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Discourse-Based Generative Leadership in Organizations



Business leaders are now facing two major challenges. One challenge is the result of the question—where does leadership thrive in the era of volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) organizational life. The other challenge is an increasing demand for leading change and innovation in global and multicultural settings. In this regard, the present article is an inquiry into the guiding principles and brings forward eye-opening findings that can be beneficial to global leaders in a VUCA world. The author contends that the preferred narrative from “taking actions to solve problems” to “inquiry-based learning-by-doing approach to challenges with no single answer” dominates among global business leaders. One of the consequences of the prevailing narrative is the lack of theoretical and practical understanding of a discourse-based generative mindset that invites diverse discourses and ideas in real organizations and leads the processes to create innovative solutions.
This is the author’s own draft copy made freely available for fair use
Discourse-Based Generative Leadership in Organizations
Makoto Nagaishi
School of Management, Chukyo University
Nagaishi, M. (2020) Discourse-Based Generative Leadership in Organizations. Chukyo
Keiei Kenkyu, 29:1, 1-9.
Keywords: generative leadership, discourse, organization development, spirit of inquiry,
Nowadays, the launch of a company’s new product might have an impact on the sustainable
development of certain areas on the other side of the earth. Decision-making at the headquarters
of a multinational company can cause anxiety, expectations, and/or other feelings among people
worldwide, and some recursive impacts back onto the company may follow-through 1 (Clark and
Geppert, 2011; Dörrenbächer and Gammelgaard, 2011; Whittle et al., 2016). Currently, we are in
that stage of our organizational and social life where we pattern the global and complex flow of
our activities (Shaw, 2002).
Business leaders are now facing two major challenges. One challenge is the result of the
question—where does leadership thrive in the era of volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous
(VUCA) organizational life. The other challenge is an increasing demand for leading change and
innovation in global and multicultural settings. In this regard, the present article is an inquiry
This is the author’s own draft copy made freely available for fair use
into the guiding principles and brings forward eye-opening findings that can be beneficial to
global leaders in a VUCA world.
The author contends that the preferred narrative from “taking actions to solve problems”
to “inquiry-based learning-by-doing approach to challenges with no single answer” dominates
among global business leaders (Marshak, 1998). One of the consequences of the prevailing
narrative is the lack of theoretical and practical understanding of a discourse-based generative
mindset that invites diverse discourses and ideas in real organizations and leads the processes to
create innovative solutions.
The author’s inquiry is structured as follows. First, a brief overview is provided on the
increasing demand for leading challenges without any single correct answer that most business
leaders are facing in a global and complex world. Organization development (OD), having its
origin in the mindset of engagement and inquiry, has some implications for global leaders to
figure out what the change should be rather than how to implement pre-ordained solutions. The
discussion proceeds to delineate three guiding principles using which generative leaders can be
advocates with global stakeholders of both processes and intented outcomes (Bushe and Marshak,
2018). Furthermore, the author grounds this by showing some examples of global organizations
that have enlightened the natures of successful adaptive change processes.
Increasing Demand for Leading Adaptive Challenges
Let us now begin with an inquiry into emerging challenges that confront today’s global leaders.
Heifetz’s (1998) distinction between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges” is a good
starting point to look into the issue. Bush and Nagaishi (2018) illustrate the distinction between
the two issues (Table 1). Business leaders are facing “technical problems,” which can be dealt with
the top-down management by applying analytical models and expertise. However, as a result of
increasing global competitive pressures, the business challenges involve the nature of “adaptive
challenges”—in the sense that any adaptation does not lead to closure and creates new problems
that will have to be adapted to (Thatchenkery and Upadhyaya, 1996). There is no right answer in
a multicultural and complex world; global leaders are sailing in a rough sea without any
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navigation system and exposed to the threats that can evoke anxiety during the whole journey
(Marshak, 2016).
Table 1: Differences between Technical Problems and Adaptive Challenges
Source: Bushe and Nagaishi (2018).
Easy to operationally define. Difficult to agree on what the “problem” is.
Lend themselves to operational (process
and procedures) solutions.
Require changes in values, beliefs,
relationships, and mindsets.
People are generally receptive to technical
solutions they understand.
People generally resist adopting other-defined
values and beliefs.
Often can be solved by authorities or
The stakeholders have to be involved in solving
Requires change in just one or a few places;
often contained within organizational
Requires change in numerous places; usually
across organizational boundaries.
Solutions can often be implemented
relatively quickly by changing rules or
work processes.
Adaptation requires experiments and
discoveries as well as wrong turns and dead
Technical problems stay solved until
something else changes.
Adaptation creates new problems that will have
to be adapted to.
Examples from Healthcare
How do we ensure nurses know the safest
methods for lifting patients?
How do we improve the health and wellness of
How do we ensure accurate information is
provided during handoffs between care
How do we increase collaboration among care
How do we reduce errors in medications
delivered to patients?
How do we get patients to take more
responsibility for taking their meds?
This is the author’s own draft copy made freely available for fair use
As Heifetz (1998) pointed out, one of the greatest failures of leadership is to consider adaptive
challenges as similar to technical problems and apply the same approaches to the two issues. For
leaders facing adaptive challenges in a VUCA world, trying to find the correct answer is “a losing
proposition” (Bushe and Nagaishi, 2018, p. 27). Instead, a generative approach to OD has a
different narrative of leadership; it emphasizes the importance of leading emergent change,
mobilizing stakeholders in inquiries that will lead to answers that stakeholders will own and
implement (Bushe, 2019a; 2019b). We are in a highly multicultural and complex era with an
urgent need to understand the concept of leadership based on the discourse-based generative
mindset and values to enhance the adaptive capability of organizations (Nagaishi, 2020).
Bushe and Nagaishi (2018) argue that, during the 1970s, OD might find itself in the
position of having others define the change and then being asked for advice on how to implement
it, how to facilitate it, and how to manage it. This leads to a natural consequence that business
leaders tend to see OD as something about implementation (the journey) but not about what to
change (the destination). Many leaders, who sell themselves as purveyors of simple answers and
quick results, could and would say, “I like this implementation plan about change. Please do that.”
From the viewpoint of practicing OD, this kind of order inevitably brings about a dilemma.
Having its origin in the mindset of engagement and inquiry, OD does not suit the situation in
which the leader strategizes and determines the change and then hires someone to implement
that decision.
However, to re-imagine OD, it is important to note that OD did not set about that way.
As Schein (2015) and Bushe and Nagaishi (2018) recently recalled, OD was symbolized by a “spirit
of inquiry” in its early days. It must be noted that the pioneers believed that engaging
stakeholders in inquiry, framed by democratic values, authenticity, and informed decision-
making, would result in better human relations, teams, and organizations (Argyris, 1970;
Beckhard, 1969; Bennis, 1969; Schein, 1969). Based on this historical perspective, the Dialogic OD 2
is an approach to reinvigorate the discourse-based generative inquiry into collaborative decision-
making regarding what to change and how to change (Bushe and Marshak, 2016; Bushe and
Nagaishi, 2018). Business leaders with the dialogic and generative mindset can, even in the face
of turbulent and uncertain globalization, manage the process “that is aimed at some improvement
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in the future functioning of the client system, rather than simply at getting the immediate task
completed satisfactorily” (Steele, 1975: p. 3).
Given that the discourse-based generative leadership is uniquely qualified for tackling
adaptive challenges in a VUCA world, let us move to examine what kind of guiding principles
generative leaders should embrace during turbulent globalization. Principles always frame our
actions and decisions and help us to connect to the complex world.
Guiding Principles for Generative Leadership
Generative principles guide leaders on how to translate their values (Bushe and Marshak, 2018;
Cheng-Judge, 2018) and mindset (Bushe and Marshak, 2016; Nagaishi, 2020) into actualized
leadership practices. It would be exciting to imagine business leaders working with generative
principles that advocates with globally diverse stakeholders of both means (the journey) and ends
(the destination). The author would like to exemplify three guiding principles and some
associated underlying mindset for generative leaders: “promoting engagement and inquiry,”
“being deeply interested in development,” and “creating containers with multiple discourses.”
The principles listed here are not formulas for creating globally competitive organizations. This
is by no means an exhaustive list, but it intends to invite further conversations on how to delineate
a generative image of leadership at a time when the business world is getting more global and
1) Generative leaders promote “engagement and inquiry”
The more VUCA and global an issue is, the more complex is the relationship between
stakeholders and the more “engagement and inquiry” is necessary by the stakeholders in
a process of continuous improvement. Today’s global business environments are so
interconnected and interdependent that “the resultant complexity makes it less easy for
charismatic, ‘heroic’, leaders to individually dictate and control what has to happen”
(Rowland and Higgs, 2008: p. 4). Given that, the author believes that the most essential
element for leaders in creating great organizations is to facilitate “engagement and inquiry”
by stakeholders in a process of improvement. Generative leaders manage a change
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process that engages stakeholders in defining the changes they will ultimately implement.
This can be one of the qualities that differentiate leaders who deeply comprehend the
original spirit of OD from others engaging in change management. The author believes
that leadership works when the generative processes lead to the intended outcomes
(Bushe, 2013).
In this regard, one of the crucial roles of generative leaders is to explain the
genuine value of engagement and inquiry to all the stakeholders. They are necessary
inputs for both the processes and the intended outcomes in all the processes. The key
question now arises: in a global setting, it must always be a real problem about how
widely one can invite stakeholders from almost all over the world. The author admits that
it depends on how realistic it is, but the only plausible thing is to try to invite whoever
might have a stake and who might be deeply interested in an inquired subject.
2) Generative leaders are deeply interested in the “development” of organizations and
In a complex and sharp competitive business environment, one of the most lacking
qualities of today’s leaders is a focus on the long-term “development” of people (and
organizations). However, from the stakeholders’ viewpoint, it is a sense of “development”
to seek when they engage projects in their organizational life (Hoffman, Casnocha, and
Yeh, 2014). A complex world may not secure easy short-term outcomes in the process of
emergent and adaptive challenges. One that distinguishes OD from other methods of
organizational improvement is its deep concern with various aspects of “development”
(Bushe and Nagaishi, 2018). Long-term balance in human affairs and social justice are,
from the development point of view, always more prioritized than short-term
effectiveness in OD’s calculus of great organizations. Generative leadership, in line with
the OD’s spirit of inquiry, is in pursuit of those values in the development models that
emphasize increasing capacity and desire for integrity, authenticity, and congruence at
later stages on the developmental path toward the individual, team, or organizational
“greatness” to adapt never-ending challenges around the globe (Bushe and Marshak,
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After the 1970s, the concept of “OD is about change” emerged, and the economic
criteria began to prevail. Development was replaced by “economic effectiveness”, and this
devaluation of development orientation created value dilemmas in the process of OD
practices. Most OD practitioners should look at people’s (and the organization’s)
development and allow a team to experience the stages of disruption and ineffectiveness.
However, from the perspective of only economic effectiveness, it does not makes sense to
create disruptive space and time when the leader could intervene and get it working
(Bushe and Marshak, 2018; Bushe and Nagaishi, 2018). Should efficiency be maximized at
the expense of people’s development? This is the value dilemma often faced when OD
practitioners are involved in change-related businesses.
With these points in mind, the author can highlight the value set of an OD
perspective as a contrast to one of the other organizational schools. OD, as a “spirit of
inquiry” stream, explicitly embraces its normative roots to create great organizations and
inquires both means and purposes in the collaborations with clients. While most other
organizational schools generally view adopting a strongly normative perspective as
uncommon in its theories, as well as in its advice to practitioners, OD scholars take a
normative stance in their prescriptions. Two of the most critical principles that guide them
to help organizations move ahead are “engagement and inquiry” and “interest in
development” that lead to what purposes an organization should seek and how it should
pursue those purposes.
3) Generative leaders create containers in which multiple discourses are welcomed and
crystallized into organizational strengths
Global business leaders should pursue both “organizational efficiency” by solving
technical problems and “innovative challenges” by facilitating adaptive capacity. They
should not only be efficient and agile in decision-making but also be welcoming to
people’s diversity and development in the long run. Organizing collective actions
inherently involves a set of tensions described in different ways as paradoxes (Smith and
Berg, 1987), polarities (Johnson, 1992), and competing values (Quinn, 1988). Leaders will
usually be agitated to get the things done and will be anxious about tackling innovative
challenges; their emergent and adaptive nature triggers the fears and concerns about
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“how hard it might be to learn something new, whether or not others will value the new
behavior, or having to go through a period of reduced competence” (Marshak, 2016, p.
13). The author believes that one of the most important qualities generative leaders should
embrace is to transcend their anxiety by creating containers in which multiple discourses
are welcomed and crystallized into organizational strengths. Innovative creativity is well
developed by welcoming and embracing diverse discourses and narratives to shape new
and agreed-on ways of thinking for organizational transformation (Bushe and Marshak,
2016). Generative leaders take the risk to help stakeholders engage and inquire into
crystallizing their diverse discourses and ideas into organizational strengths and global
As Bushe and Marshak (2016) aptly pointed out, how to help leaders develop such
dialogic and generative ways of being, thinking, and doing is a different question to be
answered. While some pioneering work developed marked ideas on this subject (Bushe
2009; Bushe and Marshak 2016; Byrne and Thatchenkery, 2018; Rowland and Higgs, 2008),
future research could take account of the inquiry which is still in its infancy.
Examples of Generative Leadership from the Literature
We are living in a VUCA world with little predictable cause-effect relationships. The author has
been observing that the greatest failure of leadership, applying the frame of solving technical
problems to adaptive challenges (Heifetz, 1998), is pervasive around the world. However, there
are some practical examples of successful generative leadership in typical adaptive and emergent
business processes illustrated in the literature.
Heracleous et al. (2018) show an example that involves global stakeholders to pursue a
generative change process to develop adaptive ideas and solutions. In 2015, Jimmy Wales, the
founder of Wikimedia, declared that all the investments at the foundation were in line with the
newly developed 5-year strategic plan that uniquely inquired an open strategy process with
dialogic facilitation. During the planning process, various internal and external stakeholders (i.e.,
Wikimedians) were invited to a dialogic inquiry to re-formulate the five emergent strategic
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priorities of quality content, innovation, increasing participation, growing readership, and
stabilizing infrastructure in a participative and collaborative manner. Referring to “ideological”
and “process” types of emergent strategy by Mintzberg and Waters (1985), the study concluded
that “the multitude of Wikimedians involved in the process share common values of openness,
transparency, and collaboration; but these were only able to produce a strategy when balanced
with structuring and process guidelines, bringing some structure to the diverse perspectives and
inputs” (Heracleous et al., 2018: p. 28).
Weisbord and Janoff (2005) introduced IKEA’s leadership challenge to reformulate
strategies on the company’s product design, manufacturing, and distribution. The leadership
team members were facing a global challenge to innovate IKEA’s value-chain architectures,
which were too complex for the global leaders to find an effective way out. Applying the
generative principle of “the whole system in the room” with its global 52 stakeholders, IKEA
created a new strategic plan and formed task forces to implement it. Its aim to promote ownership
and commitment of global stakeholders was inquired successfully.
Thatchenkery and Upadhyaya (1996) provided a unique example of how a grand
narrative and the presence of multiple discourses traced organizational realities in a global
nonprofit organization. The studied organization, the ICA, is a research and training group
concerned with worldwide human resource development. Showing the dynamic framework of
four different types of discourses (a continuous discourse, an introduced discourse, a cyclical
discourse, and a transformed discourse), the authors explored how the different discourses in the
organization had supported one another and were crystallized into a collective engagement and
inquiry of the stakeholders to transform the organizational discourse of Christianity to the new
discourse of valuing secularism. The study made an important contribution to showing a
possibility of postmodernism in a global and organizational context, highlighting the generative
nature of the change process in the discursive cycle of intensive reflexivity.
Nagaishi (2020) responded to Grant and Marshak’s (2011) call for a move toward change
perspectives which emphasize the generative nature of discourses, narratives, and conversations
and the question of how change practitioners discursively facilitate them in the context associated
with a particular culture, namely, Japanese organizational culture. Analyzing the data of the two
different Japanese organizations, the study tried to specify the conditions and sources which
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made generative conversations emerge and might lead to a successful change effort. Its
preliminary investigation concluded that the generative nature of the change process was to
convince change sponsors of the proposition that changing the dominant discourses and
welcoming alternative ones could lead to a gateway to the long-term development of
organizations and themselves. Moreover, the study revealed that generative discourses and
conversations were facilitated by psychological safety and trust in the external authority figure.
The importance of the players’ survival anxiety and talent diversity, however, might vary across
the broad contexts on which the organizations culturally and institutionally depended.
Concluding Remarks
This article will be the first step to inquire into an image of discourse-based generative leadership,
crystalizing core values of OD into business leaders’ guiding principles. Adaptive challenges
require experiments and discoveries, as well as require wrong turns and dead ends; the process
is more anxiety-inducing than the one of solving deterministic technical problems. However,
business leaders, embracing OD’s “spirit of inquiry,” are now having an image of the three
principles—“promoting engagement and inquiry,” “being deeply interested in development,”
and “creating containers with multiple discourses”—that help absorb, not avoid, their anxiety
and identify the practices to create great organizations.
Such a leadership mindset is still not considered mainstream in global business settings.
We are, however, facing real consequences of the bias for “solving more certain problems” over
“tackling no-right-answer challenges”: the lack of theoretical and practical understanding for
crystallizing diverse discourses and ideas in real organizations into strengths and innovative
business models. Today’s business environment is global and complex enough, where OD’s
“spirit of inquiry” in its early days is uniquely qualified to work on with business leaders who
lead a change process that engages stakeholders across the world in defining the changes they
will ultimately implement. The original spirit of OD and its associated principles for generative
leadership are needed in our VUCA world.
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1 Clark and Geppert (2011) have focused on a political approach to the international post-M&A
integration process, which highlights the mechanisms in which some powerful stakeholders
construct the cyclical processes between multinational corporations and their multiple local
2 The Dialogic OD is an emerging concept (Bushe and Marshak 2009, 2013, 2015), distinguishing
OD practices that are a blend of constructionist and postmodern assumptions with complexity
science than on what they call the “Diagnostic OD”. They contrast the Dialogic OD’s mindset of
understanding human systems as meaning-making systems (interpretivist approach) with the
Diagnostic OD’s positivist orientation (represented in the action research model, sociotechnical
analysis, etc.).
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This paper extends Bushe & Marshak’s (2018) call to move away from equating Organization Development with organizational change and adopt the generative image that OD is about creating great teams and organizations. We contend that OD emerged from a spirit of inquiry that lost its way when prescriptive models used to diagnose teams and organizations took over the field. Instead, what defines OD is engagement and inquiry by stakeholders in a process of improvement. We argue that the 75% failure rate often attributed to organizational change occurs from the top-down, visionary leadership models of change management. We review research that supports our contention that successful OD occurs when leaders lead a change process that engages stakeholders in defining the changes they will ultimately implement. Since every solution to a problem of organizing creates a new problem, no generalized model of a great organization can endure; however, all models of great organizations embraced by OD over the past 60 years envision widespread engagement in inquiry. Thus, by engaging stakeholders in a process of inquiry while working on a concrete issue, OD creates great organizations. We conclude by offering three criteria of “development” that identify what a more developed team or organization looks like, that can be used to guide and assess OD practice. Keywords: OD, organizational change, development, adaptive challenges
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This paper attempts to investigate the question, "Can we specify the conditions and sources which make generative conversations emerge and may lead to a successful change effort in Japan?" The abductive inquiry into the question indicates that the generative change process convinces change sponsors that changing the dominant discourses and welcoming alternative ones can lead to the long-term development of the organizations and themselves. With respect to the sources of alternative discourses, while psychological safety and trust in the external authority figure are generally required, the importance of the players' survival anxiety and talent diversity may vary across the broad contexts on which organizations depend. The development of the discourse-based change framework with applications to the concepts of a political sensemaking approach and institutional entrepreneurship is also emphasized in this context.
This chapter discusses the application of different types of values in shaping organization development (OD) practice in a global context. The types of values that inform and shape OD practice in supporting organizations are examined as well as how value dilemmas and conflictual situations are handled. Three case situations are used to illustrate these issues.
In this chapter, Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak argue that since the 1980s organization development (OD) has been framed by a meta image of itself that no longer serves it well, and that a new image of what OD is that emphasizes a different value proposition for the field is needed. The current dominant image focuses on the journey of change without much emphasis on the destination. They discuss some of the value dilemmas this creates for the field and its practitioners and suggest we would be well advised to return to the roots of OD and fashion a new generative image that is more concerned with the destination, and view the journey as a means to that end.
Simply having "good dialogues" is not enough to create change. Hence, dialogic organization development (OD) approaches can help leaders and organizations meet adaptive challenges and create transformational change. This chapter identifies eight key premises of a dialogic OD mindset and contrasts these with a diagnostic OD mindset. The key premises include: reality and relationships are socially constructed; organizations are meaning-making systems; and language, broadly defined, matters. The chapter also identifies the three core change processes that, whether practitioners are aware of it or not, are the source of change in dialogic OD efforts. These change processes are: transformational process 1-emergence; transformational process 2-narrative; and transformational process 3-generativity.
Headquarters and subsidiaries are the two generic organizational units that form multinational corporations (MNCs). Their specific relationship is of central importance, as conflicts in these relationships threaten the effectiveness, or even the operations, of MNCs. Reasons for conflicts in headquarters–subsidiary relationships are manifold. They range from differing perceptions of business opportunities (see e.g. Schmid and Daniel in this volume) to the introduction of corporate-wide standards (see e.g. Fenton-O'Creevy et al. in this volume). In particular, conflict potential can be linked to headquarters-driven charter losses, i.e. an active move by headquarters to withdraw a charter from a particular subsidiary. Headquarters-driven charter losses in subsidiaries are typically an outcome of headquarters redefining the strategic mission of the MNC. One example is the implementation of a rationalization strategy, in which some production plants are to be closed and production capacities are reallocated to other subsidiaries. Another occurs when a subsidiary loses its charter because the parent company downgrades the importance of the host country market. These charter reallocations are likely to increase competition among subsidiaries and, for the “losers,” a conflicting relationship with the parent company is likely to arise (e.g. Blazejewski 2009; Dörrenbächer and Becker-Ritterspach 2009). However, little is known about what causes conflicting interests in charter losses between headquarters and subsidiaries to turn into an open conflict, nor is much known about the role of headquarters' and subsidiaries' agency. This chapter addresses this research gap using the case of a German MNC in the telecommunications equipment industry (Siemens).