Dialogic Leadership by William Isaacs

Journal Club Article: Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogic leadership. The Systems Thinker, 10(1), 1-5.

“Human beings create, refine, and share knowledge through conversation.”

The Concept of Dialogue

“In the new knowledge-based, networked economy, the ability to talk and think together well is a vital source of competitive advantage and organizational effectiveness.

Think Together

A hallmark for many of us is that there are “no surprises” in our meetings. Yet this is the antithesis of dialogue. In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom.

Dialogue Versus Discussion

Dialogue signifies a flow of meaning while “discussions are conversations where people hold onto and defend their differences. The hope is that the clash of opinion will illuminate productive pathways for action and insight. Yet in practice, discussion often devolves into rigid debate, where people view one another as positions to agree with or refute, not as partners in a vital, living relationship. Such exchanges represent a series of one-way streets, and the end results are often not what people wish for: polarized arguments where people withhold vital information and shut down creative options.”

Dialogic Leadership

“Dialogic leadership” is the term given to a way of leading that consistently uncovers, through conversation, the hidden creative potential in any situation. Four distinct qualities support this process, the abilities:

  1. to evoke people’s genuine voices,
  2. to listen deeply,
  3. to hold space for and respect as legitimate other people’s views, and
  4. to broaden awareness and perspective.

Four-Player Model

Four distinct kinds of actions that a person may take in any conversation:

  1. Move
  2. Follow
  3. Oppose
  4. Bystand

Balancing Advocacy & Inquiry 

To advocate well, you must move and oppose well; to inquire, you must bystand and follow.

Four Practices for Dialogic Leadership

  1. Listening: the ability to listen together
  2. Respecting: true respect enables genuine inquiry
  3. Suspending: to bystand with awareness
  4. Voicing: courageous speech

Changing the Quality of Action

Dialogic leadership focuses attention on two levels at once: the nature of the actions people take during an interaction and the quality of those interactions.  Dialogic leadership implies being a living example of what you speak about – that is, demonstrating these qualities in your daily life.”

Keywords: Advocacy; Inquiry; Dialogic; Leadership.

Thanks to Intensivist and Education Specialist Cameron Knott for guiding towards this resource (#CoP).


Isaacs, W. (2008). Dialogue: The art of thinking together. Crown Business. [GoodReads review]

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogic leadership. The Systems Thinker, 10(1), 1-5.

Coelho Amestoy, S., Schubert Backes, V. M., Buss Thofehrn, M., Gue Martini, J., Schlindwein Meirelles, B. H., & de Lima Trindade, L. (2014). Dialogic leadership: strategies for application in the hospital environmentInvestigacion y educacion en enfermeria32(1), 119-127.