Workforce Development Thoughts 09/16 – Birds, Bricks and Leadership Theory

The organisational environment of the 21st Century is characterised by rapid change, complexity and uncertainty. It is demanding to lead in this new environment and how we support our leaders with development opportunities has to shift to help meet these newer demands. 

Traditionally leadership training has been based on classical leadership models which emerged to meet the demands of the highly mechanised environments of the post-industrial revolution. These environments needed managers who could direct complicated, but ultimately rigid, systematic workplaces. The leadership style developed in this environment felt hierarchical and looked masculine – you were a leader if you took charge, developed and marketed a clear strategic plan, maximised efficiency, maintained order and repeatability. These characteristics of what is a leader continue to have a grip on our imagination and continue to shape what we consider to be good leadership.

However, with leadership now being increasingly confronted with a work environment that is far more complex and unpredictable, this traditional model of leadership is no longer sufficient. Rather than consider leadership to be the action (and reaction) of a top-down influencer, we now need to think of leadership as shared acts of mutual influence and reflexivity.

[Paul] Plsek’s (2001) analogy of bricks and birds is useful here. Plsek suggests that we can liken our agents in a system as either ‘bricks’ or ‘birds’. If, Plsek says, we were to pick up a brick and throw it towards a target; we could generally predict where the brick would land. We could also repeat the action without difficulty. However, if we were to pick up a bird and throw it towards a target, how likely is it that the bird would reach the target? We could always clip the bird’s wings and thus gain accuracy and predictability, but what would be lost in terms of innovation and adaptability? In short, the brick perspective brings predictability, repeatability and perhaps efficiency, whereas the bird perspective promotes diversity, responsiveness to change, adaption and innovation (as cited in Jansen, 2014, p.39-40).

Developing leadership for this new organisational environment will necessitate that we foster learning opportunities that help leadership to become inquiry based learners who can critically engage with and innovatively respond to the challenges of a changing, diverse and fluid workplace.

At CLD we’re excited by the possibilities that could emerge from this shifting landscape of leadership and learning. What do you think?



Chris Jansen, Leadership Development through Appreciative Inquiry: Complexity Thinking in the Non-Government Sector, Unpublished PhD, School of Educational Studies and Leadership, University of Canterbury, 2014.

Paul Plsek, Why Won’t the NHS do as it’s told and what might we do about it? Leading Edge, 1 (briefing paper). London, UK: the NHS Confederation, 2001.

About bcmnz

Official blog of The Salvation Army Booth College of Mission, in Upper Hutt, New Zealand.
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