Mark Epstein (author of the wonderful Thoughts Without a Thinker) is a help here. The point, he says, is to try not to get caught up either with the notion of self or with the notion of non-self. Both are a distraction from the middle way. Both lead one to lurch from idealising grandiosity (sense of I, me, self) to emptiness and despair (sense of I, me, self as false). This, he reminds us, is the narcissistic dilemma.
Bill Tate has been ahead of the game for several years - working on what this means for leaders in organisations. because leaders in organisations are much like 'selfs' in other communities - at best a distraction, at worst a complete red herring.
Here's what he says by way of introducing a new article on the subject:
"The way most people view leadership and seek improvement in organisations is deeply ingrained. They envisage managers behaving and acting in a firm, leader-like manner, displaying what they consider to be personal leadership qualities to get things done. Such an expectation appears self-evidently reasonable and non-controversial. But this individual-leader perspective is at best incomplete and at worst distracting. It leads to processes that conflate the organisation’s interest in managers’ application of leadership with monitoring and assessing personality and fit against some leadership model or framework. It seeks remedies in personal development to address analysed training needs, deficits or satisfy requests for courses, etc. Leader development is taken to equate to leadership development.
Critics point out that this conventional approach fails to achieve much improvement for the organisation beyond the narrow confines of a manager’s job, if that. Managers don’t apply unfettered leadership energy, certainly not to leverage improvement for the organisation. Much touted distributed leadership is more honoured in the breach than the observance. So what is going on, what is needed, what is missing, and what can be done?
The familiar approach overlooks key aspects of reality about the application of leadership in an organisation. Crucial among these is that a manager’s leadership activity is not pursued by individuals acting alone, confidently, trusted, and free of restraint or political interference. Leadership is foremost a social activity, an empathic as much as a cognitive pursuit, one conducted through relationships. Moreover, leadership wholly depends on interacting not just with others but also with other organisational things. These interconnecting pieces are part of a complex leadership puzzle located in the manager’s immediate environment, in what goes on around and between managers.
Searching for leadership in the organisational system rather than simply in the individual more closely reflects reality. An organisation’s services are delivered to customers and markets by systems, not by individuals. It is ultimately an integrated system that gets things done. Organisations succeed or fail as systems. The job of organisational leadership is to optimise that system. Focusing development on how the whole comes together and is well interconnected makes more sense than concentrating development on optimising nodes. An individual and his/her competence is a node, one of the parts – albeit an important one – that contributes to the whole, but still a part – affected and compromised by other parts. There is more to the system than parts.
With its historical responsibility for the individual employee’s recruitment, assessment, pay and termination, HR has placed the individual at the heart of organisation concerns with performance and productivity: in goal and target setting, training and development, coaching, performance reviews, accountability, and incentives and rewards. It has allowed expertise in occupational psychology to dominate its attempts at taking on an organisation development (OD) role and pursuing its interest in improving group and system performance, privileging individual capability over group and system dynamics.
A wider systems perspective of the organisation requires that HR becomes more open to solutions that draw on other disciplines: sociology, social-psychology, anthropology, behavioural economics, cultural theory, systems thinking, complexity and chaos theory and even neuroscience. Such a broadening presents a challenge to professionals used to isolating individuals for the purpose of studying their performance, identifying individual ability, specifying appropriate behaviours and other solutions. But an individual-based focus makes little sense since it is impossible to isolate the parts from the system dynamic. If aggregated performance improvement is to receive greater attention, then HR’s contribution requires greater consideration of the wider system’s dynamic behaviour and performance.
To improve leadership, developers and leaders must therefore learn to see and manage the organisation and the leadership process from a systemic perspective. Developers will need to employ a range of academic and management theories, disciplines and tools that will help them better understand, develop and manage leadership as a property of the organisation and not just of the individual. They must treat leadership as a resource that will thrive only if husbanded by the organisation and not left to individual leaders to pursue unguided and free of clearly managed accountability. Not only does leadership become a more important target for development than leaders, organisation development methods become more important than management development ones, and leadership process becomes more important than leadership skill."
See the full paper - Managing Leadership from a Systemic Perspective