Crosby Style OD

I recently wrote this to colleagues in a professional OD group:

Crosby Style OD develops individuals, groups, and organizations mostly through group processes that engage the people who are dealing with problems in generating and implementing their own solutions.

Kurt Lewin is the fundamental source of our practice. I wonder what Lewin would actually say if asked “what is OD?” As far as I know, he never used the term, rather thinking of himself as a social scientist. Yet much of what I do is derived from his work and thinking.

In Lewin’s paper, “Action Research and Minority Problems,” he wrote: “As I watched, during the workshop, the delegates from different towns all over Connecticut transform from a multitude of unrelated individuals, frequently opposed in their outlook and their interests, into cooperative teams not on the basis of sweetness but on the basis of readiness to face difficulties realistically, to apply honest fact-finding, and to work together to overcome them…”

Lewin did not do his own assessment and write recommendations to the state of Connecticut. That would be an expert model, and fundamentally violates the Lewian approach. Instead he facilitated a process in which the people facing the problem engaged with each other in assessing their situation, generating solutions, and implementing actions. My brother and I did the same with a tribal organization last week, and a colleague and I led T-group based learning the week before in an industrial setting. As you probably know, T-group method emerged during Lewin’s Connecticut race intervention, and is fundamentally rooted in each participant using the process to derive their own implication about themselves, their interpersonal interactions, and the group’s dynamics, and to conduct their own experiments.

Lewin was consistent in his methods and in his rigorous documentation of the same. For example, in the paper “Frontiers in Group Dynamics” (which is loaded with fascinating research), Lewin documents the “Percentage of Mothers Reporting an Increase in the Consumption of Fresh Milk” based on a study where one group of mother’s was exposed to “a good lecture about the value of greater consumption of fresh milk” whereas another group was involved in a group discussion leading to a decision to increase milk consumption. The percentage of mothers that increased their milk consumption based on the group discussions was much higher than the percentage who had sat through a traditional education passive learning lecture. Lewin replicated this type of outcome time and again.

I derive two key implications. People that come up with their own solutions, even if an expert would have suggested the same thing, are more likely to implement change successfully. They are also likely to customize the solutions to more effectively fit their situations and needs, hence there is better quality and implementation. This seems to me is a universal dynamic that is as pertinent today as it was during Lewin’s time.

The second implication is that group dynamics have a powerful influence on individual beliefs and behavior. One such dynamic is passive learning (traditional classroom lectures) versus active learning (T-groups and other group methods such as survey-feedback).

Our founder’s change formula incorporates the above:

Individual coaching (always in the context of group and organization development…I only coach people if I can see them in action with others).

Group Development (Goal Alignment dialogues and Survey-Feedback sessions where the people who have filled out the survey derive their own implications and implement their own solutions)

Conflict Management (Neutral third-party facilitation in which the participants derive their own solutions)

Whole System and Project Interventions (in which a cross-section derives implications and generates solutions)

Cadre Development (The transfer of OD skills to people from every layer and function in the organization so they can effectively facilitate group process and conflict resolution)

The above is almost foolproof. It has to be adapted to each situation of course, but the basic principle of helping people assess and address their own problems is so sound that I will keep doing it for the rest of my life. I will also continue to teach it to others, whether they are OD people or not.

Maybe I need to say something about authority…our OD is grounded in respect for the authority relationships in the system. How to follow and empower one’s formal superiors is vital, as is how to lead. Our action research approach always starts with and includes the formal leadership.

We have demonstrated this approach to authority for years. First my father was in charge. Then I was in charge for years and he was my subordinate. Then my younger brother also took the lead when he had the contracts. For the past decade my younger brother has led our Seattle events, and my father and I have been his subordinates. Our goal is to make the event work, which means helping the leader succeed, even when we don’t agree, and despite our family of origin issues lol. A culture that supports all roles is a healthy culture.

Respect for single-point decision-making at all layers (with as much delegated as close to the hands-on action as possible) versus flat systems and consensus decision-making is one way our founder diverged from the OD majority ages ago.

As for measurements…we have always used the clients own measures as well as survey ratings to measure effectiveness. It would be fun to have a control group like Lewin, but hard to imagine a customer buying in to that. They want results, not proof that OD works.

But it would be fun to replicate some of those measures.


I suspect that many who practice and teach OD are swept up in what Edwin Friedman called “quick fix mentality” …a constant and anxious search for something new.

I think believing we must adapt OD to the digital age is at least partially this same anxiety. I’m not against change or technology. Certainly, my use of tech has evolved during my OD career…from payphones and typewriters to cellphones and laptops. I teach with webinars and participate in video meetings. I loved the way the Listening to the City events after 9/11 used technology to solicit citizen input through multi-voting. I would gladly use a similar system. None of that has any significant impact on the fundamentals of my OD however, nor do I expect it ever to.

I am also unaware of the oft lamented “demise of OD.” Certainly, none of the non-OD people that I interact with or provide services to have ever said anything to that effect. Nor have I abdicated my seat at “the table,” wherever this mysterious table may be.

Lewin’s Action Research methods will never be outdated imho.  Action Research in my mind is the Lewinian approach mentioned in my definition (above) of “Crosby Style OD.” People solving their own problems and the effective use of group processes to help them do so. I think it should be the lynch pin of OD, but even if others don’t agree, I will gladly rely on it to my dying day.

And get measurable results.

And improve the quality of work and home life of many.

And get hired enough despite the ups and downs to make a decent living.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Gil Crosby

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Four Key Ingredients for Engagement and Results

The first post in Chris Crosby’s new blog!


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Micro-Invalidation & Micro-Aggression: Walking the Line Between Awareness and Dogmatism/Group Think

Summary: Until all human beings are consistently treated with equal respect, concepts such as micro-invalidation are needed. However, applied loosely and then defended, such concepts can also have an unintended chilling effect on cross-cultural dialogue.

I’ve been part of an on-line group of OD professionals and those interested in OD since the mid-1990s. Originally organized as an e-mail group, 170 of us recently migrated to goggle groups. Recently an allegation of micro-invalidation within the group reared it’s head.

Micro-invalidation and micro-aggression are important concepts. Unlike overt racism, sexism, or other isms, micro-assaults come in the form of many small moments. One group member put it this way:

“Imagine you’re part of a professional social media community. Imagine that most of the conversations are led by white males. Imagine when voices of difference particularly those of color or gender are  either marginalized minimized or ignored. That my friends is micro invalidation more soon.”

Another group member took the que:

“I post about my book and the idea of Transformative Alignment that I have been working on.  Other than four persons who responded in encouragement / affirmation, there has been radio-silence on this group.  That, my friends, is also micro-invalidation of a brown-skinned Indian by the West, is it not?”

A worthy inquiry, leading to dialogue and learning if minds stay open. Open minds must include the possibility that a hypothesis does or doesn’t stand up to careful examination. If instead the conversation becomes a polarized debate, inquiry will be seen as proof of bias and/or defensiveness, and dialogue will shut down.

A white male Canadian group member put his toe into this water:

“Hi – what do you mean by your statement: ‘That, my friends, is also micro-invalidation of a brown-skinned Indian by the West, is it not?’ Please elaborate. To me, that is quite an assumption. Thank you.”

The person who wrote the original post, who is noted for his non-dogmatic expertise on race relations, responded with this:

“Another form of micro invalidation is to challenge the realities of people of color, surely they are either being overly sensitive, misunderstand or plain wrong.  It always done in the perfectly innocent way.  Thanks for this wonderful example.”

An example, yes…also an unintended invalidation of the white male Canadian, who chose not to respond.

This is where yours truly stepped into it:

“I should probably stay out of this, since anything I say or do might be evaluated as a micro aggression, at least by the criteria in this particular string. (Original poster), you have stood up to the over-application of micro aggression to anything that a person of color feels offended by as being too broad, but this sounds suspiciously like that kind of broad brush. I will fight group-think, no matter how noble the cause.

I have ignored every post here for at least a week. I am just now catching up. There is nothing about my lack of attention to (the author’s) post that isn’t true of every other post during the past week. There may be truth to the fear that racism is playing a role, but to the degree that race influences my responses to posts, race had nothing to do with my ignoring all posts the past week.

On the other hand I believe, for better or worse, that I am biased towards paying more attention to people of color (or people that are less pale than me). I can only speak for myself in that regard.

Now, where is this book that you are mentioning? Congratulations btw. Regards…even though I’m probably in trouble now…”

One person ( a white male from the US) responded directly to this:


“I’ll bet that sums up how many (who have stayed out of these exchanges) are feeling/thinking


I should probably stay out of this, since anything I say or do might be evaluated as a micro aggression, at least by the criteria in this particular string


Walking on egg shells seems apt. No matter how light your step, you are going to break some eggs.”


For the record, that was three less responses than the post that was allegedly ignored due to micro-invalidation.


To which I wrote: “It’s tricky stuff, but important. Anything that becomes taboo becomes poison imho.”


To the Canadian, the person who had wondered if the non-responses were micro-invalidation wrote:


“…it is not so much an assumption as a hypothesis I have offered for us to consider based on some evidence.  I believe that the Unconscious operates in mysterious ways. When I received very sparse response from this list to my sharing about my book (and this is based on a LOT of research and work, combining music and OD), I felt rather deflated. Rather than pull it all into me, I asked myself as Alastair Bain of Socio-Analysis would have us ask, “What else is happening”? (The) points about micro-invalidations was serendipitous, and I read it as another prompting by the Unconscious.


I hope this clarifies my position.  It is also possible that my statement may have come across as an accusation, which – if so – was never my intent.”


My next post, which included my positive assessment of the aforementioned new book:

“I understand being frustrated and insecure over the lack of response from this group. At least that is how I have felt on numerous occasions. I think it is a leap to jump to racism as a reason for people not responding…I didn’t respond because I didn’t read a single post the past week. Now I am defending lol.


Anyway, I was surprised that (you) attributed the lack of a response to race…I think discipline about such distinctions is important so I will continue to weigh in. One of my hero’s is Don Quixote and sloppy use of racial injustice looks like a windmill to me, as is actual racial injustice.


Sloppiness diminishes the clarity we need when confronting actual injustice imho.”


Now the original poster to me: “I did not call it racism..but an example of and of themselves extremely minor individually..and in the absence of a pattern nothing…but..if a pattern then it’s a form of microaggession…and this does not rise to racism unless it is system wide…one event does not a system make..much love”


To which I responded: “Fair enough…but when a guy with your kind of expert authority calls it microinvalidation (now my head hurts again…is that different than ‘microaggression’ lol) instead of saying “it might be microinvalidation” then it lends a lot of weight to the assertion…and a system might be assumed. The love is deep back at cha…way deep…and far too deep for me to tarnish the relationship by placating.”

And he: “Same here my friend…i forget…the speed of email and our responses…me trying  to balance multiple tasks…..could I have explained more fully…the answer to such questions is always yes…am I perfect..the answer us always no…but who is…”


To which I wrote: “Thanks for this. This is important to me because your opinion on these matters carriers extra weight for me and for others. We need you sir!”


And he again: “…on line…part of my problem is that as I work through these ideas..and yes I use this space to flesh out the wrinkles…the full range of assumptions and clarifications that would go in a 30 page paper are not included…I assume ..damn that word..I know…if folks want clarification they would ask…think about an individual act of discrimination or prejudice absent the system and power are not evidence of racism, sexism, etc.  This is standard definition a stuff…racism  is discrimination/prejudice plus power ..over tone and across institutions it becomes systemic…


But…at the individual level..suppose the person gets a thousand of these cuts..all unrelated..from different individuals in different situations..that is the structure of microaggressions that constitutes systemic processes, issue is that the perpetrators are often ignore of the other slights…it’s the individual  experiencing them that sees the patterns but has limited ability to help the others see”


…and my response: “Non-response to posts in this group still seems like a loose application of the concept to me. With any fear, one can start to see the threat even when it is not there. Of course, one can also see a real pattern and have it dismissed, especially by those who benefit from the pattern.


It’s complicated! And Important! I want as much clarity as possible, and forgiveness for making mistakes.”


I began that post by stating that “…it’s the individual  experiencing them that sees the patterns but has limited ability to help the others see”…makes good sense to me but does not speak to whether this particular situation constitutes microaggression/microinvalidation. That was left unsaid.


The original poster responded with this: “…this is why patterns and trends are important to ascertain.  Single incidents do not patterns make.  But if this environment has a habit of ignoring such material or persons, then that does lend credence to the determination.  But we are still left to grapple with the 1,000 paper cuts that occur across multiple platforms in which some individuals may be more apt to experience multiple episodes of microaggressions.  Again, as an individual cut, they may appear hardly significant..its not the individual cut..but the accumulation of cuts, slights, and etc. that add up.  And yes, simply having this conversation helps to become more deliberate in how we communicate and hopefully how we become more involved…more later..and much love.”


So: it is wise to empathize with the experience of those who have been invalidated on a lifetime basis. I get that and I do. It still does not address the specific incident, nor my attempts to address it.


I wrote: “I wonder if there is a way for us to study the response pattern here.” In retrospect, even though I would still be interested in that data, I also think it doesn’t matter. If a person has been invalidated all their lives because of race, gender, etc., I want to validate them as much as possible.


Meanwhile, things went downhill for me in that group (even though the rest of the group was having a lively time talking on a more abstract level).


I started to get lengthy philosophical responses which, while vague in terms of  understanding of my message, concluded with subtle push back on my perceived meaning. For example: “I would rather leave you figure the challenge you’ve reaped from the challenge you’ve sowed for us here.”



About then the author who originally wondered about the lack of responses equating with microinvalidation wrote: “Thanks for checking – no, I am not at all upset with you. I actually enjoy this engagement.  I am in acceptance of the larger point that you make, esp of the dead horse on the table.”


So far so good. He continued:


“I really wonder about the evidence on which your hypothesis is being constructed…”


And from another highly respected OD professional:


“I find that a good rule of thumb for me is that, if/when I find myself defending my behavior against others’ impressions, there is likely something at least partially true to the observation and it is discoverable when I look internally . . .”


Mostly my posts were ignored.


I think I was beginning to understand micro-invalidation in a new way.


By then, the rest of the group was busy posting on how wonderful inclusion is. I gave them my last frustrated post:


…but (you) are saying what everyone here, including I, supports…inclusion, etc., and (a member’s) model is helpful, but it doesn’t clear up the concern I raised at the beginning of this string. On this list at least, supporting inclusion and diversity are like supporting motherhood (all three of which I support!). This from a string that began with a hypothesis that four responses to a post about a book equaled a non-response from everyone else and that equaled microaggression. I think that is poppycock, and perhaps a reverse micro-aggression against everyone that didn’t respond. Unintended of course, but then microaggressions are often unintended. To create inclusion must we always respond to every post? Even if, as in my case, we don’t want to read any posts for a week? Obviously crazy but apparently necessary. If once the word micro-aggression is spoken we are no longer able to reason together…if attempts at reason are automatically regarded as a defense, then we make the concept of microaggression into a dogma against which one dares not raise their voice.”

To which I got zero responses.

My summary: It’s a sad state of affairs that people can experience micro-invalidation throughout a lifetime. I pray that will change and I pledge to do what I can.  If we are talking about history, than any micro-invalidation in the present, including the 166 members of my online group that didn’t respond to the author’s original posting, even if like me they simply didn’t read any posts that week, are guilty of participating in micro-invalidation.


At the same time, such a broad brush makes it almost impossible not to participate, and when individual choice is removed from the equation, I question the value of the concept, except perhaps to evoke guilt. I think it would be far better if the concept was reserved for willful acts.

If I say a white women is professional and a black women in dreadlocks is not, that is a micro-invalidation. If I pay attention to white writers and ignore persons of other ethnicity, that is a micro-invalidation.  If I listen to Obama and say he is “surprisingly articulate,” that is a micro-invalidation. I consider those willful acts.

Within that framework, micro-invalidation is a useful concept.

On the other hand, if someone questions whether, for example, the 166 non-responses to the non-white non-US OD person’s post about their new book is an accurate example of micro-invalidation, and not one person says “I agree with you,” then that is an invalidation of a different color.  That is where I sit…and from 170 people steeped in group dynamics. Not one other dissenting (supportive) voice. The closest voices like mine were the Canadian who backed down after his initial query and the white male from the US, both of whom later resurfaced in the chorus of voices proclaiming support for the author’s book and for diversity. Nobody in this group that has studied group-think clearly articulated what I was addressing. More than one hinted that maybe I just needed to look in the mirror.

That imho is what can take a useful concept and turn it into a dogmatic nightmare, not to be questioned. If it can happen in an OD group, it can happen anywhere.

Finally, a poem inspired by this experience:

Micro-Invalidation Cakes

 An eye for an eye

and the world will be blind

An invalidation for an invalidation

and the world will be invalid


Use of self is to speak

of the impact on you

Or all we wind up with

is OD word salad


Describing what happened

without blame

is the safest way to confront

but can still ignite flames


if 166 non-responses (out of 170 members)

systemic invalidation makes

then every day on this OD group

we are baking invalidation cakes


And while invalidation is most important

in ethnic, gender, and historical terms

directed against anyone the individual and the system

understandably squirms


Invalidated daily for a lifetime

it is hard not to see

non-responses in the here and now

as invalidation reality


But if challenging invalidation

as an explanation becomes taboo

then if I cry “invalidation”

the onus is all upon you


The victim becomes the persecutor

The persecutor is caught in a trap

Do they challenge the label

And lose in perception court?

Further invalidating the invalidated?

Discrediting themselves?

Or do they keep their mouths shut

and live a new kind of hell


The “father of the civil rights movement”

Howard Thurman (MLK’s pastor)

was taught by his grandmother well

When told by the white pastors to behave

she thought “Go to hell”


With only cautious support in this group

Isolation that made my head spin

I pause, reflect, and give thanks

Validation methinks

when all is said and done

must come from above

and come from within






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Where lies the issue? The individual or the system?

I was recently queried about how to address poor performance by a front line supervisor. Here is my response:

Agreed, the issue may lie with the supervisor. In my experience, however, many leap to that, because they don’t know where else to look (I’m not saying that you do!).

I will always want to start with the manager’s and the supervisor’s dialogue, which is often lacking in quality (specifics) and quantity (by avoidance on both parts). I will also always want dialogue between the supervisor and the direct reports, with feedback to the supervisor being a vital element, as part of any development process. If the supervisor hasn’t been experienced in relationship to their part of the system, then I don’t trust any judgements that have been concluded about them. I want to see them as they relate to their direct reports.

Most systems are caught up in judging people behind their backs, and will gladly hire experts who will join by doing the same.

Instead of useful feedback, such systems encourage blame and defensiveness (in the form of competition and maintaining an image of competence).

I assess people’s behavior partially within the lens of such systemic issues. If somebody is being careful and defensive and I see symptoms of a culture of defensiveness and blame, I will say something like this to the leader, “of course they are. The culture encourages it. Firing them and hiring somebody else won’t change it, even if you get lucky and hire someone who resists the culture in a healthy way. If you wont do what it takes to change the culture, than you are part of the reason they are behaving like that.” If I don’t have that kind of conversation…if I avoid it…then I become part of the reason they are behaving like that…I become part of the dysfunction in the system.

In addition, there are many other systemic dynamics that could be creating a culture of supervisory dysfunction, such as a lack of goal and role clarity, cross-functional misalignment, etc.

So individual performance, at least at lower levels, is rarely where I start. If very thing else is highly functional, or at least reasonably so, then the supervisor’s behavior may be a performance management issue. Even then, how they get confronted and coached can be either high quality with a high likelihood of success, or low quality, in which case the correct target of my coaching is the manager and their supervisor.

That’s how I think, and how I do my best to be.



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Why Does Your Business Exist?

I was recently asked that on a social media site. Here is my answer:

My business exists partially in honor of my grandfather, who was an hourly worker on the railroad in Pittsburgh. My father, who founded Crosby & Associates, has a deep respect for front line workers, and our methods help translate that respect into real engagement of everyone in our client organizations. Why not, since higher morale, improved productivity, and other targeted “soft” and hard results reliably come from the same path. I love doing work that helps people relate better at work and in their personal lives. I’ve been blessed and thoroughly enjoy passing it on. For one of the greatest communication models ever, free of charge, follow this link: Video of August 31 2018 interpersonal communications model webinar.

Why does your business exist?

Post by Gil Crosby

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HeQ, SheQ, and the Three Bears

Once upon a time twin babies were born. Because the babies had a full range of feelings, from happy to sad, mad, afraid and every nuance in between, and because the twins showed what they were feeling without hesitation, the adults who raised them named them HeQ and SheQ. The adults loved the twins. They especially loved the twins when they were happy. When either twin was sad, or mad, or afraid, the adults would say shhhhh, and try to quiet and comfort them. In such moments they might also play peek-a-boo or do other things that the baby liked, hoping the baby would shift emotional gears back to happiness. Sometimes, especially in the middle of the night, they would get frustrated and say “Be quiet!”

The same thing happened in reverse. The twins were scared when the adults were mad, sad or afraid. They liked it better when the adults were happy, and so began favoring behaviors that cheered the adults up. Slowly the twins learned to look happy even when they were feeling sad, mad or afraid, because they wanted the adults to be happy.

Years passed and the twins grew up. They had been through many changes, physical, mental and emotional. One day, while walking through the forest, they came upon a small cottage in the middle of a clearing. Oddly enough, there was a sign on the door that said, “Welcome SheQ and HeQ!” Surprised, curious, and a little scared, they entered the cottage. No one was home! The twins explored every room, and then began to get hungry. Their attention turned to three bowls of porridge sitting on a table.

Little did they know, this was magic emotional porridge. The small bowl had too little emotion, the large bowl had too much, and the middle bowl was just right. HeQ felt a little afraid as he took his first bite from the small bowl. His fear diminished to the point of unawareness. He gobbled from the large bowl and was flooded with fear to the point of panic.

SheQ had been eating from the middle bowl, and feeling love for her brother. The love was strong and energizing, yet she could still see clearly and think for herself. She wasn’t blinded by love, as she might have been if she had eaten from the large bowl. When HeQ began to panic, she put her arms around him and calmed him while she calmly considered the risks that they were indeed taking.

“Hush” HeQ she whispered while handing him a spoonful from the middle bowl. “Have a bite of this, and then we should move on.” HeQ took it and trust flowed through him…trust for SheQ but also trust for himself. “She’s right,” he thought. “Why was I so scared?” he thought as he took a bite from the large bowl, that was still in front of him. Wham! He was flooded with shame. “Why am I always so stupid!” he said.

As she often did, SheQ took too much responsibility in that moment for her brother’s feelings. She, too, felt shame as she nibbled from the small bowl. Her shame disappeared, and with it her concern for her effect on others. Shamelessly SheQ said, “You’re right! You are stupid compared to me.”

Still eating from the large bowl, HeQ responded with rage. “That’s right! Admit it! You have always thought you were better than me!” With that, he hurled the large bowl at SheQ, who thankfully ducked. Porridge and broken bowl pieces smashed everywhere. HeQ slumped back, ashamed again, and drained by the anger. “What’s happening to us,” he wondered aloud?

Just then, the three bears came home. HeQ, growing up in a culture that taught that boys aren’t afraid, stood between the bears and his sister. Papa bear mauled him in the head with his big bear arm and HeQ died instantly. SheQ escaped out the back and lived happily ever after…although she did miss her brother and she always had a fear of bears.

The magic porridge is in each of us. If our bowl of emotional porridge is too large or too small, no matter what the emotion, there are consequences. We are born with a perfect balance of the full range of emotions, and complete congruence in showing what is on the inside through our body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. We all must learn how to restrain our expression of feelings. Otherwise social life would be chaos, with everyone immediately revealing how they feel from moment to moment. Adults assist in this process both consciously (although perhaps without much thought about what they are doing) by hushing infants when they cry and soothing them towards calmer and happier emotions (simultaneously soothing the adults, who would lose their minds otherwise), and unconsciously by reacting to the infant’s emotions that they, the adults, have issues with.

Habits emerge. Some emotions are so well hidden that we lose track of them even within ourselves. Synapses whither (but remain intact!). Denial and/or lack of awareness replaces our original state of congruence. We act off emotion (by avoiding, by opposing, by purchasing) without even knowing what we are feeling. We are impatient and blame others if they reveal emotions we have lost touch with or fear in ourselves.

The right bowl of emotional porridge is still inside, if only we can find it. We have to train ourselves to think about what we feel, even if we are afraid of the feelings. With conscious effort we can rebuild our synapses. We can notice what we are feeling even when the feelings are small, instead of letting emotional energy simmer under the surface of consciousness. With consciousness we can more often choose our behavior and not be prisoner to our emotional reactions. We can reclaim the whole range we were born with. We can consciously decide when to reveal what we are feeling and when to mask our emotions from others. Instead of being a prisoner to emotions we are not even aware of, we can reclaim our emotional being while putting our thinking brain in charge of our behavior.

Excerpted from Gilmore Crosby’s upcoming book, “We All Have Issues.”


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Are Leaders Born or Bred

Reprinted from the May 3 2018 Zimbabwe Financial Times

HR PERSPECTIVE: Are leaders born or bred?

MEMORY Nguwi  (MN) caught up with one of the leading Organisation Development Experts from the USA and explored what makes a leader. Gilmore Crosby is the president at Crosby & Associates — Leadership and Organisation Development Experts

MN: What is leadership?
GC: While there are many possible answers, such as the ability to inspire others to follow your lead, I find the leadership model of family systems thinker Edwin Friedman (1932 -1996), both practical and transformational. For Friedman, the essence of leadership is the capacity to take clear stands and stay connected. To do so requires trust of one’s own sense of direction, and respect for and trust of others. Most people lean one way or the other when they are in charge, only taking stands (leading autocratically) or only staying connected (leading by consensus). To put it another way, some dictate and erode the connection necessary for leading. Others are unwilling to take strong stands for fear of how people will feel. Either extreme creates problems.
MN: Are leaders born or developed?
GC: That is what I like so much about Friedman’s model. It was built working with families and then with church leaders. Anyone can adjust towards being clearer about what is important to them, and towards tuning in to the people they are leading and entrusting them more. So, do some adults have an easier time leading effectively? Certainly. I would say it is easier, for example, for an extrovert (a more social and talkative person) than an introvert (although I have known many introverts who were excellent leaders). On the other hand, can anyone improve their leadership skills? Absolutely. 
Most, in my experience, underestimate the deep psychological importance of any formal leadership role. All humans are born completely dependent on the adult authority figures in their lives. The emotions that are experienced in those early relationships stay with us throughout life. We project them onto authority figures and live them out in our own roles of authority. To lead and/or follow effectively we must come to terms with our own reactions to authority, and we must empathise with the reactions of others. This is true whether we are a frontline supervisor, a CEO, or a parent. If we let our desire “not to be the boss” keep us from taking clear stands, or if we allow our defensiveness when people react to our stands to erode the connection, then we cannot lead. To truly lead one must provide direction or the Organisation will flounder, and one must effectively relate or the Organisation will not follow.
MN: Can we say every person has the capacity to be a leader?
GC: From my perspective, yes. Part of what is exciting about being human is that you never know who is going to step forward and lead. That is why it is wise for those in charge in an organisation to respect the leadership of people at all levels. Front line workers know solutions that bosses cannot know, and wise bosses allow their workers to take the lead on solving problems and implementing solutions. In society at large, there are countless examples of people emerging as leaders, such as Malala in Pakistan, and Rosa Parks in the United States.
MN: A lot of money is being spent on leadership: How successful are leadership development interventions in the context of a business?
GC: The longer I practice organisation development, or OD, and I have been doing so since 1984, the more evident it is to me that group dynamics are the key to individual and organisation change. Development of leadership skills and habits must occur in the context of the leader’s systemic relationships. Most programmes and coaching occur separate from the student’s work relationships, and are thus prone to those students who need help the most instead gaming the system. That is, they can talk the talk but not walk the walk. A solid programme, and I have led many such, includes coaching the student while they interact with their direct reports, and lots of group based experiential learning. So, like with most things, some interventions are highly reliable, others much less so.
Another differentiator is the presence or absence of systems thinking. There is a lack of systems thinking in most Organisations and leadership development programs. For example, from a systems perspective, it’s not who is on the bus that is most important, it’s how the bus is being driven. 
Most leaders are trapped in a paradigm of personality theory, obsessed with getting the right people on and off the bus. Many leaders I know take pride in their ability to judge people. That of course is necessary, but without a healthy dose of systems thinking, judging, and being judged, becomes the focus. That unintentionally drives fear and defensiveness into the culture, undermining the very openness necessary for high performance. Leaders would do well to strive with at least equal energy for creating the conditions for fostering high performance in the people that are reporting to them. If they are constantly changing people out, they are the problem, not the subordinates. The right driver can lift an entire system, the wrong driver can demoralize and undermine performance.  I have seen both many times.
MN: Do we have various levels or categories of leaders or its one group?
GC: The task of being an effective authority figure remains the same, whether your role impacts many (president, vice president, CEO, etc.) or a few (parent, front line supervisor, etc.). A mistake many programmes make is separating the top leadership from the rest of the company. There is too much separation within companies as it is. Leadership development is a great opportunity to break down such vertical silos. In the programs I lead we mix hourly workers in with all the layers above them, including the top executive layer. If they cannot deal effectively with each other in a program, how are they to relate to each other out in the field?
MN: Can a leader be good in all situations? In other words is talent portable? Can I uplift a good leader from, for example, mining and put them in banking?
GC: An effective leader can lead in any situation. It helps to have knowledge of the processes and products you are leading, but leadership is really about setting the tone for the work culture and monitoring and measuring by results. Many leaders actually create more harm than good if they have a strong area of technical expertise. They may over-manage the part of the organisation they are knowledgeable about, and under-manage the rest. No matter how smart you are, they further you are removed from the hands on work, the less you are going to know. You have to give the new people space.
MN: How important is domain specific knowledge in leading at the top? As an example I read a study that showed that in the medical field the best Chief Executives are those who have a medical background. Can this same principle be applied across all sectors?
GC: Without seeing it, I am initially a skeptic of the study. Granted, it will be easier to relate if you have experience in any field you are leading, but what still matters is your ability or inability to be clear and connect. And even if you are knowledgeable, such as in the medical field, you will have areas of expertise about which you know nothing, such as brain surgery for example, and you had better be good at delegating authority.
MN: Which field tend to produce the best Chief Executives?
GC: Sadly, one in four CEOs are accountants. I say sadly, because I think too much focus on financial data often backfires, leading to poor financial performance in the long run. I have seen many examples of what looked good on paper bleed a company dry, such as granting bids to the lowest cost supplier of vital parts only to have production and ultimately profits suffer. In a competitive market such penny wise pound foolish thinking can lead to irreversible losses. Of course, some of these Accountant CEOs understand a more systemic view…but not all of them.
MN: Most companies are putting potential leaders under a coaching and mentorship programme. How important and effective is such programmes?
GC: Coaching and mentoring varies widely in its effectiveness. Some of the best happens informally because individuals are smart enough to seek the wisdom of more experienced leaders. I am skeptical of any coach who doesn’t see their coachee engaging in work  meetings and conversations. Talking privately isn’t enough. I question the effectiveness of coaches who have never been in organisations. They will be limited to more of a counseling capacity.
MN: What is the best way to put a leadership development programme in a company?
GC: I would definitely talk to some live references, not just to sales people. I would also consider some of what I have already said. Traditional classroom learning is not going to cut it. You need group experiential learning, and some coaching in the field. If you are starting from scratch, I would be happy to offer guidance.
MN: How do you measure the success or failure of leadership development programmes?
GC: I measure the success of all organisation development, including leadership development, by the success of the organisation. Are your metrics improving? Are students within the programme applying their learning, perhaps as a case study, to achieving business critical outcomes? The program should be part of a strategy led by the line Organisation for business success.

Memory Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker, & managing consultant — Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm. 

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How Not to Implement Change

Take a hands off approach. Keep your distance.

Don’t explain the “why” of the change.

Handle “resistance,” by putting people through training so they will “embrace change” (“Who Moved My Cheese” being a prime example).

“Hold people accountable to embrace change” by including it in their annual performance review. If they, in the judgment of the evaluators, were “resistant,” lower their rating and/or dismiss them.

Create a “communication plan” that is basically a PR campaign selling  benefits of the change (and mentioning none of the risks or the flaws), and include coffee mugs, banners and t-shirts.

Communicate huge amounts of information through e-mails.

Stick with “Go Live” dates regardless of whether the system is ready to go live. Have faith that the IT (or other specialists) will be able to solve problems as they emerge without crippling production, etc.

Take “input” through committees and meetings, etc., with no structure for assessing and rejecting or turning input into action.

Don;t allow input until the change is well under way.

Assign an executive such as the VP of HR who has no line authority over the targets of the change to be the “sponsor” or “champion” of the change.

Instead of using stretch goals strategically, implement too many stretch goal changes at once, and come up with new stretch goals year after year.

Instead of being straight with your employees when you have a real burning platform, don’t tell the what is going on until it is too late.

Exaggerate a burning platform so as to create a sense of urgency, and keep making up the need for urgency over and over again.

“Hold people accountable to have a sense of urgency” in their annual performance reviews.

Move onto the next project without reviewing and learning from the implementation of the last one (“times a wasting!”).

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The Limitations of Traditional Leadership Programs

The most recent book by Organization Development (OD) master practitioner Gilmore Crosby, entitled Leadership Can Be Learned: Clarity, Connection, and Results, describes how leaders can be more effective in their interpersonal, group, and large-system interactions. During a recent conversation about his book, I asked Gilmore: “What are the traditional leadership paradigms that have consistent negative effects on work culture? How can this be changed?” Here is his complete answer:

There are two prevalent paradigms that lock leadership and work culture into a limited box:

Denial about authority issues — Everyone has them, but most don’t realize they do. We all start small and dependent, and carry emotional memories from infancy into adulthood. Having a boss, being a boss, and being in an organization all remind our brain of our early pre-cognative experiences. Wired for survival, our brain wants to protect us from experiences similar to those early moments, including the dependency and interdependency of most work. Our emotional memories (the past) intensify our reactions in the present. If one isn’t aware enough to separate the past from the present, they will be apt to blame the people they are with (the boss, the subordinates, the peers) for their own mistrust and communication gaps. Our authority issues define and limit how we lead and how we relate to the people we report to.

Lack of systems thinking — From a systemic perspective, it’s not who is on the bus that is most important, it’s how the bus is being driven. Most leaders are trapped in a paradigm of personality theory, obsessed with getting the right people on and off the bus. Many leaders I know take pride in their ability to judge people. That of course is necessary, but without a healthy dose of systems thinking, judging (and being judged) becomes the main focus. That unintentionally drives fear and defensiveness into the culture, undermining the very openness necessary for high performance. Leaders would do well to strive with at least equal energy for creating the conditions for fostering high performance in the vast majority of the people that are reporting to them. If they are constantly changing people out, they are the problem, not the subordinates. The right driver can lift an entire system, the wrong driver can demoralize and undermine performance. I’ve seen both many times.

Practical methods for bringing out the best in yourself and in others are woven throughout my book not as a program, but rather as sound leadership practices suitable to every group in any organization.

What do you think of Gilmore’s perspective? Do these leadership paradigms exist in your organization? What have been the effects?

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Leadership Can Be Learned Video

Join the author as he describes his second book!



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