218 – Requisite leadership, stratified systems theory and local government management.

By Colin Weatherby                                                                                              680 words

Jacques levels of work authority

Lancing Farrell posted an interesting piece using Elliott Jaques’ requisite organisation theory to explain the best use of Executive time. It prompted some related thinking on my part. Jaques has provided a significant body of knowledge that can be very useful for managers in bureaucracies and hierarchical organisations.

The idea that people naturally organise themselves into hierarchical, or stratified, managerial systems in organisations reflects the reality of local government.  This is reinforced by legislation that focuses accountability on top management.  They are held responsible for the work outputs of people in the organisation and this responsibility cascades downwards through the management hierarchy.

Opponents of hierarchical ‘command and control’ organisations, particularly John Seddon, have reasons for their position, which are frequently validated by the behaviour of public organisations.  It doesn’t change the fact that senior management needs a way to ensure work outputs meet the expectations of the various sources of accountability.

Each of us has different capabilities and limitations. Jaques says these individual differences need to be taken into account in organising work – everyone needs to work at a level that corresponds to their capacity.  They also need to have their role and status clearly defined in a way that is acceptable to them.  Therefore, workplace boundaries and authority need to respond to these human and social needs in order to maximise the effectiveness of the organisation.  This resulted in the division of work in stratified systems theory.

I doubt any of this is news to you.  The challenge is how leaders act on this understanding to create an effective, harmonious and productive workplace.

This is where Jaques (writing in collaboration with Stephen Clement) challenges the current thinking about leadership.  They argue that charismatic leadership is not the key to organisational success and that leadership needs to be ‘requisite’ for a particular time and place (i.e. requisite leadership).  They say managerial leaders require the following qualities to be effective in managerial work:

  1. The level of cognitive processing power necessary to carry out the level of work complexity of their role.
  2. A strong sense of value for their work and the leadership of others.
  3. The appropriate skills and knowledge in their work, plus experienced practice.
  4. The necessary wisdom about people and things.
  5. The absence of abnormal emotional characteristics that disrupt their ability to work with others.

I find this list interesting as a checklist for myself and other leaders. Points 2 to 4 are typical of what anyone would expect from a senior manager and leader.  It is points 1 and 5 that raise interesting questions.

  • How do you determine the cognitive complexity of work and the cognitive capability of a person to carry it out?
  • What are abnormal emotional characteristics?

On the first question, Jaques believes that highest level of task complexity in each stratum (level) needs to be within the cognitive capabilities of the individual given the work.  The cognitive complexity of work is determined by the number, ambiguity, rate of change, and interweaving of variables involved.  Cognitive capability relates to the ability of an individual to organise information to make it available for doing work.  The reality is that some individuals are able to deal with more variables and process more information in any given period of time.

In relation to emotional characteristics, Jaques and Clement believe that a manager’s emotional make-up has little effect on their ‘in-role leadership’ performance, unless they exhibit an emotional extreme.  They say there are an infinite range of possible and acceptable behaviours and go on to  describe emotional extremes using examples, such as reflection becoming inability to decide, or tenacity becoming stubbornness, or critical evaluation becoming paranoid suspicion.

This is necessarily a brief overview of some of Jaques’ work.  It provides a way of thinking about managerial leadership (I quite like that term) in our organisations that reflects the legislated responsibilities of local government, the way people are at work, and how it is possible for us to be more accountable and effective.

Jaques, E. and Clement. S., D. (1991) Executive Leadership – A practical guide to managing complexity. Blackwell Business, Cambridge.

Jaques, E (1976) A General Theory of Bureaucracy. Heinemann, London.