Organizational life can be a confusing muddle, especially if you are trying to get better at playing the game. Take the leadership genre for example. You might come across books that cover any of the following: power, building better teams, culture, emotional intelligence, war and strategy, psychology, authentic leadership, biographies of famous leaders, and so on.
The same applies to leadership development courses and training programs. Like the three blind men and the elephant, each of them seems to tug at a small strand of the overall canvas, but never truly getting the whole picture.
One useful meta framework that can help better understand organizations and the leader's role within it is the four frame model of organizations and leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal.
Four Frame Model of Leadership
Bolman and Deal outline four frames for looking at organizations and leaders:
- Human Resource
Frames are mental models that we carry. The wider your repertoire of frames, the better you can understand situations and adapt to changing conditions.
A frame is a mental model—a set of ideas and assumptions—that you carry in your head to help you understand and negotiate a particular “territory.” A good lens makes it easier to know what you are up against and, ultimately, what you can do about it.
Mental maps are vital because organizations don’t come with computerized navigation systems to guide you turn-by-turn to your destination. Instead, managers need to develop and carry accurate charts in their heads.
Each frame — structural, human resource, political, symbolic — has its own way of looking at how organizations work and what the priorities are. The mistake many managers make is to default to only one of these as their modus operandi and basing their actions on them.
Another common mistake is to assume one frame as good (eg.focus on people) and meanwhile dismissing the others (eg organizational politics) as bad. To be effective and to thrive in modern leadership, skill with all four frames is almost a requirement.
Leaders tend to have strengths in one or even two of them but not all four. Most developmental programs will tend to focus on one of the frames. It’s useful to consider your own set of problems through these different lenses and which one you might be leaning towards.
Below is excerpted from their books Reframing Organizations and How Great Leaders Think.
1. Structural frame
- Metaphor: factory/machine
- Disciplines: sociology, management science, economics
- Central concepts: roles, goals, strategies, policies, technology, environment
- Image of leadership: Architect, Analyst
- Leadership challenge: attune structure to task, technology, environment
Structural leaders emphasize rationality, analysis, logic, facts, and data. They are likely to believe strongly in the importance of clear structure and well-developed management systems.
A good leader is someone who thinks clearly, makes the right decisions, has good analytical skills, and can design structures and systems that get the job done.
2. Human Resource frame
- Metaphor: family
- Discipline: psychology
- Central concepts: needs, skills, relationships
- Image of leadership: Coach, Servant, Catalyst
- Leadership challenge: align organizational and human needs
Human resource leaders emphasize the importance of people. They endorse the view that the central task of management is to develop a good fit between people and organizations. They believe in the importance of coaching, participation, motivation, teamwork, and good interpersonal relations.
A good leader is a facilitator and participative manager who supports and empowers others.
3. Political frame
- Metaphor: jungle
- Discipline: political science
- Central concepts: power, conflict, competition, politics
- Image of leadership: Politician, Advocate, Warrior, Negotiator
- Leadership challenge: development agenda and power base
Political leaders believe that managers and leaders live in a world of conflict and scarce resources. The central task of management is to mobilize the resources needed to advocate and fight for the unit’s or the organization’s goals and objectives. Political leaders emphasize the importance of building a power base: allies, networks, coalitions.
A good leader is an advocate and negotiator who understands politics and is comfortable with conflict.
4. Symbolic frame
- Metaphor: carnival, temple, theater
- Disciplines: anthropology, dramaturgy, institutional theory
- Central concepts: culture, meaning, metaphor, ritual, stories, heroes
- Image of leadership: Prophet, Poet, Storyteller, Healer
- Leadership challenge: create faith, belief, beauty, meaning
Symbolic leaders believe that the essential task of management is to provide vision and inspiration. They rely on personal charisma and a flair for drama to get people excited and committed to the organizational mission.
A good leader is a prophet and visionary, who uses symbols, tells stories, and frames experience in ways that give people hope and meaning.
Transitioning to leadership
It's all too common for folks moving into leadership or being promoted to struggle with the demands of a new role. A primary reason for the struggle is too much over-indexing on a certain leadership style based on understanding of one frame but that comes at the cost of the other frames.
While this might have worked in your previous role, in the new one it starts becoming a liability. If you are struggling in getting up to speed in your new role, it's helpful to take a closer look at your repertoire of skills through these four frames and analyze where you might be lacking.
Another model that can highlight gaps is the flaherty-habermas domains of competence — the I- It-We model. In the article, I take a closer look at the common challenges when folks with technical backgrounds transition into leadership and management roles.
Paradox is a key feature of organizational life. Unfortunately, they are misunderstood and most folks are unaware of them. Recognizing paradox beforehand can help to navigate organizations and avoid unnecessary frustration.
📚 You also get a curated spreadsheet of 100 best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.
- Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership by Lee G Bolman and Terrence E Deal
- How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing by Lee G Bolman and Terrence E Deal