Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2008). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
I believe that some are gifted with natural leadership, and others are called on to be leaders without any natural head-start abilities. Regardless of the category you were born into, I believe you can be a good leader. The good leaders are the ones that learn how to lead and continually sharpen their leadership skills. As a consultant, I am often asked for resources that assist ministers in their leadership development. This is the book I go to first, and I am always met with the same response: the facial expressions read, “You want me to read that? But it’s huge!” True enough, but it reads fast, is incredibly practical, and it contains truths that ministers need to hear. Businessmen have known for centuries that leadership contains a political aspect, and that leadership is much more art than science, natural giftings, or charisma. This book addresses these truths, and many more.
Leadership as an art form or an artistic skill is not a new concept. Typically when leadership is presented in this way, the book represents a combination of personal experiences and pithy sayings that are superficially beneficial but lack underlying research and conceptual depth. Bolman and Deal’s book makes up for the shortcomings of those shorter, anecdotal works.
The premise of the book is simple: effectively matching mental-models to situations is the key to effective leadership. The key to this work is how it stresses that leaders should be able to identify and utilize multiple mental models—“frames”—rather than relying on a singular perspective for all occasions. Bolman and Deal describe four frames: structural, human resources, political and symbolic. Through the process of framing—viewing a situation through the assumptions and understanding of a particular frame—along with reframing and “frame breaking” (12), leaders can better appreciate the complexities of organizational behavior.
The book is organized according to six parts, the four central parts each dedicated to a frame. The structural frame posits an organization’s dependence on clearly defined goals, roles, resources and relationships. Every organization, regardless of its mission or size, is founded upon such things and relies upon them to provide guidance, foundation and focus. The human resources frame advocates the principle that if employers care for and develop their employees, share resources, and openly communicate with the workforce, then the result is increased effort from the workers and overall effectiveness for the organization. This part places special emphasis on helping the readers understand that there is a risk in developing a workforce that may indeed use their new skills to move to other employment, and that is one of the many paradoxes of leadership. However, not caring for employees has the same result, though some may argue it happens faster, and the organization reaps less benefits in the meantime since the workforce cares less about the company’s product or mission since the company is perceived to not care for the workforce. This simple nugget of truth, accompanying the costs of continually replacing a workforce with no loyalty or institutional memory, should be remembered by any leader who initially balks at a human resources development plan.
The third part is perhaps the most valuable section in the book, because it validates the necessity of employing a political frame when necessary. The book appropriately confronts and dispels the notion that “political” must always have a negative connotation. This frame emphasizes the need for leaders to be able map existing power structures within an organization, understand the value of networking and building coalitions, and rightly reminds leaders that most organizations are founded upon a set of inherent negotiations and not upon hierarchical declarations. This chapter is especially important for leaders as they encounter various leadership dilemmas, not the least of which is political in nature: “when to adopt an open, collaborative strategy and when to choose a tougher, more adversarial approach” (228). Too many leaders sacrifice themselves and their career upon this altar because they fail to understand the political nature of organizations.
The fourth part is dedicated to the symbolic frame and instructs leaders to be mindful of a more spiritual and emotional side of guiding organizations. Organizations each have a history and a culture, complete with rites, symbols, stories and language. Leaders in sports, the military and religious institutions have relied upon the symbolic frame for generations, and this part does well to emphasize the need for this frame in the typical business organization as well. This profound section may seem simplistic in nature, but leaders may find that the easiest leadership successes of their tenure come from adopting ideas in this frame.
The book’s size is daunting, but it is extremely well-written and easily digestible for the most common consumer of material concerning leadership or organizational behavior. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are modern-day illustrations from every sector and industry, case studies, and references to notable works in the fields of leadership, management, organizational behavior and business literature. For experienced readers in this area, these serve to confirm that the authors have taken proper appreciation for the “best-sellers”, while the novice reader is provided with a framework and additional resources to follow-up on. The book is well thought out and theoretically grounded- 34 pages of references allude to the research that supports Bolman and Deal’s work.
The strength of this book is that it does not pretend to be something it is not. There is no one chapter trying to exhaustively explain a facet of leadership like strategic planning or succession planning that rightfully requires its own book. This book is an exhaustive, informative and creative look at the world of organizational behavior and correctly instructs the reader that complex things are sometimes best understood through a complex relationship of different perspectives. Managers and leaders from all industries would do well do read this book and apply its principles, but ministers should be required to read this book.