Leadership and the law of the instrument

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying attributed to Abraham Maslow ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, then you’re likely to treat everything as if it were a nail.’  In fact it was another Abraham, Kaplan, who coined it earlier as the Law of the Instrument: ‘Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.’

Head of Professional Development, Chris Lake
Former head of professional development, Chris Lake


I’ve been thinking recently about this ‘instrument’, not in terms of the hammer, but in terms of the hammer’s wielder: you and I as leaders. The very instruments of our leadership practice.


You see, I think we each hold often-unconscious beliefs about how the world actually works, and these beliefs or assumptions lead us to wield our own favourite hammers and pound things into shapes we find more appealing, easier to accept, or indeed less challenging of our preconceived ideas.


For example, if I am someone that sees organisations in mechanical terms, then I’ll be drawn to a view of leadership as structural and hierarchical.  I’ll focus on the rational processes of structure, vision, and implementation, believing that change is planned and driven by senior managers with power.  I’d find myself saying things like ‘We’re working out which lever to pull’ – and these levers would tend to be targets, management by objectives, job design, terms of reference, competencies, and so on.  And I’d really value, above other things, the colder talents of knowledge and intelligence.  Senior leaders who hold this mechanical view as their ‘hammer’ will look at their organisation, and at the wider world of the NHS and social care, and default towards restructuring.  After all, if the organisation is a machine, what better way to make it efficient than take it apart and put it back together in a new shape?


However, is the world of organisational life really so mechanical? I work in an organisation of people, rubbing shoulders with each other, and sometimes rubbing each other up the wrong way.  My organisation, like any other, is a community of colleagues sharing at least a real or virtual space and a common employer, and at best, a common purpose and a dream.  If my default, my ‘hammer’, is to see the organisation in these human or social terms, then I’ll be drawn to irrational processes like micro-politics, relationships, group dynamics, and indeed to the informal organisation and its moods and gossip.  I’ll understand change as a social process facilitated by well-connected, motivated and influential community members.  My practice as a leader will emphasise the warmer talents of relationships, communication, emotion, praise, and positive stories.  The answer here won’t so often be restructuring, it’ll be engagement and the care I show for my colleagues that delivers success.


An alternative unconscious belief might be one of a natural and fluid system, where organisations are forever responding to the ebbs and flows of the wider world.  Here, change is the norm: it emerges from the edge of chaos in response to the external environment.  It is influenced yes, but not wholly designed nor hierarchically controlled.  Like a flock of starlings, each agent in the group influences and reacts to both its neighbours and to the flock as a whole.  So asking ‘who’s in charge?’ really makes no sense.  If I’m a leader with this ‘hammer’ then my practice will emphasise intuition, scanning the wider world for opportunities and threats, and learning by trial and error over org charts and planning.  I’ll be drawn to the idea of ‘leader as the change agent’ and will value those I see as adaptable, aware and innovative.


Which one is right?  Well, they all are – but that’s not the point.  Here, as in so many things, diversity rules!  The better question is to turn inwards and ask oneself ‘Which one is my hammer?  Through which filter do I tend to see the world, and so what type of instrument am I?’  The answer will come by inspecting our own practice and the choices we make with our time and attention at work.


For me this is a particularly pertinent reflection.  The NHS Leadership Academy is launching the core professional development programmes at the same time as growing into the organisation that we ourselves will become.  I hope I can model that which our programmes will purport to develop in others: the vision to build an organisation that achieves a step change in leadership practice, an awareness of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of me, and the flexibility to adapt in a fast changing world.  In short, pay attention to the mechanical, the social and the fluid nature of the leadership role.


That’s my challenge – let me know how I do and please, share your own with us.


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