Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change Michael Maccoby (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2015)

By Diana Hoyt

Research Technology Management May-June 2016, pp 70-71.

What distinguishes this work from the ever-growing number of books on leadership is that its author, Michael Maccoby, is both a psychoanalyst and an anthropologist who brings the conceptual tools usually used in the study of diverse cultures and human behavior to the study of leadership. Working with Erich Fromm in Mexico, he coauthored Social Character in a Mexican Village in 1970; since then, he has consulted with corporations, universities, governments, and foundations in 36 countries, drawing on a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, psychoanalysis, organizational theory, systems analysis, and ethnography. He is a globally recognized expert on leadership from a metadisciplinary perspective who has worked with thought leaders such as W. Edwards Deming and systems theorist Russell Ackoff, as well as Fromm. In Strategic Intelligence, Maccoby integrates the perspectives provided by these disparate disciplines into a multidimensional concept of strategic intelligence, and then describes the tools that enable leaders to create a better future for their organizations, customers, partners, and employees as they keep pace with the constant challenges of innovation and change.

To be successful, Maccoby argues, leaders must understand change, use a systems approach to identify areas of change, and finally, create an organizational climate conducive to the change they wish to see. Maccoby’s definition of a leader is both simple and unassailable: leaders, he notes, have followers. This simple statement has far-reaching implications. Because leadership is, then, a relationship between leaders and followers, leadership depends on qualities of both heart and mind and is context—dependent in two fundamental dimensions—the challenges facing leaders and the values and attitudes of followers.

Thus, because leadership exists in relation to human values and behaviors in an ever-changing context, leaders must function within a complex and often chaotic system. To enable their organizations to adapt to a constantly changing world, leaders must be strategists: they must be able to learn from results, perceive threats and opportunities, and be prepared to modify their strategies, if necessary. Thus, the importance of strategic intelligence, defined by Maccoby as made up of a number of complex abilities and conceptual tools:

  • Foresight—the ability to anticipate currents of change that can threaten an organization or provide opportunities.

  • Visioning—the ability to design the organizational system to produce the products and services valued by customers and to continually improve processes, products, and services.

  • Partnering—the ability to develop productive relationships with teams of colleagues who have complementary abilities and with key customers and suppliers.

  • Engaging, motivating, empowering—the ability to attract and retain collaborators who will implement the vision and continuously improve products and productivity.

Maccoby stresses that leaders also need to master what Deming called “profound knowledge,” including the knowledge of systems, variation (statistics), motivation, and the theory of knowledge. These skills, which require deep intellectual capabilities, comprise the heart of Maccoby’s definition of strategic intelligence.

It is in the practice of strategic intelligence that the conceptual tools from the social sciences come into play. Maccoby opens the chapter on visioning with a quote from Russell Ackoff: “Humans are more than ends-seeking animals; we are ideal-seeking. Curiously, however, this characteristic of humans is ignored in all approaches to planning other than the interactive.” Maccoby demonstrates how the transformation of a bureaucracy into a learning organization requires consideration of the ideal-seeking human element, which must be addressed using a conceptual toolkit drawn from the social sciences. That toolkit relies on analyses from diverse fields; for example, in leading change, a leader must consider a wide range of human factors, including personality types, instinctual drives, social character, identity and philosophy of life, models of personality, theories of motivation and culture change, and national character.

The structure of the book reflects diverse aspects of human interaction; Maccoby uses the tools of social sciences as lenses through which the reader can identify and understand human behavior. Thus, each chapter offers a wealth of theoretical and conceptual material focused on one or more of the building blocks of strategic intelligence, followed by a series of practical questions designed to help readers gain clarity on their personal leadership styles, purposes, vision, and goals. The appendix offers a series of exercises and scoring keys designed to produce a strategic intelligence inventory, which is extremely valuable for understanding the principles and practices of strategic intelligence in detail. Maccoby successfully demonstrates that strategic intelligence is essential to transform an organization from a bureaucracy into an agile learning organization poised to capitalize on innovation in the markets of today and tomorrow. Even more usefully, he shows readers how to develop it.

A social scientist, Diana Hoyt has worked for NASA for over 30 years; she currently manages the agency’s Strategic Partnerships program. Prior to joining NASA, she worked for Congress and was the executive director of the Congressional Space Caucus.

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