Lenses of leadership – L’archéologie du savoir
Dear friends, this blog has been waiting for its emergence for a long time. More than 10 years ago, I learned the critical skill of reflective writing - on the way to a more refined perception and structuring of reality - but the rush of work, interdisciplinary changing interests, and varying life situations have kept it bursting with thoughts and opportunities waiting to materialize. Like an inorganic life on the way to organic life in hot but oxygen-free protozoa, about 4 billion years ago.
At the heart of reflective writing is an in-depth examination and perception of one’s own reality, utilizing different frameworks, so that a “pre-given” and paradigmatic perspective is dared and learned to be challenged with the help of new gripping surfaces, theories, frameworks, and concepts. In my experience, this process can lead to a deeper understanding of the phenomena around us. In addition to this, richer and more multidimensional angles of entry are discovered, which, in a suitable synthesis, enables higher quality, i.e. more impressive and diverse, social interaction. Social interaction is a highly essential term here, as I argue that all dimensions of leadership outside of it are abstractions of living life and the social reality we experience. Leadership is always about social interaction - hopefully a high quality one.
This reflective process has brought a healthy balance to the ideas and thought patterns of leadership and intelligent action as part of an organization which can be found within airport newsstands and department store shelves in the form of numerous books and magazines on management and organizational activities. The terminology and concepts themselves have been revamped to some extent over the years, but in terms of content, the four-field models, their variations, and the prescriptive recipes for the “Best Practices” success cover the shelf space. Another form of leadership guide is narrative-style works of well-known personalities and management gurus whose thoughts and past successes draw the seeds of wisdom into a leadership toolbox. The purpose of this blog is not to provide prescriptive patterns of action, nor to create an idealized picture of leadership, but to bring out and produce descriptive insights into the reality of management and organizational life and the unavoidable paradoxes associated with it.
So why do I want and feel the need to share my thoughts and ideas in the form of a blog? Leadership - in its profound dimension - is about helping to grow new generations of leaders, ethically sound and better in terms of emotional intelligence and knowledge and capabilities. Leaders with the ability and motivation to solve the most significant challenges and problems for humanity, sustainable development, equality, technology, medicine, and the good life in general. A good leader is not raised on the school bench and success as a leader does not necessarily require any background from the academic community. Charisma, interaction skills, and several other more or less individual and inherent qualities are also part of the field of leadership. In exactly the same way that height is useful when pursuing a career as a professional basketball player. Becoming a leader comes through practice and praxis is a completely invaluable element in this regard. But it is also the case that a deeper and more holistic perception of leadership helps to identify good leadership, reflect on one’s own leadership style and capabilities, and develop those qualities that are central to effective and ethical leadership. At the same time, I believe the activity of blogging offers reflective surfaces and metacognitive, therapeutic process, to support my own growth journey as a better spouse, father, child, friend, thinker, leader, and person.
As I write this the first blog post I am 37 yrs. and a journey from the suburbs of Jyväskylä to the management of a Taiwanese listed company can serve as an example of what the Belgian physicist and chemist, Nobel laureate  Ilya Prigogine meant when he wrote: ”Life is about unpredictable novelty where the possible is always richer than the real”, in his classic writing The End of Certainty. Prigogine studied dissipative - that is, energy-consuming systems that exchange matter and energy with its environment - far from thermodynamic equilibrium. More on the ideas of Prigogine, as well as other theorists central to complexity sciences in later blog posts. The term complexity has encountered a kind of inflation, because it, like the observations of mathematical chaos theory, has been widely utilized, unfortunately often - also in Finland - on the principle of “cutting corners”. The concept of complexity is more relevant during the COVID pandemic than ever before. One can only reflect the unpredictability and interdependence as a result of which, in Wuhan, China, a result of local action, the human-transmitted pathogen caused a macro-level change through resonating network effects. A change that will unstoppably change the social and economic pattern and way of life we have taken for granted and call as globalization. I find it hard to believe that this risk was built into the scenario planning of even more advanced companies. It is also the case that some industries and companies almost automatically benefited from this transformational change - how many of these companies’ praise “coincidence” in their market and shareholder communications and how many pinpoints the sophisticated and resilient strategy created by the board and management?
A few words about my own professional background: I started my post-studies professional career after graduating as an international logistics engineer at Finnradiator Oy, a family business in the SME sector operating in the field of thermal management, whose roots go back more than 90 years. At Finnradiator, I worked as a production manager, export director and finally as a sales director. Contributing and participating in technology seminars, as part of the International Materials Technology Alliance, took me to the United Arab Emirates in Spring 2012. I worked there for the Dolphin Group, an industrial manufacturer employing 1,400 people that designs and manufactures thermal management and air conditioning solutions for the automotive and off-highway industries, the HVAC&R industry, and the oil and gas industry. Overall, my career in the UAE lasted 3 years, half of which I served as global sales manager and the second half as CEO. As part of my international career, I also lived and worked in Sweden and the Netherlands working forAurubis AG. Aurubis - the world's largest copper producer - is a company listed on the Hamburg Stock Exchange with a turnover of € 11 billion. After these experiences, my career journey took me to Enterex International, a Taipei stock exchange company providing thermal management and HVAC&R systems to automotive industry. Throughout this tenure I have lived in France and Spain. I have had a pleasure to serve as a Board Member to a number of Finnish and international companies and have acted as a Managing Director of an international alliance. In addition to an international career with several different business segments and company size categories, I have found myself acting as a change agent a number of times: trajectory which includes the establishment of new companies and distribution channels, turnarounds, business unit closures, profitability improvement projects, factory start-ups, etc.
My growth path has been mentored and guided by a number of very relevant, talented and patient people, who through their guidance and leadership, have given me the space, encouraged me to push forward, challenged both emotionally and intellectually and provided a loving and safe environment to try my wings, and seize new challenges and opportunities. My family, parents, and numerous friends have naturally played an invaluable role from childhood to this day. And the journey continues. However, I would also like to mention the invaluable support of Esko Kilpi, a late pioneer of digital work and humanist, Ralph Stacey, Professor of Complexity Sciences and Management, my valuable colleagues Pertti Kaarre, Ulf Anvin and Markku Ainali, and Ilpo Laitinen, Adjunct professor and a Finnish Pioneer of the Complexity Sciences. In addition, the University of Jyväskylä [especially the AVANCE team], Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences, the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Oxford's Säid Business School have been valuable sources of continuous learning, knowledge and the art of humane leadership.
The world and our society are still anything but ready, and the time of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown in many ways that, especially in terms of leadership and organizations, history is unfortunately a collection of “low hanging fruits”. Of course, the trajectory is promising: organizations have changed significantly, and leadership practices have had to evolve to remain relevant and effective. The characteristics of global business, the complex organizations of the post-industrial digital age, have placed new demands on leaders that have led to the evolution from traditional authoritarian and centralized power paradigms to the worlds of human, contextual, co-evolving and shared leadership. In the words of Esko Kilpi and carrying his intellectual torch: Work is by default networked cognition. Or in other words: firm sees work and cognitive capability as networked communication.
The richness of opinions and angles - including the tolerance of uncomfortable facts and thoughts - is absolutely central characteristics to development and creative problem solving. This applies to individuals, organizations and societies. Otherwise, thew fear is the stagnation of thought, and on the other hand, the phenomenon of what the futuristic dystopias painted by the British George Orwell , by his real name Eric Arthur Blair, meant followed by the narrowing of the Overton’s Window.
We, as individuals, in organizations, and as societies, have a poor tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, that is, non-linear cause-and-effect relationships. We perceive reality through stereotypes and always somewhat simplifying models and analogies. The worldview, values and attitudes also cause biases. Therefore, we tend to offer simplified solutions to complex problems. What we do when we build mathematical, as well as other models, is that we create analogies to describe reality. Some of these analogies are more accurate and successful than others. Success in this case can mean, for example, how accurately that model can be used to predict future developments, i.e. by means of extrapolation. Karl Popper, an Austrian-British philosopher of science and a pioneer of analytical philosophy, formulated the ontological order of the three worlds: World 1 deals with physical objects [e.g. biological entities], world 2 psychic phenomena [e.g. mental beings such as consciousness] and the world 3 cultural beings and phenomena [e.g. cultural and social entities].
Historically - as humanity - we have modeled the movements and forces of our solar system as mechanical models based on clocks. With the help of these mechanical models, we have conceived the movements of the planets as if they were a huge clockwork. These analogies and the automatic neurocognitive machinery behind them have helped us to make sense and function in a complex world. Today we know that Newtonian mechanics and the quantum physics that followed have produced more accurate, that is, more realistic, information in the field of physics. A more mundane example of these processes is provided by stereotypes that help us more clearly understand the opportunities and risks associated with these automatic social, emotional, and cognitive processes [and related biases and inaccuracies]. Also, language is always inevitably an approximation. It may be a working approximation, but it is still always an approximation. Every word, every number, every sentence is based on agreed practices and forms of reference to the phenomena behind them. They do not contain the phenomenon per se and each model also hides important aspects of the situation. Highlighting these inaccuracies - a kind of Michel Foucault’s knowledge archeology - is a very central focus of my review.
The current time is also exceptionally good for starting and creating something new such as this blog. Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote about creative destruction as an important part of the innovation process. Networks create power relations and structures while enabling and preventing action. The change we are now experiencing will break these structures and provide new opportunities for innovation. The concept of adaptive landscape in evolutionary biology can be used as an analogy [cf. Fitness landscape]. In a resource-rich world, advanced specialization is a viable strategy, but in times of scarcity, the ability to be creative in several areas, pursue through iterative experimentation, is a requirement for successful adaptation. What does this mean in terms of strategic planning and building ambidexterity and resilience of companies?
Other themes I am going to address in this blog include e.g. organizational culture, power relations and networks, and the schools of management and methods such as change management, operations management, human resource management, international business management, strategic management, and complexity management. There is an unnecessarily wide range of influential and relevant theorists, researchers, and / or writers to mention, but the theoretical framework is built on engineering sciences, philosophy of sciences, evolutionary biology, philosophy, organizational theory, cultural anthropology, mathematics, sociology, cognitive neuroscience, game theory, behavioral economics and complexity sciences. As the list reflects, I strive for an interdisciplinary and synthesizing direction, and I strongly believe that an approach like this will enable a journey toward deeper understanding and development, both as a leader and as an organizational actor. For this summer, the most significant reading experience I had in terms of leadership literature was not HBR's latest article, but the work of the Finnish philosopher and mathematician Ilkka Niiniluoto's Philosophy of Good Life [in Finnish Hyvän elämän filosofiaa]. Thank you for the excellent recommendation goes to Ilpo Laitinen. Ethical business and ethical and purposeful management are also key themes for this blog and their importance will be further emphasized in the future.
I would like to return briefly to the common thread of the blog, the value of an interdisciplinary and multi-layered approach to enhance the leadership development. I do not think its significance is yet generally understood. One of my mentors, Markku Ainali, presented an interesting analogy from this angle. While studying corrosion prevention technology at the HUT [today Aalto University], the Professor had emphasized from the outset that corrosion prevention technology is an interdisciplinary field of science and technology. It involves metallurgy, electrochemistry, materials science, coating technology, mechanical engineering, construction technology, soil geology, meteorology, hydrology, microbiology, etc. A specialist in the field later wrote that that the material itself involves about twenty variables affecting corrosion properties and, in addition, each corrosion environment about equal amount. This results in “quite” a few combinations that should be able to be interpreted and mastered. Probably many other professions, or perhaps all of them, have interdisciplinarity characteristics if the researcher and practitioner know how and what to look for and be aware of it. In the words of Professor Raimo P. Hämäläinen, fundamentally the nature of engineering sciences relates to creative problem solving and the attempt to “try to develop the world better” has certainly guided activities in this direction.
Last night, as I was thinking about the introduction of the first blog post, I got a call from a good friend of mine who wanted sparring and insights related to career dilemma. I don’t go deeper into the situation itself nor the background associated with it, but I advised him to think about investing in networks; especially to think about which people would be the ones he would like to know and have in his network within 2-3 years to make certain career ambitions and aspirations possible. We Finns have a strong and comprehensive educational system as well as a wealth of high-tech businesses. This means we could take the opportunity to specialize and take an international foothold in terms of leadership around solving the wicked problems [i.e. climate change, sustainability, poverty]. The key question here is how these interdisciplinary and global challenges could be tackled by more sound and advanced profession of leadership. A few weeks ago, I had a real pleasure and honor of talking to philosopher and system intelligence developer Esa Saarinen, e.g. about future of management. Esa had several excellent points, but one key question was my own leadership vision, which is something that should be deeply aligned with what I would like to establish as my heritage and to be able to say, for example, on the eve of retirement in front of generation of new leaders:
“My passion and responsibility as a leader is to serve others by enriching the intellectual domain and creating a renaissance of humanity. Having had the fortune to lead organizations across the world, I want to lead in a way which evokes fresh directions of thought by facilitating learning environments. Leadership is action despite the paradoxes of organizational life, where even unresolvable difficulties of the human condition are present. Promoting non-hierarchical decision-making models, where every person can leverage their expertise and full human capacity, and distributing the decision-making power to decentralized models. Re-framing the complex challenges and emphasizing the contextual factors. Sharing the understanding regarding challenges of current economic and leadership models build on equilibrium, reductionism and outdated human psychology and form of causality. Acting as a pragmatic futurist by leveraging insights from behavioral sciences and psychology, sociology, network theory, cognitive neuroscience and the sciences of complexity to create more fertile ground.”
Thank you very much for your interest, both positive and negative feedback, thoughts and insights and promise to return to the themes in the coming weeks. The intention is to enrich the blog with the help of visiting authors as well. We hope you do enjoy the trip!
BlackSmith Consulting Oy, Juho Partanen
Chairman of the Board
+358 40 153 5606