Core Group Theory

By July 22, 2009Business

At Ashridge I have the great privilege of working with lots of different leaders. One of the most useful theories I have come across to help them understand the complexity of their role is Art Kleiner’s Core Group Theory. Essentially, Kleiner argues that the core group in any organisation has the same effect as does a magnet on iron filings. When they are around, everyone snaps to attention. I see it visibly when we have certain CEOs or Ministers come in to address a course: the fanning out, the standing up straight, the self-conscious gesturing, the laughing at their jokes, the sounding slightly better spoken than usual, and of course the asking of terribly clever questions.

Kleiner suggests there are a couple of phenomenon at play here which can be very powerful and potentially dangerous. One is the power of attention. Whatever they see you looking at will get their attention too. When I was at Deloitte, we had a new MD. His first act was to phone up every single person who had submitted their timesheet late. It didn’t happen again. This gaze shades into another phenomenon – follow-my-leader. One trivial example is a CEO I spoke to, who had received cufflinks for Christmas. Not wanting to upset his kind wife, he had invested in new shirts so he could wear them. To his horror, by the end of the month he noticed that all of his senior team had started wearing cufflinks too. A third phenomenon is that of amplification, or distortion.This might be a bad drive in and a bad temper in the office which the grapevine by lunchtime has translated into job losses and financial collapse, or it could be an off-the-cuff remark, or the accidental encouraging of bad behaviour through benign neglect or a wish not to be unpopular. Kleiner suggests that we will always try to please our core group, and in the absence of data we will create the facts and facsimilies we need to be loyal regents. His theory can perhaps best be summarised by two metaphors – the lighthouse and Darth Vader. Like distant ships on the horizon, many of your followers will never have a close relationship with you, but your signal needs to be clear enough to keep them from the rocks. And as leader, you need to be careful of your dark side too, lest it cause shipwrecks when your back is turned.

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