In a recent Harvard Business Review article (May 2014), Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe the concept of blue ocean leadership. Before saying anything about the theory, allow me to interpret the metaphor first. The concept of ocean implies vastness and unrealized possibility, as in the old saying, usually invoked when the girl or guy that you are smitten with is not interested in you, that there are lots of fish in the sea. The idea of blue suggests a pristine environment filled with optimism and opportunity, rather than the real sea, which is over-fished, and full of toxins and debris. This is very much a Theory Y view of humanity, in which a vast population of willing and able individuals is just waiting to be called upon. It is also a tremendously naive view of organizational ecology, in which politics and personal desire, whether for good or evil, play little or no part.
Notwithstanding its name, the theory is based on a marketing approach to leadership, where the objective (the task of leadership) is to convert non-customers into customers. The authors claim that their key insight is that leadership should be thought of as a service that members of an organization either do or do not buy into.
In practice, the authors suggest that the first step is to identify how customers are currently experiencing leadership. What activities, in their view, are receiving too much time and effort, and which ones too little? This is leadership “as is.” The objective is then to eliminate some behaviors, decrease the emphasis on some, increase the emphasis on some others, and create some new ones. This realignment will represent leadership “to be.” Following implementation, managers and employees will be less stressed, the organization will be more productive, and conflict will be minimized. While that may be the case in the short run, I cannot see it lasting. It goes contrary to human nature, and it creates an environment in which the energy that keeps the organization going will slowly but surely dissipate. Statisticians might refer to this as regression to the mean; others might think of it as the refuge of mediocrity. I have to say that I think it’s nonsense; more blue sky, than blue ocean.