Watching and Observing:  A Leadership Methodology

Watching and Observing: A Leadership Methodology

There is an old southern adage that asserts ‘if you want to keep getting what you are getting, then keep doing what you are doing. Beginning this article with this particular adage was a test… Ask yourself, did you spend the first several seconds critiquing the statement phrasing or did you begin to consider the deeper meaning of the assertion? In a quest to create competitive advantage, often leaders look outside of their organizations in an attempt to gauge what the competitive is doing or what strategies a market leader appears to be implementing. However, that it may be worth taking a look inside one’s own organization first.

Growth through knowledge management has been evolving since the 1960s. Although Drucker’s assertion that “every knowledge worker… is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results” (Drucker, 1968) was prophetic, the profound impact that technology would have on the organization’s structural dynamic would not be realized for several years. The overall effectiveness of an organization is no longer measured merely by how quickly new products and services are brought to market but also by how effectively the firm deploys its human capital resources as well.

Is your organization fully leveraging its human capital? Of course, many organizations have experienced some contraction in the total number of employees over that last few years. Increasingly, leaders and managers are asking employees to do more with less. The questions that leaders must consistently ask and have answered; is whether the leaner structure of human capital is helping or harming the growth and goal achievement of the organization?

Ethnography can reveal the deeper meaning of how and why people, systems and environments influence perception. You may be wondering what ethnography is and how it may be useful in the real world. Ethnography is a research method; often used in anthropology. Typically, the research framework involves field notes, interviews and observations. But a practical application of this framework can be reduced down to merely actively observing people in natural environments. Leaders can gain a deeper understanding of the cultures and sub-cultures that exist within the firm by just watching and observing. Understanding is a starting point from which environment-appropriate information systems can be developed and integrated into an organization. These systems do not necessary need to add a new level of bureaucracy to the organization but rather should support and encourage the cultivation of knowledge bases and knowledge workers. The result should be the generation of new innovations that forge a competitive advantage for the firm from the inside out.

Burns (1978) conceptualized the transformational leader asserting “[transformational leadership] occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality…”  In the absence of understanding that which motivates and shapes the perceptions of one’s staff, how can leaders effectively create or sustain work environments that encourage innovation? Developing the skill of active observation can help to create competitive advantage.

On the surface the analysis through observation may appear to be a frivolous waste of time. However, the exercise is intended to encourage a leader to think beyond that which may appear to be readily apparent.  Paraphrased, the Golden Mean Triangle theory simply states, the smaller is to the greater, as the greater is to the whole. Understanding of the smaller nuances is the starting point of the transformation of the entire organization.

Mauss (2007) likened ethnographic studies to caricatures. Similar to the Golden Mean Triangle ratio theory, ethnography is a study of proportion and relational interdependencies.  Leaders and subordinates have a dyadic relationship. Considered in the context of the Golden Mean ratio, transformational leaders influence subordinates; subordinates influence the organization’s achievement of its objectives. Active observation is a leadership methodology easily incorporated into an organization’s strategic growth planning process.

Author Contact Information

Shawn Powell Joseph

Concentric Global Consultants, LLC

©2013 Shawn Powell Joseph. All rights reserved.


Burns, J. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.

Drucker, P. (1968). The effective executive.

Mauss, M. (2007). Manual of ethnography (N.J. Allen, Trans.). Durkheim Press. (Original work published 1967).

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