group failed its test. Enlightened people need to sustain their own self-leadership.

However, Greenleaf’s interpretation is coherent and would, I believe, have found favour with Hesse. He argues that Leo, is, in serving the group, its leader. From this, Greenleaf goes on to deduce that leaders need to serve those who follow them, as Leo served the group in Hesse’s novella.

Why do I suggest Hesse may have favoured this interpretation? For two reasons:

  1. In the book, Leo does indeed provide leadership to the group, though none recognise it at the time. (I shan’t say more – read the book)
  2. Secondly, in Hesse’s finest work (in my view), the The Glass Bead Game, the central character, The Master of the Game, is called Joseph Knecht. In Hesse’s language, German, Knecht means ‘servant’. The master is servant. Curiously, Hesse is not alone in this insight: etymologically, the English word knight originates from the Old English, Cniht, meaning servant, rather than from the French, chevalier (horseman) or the Latin, eques, also meaning horseman. Knecht and knight are the same word!

What is Servant Leadership?

Servant Leadership is a model of leadership based on the ethical principle that  leaders must first of all serve those who follow them. They have a moral responsibility to help the people they serve grow and thrive, as people. There are therefore a number of behaviours that are characteristic of a servant leader. Thus, Greenleaf’s concept is a behaviours, or roles-based, model of leadership. He argued that we can all become servant leaders by making these behaviours the centre of our practice.

Some of the behaviours a servant leader needs to exhibit are: listening, empathy and healing relationships, awareness, foresight and conceptualising the world, building communities and stewarding resources, influencing through persuasion, rather than control, and finally, a commitment to the growth and wellbeing of the people they serve.

Greenleaf’s Influence

… seems disappointingly slight in the upper echelons of modern business, public service (yes, I know) and politics. Whilst a former British Prime Minister referred to servant leadership, I doubt he will be remembered for it. The current crop of world leaders hardly exhibit any signs of it (and neither do some of the prominent candidates for future roles).

Where I see servant leadership in my work, is in many of the small business entrepreneurs and among middle managers. These people are where deep care for colleagues and staff are most manifest in my experience. It would be lovely if our culture allowed these qualities to thrive as those people rise to top leadership roles on national and global platforms.

Robert Greenleaf in his own Words

I can only find one video of Greenleaf himself. Here he is, in later years, talking about the role of institutions.

Lynda Gratton: The Future of Work

What will work be like in the future, and how will we respond to it? These are big questions being asked by the influential and much respected Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, Lynda Gratton. The answers she is uncovering are both obvious and important. We won’t know if her work is ‘right’ until the future arrives, but for now, we would be wise to understand the trends Gratton is uncovering, and respond to them.

Lynda Gratton

Short Biography

Lynda Gratton was born in 1955 and, grew up, and was educated in the north west of England, in Liverpool. She gained her BSc in Psychology from Liverpool University in 1976 and started work there on her PhD. In 1979, she started work with British Airways as Chief Psychologist, while continuing her doctoral studies into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She was awarded her PhD in 1981 and, in the following year moved to management consulting firm PA Consulting.

She stayed at PA until 1989, becoming their youngest Director at age 32. But Gratton valued the autonomy to create time to read, think, and be with her family above the high salary. So she took a post as an Assistant Professor at the London Business School in 1989.

Gratton’s academic career has resulted in praise and awards. She has authored 9 books to date (the ninth is due out in June 2016) and many influential papers, the most widely read being two Harvard Business Review Articles: Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams (Nov 2007) and End of the Middle Manager (Jan 2011).

Gratton’s best-selling books are Hot Spots: Why Some Companies Buzz with Energy and Innovation – And Others Don’t (2007) and The Shift: The Future of Work is already Here (2007), with her new work looking at one of the five forces she sees as shaping our world for the future: The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity (2016)

The Five Forces Shaping our World

We need to start our summary of Gratton’s most important thinking with the forces she identifies as driving change in the world. I think each of us might add one or two of our own, but it is hard to dispute that each of these five will have a big impact. What gives her list credibility is the wide range of big name organisations that collaborated in her research.

Technological Developments

Some of the big developments she points out that will affect us (and some of the other forces, below) are:

  • Cognitive assistants (advanced knowledge systems moving towards artificial intelligence)
  • Cloud and distributed computing – especially linked to mobile devices
  • Advanced robotics
  • Digitisation of knowledge

At some point she projects (as do many computer scientists) connected computers will start to become capable  of creating knowledge without human help. (Note that this is not the same as the potential ‘singularity event’ of computers gaining consciousness, which is at another tier of speculation)

Globalisation

Here we can see trends like labour force mobility, especially in the direction of mega cities that are, increasingly, in the East. This is feeling and fuelled by the emergence of the new economies; the so called BRIC and MINT nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey – along with other less acronymed nations like South Korea and Egypt). Many of the new dominant player will bring new cultural and societal norms to the world of work.

Demographic Changes (and increasing longevity)

The biggest changes will be shifts in life expectancy and the struggles of Western nations in particular to meet expectations around retirement. But as populations age and birth rates decline in the presently less developed nations, the same effect could have far greater implications.

Societal Trends

There are so many trends here – many linked intimately with technology, globalisation and demographics. Women’s social and economic power cannot (and should not) do anything but rise. Freelance work will increase to take advantage of technology and meet the caring needs of people with ageing relatives. Predictions of the demise of family life or the increase in attention given to families from home-based workers seem the most confused – but then the future may not yield neat categories.

Energy

The need to shift to a low Carbon economy to protect the world from rising atmospheric CO2 levels and the inevitable devastating consequences of the global climate changes it will drive will increasingly dominate our futures. This will have complex economic impacts – but nothing compared to what will happen if oceans rise substantially and crops fail around the world. I’d like to see Gratton give more attention to the consequences of water stress and the geopolitical impacts of large mismatches of water availability and need that we can readily predict.

The Three Shifts we can Expect to See in our Lives

These are big forces and Gratton envisages three big shifts in our lives.

Mastery

There are too many generalists, so the law of supply and demand will crush their economic value. This will drive a shift to in-depth mastery and narrow specialisation of workers.  We can easily see how she comes to this conclusion, as the five forces combine to drive and facilitate this shift.

Connectivity

Linked to this is the need and increasing ability for workers to connect with one another globally.  She thinks our work lives will become less competitive and more collaborative. Gratton coins two interesting concepts:

  • Your narrow group of close collaborators, whom she calls ‘the Posse’
  • Your wider group of loosely connected working relationships, which she refers to as ‘the Big Ideas Crowd’

Quality of Experience

From my point of view, her third shift is the most parochial: a move from focusing on standard of living to the quality of our experiences. In Gratton’s timeframe of now to 2025, I doubt this will be a major trend outside the wealthiest parts of the world (and, even here, it may only apply to the wealthy middle and affluent classes). The displacement of work by machines has been heralded for over 100 years and the rise of hedonistic society for many hundreds. I’d like to buy into this one, but it feels most like a consumer business driven rehash of an old trope (Sorry Lynda).

The Five Impacts this will have on Organisations

What I do one hundred per cent buy into is Gratton’s assessment of the big impacts these shifts and forces will have on global-scale organisations. Small, local organisations will lag behind, but even they will need eventually to bow to some of these changes.

Leadership

Connectivity will drive the need for more transparent leadership of our corporations (while many will fight it, fearing the impact of consumer reactions). This will need a more authentic style of leadership from individuals throughout those organisations.

Virtual Teams

Cross border, cross timezone working has grown up over the last 20 years, and will increase. From my perspective, real, empirical research in how to drive high performance from virtual teams is still lagging this trend. This is a hard question, because we evolved to co-operate in small, intimate, and geographically contained teams. We need to find ways to optimise our reactions to an alien environment.

Cross Business Networks

‘Social Capital’ is not just something we acquire as individuals, Gratton suggests. Corporations need connectivity to drive innovation and profitability. I predict that these wider eco-systems may yet morph into the dystopian mega-corporations and global cartels of science fiction.

Partnering with consumers and entrepreneurs

As more workers become independent freelancers, and consumers become more savvy about what they want, corporations will increasingly need to extend their relationships to more fully engage with them.

Flexible Working

You didn’t see this one coming, did you? (Joke) If social, demographic, and lifestyle preferences are shifting, then so too will work patterns. And this will require flexibility from employers.

Lynda Gratton at TEDx

Hear Lynda Gratton talking about how to be ready for the future now, at a TEDx event at the London business School in 2012.

Donald Schön: Reflection in Action

Donald Schön (Schon for the rest of this article) differs from other thinkers and managers in this series, because he was more a philosopher than a business thinker. Therefore, his ideas are subtle, but no less important for managers and professionals to understand; at least in outline.

Donald SchönVery Short Biography

Schon was born in 1930, in Boston and grew up nearby. In 1951, he gained his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Yale and went to France to study music at the Sorbonne. He returned to the US to pursue philosophy at Harvard, where he earned his PhD in 1955.

After a short spell teaching philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Kansas City, he joined consulting firm Arthur D Little in 1957, and remained there until 1963.

From then on, he produced a series of books, joining the faculty of MIT in 1968 and becoming Ford Professor of Urban Studies and Education in 1972. It was in the years that followed this that he collaborated fruitfully with Chris Argyris.

Donald Schon’s Ideas

Within Schon’s writing are three big ideas that are especially relevant to managers and professionals.

The Learning Society

The rapid pace of technological change means that our systems and technologies no longer provide a stable base for society or its organisations. This means that we need to be constantly learning. This idea was picked up by Peter Senge in his writing on the ‘Learning Organization’. We need to be constantly learning lessons as we go and the same is true for society as a whole and organisations within it. Yet governments and organisations both like to centralise their policy making processes, isolating them from the people who have the experiences to understand and therefore solve the new problems that emerge.

Generative Metaphors

Schon wrote about how powerful a metaphor can be in framing the professional response to an issue. Schon suggested that the challenge is often less in problem-solving, and more in problem-setting. How we state a problem dictates the type of solution we find. So, for example, if the problem of poor communication is fragmentation, then we look for a solution of co-ordination. An example he gave from the social sphere was when we refer to the problems of a neighbourhood as a ‘blight’ and therefore frame our response as a treatment for disease. This is something that is the subject of current research, not least by Paul H Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky. I have written about the dangers of metaphor choice elsewhere.

Reflection in Action

Perhaps Schon’s most important contribution was in thinking about the process of learning. In addition to his collaboration with Argyris – which led to three books and the idea of double loop learning; he also focused on reflection.

He started by setting out reasons why what he termed ‘technical rationality’ is a poor model of professional learning. This is the process of filling new students and professionals-to-be with knowledge at the start of their careers, and expecting them to apply that knowledge. The common response to this approach was then ‘reflection on action’. This is the process of stepping back after each piece of work, project, or experience, and reflecting on what we have learned from it.

We know that this is an excellent route to developing wisdom, but Schon argued that professionalism requires something else, as well: the ability to think o our feet. For this, we require the ability of ‘reflection in action’ – reflecting while we are carrying out our tasks and exercising our skills. This seems to me to be intimately linked with both Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow states’ (in which we lose ourselves in activities where we are able to constantly monitor our progress) and Kolb’s idea of ‘Experiential Learning’ (in which we learn through a constant cycle of experience, reflection, generalisation, and application).