Monday, 3 February 2020

Leader frames of reference

A question on Quora caught my eye recently: "What is [a] symbolic culture?".

It is a good question, and I wondered if the questioner was actually asking about a symbolic 'frame' which is one of four proposed leader frames of reference for effective leadership. The leader frames were developed by Professors Lee Bolman and Terry Deal, with their book on the subject, Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership, first published in 1991. The fifth edition was published in 2017.

What Bolman & Deal propose is that each 'frame' is a lens we use to understand, to gather information, to make decisions, and to use our power over the world around us. They suggest that there are four main frames of reference that we use: a structural frame, a human resource frame, a political frame and a symbolic frame (1991).

The image above is how Richard Daft (2007) summarised Bolman and Deal's model (1991): implying that there is a hierarchy in the level of thought: a step up from the applied to the holistic, if you will. I like this presentation of the frames model, as it ties in well with Herrmann's HBDI model (2000), the behavioural meta-theory of task and relationship factors (Daft, 2007), Morgan's metaphors (1986), and Maslow's (1943) original idea that people move from the concrete (basic) to the cerebral (self-actualisation).

The four frames are:
  1. Structural: Like Morgan's metaphors (1986), this is the organisation as a machine; or like HBDI's (2000) logical / analytical sector, total focus on the numbers. Here leaders focus on machine-like decisions based on economics and efficiency. Plans and goal setting are very important, with leaders using position power to 'influence' followers. Followers are 'led' using goals and clear job expectations (like House's Path Goal theory, 1996). All the task-oriented data is used: job descriptions, numbers, policy, standards and profit. Behaviours rewarded are order, logic, efficiency & continuity. Leaders display behavioural, task-oriented leadership, with dashes of contingency theory and transactional leadership. This frame's danger is leadership rigidity - which can support very dominant, autocratic leaders.
  2. Human Resources: This is a very relational frame, like HBDI's interpersonal frame (2000), the relational element of the behavioural meta-theory (Daft, 2007), or Morgan's metaphor of organisations as cultures (1986). People are considered to be the most valuable organisational resource, where problems are thought-through considering human factors, and the organisation makes adjustments to meet individual needs. Leaders focus on dyad (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995) relationships and feelings, empowering and supporting followers to achieve, encouraging open communication. This is a developmental frame with leaders involving followers, providing opportunities for individual's personal and professional growth. Leadership styles include servant leadership, stewardship (Kaitiakitanga), values-led leadership, and some shared leadership styles. Where this frame can come unglued is when the strategic organisational outcomes become subsumed by follower's views: where the leader's care prevents important goals from being achieved.
  3. Political: Again, coming back to Morgan's metaphors (1986), organisations can be one of the either instruments of domination, or psychic prisons, or political systems; or to consider Martin's power frame of a 'jungle' from her differentiation lens (1992). Political organisations are all about 'the man [...] in the arena' (Roosevelt, 1910), but instead of courage, they are full conflict and tension. It is a fight to obtain scarce resources, with winners climbing over the bodies of the dead and wounded left behind (ouch). Leaders focus on developing alliances, cabals and power-bases to influence decisions and outcomes. Leaders use personal & organisational power to drive-through results. While effective political leaders use negotiating and coalition-building skills to serve the organisation, power and politics are often covert, resulting in hidden agendas and the subsummation of organisational goals. Deception, dishonesty, and the feathering of individual nests are very real risks of this frame.
  4. Symbolic: This frame aligns with Morgan's metaphors as the brain, or as a culture (1986). The organisation uses shared meaning, values, and a shared vision. Leaders use vision, culture and values to influence followers. Cultural elements such as rituals, ceremonies, stories, symbols and 'priests' grow the organisational culture (Deal & Kennedy, 1982). These leaders are likely to lead through transformational styles (eg authentic, visionary, values-led, etc), or charisma. Followers are inspired to perform well, and to be committed to the cause. This frame can derail leaders over time by megalomania (particularly charismatic leaders) or with 'messiah' complexes. Symbols can also become dishonest, unethical, or self-serving.
The elements of danger mentioned above for each frame illustrate what happens if we focus too much on any one frame. We are human. We are each likely to have a preference for working in one, two or three frames: few of us are competent in all four (and this too aligns well with HBDI). Leadership requires us to use all four frames to be effective, so we need to develop our skills in those where we are weak, otherwise we may fall into one or more of the dangers above.

We are all constant piece of work in progress!


  • Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (1991). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership. San Francisco, USA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (1988). Modern approaches to understanding and managing organizations. San Francisco, USA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Daft, R. L. (2007). The Leadership Experience (4th edition). USA: Thomson South-Western 
  • Deal, T. E. & Kennedy, A. A. (1982). Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. USA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.
  • Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader-member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 219-247.
  • Herrmann, N. (2000). The Theory Behind the HBDI and Whole Brain Technology. Retrieved from
  • House, R. J. (1996). Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy, and a reformulated theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 7(3), 323-352.
  • Martin, J. (1992). Cultures in Organizations: Three perspectives. USA: Oxford University Press
  • Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
  • Morgan, G. (1986) Images of Organization. USA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Roosevelt, T. (1910). Citizenship in a Republic. Speech: Sorbonne Universite, Paris, France, April 23, 1910

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