A Quick Sketch of the Key Concepts

This note outlines concepts including:

Leadership for contentious problems
Common assumptions of conventional leadership frameworks
Learning-centered leadership
Leadership-mode intervention
The Leadership-Management Modes Distinction
Active choice
The ARIES framework.

Leadership for Contentious Problems

The concern is with leadership in the context of dealing with contentious problems. These are problems which are viewed differently by stakeholders, for which there are no established procedures, and which are often surrounded by strongly-felt emotions.

Such problems can be thought of as having an explicit (tangible, visible) side and an implicit (hidden) side - as with the shaded, below the waterline side of the iceberg in the banner at the top of this page.

Overcoming contentious problems requires dealing with both their explicit and implicit sides. Leadership is needed to discover the group’s hidden resources: its latent intelligence, experience, and wisdom.

Through learning-centered leadership, these resources can be delved into and combined with other, explicit (“above the waterline”) data to help the group gain a clearer sense of their present reality, jointly envision a preferred future, and foster energy to bring about change.

Common Assumptions of Conventional Leadership Frameworks

Dominant conceptions of leadership, though, inhibit our efforts to work through contentious problems in this way. Three assumptions, in particular, run through much of the leadership literature:

  • that leadership can only be undertaken by leaders (and that what leaders do is necessarily leadership);
  • that leadership is the exclusive province of those in roles of considerable authority;
  • that leadership is based in influence processes.

Such assumptions are common in many of the transformational leadership-style books of the past 20-30 years. These tend to focus on a leader, often a top executive, articulating a vision and inspiring others to pursue it. This is one way to think of leadership but not the only way.

A problem is that the traditional assumptions are so pervasive that they render largely invisible an alternative view of leadership, based in learning.

Seeing this alternative view requires that we set aside the identification of leadership with leaders, influence, and authority. We do not have to reject these assumptions outright, but we do need to put them “on hold”.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 1)

Learning-centered Leadership


Learning-centered leadership involves: establishing current realities, clarifying preferred futures (purpose and vision), and – thereby – eliciting energy for change.

Learning-centered leadership represents the work a group needs to do in making sense of, and overcoming, a contentious problem.

The emphasis is on social processes, with people jointly making sense of multiple perspectives on reality.

Key premises:

  • Stakeholders have a great deal of intelligence to contribute
  • Much of this intelligence will be hidden
  • Leadership work entails drawing forth relevant intelligence, scrutinizing it, and integrating it with explicit aspects of problem
  • Contentious problems imply threat, defensiveness, and risk – and therefore a need to intervene relationally.

When we work relationally, we put a premium on:

- Listening and observing acutely, and in particular differentiating between what can be discerned directly and inferences or conclusions we arrive at

- Considering how others might construct the problem, allowing that they do so in ways that seem reasonable to them

- Asking questions to better understand other perspectives, including delving into the hidden territory while seeking to avoid sparking undue threat

- Speaking to wider interpretations of the problem (rather than regarding our own analysis as “the” truth)

- Framing understandings of current reality and of a preferred future with the problem overcome in ways that draw on and integrate the diversity of stakeholder perspectives.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Chs 2 and 3)

Leadership-Mode Intervention

Intervening in the leadership mode involves action in a relational manner toward building shared meaning in a context of efforts to achieve deep-reaching change with a contentious problem.

Leadership-mode interventions represent actions by individuals towards the group’s work of learning-centered leadership (establishing current realities, clarifying preferred futures, eliciting energy for change).

Leadership-mode interventions usually involve acts of speaking relationally. These might be as small as asking a question or expressing a point of view, while recognizing one’s perspective as only one way of making sense of the problem.

Anyone in a group can make such interventions. It may be that one person (the formal leader or otherwise) is doing most of the intervention work, or – ideally – two or more are contributing.

Prospective benefits from viewing leadership in this way include:

  • Expanding the pool of potential contributors to leadership
  • Potentially gaining access to a greater depth of intelligence (mental resources in the implicit domain)
  • Enabling a clearer focus on the work of leadership as distinct from management

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Chs 2 and 3)

The Leadership-Management Modes Distinction

The management mode: involves action taken to deal with the explicit aspects of a problem; the emphasis is on task achievement, with authority providing the legitimacy.

We have seen that the leadership mode involves action in a relational manner toward building shared meaning in a context of efforts to achieve deep-reaching change with a contentious problem.

The two modes are potentially complementary. Yet realizing the potential synergies requires conscious action:

  • In practice, management-oriented actions tend to overwhelm those reflecting a leadership stance.
  • Unless we can distinguish leadership- and management-mode actions we run the risk of espousing leadership but demonstrating primarily a management-mode orientation in practice. That is, we use the language of leadership but act in ways more in keeping with management.

Differentiating management and leadership assists us to make choices about intervention options that are most suited to particular situations.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 4)

Examples of leadership and management actions as complementary

Re-orienting the executive group: This group spends most of the time in its extended monthly meetings discussing pressing business issues, sharing information, and coordinating activities (management mode). The chief executive is frustrated that the group does not give more attention to some of the “bigger” issues involving complex change, and that members seem to place low importance on their membership of the group in comparison to running their own parts of the business. He initiates conversation with group members about their perceptions of the group and of him; he declares his own dissatisfaction and inquires into how others feel about the group (leadership mode). As an outcome of these conversations, the group decides to restructure their meetings (management mode) to enable more time for conversing and coming to new understandings of the previously neglected issues (leadership mode).

The customer survey: A divisional head arranges for a customer survey to be undertaken in order to assess satisfaction with her division’s products and services. On receipt of the results, which identify some significant issues, the head and her executive colleagues compare the results with those of a previous survey and with industry benchmarks, and identify some potential action strategies (management mode). The head also works with mixed groups of stakeholders from different parts of the business, as well as external partners, to make sense of the underlying messages and implications for change (leadership mode).

Executive performance problem: A general manager is unhappy about the performance of one of his managers. The general manager arranges for an external review of the manager’s area (management mode), which confirms several problems. The general manager and the manager agree on an improvement strategy and monitoring process (management mode). After a while, and noticing the manager still seems dissatisfied, the general manager initiates a conversation with him with a view to uncovering and working on any deeper issues, including those affecting their relationship (leadership mode). One issue that emerges is a lack of support by the general manager; this is factored in to a revised improvement plan (management mode).

(Refer In the Leadership Mode Ch 4)

Active Choice

With the overwhelming dominance of the management mode in most organizations, stepping out of this frame and taking leadership-mode action requires deliberate effort.

We need to:

  • Be aware of the possibility of leadership-mode intervention
  • Have the confidence and skills to intervene in practice
  • Be able to make a choice to act, and to follow through to make the choice a reality.


To translate our intentions into leadership-mode action, we need to at least temporarily overcome our fears of venturing into the implicit domain. Such worries can often serve to reinforce the dominance of the management mode.

Adhering to the following three guidelines can help in making leadership-mode intervention safer (acknowledging that risks remain):

  • Work from observation – focus on what can be discerned directly as a basis for testing and avoid the rush to inferences and conclusions.
  • Attribute reasonableness – allow that others’ actions make sense to them if not to us. Ask yourself, what might lead a reasonable person to act in the way you have observed?
  • Seek to act authentically – building on the observation and reasonableness guidelines, this implies being clear about your motives and intentions in a particular situation, and – assuming these are constructive - acting in a manner consistent with them.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 5)

These guidelines underpin the ARIES framework for leadership-mode intervention described in Part 2 of the book. (See also the ARIES pages on this site.)

The ARIES Framework


The practice of Attending goes beyond mere listening to denote paying attention to the richness of the present moment.  At that point, we place the quality of our attention ahead of task attainment. This includes listening and observing acutely while maintaining an open, receptive stance. We take care to differentiate our inferences or conclusions from what we perceive directly.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 6)


Reflecting refers to practices that help us interpret, both individually and jointly, what is perceived. A tool, the Reflection Matrix, is introduced for developing hypotheses about other perspectives, as a basis for testing.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 7)


Inquiring refers to the use of questioning processes to enable us to become more informed about the viewpoints of others, including their underlying thoughts, feelings, and assumptions. A framework of question types is introduced to help elicit what deeply matters to others in relation to a particular subject.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 8)


Expressing entails putting forth one’s views so as to foster learning by all involved. Key elements include speaking to a wider understanding of the problem, rather than simply promoting our own line of analysis, and disclosing some of what we might ordinarily keep hidden. A framework is introduced to help practitioners to speak out on matters they had previously found too difficult.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 9)


Synthesizing refers to interventions that can help connect and reinterpret or integrate diverse perspectives. A key aspect – referred to as a “transformational challenge” – involves framing definitions of current reality and future vision that incorporate different stakeholder perspectives, and that can be held out for testing and refinement.

(Refer In the Leadership Mode, Ch 10)