Re-imagining Organizational Life and Leadership __ Ken Otter

Organizational Life
and Leadership

Ken Otter | Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California


The Power of the Ensemble

Imagine for a moment a jazz quartet performing. Imagine their music stirring your soul, evoking an experience of wonder, and inspiration; so taken by the music itself and its effect on you that you do not think about the individual parts of the quartet—the particular instruments, musicians, or the parts they play. This is the power of the ensemble. What matters is the synergistic effect of the whole. In a jazz ensemble, each unique part inspires the others, yet each individual part is no more important to the overall music than any other part. It is this synergistic effect that can move us in powerful ways, whether it is in music, in art, or in organizational life.

Organizations as Ensembles

Rarely are organizations considered to be ensembles. The tendency is to think of them as machines, programmed from the outside to run efficiently and effectively to achieve predetermined goals and outcomes. But in today’s highly interdependent and dynamic world, organizations must become less machine-like and more ensemblelike. As ensembles they are more capable of the improvisation and creativity needed to adapt to the complex and turbulent world both inside and outside of the organization.

Key to making this shift is to recognize and incorporate an expanded view of leadership. Leadership is an intrinsic dimension of an organization’s culture. It is how the organization works with change in service of its purpose. This change consists of: (1) change that maintains the status quo, and (2) change that transforms it. The managerial and administrative functions are the structures and forms that support and operationalize the change — much like the neural pathways in the brain-body of a person are formed in response to the direction of attention in a person.

An expanded view of leadership invites a shift in the organization’s attention in the following ways:

• From centered on individuals to centered in relationships
• From being top down to being bottom up and inside out
• From based in authority to based in influence
• From being informed by science to being informed by multiple ways of knowing
• From a focus on outcomes to a focus on process
• From attention to efficiency and predictability to attention on improvisation and emergence
• From an outer orientation to include an inner orientation
• From values of self-interest and competition to values of service and cooperation

Thus, an expanded view of leadership is key to developing organizations. As an ensemble, an organization is more capable of the creativity and generativity needed in a changing, complex and highly interdependent world.

A Shift in Focus in Leadership Development

How do we develop the leadership intelligence needed to grow organizations as ensembles? The answer is a shift in prevailing tendencies in leadership development programs. Here are five tendencies that need to shift:

1) Leadership development programs tend to focus on a narrow range of people. All too often the focus is on individuals in upper management of the organization—their vision, their strategies, their skills, and their authority. The shift needed is to include all who participate in organizational activity in leadership development, and invite their contribution to organizational life.

2) Leadership development programs tend to focus on developing a narrow band of intelligences—technical, financial, operational, and analytical. The shift needed is on developing a wider range of intelligences—emotional, social, cultural, aesthetic, and systemic. These are essential for a creative and collaborative engagement in organizational life.

3) Leadership development programs tend to focus on individuals rather than on collectives. The shift needed is attention to the collective dimension beginning with a focus on the capacities for the individuals to work relationally, with each other and teams. At the heart of this focus is developing presence—the self-awareness and self-knowing that allows one to genuinely know the other and skillfully relate to one another.

4) Leadership development programs tend to focus on the outer orientation of the organization—the effect they have on their environment. The shift needed is for the organizations to attend to its inner life—within individuals, teams and the organization as a whole.

5) Leadership development programs tend to orient their pedagogy on linguistic, conceptual, and practical learning. The shift needed is to involve learning that engages the whole person—the somatic, kinesthetic, imaginative, and affective dimensions of the person as well.

The Expressive Arts in Learning Ensemble Leadership

To develop the organization as an ensemble requires practicing ensemble leadership. As identified above, this view of leadership directs attention to a wider array of features in organizational life. To incorporate an expanded view of leadership requires new ways of learning leadership. What is needed is a more integrative approach to learning and change of which the expressive arts are an integral part.

The expressive arts, as I have learned and practiced them at the Tamalpa Institute (, offer a creative and integrated approach to learning and change. By engaging in different expressive modalities-dance, visual arts, creative writing, and theater, people awaken various modes of knowing and cultivate multiple intelligences. Returning to the metaphor of a jazz ensemble, by engaging in an integrated learning process people become like the individual musicians in the quartet, who in order to perform inspiring music together, need to be attuned  individually and then attuned to each other as individual musicians and to the ensemble as a whole.

What is an example of how this shift takes place within the work of leadership development? In my course on leadership and teamwork for global executives, the participants begin by drawing a life map. This map is a rendering of their life journey—past, present and future. No art experience is required and few have it. Nonetheless, each person always produces a visual image that highlights important events of their life. The map is used as part of their introductions, and it is used to identify important life values their life experience generated. Later on in the course the participants explore the role their values play in leadership and teamwork. The life map drawing has become one source of revelation about these values and the ones they want to take into their envisioned future. This simple activity also serves to enhance their self-awareness and to expand their aesthetic intelligence. This small example provides a small glimpse into how the expressive arts can serve to learn the skills needed to practice leadership and develop organizations as ensembles.

By re-imagining organizational life as an ensemble and by developing the leadership required to cultivate this in people, organizations can become more capable of creatively adapting to the dynamic, complex and interdependent world of the 21st century. Our future may depend on us making this shift.

Ken Otter, Ph.D. is the Director of the Leadership Studies Programs at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is also a core faculty member at the Tamalpa Institute, an international expressive arts training program. In his work in leadership and organizational development, Ken employs an integrated model of learning and change, incorporating the arts that foster meaningful and transformative change in individuals, teams and organizations world-wide. His present research and design focus is in developing leadership learning programs that foster global collaboration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

thirteen − seven =