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The Power of Reframing

Good thinking is an essential task for a good leader. Great leaders have a special skill, they can reframe. Reframing is the art of looking at one thought through multiple perspectives. Simply put, a leader who can reframe can think better. They understand what is needed to achieve desired results because they can create a clear picture of what is going on around them. Leaders can think better and can see more when they use four key areas, or lenses: structural, human resource, political, and symbolic (these are broken down below). One is not limited to one frame and may use multiple frames to help navigate a decision.

A leader must start by framing. A frame is beliefs and assumptions that help one to understand and negotiate some part of your world, and a good frame will make it easier to know what is happening, ultimately resulting in better choices (Bolman & Deal, 2014). The frames are vital to daily activities because these are the “mappings” that help guide you to your destination. By practicing framing, a leader can begin to exhibit rapid cognition. Imagine a hockey player, he or she not only has to subconsciously skate, but he or she is playing in a high-speed game where split-second and spontaneous decisions are made. The hockey player must practice with training, rehearsing, and understanding the rules (Gladwell, 2005). This concept is true of leaders also. Imagine all the split-second and spontaneous decisions you make daily.

Framing may involve matching the mental map to a situation, like the hockey player skating down the ice, but reframing involves another skill… the ability to break a frame. Imagine the hockey player, skating down the ice, approaches the goalie, takes a shot, and the puck hits the post, and bounces to the other teams’ center, who begins to skate the other way with the puck. The original hockey player who was attacking has now reframed and is playing defense to prevent the other team from scoring. In the leaders’ world, imagine that you have a big project that is due at noon tomorrow. As the day progresses, you get a call from the head of the company that informs you that there is nothing more important than a different task, also due at noon tomorrow. How do you reframe this scenario?

An overview of the four-frame model is below:


Human Resource



Metaphor for Organization




Temple or Theater

Central Concepts

Rules, roles, goals, policies, technology, environment

Needs, emotions, skills, relationships

Power, conflict, competition, organizational politics

Culture, meaning, metaphor, ritual, ceremony, stories, heroes

Image of Leadership

Social Architect


Advocacy and political savvy

Inspirational significance

Basic Leadership Challenge

Attune structure to task

Align organization with human needs and talent

Develop agenda and power base

Create faith, hope, meaning, and belief

(Bolman & Deal, 2016, p. 19)

In the scenario where you have a task due at noon tomorrow and now a new task has emerged, using the frames or lenses, how would you handle the ask? The decision may hinge on the culture of the organization, which is your initial frame or mapping. Think of the scenario in your current culture and try on each frame. What conclusion would you come up with? There is no right or wrong answer, only better decision making. One could use any frame or a combination of frames to resolve the problem.

Structural Frame

Characteristics: Structural leaders are more apt to do their homework, insist on clear goals, rethink the relationship of structure, safety and environment, focus on detail and implementation, and they experiment (Bolman & Deal, 2016).

Typically, when the structural frame is used when a problem arises, and the structure does not fit a situation. Often this includes the rules, goals, policies, technology, and environment. Think about the organization chart. Thinking about the organization chart allows you to imagine the responsibilities, rules, policies, procedures, and hierarchy which coordinate all the organization’s diverse activities. The challenge that arises for an organization and its leaders surrounds the designing, maintenance, and alignment of its structure with current circumstances, tasks, technology, the environment, and the goals. Simply put, when the structure does not line up, then there are problems. A common remedy using the structural frame is a reorganization. An analysis may lead to a better understanding of work roles and tasks and an appropriate balance and integration of individual and group efforts (Defoe, 2013).

Human Resources Frame

Characteristics: Human resource leaders communicate a strong belief in people, develop a philosophy and practices to put their beliefs in action, are visible and accessible, and empower others (Bolman & Deal, 2016).

Leadership often find that a task may be best if the task is tailored to the people and their talents. This frame allows individuals to get the job done while enjoying the task and feeling good about themselves. This frame helps the organization and its leaders to understand people and their relationships. Additionally, individuals have specific needs, feelings, fears, prejudices, skills, and developmental opportunities that could make a difference in the fit between the organization and the individual (Defoe, 2013).

Political Frame

Characteristics: Political leaders often clarify what they want and what they can get, assess the distribution of power and interests, build linkages to the stakeholders, and persuade first, negotiate second, and coerce only if needed (Bolman & Deal, 2016).

Often organizations find itself with an emphasis on power, competition, and the achievement of scarce resources (think about an organization that lands great contracts or employees). The people who may have the diverse values, beliefs, interests, behaviors, and skills are the ones with the power and resources. Imagine the competing interests, the struggle for power, and who ends up getting what and how they get it. This reality within the organization can be an element that is toxic, or it can be a source for creativity. An organization must have an effective management and leadership to balance the disbursement of power and influence to exist (Defoe, 2013).

Symbolic Frame

Characteristics: Symbolic leaders like to lead by example, use symbols to unite and inspire followers, interpret experience, develop and communicate a hopeful vision, tell stories, convent rituals and ceremonies, and respect and use history (Bolman & Deal, 2016).

In the symbolic frame there is a paradigm around meaning and faith. In this context, a symbol engages the people’s heart and head, and individuals may focus on ritual, story, play, and culture. In this frame, the meaning of something can matter more than the results. The meaning and faith fuel the individual’s passion, creativity, and spirit. In this frame; rules, policies, and authority matter less, and culture, symbols, and spirit create effectiveness (Defoe, 2013).

How can this improve leadership practices?

If a leader can understand that there are different frames to which can be viewed from, like a lens, then the thinking, action, and results will improve, especially in critical situations. As the leader learns the frames and which leadership that he or she is the strongest in, he or she will know how to build on strength and ways to compensate for a weakness (or blind spot). By understanding each frame, the leader can employ a holistic approach to a scenario and reframe as needed, which will allow the leader a great approach to change. A deep sense of self and values will emerge as he or she roots the leadership skill, which will allow for consistence and dependability. Lastly, the leader can share his or her own stories and that of the organization into an irresistible narrative that will provide a shared image of the ultimate vision and goal. The power and the art of reframing may define how great leaders think which leads to better decision making, and ultimately the outcome is an improved organization and leadership model.


Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2014). How Great Leaders Think The Art of Reframing. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Defoe, D. (2013, May 31). Understanding Organizations Using the Four Frame Model: Factories or Machines [Structure], Family [Human Resources], Jungle [Politics], and Theatres, Temples or Carnivals [Symbols]. Retrieved from Psycholawlogy:

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Black Bay Books.

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