Leading in healthy organizations
Leadership, as a sub-discipline, is probably beset by more fads and fashions than any other academic arena of management. Over decades it has thrown up numerous schools, each with their own theory and research. Little of it is convincing. As a result it is literally true that in my decades of consulting in businesses and organisations I have never–not even once–heard any of it referred to or seen it actively used. Aspiring managers are sent on leadership courses, which purvey this kind of material, and then come back to manage on instinct.
If we are to believe the financial markets this lack of robust insight into leadership must be a disaster, for companies and for the economy as a whole. For nothing is more deeply etched in the common wisdom of the markets than the myth of CEO omnipotence. If a company thrives the CEO is lionised and excessively rewarded. If the company declines, for long enough, he (usually he) is sacked and a new CEO installed. The market loves new CEO’s: they bring with them all the promise of irresistible prosperity, particularly to shareholders. This time, the market insists, they have got it right. This CEO will remake the company and its business, do everything that is needed to turn it around. This CEO knows everything that is needed for that happen; he is possessed of extraordinary talents; he is tough (the markets love ‘tough’). Above all, he has the market’s interests at heart and will deliver value to them. That all leaders at some point are replaced, that these grossly unreasonable expectations are almost never met, doesn’t seem to dampen the market’s ardour for CEO’s. It is an irrational, and apparently unchanging, bewitchment.
The simple fact is that this model of the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful CEO who directs all aspects of the company with precision and flair is a mirage, a caricature. All good leaders know they are only as good as their people; that their success or failure depends on their people, not on themselves. Leaders who forget this, who buy into the notion of their own exceptionalism and infallibility do so at their own risk; and their risk the well-being of not only their own people but of all their stakeholders.
At the root of the problem is the deeply ingrained idea that somehow leaders are a type of person; that leaders are born, not made. That is, there are ‘L-type’ people moving around with that character, as if the letter had spontaneously emerged on their foreheads. It is assumed that they have innate qualities which predispose them to leadership; that wherever they go, whatever they do, they will display these qualities. Thus in organisations people are often identified as having ‘leadership potential’: they are L-type people.
As it happens the somewhat chaotic landscape of leadership research agrees at least on this: that there is no set of personality characteristics which predicts leadership capability. This is the longest-running research program in the discipline, directed by this old, tenacious model of leadership. It set out to prove that there was indeed such a set; because if there is a set then you can select people for these attributes and culture them for high office. It conspicuously failed.
This is in any case a highly offensive direction, from a human rights perspective. Because if there are L-type people then by definition there are non-L-type people (who must, of course, be the followers, otherwise the L-type people would have no-one to lead). Not a pleasant fate to be a non-L-type person, condemned always to the lower echelons, to the most boring work (as we have seen under Taylorist assumptions the planners, the brain-workers are the leaders, the L-type people). One only needs to make the link from personality to genetics and we are into dangerous territory. This has indeed been the claim of a recent study [i] which looked at 4000 individuals to correlate leadership with genetic constitution. Their finding claimed to ‘explain’ 25% of leadership behaviour on genetic grounds. However the definition of leadership behaviour in this study was trivially defined by a position in workplace supervision–as much, in my experience, a measure of organisational conformity as of leadership behaviour. Largely because of its naive treatment of leadership behaviour, the study does nothing to buttress the discredited L-type model.
Here is a completely different–effectively opposite–view of leadership, from the classical Chinese teacher of the 6th Century, Lao Tse (this is one of many translations, I’m told among the more authentic of them[ii]:
Of the best rulers, the people only know that they exist; the next they fear; and the next they revile, when they do not command the people’s faith. Some will lose faith in them, and then they resort to oaths! But of the best when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people all remark, “We have done it ourselves.”
In my experience this facilitative model of the leadership resonates much more strongly with ordinary people in the workplace than the L-type, charismatic model. Let us see why.
Our approach will be to think through the idea of leadership–by deconstructing it and then rebuilding it. Self-evidently, despite the attempt to identify and define L-type people, leaders can’t exist on their own, as isolated individuals. If you are to called a leader there must be people whom you lead. Otherwise what are you, exactly–a leader temporarily between engagements? A leader in waiting? This is patently absurd. A leader becomes a leader when he or she has followers (a term we will discuss later).
It follows that it is to the relationship between leader and follower that we need to look. What is the nature of the relationship? What elements comprise it, how is it constituted? What is a strong relationship as against a weak one, a healthy one as against an unhealthy one, a durable one as against a temporary one? How do dimensions such as these affect organisational outcomes? These are the central questions of leadership.
To begin with let’s remind ourselves that we all know something about relationships, and about what strengthens or weakens them. Certainly the leader-follower relationship is a relationship of a particular kind, built around work. But the human elements of the relationship can’t be separated from the professional elements, so we all have something useful to say about the leader-follower relationship. If you ask people to write down the characteristics of the person they would most like to be led by they will list such things as: ability to listen; empathy; trust; respect; support; taking responsibility; collaboration; and so on. In my experience there is little dispute about these. When you look at the list you see that they seem to be fairly ordinary human qualities. We expect our leaders to be decent human beings first and foremost, people who treat us well and with respect, and we respond to them best when they are.
Unremarkable as this conclusion is, it is also, strangely, quite controversial. In academic management leadership is arcane, complex and difficult. Here we are asserting the opposite. Leaders and followers work best together if they follow the guidelines of normal human experience; and in this case that is the antithesis of the coercive behaviour we have discussed in earlier chapters. It works in both directions: followers, or subordinates, are equally responsible for the strength and quality of the relationship and for the decency of their own behaviour. Relationships are always two-way affairs, in business as in life.
Of course there are areas of the leader-follower relationship which have a legitimate focus on the work. Leaders and followers work together to achieve the objectives of the organisation. In that work they each take different part, which can best be described as roles. Leadership and followership are different roles in the workplan taken on for the purpose of the work. They are not personality sets: no one is a leader or a follower for life, and every one is a leader and a follower at some time in their lives. The primacy of the underlying human level remains, upheld by human rights, ethical principles, and the best social norms. On that basis leaders and followers play their particular roles in the interests both of themselves and of the work outcome. And these roles are not set in stone: they are flexible and likely to change as circumstances change. Good teams know that in one particular task one person may be best qualified to take a leadership role, and in another task someone else may be. In my experience Australian workers often spontaneously self-organise in this way. Roles change with tasks, as seems eminently sensible.
This view is supported by evidence. In remarkable book, Leading Quietly, Joseph Badaracco, a Harvard researcher, reports a detailed study conduct on some 400 businesses and organisations in the US[iii]. Badaracco asked a simple question: where is leadership found in the organisation? The natural answer is ‘at the top’; but intriguingly Badaracco left it open to the evidence: he and his co-workers spent many months observing, interviewing and documenting the day-to-day life of these organisations, looking for the answer to that research question.
What emerged from the study was striking and strongly counter-intuitive. Firstly, it became clear that leadership was occurring as a matter of course, every day, at every level of the organisation. That is, people everywhere in the business were generating and guiding initiatives, gathering the resources needed, garnering the support of peers, managing upwards, and so on, until a successful conclusion was reached. Just we predicted above, it wasn’t always the same people who acted as leaders: leadership activity moved around the organisation and people could be at different times both leaders and followers, depending on the issue or the task. Badaracco pointed out that people seemed to be acting as leaders not because they were predisposed to it but out of a desire to accomplish within the organisation something they cared about. Whether they had a title or designated responsibility or power was largely irrelevant: they took charge and, with luck, got it done.
Secondly, and even more dramatically, Badaracco concluded that the cumulative impact of these leadership micro-initiatives far outweighed the impact of programs initiated by senior management, the nominal leaders of the organisations. This is difficult to credit, but the evidence was clear. The direct challenge it presents to the model of the archetypal American CEO-king is easy to see.
How could this possibly be true? Isn’t it the case that, in accord with good Taylorist principles, it is senior management that is largely responsible for strategic and tactical planning, which is then cascaded through the organisation directed by supervisors and implemented by employees? Isn’t that what they are being paid (often excessively) to do? What then does it mean to say that leadership is occurring, and occurring on such a scale, throughout the organisation?
Here the processual approach we introduced earlier in the book provides some valuable insights. A fundamental principle of the processual view (not so much a principle as a basic fact of human life) is that people are always centres of creativity, decisions, initiatives and actions. That is true in life generally and no less in organisations. Even if presented with a strategic plan, operation plan, work plan and the like, all carefully engineered at the top, people will take charge of them wherever they are in the organisational hierarchy. They will alter the plan, introduce new elements into it, change priorities, even oppose or replace it, according to their views of what is needed, from where they are. Often this can be done without attracting notice, under the radar, as it were; but often, if the issue is big enough, a coordinated approach is needed within the organisation and visible to it. That requires real leadership, of a sophisticated kind, but it is common, not rare: you only have to reflect on your own work experience to recognise it. That is, it would seem that, what Badaracco’s researchers came across as they drilled down into their hundreds of organisations. It is a striking result.
In support, then, of our project of restructuring leadership ideas, here are four guiding principles of leadership, drawn from my experience and from the wider organisational and leadership literature:
1. Vision and strategy. Leadership is often associated with the big picture, with a whole of business view, with the ability to see patterns in complex environments and develop trajectories for the organisation to achieve success. Traditionally this is associated with the CEO, who autocratically stamps her vision on the company and drives it from there. As we have noted, there is real reason, however, to doubt the efficacy of this model. In the modern environment it is almost impossible for any one person to have detailed knowledge of all the areas of the external environment that is needed for a successful outcome: that environment is simply too large, too complex, too volatile, too interactive. The development of an organisational vision and the strategic directions that derive from it is necessarily collaborative, and all the best leaders in my experience work that way. There is also the principle of ownership: an organisational vision that is imparted from on high will be resisted, or at best received with detachment; it is only by participating in the creation of a vision that people take on a real commitment to it. The leadership role in the creation of an organisational vision is thus to facilitate the process of vision and strategy development, including all its stakeholders, and being open to the outcome of this collective, collaborative process. Opening up vision and strategy creation in this way can lead to surprising and innovative outcomes.
2. Partnership. The development of an organisation is always a collaborative exercise. In essence an organisation is a community of people working for a common end. A wise leader understands this deeply and acts accordingly. I have argued that the entry point for a leader is that her subordinates are responsible, mature, forward-looking associates who deserve trust and respect. Leadership, as we have said, is a role, just as the other positions in the organisations are roles: the value of people in those roles is equally maintained across the organisation. The organisational task is to develop ways of working together, in different configurations and under different processes, to achieve the outcomes of the organisation. This requires leaders, in particular, to facilitate and support an environment of openness and transparency, of straightforward and honest communication, which includes the ability to listen as much as to speak or propose. It requires the abandonment of positions of power: if a leader has to resort to power than her role has been irreparably compromised. It requires an ability to let go of ego and of entrenched personal commitments, to recognise that expertise of various kinds is not concentrated at the top but distributed throughout the organisation, to move with the majority view where the case has been made. An organisation is made by the people in it, together, and the leader’s role is to make the collaborative enterprise work.
3. Integrity. Integrity should be so built into the everyday behaviour of a leader that it hardly needs to be mentioned. However, the evidence is that it still needs to be emphasized. Integrity means in the first place personal integrity: in addition to transparency and honesty, it rests on behaviour which is characterised by consistency (trust is difficult to develop in the face of inconsistency); equity and fairness, especially where the choices are personally challenging; and honesty and directness (that is, lack of prevarication). Exemplifying integrity in one’s personal conduct is critical for a leader: she can’t ask her people to act with integrity if she herself doesn’t. Ethical behaviour is critical, especially where it’s personally difficult: it must be unfaltering. The leader must be seen to value values: most organizational value statements are given only lip service at best; an effective leader must be seen to draw explicitly on values and act on them–they act as an anchor which people can rely on. And when you make promises you deliver on them: or you come back and say why it didn’t work and what you’re going to do about it.
An important part of integrity is being real: that is, not pretending, not trying to cover things over. If something is not working, or didn’t go well, you talk about it with your people; you develop with them the habit of learning from these experiences, together, not of concealing them. Only when you know where you are is it possible to work out how to get to where you want to go. That kind of realism is mutually empowering.
On this platform of personal integrity it’s possible then to build institutional integrity. That is, the organisation itself can act, and be seen to act, with integrity. That is something of enormous value, to both commercial and non-profit organisations alike, in building its reputation and conducting its business in the market. Internally it attracts and retains good people and externally it builds the collaborative external relationships on which lasting success is built.
4. Community. In the end the role of a leader is to build community: a place of productive and positive relationships that organically functions for the benefit of both the organization and its people. To that end the first law of leadership is: look after your people. As we have noted, the leader recognises that she is not going to do the work: her people are. Her role, as leader, is to support them: to facilitate their work, help them break through barriers, where necessary protect them from outside interference, and secure their personal welfare, as much as she can; and help the group learn, adapt, manage its processes, share across divisions of the organisation, and remain connected to the collectively-derived organisational goals and values. People are supported as whole people, not just as workers; they bring their lives with them to work, and from time to time the leader will need to support them in different aspects; the traditional requirement to ‘leave your problems at home’ is ridiculous: of course you can’t, and to a degree all organizations will at times need to recognize private needs and support them. As a leader you respect in confidence communications and maintain privacy where it is asked for: you don’t breach that, ever. This approach has been called servant leadership[iv], which sounds like a contradiction in terms but which plainly isn’t; on the contrary, it’s how effective, human leadership is done.
Above all you appreciate your people and their achievements. Most people don’t need much in the way of appreciation, but they do need something. It’s simply not enjoyable to work day after day and not know whether what you’re doing is valued, or even noticed. Even a words, sometimes, will do. Group achievements should be celebrated, with vigour: we did this, and we did it together.