Leadership, the psychoanalytic critique

30/10/2012 § 3 Comments

This is the second of four reviews of The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, each through a different lens. In the last post, it was a literary critique. This post is the psychoanalytic critique.

The reason for the multiple critiques is this: I read these popular management books from time to time, to understand the work world and learn some management skills. But they don’t really make sense to me. If they were true — if all we needed were seven habits to be highly successful or five practices to be good leaders or 60 seconds to accomplish management tasks — then we wouldn’t need the hundreds (thousands?) of books published each year. They are, it seems, a bit like weight-loss books. Their success as a product depends on their failure to deliver results.

Kouzes and Posner advocate a specific style of leadership. This isn’t ‘fake it ’till you make it’. Real leaders get in touch with their core values, align those values with the organisation, engage their employees through their values, and inspire them to be better. This isn’t so much about getting people to do things. It’s about getting them to want to do things.

Organization Studies devoted the September 2012 issue to ‘What can psychoanalysis offer organization studies today?‘. Costas and Taheri provided their perspective on the return of the primal father through the modern theme of authentic leadership. They argued that ‘authentic’ leadership, as opposed to leadership via position and hierarchy, has the potential to be either liberating or repressive. They used the Lacanian discourses to argue that the modern version of leadership — which stresses connecting leaders’ values with the organisation and the employees or team members, and which suggests giving power and discretion to employees to get the best out of them — could be a movement from the master’s discourse to the analyst’s discourse. In that case, workers can potentially achieve the sort of liberation that psychoanalysis can provide. But, it could also be a movement away from the post-Oedipal structure to the primal father, who sees and wants and consumes. In that case, employees are left without the protection of the symbolic structure and are at the mercy of the boss/primal father.

I see it differently, relying more on Seminar XX and less on the four discourses. In Seminar XX, Lacan discusses two positions with respective to the phallic signifier, the masculine and feminine positions. Zizek has a nice, short essay on this. The Leadership Challenge and authentic leadership generally claim to be moving away from a dictatorial approach, which on the surface seems to be a movement away from hierarchy and therefore phallocentrism. However, the explanation for how this new paradigm actually works re-asserts the primacy of a specific phallic signifier. The explanation is that employees will learn how their behaviours contribute to business success. Their behaviours will then be regulated not by the boss but by the market.

This interpretation doesn’t necessarily take you to the primal father; there is still system of signifiers, just a different phallus. It also doesn’t take you directly to the analyst’s discourse, which depends on keeping a structure but recognising its inherent emptiness. Instead, it suggests a reinvigorated phallic function. But, as Zizek points out, the paradox is that ‘the phallic function coincides with its own self-limitation’. Reinvigorating it also reinvigorates its limitation. If we are forced to admit, finally, that we are ‘bound by the prison rules’, then authentic leadership may actually ‘[open] up a space for true hope’.

Leadership, the literary critique

29/10/2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve been reading The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. It’s another one of these management/leadership books, the ones that crowd shelves in airports and chain bookshops.

Its writing style is quite formulaic.* I assume that someone has studied this sort of thing and told writers of these types of books the correct formula to connect with readers. That got me thinking about one of my favourite classes at university. In the middle of my literature degree, we had a paper on what they call ‘paraliterature‘. This is all those romance novels and police novels that also crowd bookshop shelves. At the time, they accounted for something like 80% of fiction book sales while all that literature we were studying accounted for only 20%.

I was fascinated by the romance novel formula. About every 40 pages, there’s a love scene. Check it out — open up a Harlequin novel, turn to page 40 or 80 or 120, and you’ll be within a page or two of strong hands and teasing lips.

But another thing about the novels is the character development. The novels are about true love, about a woman finding the one person who completes her, who fits. You know how the novel will end — the gal and the guy figure out that they were meant for each other. A consequence of this pre-determined trajectory is that every setback is temporary, every obstacle will be overcome. They exist in the book only to prove the true-ness of the love.

It is the same with The Leadership Challenge. The book is filled with anecdotes about this sales manager or that CEO who applied the lessons of the book and turned things around. The team might have been dysfunctional, the process might have been desperately behind schedule, the leader might have been completely unprepared. But, you know already that the person is going to overcome the obstacles, which only exist in the anecdote to prove the validity of the leadership techniques.

The lessons, therefore, are hollow. They are no more substantial than a romance novel. The ‘characters’ are cardboard cut-outs who don’t have to deal with the real issues of actual workplaces. The situations are contrived and don’t represent real challenges that could actually sink a project or a career. It’s a world without Dilbert, the Peter Principle, or any of Parkinson’s Laws. In the book, success is pre-ordained. This may be the way to increase sales, but it’s hard to see how it reflects the challenges of leadership.

* I would be remiss if I didn’t refer to Orwell’s novel-writing machine in 1984. I do wonder if they aren’t in more widespread use than we care to recognise.

A little sanity in the Great Junk Food Panic

19/10/2012 § 5 Comments

Food is such an obsession. It produces so much anxiety, whether we have too much or not enough or the wrong kind or the wrong packaging. We have to Do Something, for the kids’ sake. Often, doing something involves fiddling with the GST or imposing junk food taxes.

My favourite inane comparison is this: soda costs less than milk! Imagine! Industrially produced gassy sugar water is cheaper to make than milk from animals — who have to be tended — which then needs to be trucked around the country and kept sanitary at all times. And all milk has to recommend it is some vitamins and protein and calcium and fats and sugars [sarcasm].

The reading and research I’ve done on food suggests that income and prices have less to do with our choices than a lot of other factors. Who we are, who we aspire to be, who we think we should be — these are all just as important. Pricing and taxing policies are blunt instruments compared to the complexity of food decisions (and food anxieties).

Some new research suggests that, yes, it’s about more than prices. New research has found that healthy eaters spend about the same amount on food as unhealthy eaters (leaving aside for the moment what those categories really mean):

New Zealand Health Promotion Agency nutritionist Rebecca Whiting told NZ Newswire researchers had assumed that cost is the primary factor in the healthiness or otherwise of people’s diets.

However, when data emerged that there’s no significant difference in the weekly or per person spend on food between the least and most healthy eaters, researchers wanted to find out what else was at play.

This may sound strange coming from an economist, but prices don’t play as big a role as you might think. Preferences are much more important.

I think what happens is that observers assume that preferences are relatively homogeneous. Therefore, if the observed are eating differently from the obervers, it must be due to external factors like prices. As these researchers found out, first you have to look at preferences. Only then can you start figuring out the impact of prices.

Hurrah for these researchers, injecting some much-needed empirical sanity into our Great Junk Food Panic. And they are presenting their results at an obesity conference, to boot. Good luck to them.

The Auditor-General can see Christchurch people

18/10/2012 § 2 Comments

The new report from the Auditor-General on the Christchurch recovery makes for interesting reading. When I got to Figure 1 (pdf), I despaired. It shows all the agencies involved and how they interact, but the people of Christchurch — the reason for the whole thing — are conspicuously absent. It’s like a business plan without customers.

But the case studies! I could kiss them. For each one, they discuss:

  • what happened;
  • the roles and responsibilities of public entities involved;
  • the costs and funding arrangements for the public sector; and
  • the effect on residents.

The effects on residents! The bits about residents are brief, but they are there. They shout out, ‘hey, these decisions are affecting real people!’

The figures for the case studies do the same. The diagrams have people at their centres, and they explicitly recognise the difficult decisions that people face.

I’m most familiar with the TC3 issues, so I focused on that part. The A-G should be applauded for recognising that TC3 creates uncertainties for homeowners — something Cera didn’t seem to appreciate at the time of assigning categories. And so, in figure 14, we see this:

Each of the red sunbursts is a decision, which creates demands on property owners. Demands for information and demands for thinking, worrying, weighing up the options. The warning triangle is also a great addition — the A-G recognises that some decisions affect people but aren’t involving them. They are also holding up the recovery.

Let’s hope that this report is taken seriously and does improve the recovery effort. The A-G has certainly made a good contribution.

In defence of market transactions

17/10/2012 Comments Off on In defence of market transactions

My last post was about switching from buses to the car for getting to work. It has generated discussion (and thanks, everyone, for stopping by and contributing) and given me food for thought.

Specifically, how do we know that a bus service is good or bad?

One perspective is that I (well, we, really — it’s a joint family decision) have chosen to live in a certain place because of its amenity values. These same characteristics — distance from city, low housing density, proximity of a wildlife sanctuary — make the provision of public transport difficult. It is, essentially, my fault that I don’t have good bus service. I’ve done this to myself.

I think this point of view is driven by a kind of ‘epistemic closure’, using the term in its political sense. In this sense, new facts or information can have no impact of knowledge. Knowledge is already known. Information is judged by whether it fits what is known, rather than knowledge being informed by information.

Carry this over to public transport. Proponents ‘know’ that buses are good. The Wellington bus system is therefore already good. Its goodness is inherent in its publicness and transportness.

I come along and say, well, it doesn’t work for me, and here’s why. This statement is not received as a new piece of information that can allow the company to update the bus system. Instead, it becomes a judgement about me and how I live. A good life would be one lived in such a way that the already-good bus system is appropriate; the fact that it doesn’t work for me just measures how far I have fallen.

What does this have to do with market transactions?

Epistemic closure only works if there are no repercussion from being wrong, if you can ignore data and information and still get by. If your job depends on the bus system being funded, and the funding comes through a political process in which you have to convince other people, and everyone in the process ‘knows’ the inherent goodness of public transport, then it is a closed process. It doesn’t matter how well the bus system works — it is inherently worth funding.

Market transactions create an open system in which you have to take other peoples’ opinions into account. It is no good ‘knowing’ that you have a great product; it is no good protesting that people should live in such a way that your product works for them. If you aren’t actually selling it, you don’t have an income. Eventually, you will have to give up. Those scarce resources that you have been tying up will be available for something more beneficial to society.

Before you jump all over me, yes, I know about market failure and the problems of infrastructure. Nevertheless, market transactions between willing buyers and sellers (and the lack thereof) tend to be a nifty way of working our way to (groping towards!) an efficient use of resources. Whenever possible, we should be using the information they provide.

I give up on Wellington buses

15/10/2012 § 15 Comments

I drove to work today. I parked in my new dedicated parking space. My Snapper card did not leave the wallet.

Why did I not bus to work? Because I’ve given up on Wellington buses.

I have calculated that it takes me an average of 40 minutes to get from home to work (or the reverse). That’s about 15 minutes of walking, 5 minutes of waiting, and 20 minutes on the bus. Times vary a bit for each component and for the overall time. I’ve made it in under 30 minutes, and sometimes it takes nearly an hour.

By car, it takes me 15 to 20 minutes. That’s a savings of 20 to 25 minutes each way, or about 45 minutes per day (3.75 hours per week, 172.5 hours per year — less the days I don’t go to the office).

As it happens, I can monetise the time savings. I’m on salary and bonus, which means my income is variable and depends on how much and how hard I work. That 45 minutes a day doesn’t just represent time spent with family, as it would if I were on a fixed salary. It represents cold, hard cash money. And it means that taking the bus is actually really expensive.

Why am I bothering to tell you all this? I don’t really think you’re interested in my commute — my narcissism is not so grand as that. No, my reason is this: Wellington buses don’t work very well, and it is only by seeing their failure at the individual level that we understand how they fail us systemically. I’ll tell you my individual story and hope that you tell me yours. Then, we’ll all patiently explain to the Council and the bus system that their product is junk.

I don’t know why public transport in Wellington is so difficult. If we take the point of view that the bus company has optimised its objective function subject to constraints, then we can only conclude that their incentives do not align with mine. I’m trying to get around town with the lowest cost (time + money). I don’t know what they are trying to do. Sometime I think someone somewhere has just dreamt up a system, and now the job of the bus company is to run that system regardless of its efficiency or efficacy.

If that’s the case, the proposed light rail to nowhere makes perfect sense.

Not being myself

11/10/2012 § 5 Comments

Andrew Dickson over at Othersideofweightloss.org posted a brief reaction to some questions in the media about whether people are in denial over their weight. I posted a comment over there, but it started me down a track I want to pick up here. Yes, this is a Lacanian post. Skip to the next if you aren’t interested.

Dickson listed the comments from some expert quoted in the media. I commented (in part):

My favourite of those questions is:
– Does my body reflect who I really am?
The hard kernel that I take from Lacan is the split subject. The way I understand — which may be entirely wrong, but it is my wrongness — is that we are never who we ‘really’ are. In the process of becoming members of a human culture, we feel we have lost something of our true essence. Moreover, that feeling is an illusion of language, a figment of our imaginations, an ego conceit.

The more I read of Lacan and the more I am in the world, the more I find this foot-stamping, hold-breath-till-blue ‘I am myself’ fascinating. It seems to be behind so much of our trying to impose our preferences on other people, trying to impose our view of the world on other people. By trying to make the world bend to our wills, we are trying to assert our I-ness (I-nesses?).

(And then we can get into Lacanian language games, in which my I-ness wants to be my highness, and we are all little highnesses. Also, ‘I am myself’ takes us nearly to ‘I am who am’, and we get all Old Testament on ourselves.)

Economists can come off looking rather well-adjusted in all this. Some of them, at least, accept that other people have different preferences that lead to different choices that are equally valid. And they also accept that my choices create problems for your choices, that externalities are mutual, and this creates actual inter-individual (inter-subject?) conflicts that have to be resolved through some process or mechanism.

Here my big personal news: we bought a dog. A cute, fluffy, bichon frise of a dog. I’m really, really more of cat person. They look after themselves, give you a ‘hey, what up’ look in the morning, accept the occasional skritch when it’s on offer. Dogs, well, dogs are needy. And smelly.

But here’s the thing: my daughter loves dogs. Her face lights up when she gets to play with one. She’s been asking for one for years (and been pretty understanding about not getting one).

Even though I wouldn’t get a dog in my ‘I am myself’ world, we now have a dog in this world. And I’m okay with that. I even feel like it’s alright to have her preferences imposed on me, because my I-ness is just an illusion, anyway, and my we-ness (or wee-ness) is much closer to the Real of the matter.

So, no, my body doesn’t reflect who I am, any more than our new dog reflects who I am. But that’s a philosophical triviality. Next question?

Obligatory cute photo:

Greens solving the wrong problem

09/10/2012 Comments Off on Greens solving the wrong problem

Apologies for the very light posting lately. Real life is impinging on my virtual world, and shows no sign of relenting.

As you’ll know, the Greens have suggested that the RBNZ should just print money to get us out of our economic doldrums, and the PM responded that they were ‘wacky‘. The econoblogosphere has already taken them to task, first TVHE and then Offsetting Behaviour.

Those bloggers have covered the topic. I just wanted to add one thing. It looks like the Greens are trying to import the US solution to a problem we don’t have. In the US, quantitative easing (printing money) is supposed to be good for a few reasons:

  • debt overhang — people overspent/overinvested in housing, and now the houses aren’t worth what they paid for them. Households are carrying heavy mortgages but can’t sell to get out from underneath them. Inflation may help bring wages and house values back into line, although this does depend on the mortgage rates staying below inflation
  • safe haven — the idea is that a general glut of currently produced goods (a lack of aggregate demand) can be considered an excess demand for future goods. More precisely, it is an excess demand for financial instruments to protect spending power into the future. With really low interest rates, cash and bonds are nearly equivalent. Increasing the supply of cash increases the supply of instruments to protect future consumption
  • sticky wages — wages are easier to increase than decrease; it is very difficult to give an employee a nominal wage cut. Obviously, there are ways that wages are flexible downward: reducing the number of hours for waged workers is one key way. But, those are nominal wages. Wages don’t need to keep up with inflation, and higher inflation gives more room for real declines in wages. This, in turn, allows for greater adjustment either between tradable and non-tradable sectors, or across industries as a result of differential productivity changes.

These aren’t New Zealand’s problems. The QV website has a graph that shows property prices are back to pre-recession levels [no perma-link]. We don’t have the debt overhang and trapped mortgagees that you see in the US. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of safe havens, either.The 90-day rate, bond rates, and so on are all positive enough. Some US rates have been negative, which means that savers are willing to pay to keep their money safe for the future. Wage stickiness shouldn’t be a factor, either. Inflation has been a bit up and down and is low at the moment, but is high enough to produce real wage declines.

Normally, I’m all for importing solutions from elsewhere. Let’s just make sure they address our problems.

A parable about trade

04/10/2012 Comments Off on A parable about trade

7.20 am, in a mall in Christchurch.

I’m sitting at a cafe, the first customer of the day. So first, in fact, that they aren’t even ready to serve me.

I watch the mall stores get ready. The butcher, the baker, the sushi-maker. Not exactly ‘Il est cinq heures, Paris s’eveille’, but not without its charms.

The barista shooshes up a couple of coffees and takes them to the butcher. It occurs to me — not every shop has a coffee maker. It sounds trivial, but it tells us something. Why don’t they? Coffee making is not hard, the technology is widely available.

This is a great example of specialisation. Espresso makers cost a bit, and getting more coffees per machine is good. Baristas get a technique going, learning to make coffees better and faster. The butcher could, of course, make coffee and chop meat. But he can do better focusing on just the one.

Next, the barista comes out of the butcher’s shop, and she’s carrying a couple of packages of meat. It doesn’t look like meat for the cafe, but something to take home. There we go — trade. Her coffee for his meat. At a ratio mutually agreed. Because they trade, they can specialise. She doesn’t have to butcher her own meat. It isn’t so much ‘taking in each other’s washing’, it’s more exchanging washing for baking.

The mall is its own economy, small producers trading amongst themselves. So, sales to mall customers are like exports from Mall-land. It becomes clear what trade can provide.

Why do we go to the mall?

  • to benefit from specialisation — just like the butcher and the barista
  • to get stuff we can’t get elsewhere — stuff we can’t make ourselves regardless of how hard we try
  • to get different stuff — yeah, I could have coffee at home, but coffee out is a change.

International trade isn’t any different in principle. We get stuff we can’t produce here — rare minerals, tropical fruits. We can also focus on doing some things well — milk powder, merino wool. And we can have more diversity — climb each other’s mountains, ford each other’s streams.

It works for the barista and butcher, and it can work for all of us.

Worrying about the ads

01/10/2012 § 2 Comments

Two television advertisements have caught my attention. One ad by itself would just be an anecdote. Two ads, well, you can draw a line through two ads, and then you start to wonder whether to extrapolate or not.

In one for Countdown, we see the Coleman family at a crossroads. We’ve been watching them happily for two years, with their teenagers and pre-schooler (and fabulous kitchen despite their average jobs). Dad’s a bit hapless, but Mum keeps the family running smoothly.

[I tried several ways of embedding the video, but always got the wrong one. It’s called ‘Changes’, and is currently the third video on this page.]

I’m concerned the campaign is heading in a Hanna Rosin direction, since Mr Coleman has already been established as a man-child. But that’s more a cultural than an economic issue.

Economically, it’s telling that Countdown is targeting consumers who need to tighten their belts. They may be laid off, or they could simply be worried and looking for ways to cut back spending. In this assessment, Countdown is just reflecting the macro statistics. Whether we use official or alternative [pdf] measures, people are saving more of their incomes:

The other ad was one of those 6.00 PM ‘what to make for dinner’ spots (the associated Wattie’s webpage is here). The lady was showing us how to make pasta with meat sauce, and suggested we throw in a can of baked beans to make the meat go further. First, there is the act of stretching meat with bread, beans, rice, etc. Nothing new there. Anyone who has eaten on a budget knows there are tips and tricks to getting more for less.

But secondly, there is the fact that the food company is counselling consumers to do the stretching, and labelling it as such. That is far more unusual. It suggests that advertisers’ market research has found that people are worried about stretching their food dollars, and that the concern is prominent enough that food brands can safely recognise it during valuable prime-time ad space.

So — anecdotes or trend? Leading or trailing indicator? I don’t know, but I am concerned. Good branding is as much about positioning as selling, and positioning requires a longer-term view. Countdown and Wattie’s are middle-class brands. They seem to think that the middle class is hurting and will continue to do so.

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