The Prophet Role LO20610 -was: Prioritizing ...
Mon, 8 Feb 1999 09:30:37 -0600

Replying to LO20597:

Scott Simmerman writes:

>[T]rying to get people to see and understand is a difficult part of any
>leadership paradigm.

I've taken this completely out of context, but it's a good segue into
another subject, the role of the prophet in organizations.

I've been wondering why internal (and possibly external) organizational
consultants are often ignored, contradicted, and frustrated. I see the
role of the consultant (i.e., one who advises leaders) as a paradox where
someone without formal leadership status attempts to teach someone with
high status. It requires the leader to respect and act on igorance rather
than skill and knowledge, which involves setting aside the very status
that defines the leader's role. Getting leaders to see and understand can
be threatening, perhaps the more so in organizations that rely on the
formal hierarchy for distribution of power.

These thoughts arise from working with internal consultants in other state
agencies, as well as my own experience. I'm developing a 2-hour workshop
on this subject for a quality and systems conference this spring, and I'd
appreciate feedback. My thesis, so far, is as follows:

> The prophet role involves seeing things that others tend to miss, or are
> not visible in the normal course of events. It does not mean simply being
> a visionary, but to share insights and visions with people who can benefit
> from them. Organizations operate primarily on status-based relationships
> and only to a limited extent on inputs drawn from atypical sources. The
> consultant's role is to acquire data and judgments from outside the
> hierarchy and apply those inputs to orgranizational problems.
> Difficulties in the consultant-client relationship arise when the
> consultant's input conflicts with the client's views. Internal
> consultants are generally immersed in the organization's social and
> political networks, and are expected to follow chains of command; when
> they provide input contrary to the leaders' views, they may be seen as
> rocking the boat and thereby lose credibility. External consultants may
> or may not experience this form of conflict.
> This workshop is geared to anyone who would like to investigate the
> dynamics of leaders asking for advice and then turning on the advisors.
> One reason for this dysfunction will be advanced: the emphasis on formal
> power and status causes hierarchical organizations to behave at a low
> level of emotional maturity (mental health), despite the fact that they
> are populated by otherwise mature and healthy individuals. The
> participants will be asked to consider and evaluate this thesis; the
> outcome is not to be consensus, but an awareness of the issue and its
> richness.

I plan to use Scott Peck's 4-part model of maturity (delaying
gratification, accepting responsibility, being dedicated to reality, and
balancing) for a reference point, perhaps to explain some of Margaret
Wheatley's thoughts about organizations making decisions on the basis of
status rather than substance. I also plan to describe a model of
successful consultation that's based on feminine psychology (e.g., as
found in the Tao Te Ching).

I welcome comments and questions from those with experience in
organizational consulting or in using such consultants.

In learning,

* David E. Birren
Organizational Consultant, Wisconsin Department of Natural
(608) 267-2442

"Teach thy tongue to say 'I do not know' and thou shalt progress." -


Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>