In the context of the turn to practice-based approaches to learning, this paper outlines the notion of an existential form of reflexivity as a reflexivity from within rather than from a disengaged position outside of a practice.
Using the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the existential crisis of Mort Meyerson who at the time of crisis was CEO of Ross Perot systems, the article focuses on the ‘lived experience’ of reflexivity, demonstrating the way in which theorising itself becomes an existential practice in times of breakdowns in a manager’s taken for granted everyday coping practices.
Based on Heidegger, it is argued that whilst absorbed in the demands of everyday coping, managers are not attuned to the way of being-in-the-world implied in such coping. When everyday coping breaks down, managers become attuned to the way of being-in-the-world implied in their coping.
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Based on the philosophical writing of Husserl and Hegel, Jan Blits has argued that much of modern education begins with the theoretical roof and not the concrete foundations. It begins with the concept of a phenomenon and not the concrete experience in which the phenomenon is embedded. Tracing the problem back to Descartes, Blits maintains that there has been a separation of the concept from the concrete everyday reality in which the concept is embedded. Quoting Hegel, Blits (1989: 295) says: ‘In modern times … an individual finds the abstract form ready made. [I]nstead of the [concept] arising out of the manifold detail of concrete experience, the production of the universal is abridged’. Continuing his position Blits says: ‘Students are handed (and accept) the [concept] as given. Their thinking begins with the roof, not with the foundations as Husserl would say’ (p. 295).
For Blits, as is the case with phenomenology as a whole, we need to return to the phenomenon itself. Returning to the phenomenon itself means returning to the concrete experience in which the concept is embedded. However, concrete experience does not simply make itself explicit for examination. As Heidegger (1985: 36–69) maintains, everyday experience is for the most part too close to Dasein or the human being for the human being to even notice. Martin Heidegger claims that to begin with immediate experience is to be able to think in moments of disruption or disturbance of the everyday. For it is in moments of disruption of the everyday that the everyday announces itself as an explicit theme for thought.
Putting this in the context of management: managers are, for the most part preoccupied—as they ought to be—with the day-to-day activities of their practice. They are preoccupied with the demands and pressures of getting the job done, such that their style of ‘practical coping’ or way of being as a manager is in the background of their attention. However, when there is a disruption or breakdown in their practice managers come what Heidegger (1985: 233) calls ‘face to face’ with their way of being or practice as a manager or leader. In the anxiety of breakdown, managers do not think about their practice in the mode of a disengaged and objective subject looking at an objective practice that is independent and separate from them. Rather, they are making explicit their own way of being involved in their practice. They are making explicit that in which their being as a manager or leader is ‘at stake’ (p. 63) and ‘in question’ (p. 63). Here they are not thinking about the phenomenon of management or leadership as an abstract concept but as a style of practical coping in which their successful ongoing action is an ‘issue for’ (p. 32) themselves as managers.
The importance of this return to the phenomenon ought not to be underestimated for management education. Henry Mintzberg has made the claim that much of management education concerns itself with the abstract concept of a phenomenon detached from the experience of the phenomenon. The case study method, as Mintzberg maintains, is exemplary of this, for in studying cases, management students are examining representations abstracted from experience: ‘Words are life reduced to categories… These take on meaning only when embedded in the rich experience of life … beyond the case classroom’ (Mintzberg, 2003: 53).
Management education ought to begin with the murkiness, contingency and uncertainty of experience. He gives as an example a CEO commenting to a group of MBA students: ‘My problem is that when I face a problem, I don’t know what class I am in’ (Mintzberg, 2003: 39).
A problem is not immediately experienced and named in a definitive way but is often what Eugene Gendlin (1981) calls a ‘felt sense’, a sense that something is not quite right yet we are not immediately able to name what is disturbing. Part of the task of thought is to give the perturbation of a felt sense a name. Heidegger shows that a problem or a question is not primarily and only experienced in an already formulated conceptual scheme but is first experienced emotionally in a sense of estrangement, or more specifically in the form of existential anxiety, that anxiety in which the language to describe a phenomenon cannot be taken for granted.
The implication of Mintzberg’s point is that most classroom activity begins with already formulated concepts of experience, does not begin with the phenomenon or felt sense of experience and certainly does not encourage an existential phenomenological form of educational activity through which the murky ‘felt sense’ of experience is turned into a set of concepts to be challenged, framed and reframed.
Heidegger’s existential hermeneutic phenomenology does do this. It is specifically a practice for transforming what Eugene Gendlin (1981) calls the dynamic, vital but murky and hazy ‘felt sense’ of experience into embodied concepts to be framed and reframed. Such a practice is central to everyday management experience, for much of management experience is based on the felt sense of practical judgment. More than this, learning about their practices as managers involves the activity of being able to turn the felt sense of their experience as managers into themes for critical thought, framing and reframing.
In this article I wish to bring out the value of a Heideggerian existential hermeneutic phenomenology process of a return to the phenomenon for management education. I will focus in detail on the experience of Mort Meyerson, who at the time was CEO of Ross Perot Systems, a provider of information technology services and business solutions to a broad range of clients. The document that I will be using is Meyerson’s autobiographical account of an existential crisis in leadership that he experienced whilst CEO of Ross Perot Systems in the early 1990s. The account was published in 2007 in an online journal called FastCompany and depicts the way in which his crisis of meaning as a leader led him to question not only the abstract concept of leadership but his way of being as a leader, such that he both framed and eventually reframed his concept and way of being as a leader.
Through the crisis of meaning he came to recognize that he had historically been what he calls a ‘paternalistic leader’ (Meyerson, 2007: 3) who made all the decisions but who now came to open the possibility of practicing as what he calls a ‘coaching’ (p. 4) leader. The important point to bear in mind from the perspective of this article is not so much the particular concepts in terms of which he chose to frame and reframe himself as a leader (paternalistic vs coaching) but the existential phenomenological process that he went through in thinking through, framing and reframing his way of being as a leader.
This article also makes a contribution to the emergence of Martin Heidegger in management studies. The role of Heideggerian notions of breakdown as opportunities for reflexive awareness is currently being explored by many within the practice-based turn in organisational studies (Chia and Holt, 2006; Geiger, 2009; Gherardi, 2006; Weick, 2003). However, they all seem to explore a specific breakdown, namely the breakdown of what in Heideggerian terms is called items of equipment ‘ready-to-hand’ and the process whereby in the breakdown of an item of equipment ‘ready-to-hand’, an entity acquires the status of an object ‘present-at-hand.’ (Chia and Holt 2006; Weick 2003).
This, however, is not the only form of breakdown that is central to Heidegger’s early and later work. Even in Being and Time (1985), Heidegger spends much time—in fact the whole of the second section—writing about breakdowns or disruptions in ways of being-in-the-world where what is revealed or made explicit is not an object ‘present-at-hand’ but ways of being-in-the-world itself. Heidegger’s logic is, once again, that in our everyday ways of being within the world, we are preoccupied with the tasks at hand and our way of being-in-the-world is in the background of our awareness. However, when the human being experiences existential anxiety its being is disturbed in such a way that it comes ‘face to face’ with itself as being-in-the-world.
Furthermore, the process of coming face to face with being-in-the-world itself occurs in a paradoxical moment of what Heidegger (1985: 343) calls ‘resoluteness’ which is the power to embrace the powerlessness that is experienced in moments of the anxiety of breakdown. For existential anxiety is an experience that renders the human being powerless but it does enable the human being to either embrace or refuse the powerlessness. The embracing of powerlessness Heidegger calls ‘resoluteness’. Such resoluteness is central to existential education, ‘allowing being to be’ (p. 75), such that we can notice and be attentive to being-in-the-world. Moments of resoluteness are essential to the experience of wonder which, for Heidegger, is integral to existential inquiry. The relationship between anxiety, resolve and wonder is most clearly spelt out in his article ‘What Is Metaphysics?’, in which he says: ‘Only when the strangeness of being oppresses us does it arouse and evoke wonder. Only on the ground of wonder—the revelation of the nothing—does the “why?” loom before us. Only because the “why” is possible as such can we in a definite way inquire into grounds, and ground them’ (Heidegger, 1948: 49).
The moment of resoluteness as a moment in which the anxiety of breakdown is transformed into the wonder of inquiry, is central to a form of management education that wishes to turn disruptions in everyday management practices into learning opportunities. For, as Linda Hill (2003) claims, disruptive moments of ‘surprise’ are central to management education. She is supported in this by Lombardo and Eichinger (1989) who claim that 50 per cent of managers undergo experiences of ‘derailment’. The resolve required for turning these moments of derailment and surprise into opportunities for reflective questioning is outlined by Heidegger.
This will be demonstrated in the case of Mort Meyerson who exemplified a Heideggerian form of resolve in being able to dwell in the fragmentation of his habitual practice of leadership, learning to listen, frame and reframe in his experience of powerlessness as a leader at Ross Perot. In this case we will see quite clearly how the anxiety of breakdown was transformed into the wonder of new possibilities and ways of being as a leader.
Meyerson did not take on the job of CEO of Ross Perot Systems with the intention of questioning his perspective on leadership. This was the last thing on his mind. He was ‘action orientated’, wanting to get on with the job; rather than thinking about the assumptions which framed his way of getting on with the job. So confident was Ross Perot in Meyerson’s habitual ways of leading that he told him to simply ‘follow his nose’ (Meyerson, 2007: 1)—that is, follow his intuitive sense. In Heideggerian terms, rather than thinking about his role as a leader, he was immersed or absorbed in it.
Meyerson had, by his own acknowledgement, a history as a top-down, no nonsense style leader. He had grown up in what he refers to as a ‘paternalistic’ (p. 3) style of leadership. Describing the no nonsense style in which he had been habituated he says: ‘We shifted people from project to project and simply expected them to make the move, no questions asked’ (p. 2). Continuing he says: ‘In terms of priorities work was in first place; family, community, other obligations all came after’ (p. 3).
Yet very soon after beginning work at Ross Perot, he found that organizational and business practices had changed in such ways that his assumptions and practices of leadership were thrown into question. As he puts it: ‘Everything I thought I knew about leadership is wrong’ (p. 1). He found that both his philosophy and practice of leadership were now outdated and inappropriate for the new world of work. He felt that he had let Perot down and that he was unable to lead his organization. Talking to Ross Perot he said: ‘I was telling him that everything had changed. Technology, customers, the environment around customers, the market—all had changed. The people in the organization and what they wanted from their work had changed’ (p. 1).
It is crucial to understand the type of leadership crisis that Meyerson was experiencing. It was not a problem of acquiring more effective leadership skills but a crisis of the sense of what it means to be a leader. He had lost all feeling for what that meant. To be sure, he had knowledge of the abstract concepts of leadership but had lost an embodied sense of what it means to be a leader. He was in a state of existential anguish. As he says: ‘Everything I thought I knew about leadership is wrong’ (p. 1). He is in a state of perplexity in which he speaks of the ‘shattering of his self confidence’ (p. 4), of the loss of embodied meaning and sense of what it means to be a leader and of the need to ‘create a new understanding of himself as a leader’ (p. 4). He writes of the experience of the aloneness of being in the unknown, not knowing how he is going to come out on what he calls the ‘other side’ (p. 4). He could not make sense of the world that he once inhabited. He was deprived of the sense of his know-how—much like a depressed person who has the capabilities and capacities to perform but has lost the will or energy to perform. Every practice and idea about leadership that he had acquired felt misplaced. It just did not fit.
It is important to note that he had been recognized and had thought of himself as an effective leader—indeed he was head hunted for his position at Ross Perot Systems. However, much like a person in an existential crisis he had lost sense of what it means to be a leader under the new conditions. Albert Camus (1991: 9) describes this kind of crisis as an experience of the absurdity of life:
A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.
Meyerson was in the absurd. He felt like a stranger in a world that was once familiar. As he says of himself: ‘You don’t get it. Maybe you ought to get out of this business. You’re like a highly specialised trained beast that evolved during one period and now you can’t adjust to the new environment’ (Meyerson, 2007: 4). ‘Everything has changed’ (p. 1), he says. Rather than looking to improve his existing skills or techniques as a leader, he is searching for a new way of being as a leader. As he says: ‘But I do know from my own experience that the leadership techniques that applied 20 years ago don’t apply anymore’. What he wants is what he calls ‘a new definition of leadership’ (p. 1). Thus it is crucial to understand that Meyerson is asking a question about the ‘meaning’ of leadership. And he is asking this question not out of idle curiosity; not in an armchair but in a state of existential angst. And the panic is that he has lost all sense of what it means to be a leader—yet he is confronted with the day-to-day tasks of needing to run the business.
It would be a mistake to see his loss of self-confidence as being caused by a psychological crisis. For, in contrast to a psychodynamic crisis, the source of Meyerson’s crisis is not intra psychic conflict; not conflict between opposing forces within the mind (not a contradiction between ego and id or superego and id). It is his relationship to the world that has been disturbed. As he says, the environment in which business is conducted and in which organizations have operated has changed but the conventions that have underpinned his mindset have stayed the same. There is a disjuncture between the conventions in which he operates and the changing business environment. His habitual conventions for doing things do not allow him to make sense of the new reality.
Thomas Kuhn (1970) calls this a paradigm crisis. It occurs where we cannot fit novelty or new facts into our existing theoretical frameworks. In a paradigm crisis novelty challenges us to rethink our framework. This was the experience of Meyerson (2007: 1): ‘Technology, customers, the environment around customers, the market—all had changed. The people in the organisation and what they wanted from their work had changed’.
But Meyerson did not by either instinct or habit have the framework in which to absorb the changes. His conventional mindset did not prepare him for these changes. He was caught in between the collapse of old ways of doing things and having not yet inhabited a new way; caught between what Heidegger sees as the collapse of the old gods and the not yet of the new gods. Meyerson did not have, but was searching for, a new way of leading to replace the old one. In terms of the changes in the business environment this latter way of operating was no longer tenable. Indeed he says that if he were to operate out of the old paternalistic mindset in the new world, he would ‘make every wrong move in the book’ (p. 1).
Initially he did not know what he would need to be or how to behave or even how to think in response to the changing conditions. He was clueless, or as he puts it about himself ‘You don’t get it’. But he did know that he would need to change. As Kuhn notes, the way in which novelty challenges us creates intense insecurity, frequently accompanied by a sense of despair. Kuhn (1970: 84) quotes the experience of the physicist Wolfgang Pauli who in between the collapse of the old physics and the not yet of Heisenberg’s physics entered a profound state of despair in which he wanted to give up physics altogether: ‘At the moment physics is terribly confused. In any case, it is too difficult for me, and I wish I had been a movie comedian or something of the sort and had never heard of physics’. Yet once Heisenberg discovered new foundations for physics, Pauli’s whole attunement shifts: ‘Heisenberg’s type of mechanics has given me hope and joy in life. To be sure it does not supply the solution to the riddle, but I believe it is again possible to march forward’.
Interestingly enough, Pauli’s despair is reflected in the experience of Heisenberg in that period in which he had not yet discovered the paradoxes that would underpin atomic physics:
I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours until very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? (Wheatley, 1999: 5–6)
The experience of the despair between the collapse of the old and the uncertainty of the new is reflected in the experience of Einstein: ‘It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built’ (Kuhn, 1970: 83).
We can say of Meyerson that the ground had been pulled from under his feet and he did not know where to turn. For Kuhn, it is in such moments that scientists tend to become philosophical. He maintains that for the most part scientists have no need for philosophy. They tend to get on with their everyday jobs as scientists. It is when they experience the anguish of a paradigm disruption that they tend to become philosophical, that is, tend to think about the taken for granted conventions which guide their everyday activities as scientists:
Scientists have not generally needed or wanted to be philosophers. Indeed normal science usually holds creative philosophy at arm’s length. … It is, I think, particularly in periods of acknowledged crisis that scientists have turned to philosophical analysis as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field.(Kuhn, 1970: 88)
We could say the same about Mort Meyerson. Under conditions of stability, he did not need to question his philosophy of leadership. Indeed such a question would have been seen as a waste of time. He needed to get on with his job. However, when he could no longer take his way of being a leader for granted, the issue of leadership became an explicit theme of concern. It was an urgent question. He could not continue as a leader without being able to answer this question. Thus we may say that the concrete conditions under which the philosophical question of leadership becomes important is when we lose all sense of leadership. In this situation, no matter what we do we will feel powerless unless we face the question.
Paradoxically then we may say that the question of the meaning of being a leader becomes a meaningful or significant question in those moments in which we feel or experience the absence of what it means to be a leader. When, as in the case of Meyerson, we lose sense of what it means to be a leader, we find ourselves face to face with the question of the meaning of leadership. When we do not feel the absence of a sense or feeling for leadership then we do not even notice that the question of what it means to be a leader is a meaningful question. Indeed we would tend to think that it is a meaningless question—that it is nonsense and that it interferes with our daily tasks of being a leader.
Although he knew that his old style of leadership was wrong, he did not have a ready made idea or set of practices for a new way to be a leader. He felt lost: ‘When I returned to Perot Systems … I had to accept the shattering of my own self-confidence. I couldn’t lead anymore, at least not in the way I always had’ (Meyerson, 2007: 4). Although Meyerson believed in the need to change, his own practices and beliefs about leadership belonged to an old world and were thus out of touch with the reality of the changing world.
He knew that he could not turn back but he did not have any firm foundation upon which to step into the future. Meyerson was caught between the certainty of the collapse of the old way of doing things and the uncertainty of the unfamiliarity of the unknown future. So deep was this crisis for him that he considered giving up the position of leader (p. 4).
Yet rather than ‘getting out of the business’ his confusion became the opportunity for developing a new set of practices both for himself as leader and for challenging members of the organisation. He was able to see this experience not as the basis to turn away from being a leader but to raise the question of leadership in an existentially vital way. In the Heideggerian sense already outlined he was resolved, having the power to embrace his own powerlessness.
He dwelt in and stayed with his won experience of being lost and as he stayed with the experience of being lost he was able to ask himself ‘What is the new definition of leadership?’ (p. 1) This does not mean that he was no longer lost. It means that he began to experience a new resolved attitude towards his lostness—one in which through embracing his powerlessness, he began to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of leadership: ‘To get rich, do you have to be miserable? And to be successful, do you have to punish your customers?’ (p. 3).
What we see is that in the face of a shock or crisis in his experience of leadership he comes to ask the question of leadership. This way of asking the question of leadership is very different from disengaged conceptual questioning. It was not a question asked in the security of detachment from his everyday experience but rather it was one he faced under the pressure to perform as a leader and thus a question in which his very practice and identity as a leader was at stake. He was scared. He did not know his way forward. It was because his very being as a leader was in question that he came to think about leadership.
From the Heideggerian perspective, we do not always need to be philosophical—only when our existence is questioned or ruptured do we become philosophical in an existential sense. When our old ways of doing things are working, we have no need to question the terms in which we are working. We need to get on with the job, not focus on our concept of leadership.
At these points the assumptions underpinning our judgments remain in the background, taken for granted. When, however, we are jolted out of our everyday absorption in leadership—then we can begin to say in an emotionally and existentially alive way ‘what does it mean to be a leader?’ It is under such conditions that our intuitions become explicit themes for questioning—or to use a phrase of Meyerson’s (2007: 1), it is under conditions of disruption that instead of simply ‘following our nose’, we come to question our way of ‘following our nose’.
The movement from ‘following one’s nose’ to reflecting on ‘following one’s nose’ is a shift of attunement. In this shift we are attuned to different things. It is a shift from ‘doing’ or a ‘doing mentality’ to being attuned to our ‘doing mentality’. For in our ‘doing mentality’ we are not attuned to our ‘mentality’—we are too busy doing to be attuned to our ‘mentality’ for doing. It is in the kind of crisis that Meyerson experienced that we become attuned to the ‘mentality’ in which we ‘do.’ One example of this is the way in which Meyerson comes to notice the language that was used at Ross Perot Systems to describe their way of doing things. Instead of simply just using the language to describe activities in the organisation, he came to think about the language itself.
I listened to some of our senior leaders talk about how they handled people on teams who didn’t perform. I heard talk of ‘drive-by shootings’ to ‘take out’ non performers; then they’d ‘drag the body around’ to make an example out of them. They may have meant it only as a way of talking, but I saw it as more: abusive language that would influence behavior.
Left unchallenged, these expressions would pollute the company’s culture. (Meyerson, 2007: 2) Meyerson acknowledges that he was responsible for this use of language and for the actions which it gave rise to and so he begins to challenge the organizational language. Language which he once used only as a vehicle of communication now became a theme of reflexive attunement in its own right. Instead of calling for ‘drive-by shootings’ or ‘dragging people’s bodies around’, he came to reflect on the meaning of talking in this way. Instead of ‘taking out’ non performers, he came to reflect on the significance of talking about people in this way. He came to see that his and the organisation’s use of language was not neutral but reflected the way in which he constructed and acted in the world. He came to see that his way of being as a leader and thus his identity was embodied in the language he used.
Meyerson’s questioning of language signaled a shift in his attunement. In his pre-philosophical past, he used terms such as ‘drive-by shooting’ to facilitate activity. He did not even notice that he was using such language—there was no need to think about the language. As Meyerson (2007: 2) says: ‘We called our assignments “death marches”—without a trace of irony. You were expected to do whatever it took to get the job done’.
Another example of Meyerson’s turn towards philosophical questioning through examining language can be found in the following example: as an old style autocratic leader, he had motivated employees by tying pay to performance. This had allowed him to create a highly focused and motivated work force which achieved excellent results. At this stage he was not reflecting on the meaning of ‘pay-to-profit-and-loss performance’ (p. 2) He was concerned with the working of the system. He was confident in his leadership style. In his leadership crisis, however, he stood outside of the relationship between pay and performance and came to reflect on the culture that was being created through it. He did not like what he saw. The costs of the good results were too much.
The emphasis on profit-and-loss to the exclusion of other values was creating a culture of destructive contention. We were about 1500 people, with revenues of roughly $170 million. Our people were committed to growing the company—but we risked becoming a company where the best people in the industry wouldn’t want to work. (p. 2)
The crucial Heideggerian point is that instead of simply being involved in the use of the language, he came to a reflexive attunement to the language that he had been involved in using. In general terms, instead of simply being absorbed or involved in business, he now stood in a reflexive relationship to the business that he had been involved in. What was very important was the mood in which the questioning of language took place. It was not in the mood of armchair detachment but a vital mood in which Meyerson felt his very identity as a leader-person to be at stake. It was in the mood of having his confidence undermined, being worried about his ability and his future direction. As such it was an existential questioning of language, a questioning of his language in use.
In the same existential way he began to question his theory of leadership. This meant looking at himself as a leader. As Meyerson (2007: 1) says of his experience: ‘To answer the question of leadership meant that I would have to look deeply into myself, reinvent my concept of leadership’.
He likens the experience of looking deeply into himself to the experience of being in a cocoon:
I told myself I was having the same experience as a caterpillar entering a cocoon. The caterpillar doesn’t know that he’ll come out as a butterfly. All he knows is that he’s alone, it’s dark, and it’s a little scary. I came out the other end of the experience with a new understanding of leadership. (p. 4)
Metamorphosis is that process in which we shed our old way of doing things as the basis for allowing the new way of doing things to emerge. In the experience of being between the collapse of the old way and the not yet of the new way of doing things we cannot draw on the resources of either mindset to cope. We have left the old and so cannot draw on it but we do not yet have the new and so cannot draw on it. We are caught in the between. So it was with Meyerson: in his experience of metamorphosis he was caught in between the break down of the old and the not yet of the new.
As already mentioned, Martin Heidegger describes the experience of what Meyerson calls metamorphosis in terms of the concept of resolve. Resolve is a dynamic process of withdrawing from one way of being within the world and drawing towards another way of being as a leader. Such resolve is very central to reframing of ways of being within the world. To put this in the language of Heidegger (1968: 374):
What withdraws from us, draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or not at all. Once we are drawn into the withdrawal, we are drawing toward what draws, attracts us by its withdrawal. And once we, being so attracted, are drawing towards what draws us, our essential nature already bears the stamp of ‘drawing towards.’ As we are drawing towards what withdraws, we ourselves are pointers pointing toward it.
Thus, in his experience of resolve Meyerson was withdrawing from an old view of leadership and simultaneously he was drawing towards a new way of being a leader. Through the metamorphosis a new frame of leadership being began to emerge for him. He calls it a coaching style of leadership and describes it in the following terms: ‘The way to be a leader today is different. I no longer call the shots. I’m not the decision maker. So what is my job as a leader? The essence of leadership today is to make sure that the organization knows itself’ (Meyerson, 2007: 4).
The essence of this coaching leadership style can be described in Heideggerian terms of ‘allowing beings’ to ‘come forth’ (Heidegger, 1985: 53). Instead of seeing employees as instruments of his vision, he allows the vision and practices of the organization to ‘come forth’. His role in this is to bring out the potential that is already there: ‘When people ask me for a decision, I pick up a mirror, hold it up for them to look into, and tell them: Look to yourselves and look to the team, don’t look to me’ (Meyerson, 2007: 4).
Meyerson experienced a sense of wonder and the opening up of new possibilities in the transition from his habitual paternalistic style to his newly emerging coaching style. New possibilities, possibilities that did not make rational sense in terms of the assumptions of his previous autocratic management style now began to make sense for him in a way that was exciting: ‘Business-the-old way told people to leave their personal problems at home. Now we make it clear that personal issues are our issues as well’ (p. 3).
From the coaching attunement it makes sense to see personal issues as company issues. In his old paternalistic attunement the personal needed to be left at home before entering the workplace. Similarly in terms of his own conception of his old style of leadership, a leader is expected to have all the plans. But from his newly developed coaching mindset Meyerson did not believe that as a leader he was responsible for planning. This made sense to him in terms of his new mindset but it did not make sense to those who were accustomed to the traditional mindset. They thought that Meyerson did not know what he was talking about:
In my early days at Perot Systems, people came to me and asked for ‘the plan.’ When I told them, I don’t know the plan, they got angry with me. All I would say was, I don’t know the plan. If that disqualifies me from being a leader, then you’d better go get another leader. We’re either going to figure out the company’s future together or we’re not going to do it at all. (Meyerson, 2007: 4)
The switch from the old to the new mindset created a child-like wonder and excitement at seeing the world in a fresh way. Meyerson (2007: 4) was excited at the way in which the world began to appear in a new way. ‘The way to be a leader today is different. I no longer call the shots. I’m not the decision maker. So what is my job as a leader? The essence of leadership today is to make sure that the organization knows itself’.
In his new leadership way of being, he began to see opportunities and possibilities that were not available to him in his old paternalistic style. In his coaching mode he comes to see that employees’ perspectives on the organisation are central to organizational success, invites their view on the organization and is even prepared to reflect on his way of doing things in terms of the gaze of his employees:
We convened meetings of the top 100 people in the company and asked them long lists of questions: How did they feel about the company culture? … The answers were a laundry list of horrifying bad news. Our people were angry, frustrated, irritated, deeply unhappy. If our company were entered in a 100-yard dash, I concluded, we were beginning the race from 50 yards behind the starting line. (Meyerson, 2007: 3)
It was only once Meyerson’s old paternalistic management assumptions had been shaken that he could begin to see the entrepreneurial value of the workforce. This is why Meyerson is astounded when he comes to value values—because in his old paternalistic mindset he did not believe that values are of value. Only when he switches to a different mindset could he feel that values are of value—and then he could not understand why he could not see, in the past they were of value.
In the case of Mort Meyerson we see an example of thinking in the context of a breakdown in his everyday way of coping as a leader and CEO. In Heidegger’s terms Meyerson’s thinking is not about a concept of leadership detached from the phenomenon of leading but from the way he was existentially ‘in question’ in his practice. He asked questions because his practical way of coping was ‘at stake’ in his leadership practice and thus he was in question in his leadership practice. Paradoxically the loss of sense or feeling for our way of being as leaders or managers opened up the possibility for becoming reflexively attuned to his implicit and taken for granted way of being as a leader or manager. And it allowed him the opportunity to disclose or open up new ways of being as a leader. In this way he developed a confidence in a new way of being as a leader. This is the essence of a Heideggerian description of the lived experience of the practice of thinking.
The case of Meyerson demonstrates an experience of leadership reframing in the context of an existential experience of self-doubt. Much formal education occurs outside of and detached from the way in which managers and leaders are in question and at stake in their practices. The challenge for management education is to become attuned to and work from the way in which leaders and managers are at stake in their practice. This means working with the nagging existential-emotional doubts of managers and turning these nagging doubts into opportunities for questioning by working in the space of resolve, that space in which we embrace rather than turn away from the powerlessness of being in question. This will allow education to work from within rather than from without managers’ and leaders’ practices.
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