REVIEWS: 
Wine into Water
 – Joseph O’Connor, Leading with NLP

Thorsons, 1998, ISBN 0 7225 3767 0

Joseph O’Connor is a leading author in the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming 
(NLP). His best known book, Introducing Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which 
he wrote with John Seymour has become one of the standard introductory texts.
 He has authored or co-authored at least seven books in five years on such diverse 
topics as Training, Selling, Health, Management, Systems Thinking and currently
 Leadership.

The author sees leadership,

as part of, and the result of, the great changes in management practice in the last
 20 years. It replaces the old ‘command and control’ model of running an
 organisation. ‘Command and control’, based on a military model was appropriate 
in different social climate and business environment. Now this stability has gone, 
a casualty of a frenetic pace of change, new values of self-esteem and individual 
responsibility and a business culture that values employability above employment.
 In most business organisations, particularly in the Western world, we just do not 
obey orders any more – at least not without good reason. But leaders are still
 needed, both to guide the organisation and to develop others as leaders.


In this context, leadership suffers the fate of so many words that meant something
 once and have now been diluted into something far less. What the author is writing
 about is modern management, particularly self-management. He duly confirms it
 in the final chapter.

I think of leadership as a general set of skills, values and a way of being that you 
can apply anywhere, in family life, in work whatever you do. Although much of this 
book has concentrated on leadership in business, because this is a particularly
 important application, I have aimed to put some of the skills of business leadership 
into a wider context because I do not believe you can separate the business leader 
from the person.


The author’s metaphor for organisational leadership is that it is like a flock of birds
 in flight.

When I think of how organisational leadership could be I think of the flight of a 
flock of birds…..the birds moved together in beautiful and intricate patterns,
 moving away and then sweeping back, describing a sort of figure of eight, but no 
pass was quite like any other….There were one or more birds at the front, but they 
were not issuing orders to the others, telling them exactly how to move so they all 
stayed together. The leader (if the one at the front was the leader) was different
 every time they passed over my head.


There seems an intelligence that emerges from the group, coming from the
 intelligence of each member, yet larger than that possessed by any individual.

There is some pious thinking; Good leaders are ethical, responsible and effective.


Quoting Lao Tse, the 6th Century Chinese philosopher:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists is old hat in management 
textbooks, although it may be new to Joseph. I can just hear Peter Mandelson
 advising Tony Blair!

So what about the starlings?


Researchers have been able to simulate flocking behaviour on a computer by
 making the birds follow three simple rules. First each bird must maintain a
 minimum distance from the others….Secondly each bird must try to match the 
velocity of those around it…… Thirdly each bird must try to move to towards the 
perceived centre of the mass of birds in its neighbourhood.

For me the analogy conjures up an Orwellian vista, a collective, each member
 interchangeable with the next, flying in perfect formation. It raises a political and
 philosophical question about the new management philosophies. Are they more
 subtle and effective ways of getting us to manage ourselves to serve systems? The 
”command and control” model was not dropped from a humanistic perspective as
 Joseph implies. It was dropped because it is less efficient in the current production
 environment than self-management with the prescribed attitudes for continuous 
improvement. Now you have to have a quality called employability before you can 
be employed.

The writing formula involves; an introductory metaphor, a few examples, a list of
 questions, a diagram, a quota of quotes and the occasional dollop of NLP 
technique. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this structure, it is far
 too obvious and neither the flow of thought or prose style cover the joins in the cut 
and paste methodology. The strain is beginning to show and the formula is wearing
 thin. Along with his NLP credentials Joseph O’Connor has also a background in 
music. Unfortunately this book is not classical: it is pure pop. And as far as pop 
goes it is the follow up to the sequel to the sequel.

The book lacks the wisdom that comes from familiarity with and reflection on the 
subject. Even if one accepts the proposition that leadership and management are
 interchangeable concepts there is a lack of credible examples from the business
world.

Joseph O’Connor’s first book on NLP was praiseworthy because he and Seymour 
succeeded in writing one of the best introductions to NLP where so many others 
had tried less successfully. Advancing NLP and applying it to other areas requires 
familiarity with the area of application. Leading with NLP does not display that
 familiarity. In the early days, NLP practitioners studied the unconscious 
competence of great practitioners in other fields until they codified their expertise 
and made it transparent to those who wished to learn these skills. If the current
 book becomes the fashion the process has been changed to make NLP a new form 
of mixer that dilutes other disciplines to make them more palatable for those with 
delicate digestions.