Personal report by Aart Helder on the IMO International Network Conference

Since a few years, the IMO days have become a yearly encounter to research inspiring leadership as a process in the organized community. It’s a platform to share on-going research and development on ‘horizontal organizing’ and ‘horizontal leadership’. The conference is an opportunity for IMO-consultants to connect different clients with each other, to learn from each other through dialogue.

IMO developed the concept of horizontal leadership as an alternative for organizing change. In the past years, visions on horizontal leadership, leadership practises and conditions for supporting this horizontal leadership have been exchanged. This year the conversation concentrated on ‘the inner side of leadership: how can we develop our inner abilities for good leadership?’ Central question of the conference and in a way the driving force of IMO is ‘can we touch upon the soul of people in order to let them stand up, act from the heart and in this way act as a leader? This I think is the very reason why I found myself amongst kindred spirits in Doorn. Writing this article – a brief, personal report – was a welcome opportunity to stay a little longer with the themes of the IMO conference.

Everybody is a leader

To start the conversation, Adriaan Bekman (IMO International) presented a way from vertical to horizontal organising and introduced the nine abilities for horizontal leadership. Vertical is not negative: form is a good thing and just as important as processes (think of a plant with its juices, life energy and structural form). But at this moment vertical is too dominant and the problem with vertical organisations is that “everybody is afraid of everything”, according to Bekman.

The crux of horizontal leadership is that it’s everywhere, on all levels of organisations and everybody can be a leader. Employees can do a lot and lead themselves – they don’t have to learn, but to unlearn things! We don’t need leaders to lead employees, we actually need leaders who lead themselves and stimulate others.

Rethinking this, I remembered one of Joseph Buys’ famous quotes “Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler”, and IKEA’s campaign “Everybody is a designer”. Today the call for leadership, be it ‘inspirational’, ‘personal’, ‘authentic’,  ‘effective’ or ‘horizontal’, is extremely loud. Everybody is a leader! It would be very interesting to explore why this call for leadership is so strong at the moment, but that should be discussed in another paper and not this review.


From vertical to horizontal

Bekman shortly summarized the essentials of horizontal organising and how to get from vertical to horizontal. By shifting from ‘task to process’ for example and he illustrated this immediately: “do I focus on my task ‘giving the lecture’, or am I focussed on the process giving this lecture, aware of what happens and aware if I really touch people and steer things and be able to react here and now?”

Another movement: from ‘driven by intentions (i.e.: missions, visions, targets) to driven by effects’: What do we see? What is the effect (I like the word ‘werking’ in Dutch) of what we are doing and is it what we wanted? No? Steer the process! Shifting from ‘systems to principles’ is yet another strategy to go horizontal, putting the ‘why’ central. In this regard, I would like to recommend the Dutch book of Wouter Hart Verdraaide Organisaties. The author gives clear guidelines for organisations who are caught in their own ‘system world’ and want to put their cause in the centre of all operations again; with professionals who can align their heart with the heartbeat of the organisation.

And I conclude with a simple to understand, yet hard to practice, movement: from fast to slow… s l o w   d  o  w    n….  !

Leadership dialogue

Even though it is sometimes not obvious, it is a necessity to see each other as leader and to consider yourself a leader. Instead of belittling each other, we can actually learn how to value and embrace the potential and greatness of each other. One way to experiment with this is to start the ‘leadership dialogue’. Unlike the hierarchical dialogue, the horizontal and reflective dialogue opens up the connection between top management, middle management and professionals. When people with different positions, places, roles and responsibilities talk with each other about the essential, ‘slow’ questions, a wonderful ‘organization soul’ can appear that allows all employees to act in the sense of the whole of the organization. In this regard, I don’t think this dialogue should be limited to organisations alone, countries – samenlevingen (a Dutch word in which you can recognize the meaning of community) – could benefit immensely from this horizontal and soul-full perspective!

Horizontal leadership skills

IMO identified nine abilities, a set of skills that are needed for horizontal leadership and are more or less related to head, heart and hands:

  • (Inner)discipline, integrity and morality – these abilities manifest themselves in the practical/acting
  • Including (maybe ‘connecting’ is better), interesting and initiating – these three abilities manifest themselves in the social/meeting
  • Conceptualising, social intelligence and creativity – these three abilities manifest themselves in the mental and creative space

Within the conference, three abilities were discussed and discovered further: 1. The ability of conceptualization opposing stagnation – with exercises and a presentation by Hermanus Meijerink (IMO Brazil); 2. The ability of creating life quality through interacting – with exercises and a short presentation by Jutta Hodapp (IMO Nederland); 3. Christian Lucke (IMO Germany) presented his ‘IMO-ification’ of the Lean model, and talked to us about steering the process with inner discipline.

Movement starts with stagnation

Hermanus Meijerink shared his view on the leadership ability to oppose stagnation through conceptualization. He showed us that concepts (not models!) – if they are practical and relate to the case at hand – help us to see more and more clearly. In this way the concept helps to analyse the stagnation together with the client and enables us to make new choices and get things moving again. The big insight for me was that we actually need stagnation to move again: it creates urgency. In a way an endless process of fluidity can be ‘stagnation’ in itself as well.  It’s a bit like Bernard Lievegoed mentioned in his book Battle of the Soul when discussing Manichaeism: “When something good is done, at the same time the shadow of the good is created. For instance, when you have found an ideal form of collaboration for a group op people you will find out that in a later phase this form suddenly will become an obstacle. Such a form can then become a serious impediment for renewal that is needed at that time.”



Head, heart and hands were explicitly addressed during the conference’s many exercises. This made it an extremely rich experience for both consultants and clients. Jutta Hodapp addressed the ability to connect, the ability to create quality of life through interaction. She showed it on a meta-level by very consciously timing her exercise at the end of the afternoon to work with our hands and sculpt our own clay figure. While working with our hands, we could process the themes of the day and especially our central personal questions. The exercise and the interaction process after finishing our sculptures were well designed in order to really feel and engage. The quality of the processes of all exercises during the conference helped to experience the benefit of dialogue, the power of observing, the effect of listening and the art of open feedback from the heart.

Horizontal, lean, disciplined leadership

Although I couldn’t clearly relate Christian Lucke’s story to the ability of (inner)discipline, his “IMO-ification” of the lean strategy was a very welcome presentation. Lucke stated that steering convictions are, consciously or not, at the basis of each process, big or small. In a way, processes in an organisation often mirror the steering conviction(s). As a consultant it is important to take your time and read the convictions at work. In that way I can see the need for inner discipline: not to act on the problem (and solve it, “urgent!”), but to stop and see underlying convictions. Changing the process on a sustainable level means changing the underlying steering convictions. I definitely want to continue the conversation with Christian Lucke – and with all of you – about that.

Let’s all join the IMO-network on Linkedin (, both IMO-consultants and IMO-clients – and friends of IMO like me. In this horizontal, digital, global dialogue box we can continue the conversation and start new ones. Why wait till next year to discover the other six abilities together? Let’s continue the dialogue!

Aart Helder

Amsterdam, November 2016


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