Reframing: The Hallmark of Great Leaders

The challenges facing today’s corporate leaders often outpace their cognitive abilities. Errors, failures and chaos are an everyday occurrence in the life of an organization – some are small, others are catastrophic such as the 2008 Wall Street debacle. Calamities occur because executives are unable to foresee clearly the emerging issues that will impact their organizations. They lack awareness and/or the skills to chart a different course. These executives are afflicted with what Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal (2003) call the “curse of cluelessness”. They are not the innovative leaders that their companies desperately need them to be. (See my November 2015 blog: Great Leaders: The Competencies Imperative.)

These executives regularly surrender to ingrained mental models instead of seeing old problems in a new light or finding more promising ways to solve persistent challenges. They inevitably do more of what they know. Communications in organizations aren’t always candid, open or timely. When challenges become issues, and issues become problems, some leaders may resort to “artful camouflage” to down play anything that might have a negative impact on unexpectedly poor quarterly results. At times, ambiguity is deliberate. But, more often, the information and processes are so complex and uncoordinated that they are unintelligible. In the end, irrationality often prevails. When companies flounder; it is usually due to managerial error. (See Charan and Useem, 2002.)

Ah… improving management is the answer. Organizations will work splendidly if properly managed. The short answer is rarely. Executives and consultants draw on a variety of approaches to improve their organizations ranging from Six Sigma to Emotional Intelligence. But these approaches, while worthwhile, can easily become dogma, blinding us to other possibilities. There is always more than one way to respond to a problem or dilemma.

An increasingly turbulent, rapidly shifting economy requires contemporary organizations to learn better and adapt faster just to survive. The ability to see things from various perspectives helps redefine situations so that they become understandable and manageable. This ability to reframe is one of the most powerful capabilities of highly successful leaders and the coaches who assist them. Leaders need to find new ways of seeing things. They have to create a coherent and compelling vision for the organization going forward. They need to articulate and communicate this vision so all their stakeholders (employees, boards, vendors, customers) can learn to shift perspectives when needed.

In devising his first telescope, Galileo discovered that each lens he added contributed to a more accurate image of the heavens. Similarly, successful leaders reframe until they have a solid understanding of the situation at hand. They do this by using more than one perspective, more than one “frame”. Bolman and Deal espouse the Four-Frame Model, comprising the following components: Structural (the architecture of an organization; its goals, structure, technology, roles and relationships), Human Resource (understanding people and their relationships), Political (emphasizing power, competition, and winning scarce resources), and Symbolic (focusing on faith and meaning). Each frame is powerful and coherent. Taken together, they enable us to “reframe”, to see the challenge or issue from multiple perspectives.

Research shows that the ability to use multiple frames is associated with greater effectiveness for leaders. When leaders are stuck and nothing is working, reframing is a powerful tool which coaches use to help executives initiate, effective, practical, meaningful and lasting change.



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