Leading through conversations

If you try to imagine the act of exercising leadership, you can think of an ancient king urging his horse, raising a sword and shouting to his army to follow him. Or, you can think of a great leader delivering a charismatic speech. These typical images do not, however, reflect the fact that leadership normally happens through conversations. This is the basis for a dialogic leadership model presented by William N. Isaacs.

William N. Isaacs analyzes breakdowns in human interaction and communication and proposes a leadership model to prevent them. He asks and tries to answer questions like: How do we prevent conflicts between executives to have a detrimental effect on an organization? How can we transform a conflict situation into an incentive for creativity and organizational growth?

The concept of dialogue – an inquiry into ideas, perceptions, and understanding that people do not already have, exploring the subject and ‘thinking together’ – is opposed to telling (one way monologue) and discussion (conversations with people holding onto differing positions).

In order to reveal the creative potential of any situation, the author proposes the term “dialogic leadership”. It requires that participants show four abilities:

  • to evoke people’s genuine voices
  • to listen deeply
  • to hold space for and respect as legitimate other people’s views
  • to broaden awareness and perspective

The proposed model is based on four different kinds of actions that a person can take in a conversation, identified by David Kantor, a family systems therapist:

  1. Move – initiate ideas and offer direction

  2. Follow – complete what is said, help others clarify their thoughts, and support what is happening

  3. Oppose – challenge what is being said and question its validity, enable correction

  4. Bystand – actively notice what is going on and provide perspective on what is happening

In non-dialogic interactions, people tend to get stuck in opposite positions (e.g. move – oppose). In dialogic systems, people can switch roles dynamically, keeping the conversation in balance.

Four distinct practices that improve the quality of conversations correspond to four kinds of action taken in conversations.

  1. Voicing (Movers) – speak your inner voice, the truth. Show character.

  2. Listening (Followers) – do you really care what the other person wants to transmit, or do you have assumptions you eagerly confirm?

  3. Respecting (Opponents) – seek the coherence, genuineness and value in what others are voicing. “Inquiry and violence cannot coexist”.

  4. Suspending (Bystanders) – suspend your opinion, bystand with awareness, be objective.

You can consider these practices as leadership skills, which need to be developed and adapted to specific situations. It is quite easy to visualize them in a typical conversational context, but how can they be adapted for example to open source software development?


Citation: Dialogic Leadership, by William N. Isaacs, in: The Systems Thinker™, Volume 10, Number 1, February 1999.


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