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Chapter Two: Leadership vs. Management

There is a natural tendency to conceptualize reality with ourselves at the center. I understand everything in relation to me. This same tendency applies to human services agencies and to people associated with them. The agency is at the center of the relevant reality and everything about the agency is understood from this perspective. This auto-centric perspective is a primary barrier to understanding and achieving human services agency excellence.

In Chapter One, we saw the human services agency is at point “C” – the lower right corner – in the Helping Triangle. Consider how much the Helping Triangle would have to be distorted to make the agency its focal point. Nonetheless, the tendency to use this perspective is not uncommon. Once the agency is in place and operating, the Helping Triangle is quickly forgotten. The agency is just there. It is the new reality, the center of the universe of interest.

This would be little more than excessively self-serving if the incorporating environment were static. As we know, it is not. “The basic precepts of systems theory suggest that organizations consist of interrelated units and when change occurs in one part of the system, the other parts will likewise be altered. Organizations, like all open systems, are also intricately connected to the external environment; and when shifts occur in the external environment, the organization must change to survive.” (Proehl, 2001, p. 15) Ecology – The branch of biology concerned with the relations between organisms and their environments – provides us with helpful insight here. My intent is not to trivialize the complex science of ecology. (For example, see Meffe, 2002.) Rather, I use the analogy to emphasize the interrelated, interdependent nature of the myriad elements comprising any complex system, including the nested systems associated with any significant human services endeavor. The agency is not a static entity with fixed relationships to other entities and elements. It is more like an organism whose survival and success are interdependent with the survival and success of many other organisms and elements in the incorporating environment.

Let’s extend the analogy. Think of a human services agency as a complex organism. As we saw for potential agency clients, the agency itself also has needs, problems, and vulnerabilities beyond its individual capacity to cope. The agency is incapable of going it alone. It is but one organism within a complex eco system and as such, it is dependent on other organisms in the system and others are dependent on it. Assuring the viability of the agency requires careful and continuous attention to these interdependencies. What’s more, the system of interdependencies is dynamic, itself reconfiguring and shifting over time.

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