WHY ARE GOOD LEADERS CONSTANTLY HITTING THE WALL…

…in traditional organisations? Have you ever noticed that those few managers and leaders who earnestly seek to develop themselves at some stage get frustrated, give up and leave? In spite of everybody crying out for “agile” and “empowering” and “responsible” leaders? I will suggest the challenge is systemic: the maturity of an organisation can never transcend the maturity of their leaders… and its teams.

In fact, if in traditional organisations leaders start to yield positional power, their environment will often respond in a hostile fashion. And that is no surprise! We expect leaders to “be in control” and the ambiguity of shared leadership — often not helped by the lack of well-articulated processes, absence of collaboration cultures and misaligned incentives — is problematic. Moreover, traditional power holders are sorely reminded of the illegitimacy of their feudal behaviours which is frequently, let’s say it diplomatically, unwelcome…

Plus, the scepticism quickly becomes self-fulfilling prophecy when teams are not willing or ready to accept ownership: chaos and lack of accountability will ensue once decision-making power is being decentralised. Leaders are quickly perceived to be out of control and not “on top of their game”. Similarly, if leaders stop defending their turf “upwards” and seek to rally others around a new paradigm, they will often be side-lined by peers who are masters at playing a zero sum political career game. Thus, when leaders seek to raise above their context, they often get themselves into deep trouble. After some battling many surrender and leave to find pastures new or to set up consultancies or coaching practices.

What is the solution? I believe two aspects are important: firstly, a systemic problem requires systemic interventions: unless everybody is on the same page, we cannot just drop positional authority. Instead, consecutive intentional adaptations of personal agency (of followers), structures and processes, culture and incentives are needed to prepare the ground. Secondly, leaders themselves must reframe their roles from “being in control” to “guarding and developing the system”. Often, frustration stems from a conflict in our roles and personal identity — we all have invested emotional capital into “being someone” whereas the new paradigm requires us to “become as part of the whole”. Only when both the leaders and “the system” are truly ready to embrace shared power, can the organisation truly flourish…

#leadership #goodorganisations #transformation #agile #Unitedforgood #systemsthinking

Thanks to Amaranatho and Peter Koning (Author of the Agile Leadership toolkit) to get me thinking.

Discussion

Shared values and purpose are critical. In my experience, it’s the absence and/or misalignment of shared values in any given organisational environment that fuel a primal need for ‘control’. When ‘leadership’ replaces practical wisdom with intellectual knowledge, the ego will fight to protect its perceived ‘maturity’. Without allegiance to a cause, or shared purpose (beyond profit), these organisations struggle to maintain the synergy needed for ‘good work’ to happen sustainably.

Fear matters. It’s the fear of the unknown for leaders and people alike that stop them from taking that step and letting go, probably from fear of being rejected. A difficult conundrum

Good Organisations and good leaders are linked. Of course I agree — it is the interaction between good leaders and good organizations which will ultimately bring the needed transformation. But this also leaves us with a hen — egg problem. Who should start where? I know some brave companies where the top management team convinced their board (in a two years row) to let go of some of the toxic practices .Solinger et al show nicely that moral entrepreneurs can be successful: https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/amr.2016.0263
And what can we as academics do? Well — at least show how a reformation from above, beneath and within could be “operationalized” in a language as understandable and actionable as possible. Also, sadly, most of those in leadership positions have no idea of any of the concepts we bring forward here. So we need to start with further education.

Language and dialogues: words make worlds. Reading this post I am struck once again by how akin the concepts and language are with dialogue — a way of being and thinking together that I feel holds a promise to reestablish moral principles as the core of our institutions. You are probably well aware of this source, but I’ve much enjoyed ‘The Art of Thinking Together’ by William Isaacs on this practice.

Leaders must move on. One challenge is that current people in leadership positions (who are not necessarily leadership personalities) are not willing to step down or step up in terms of developing themselves. Those people who live happily now have control of all of the resources and will not give them up to those who wish to change. And then why would they? The system rewards their “under development” ;-) and exposing themselves often quickly makes them lose institutional power…

Wisdom is what matters. One thing that fascinates me over the last year is the power of unhealthy short-term benefits. You also refer to short term behavior with long term negative effects when you refer to: leaders who play a zero sum political career. These leaders create short term results, with long term debts in energy, pro-activity and ownership. I want to add another alternative to your solution: at the very top of the organization there should be wise leaders. Leaders who focus on the long term and have the wisdom to recognize the unhealthy short-term behaviors. This together with a growth model, where more and more freedom is given to the teams to take ownership, collaborate, fire the middle-managers and deliver awesome customer products & services. But … the CEO needs to report to shareholders, who also want short-term behavior. So in the end… indeed a few people should get on the same page: the CxOs and main shareholders. But … The attraction of money is often too powerful … people do foolish things for money while wisdom is needed to choose for the long-term benefit. So wise and not money-hungry leaders? Is that what we need more?

Where to start? The question, is, where to start? It’s always very demanding where & how to start changing such (toxic) leadership culture within organisations. What one action will create the biggest domino effect? Not saying I have the answer or that it is an easy one… I am now more or less in the position you describe as ‘surrender and leave’ — i am exhausted and just cannot get a coalition of the willing mustered. What would be your advice / next step?

Knowledge and transparency are key. Positional authority is one major source of power (capability, status, sense of power.) Another is knowledge, or more specifically restricted knowledge. The are many types of restricted knowledge, including formally and informally confidential information. Perhaps the most important type of restricted knowledge is knowledge of operational processes and people’s views of those processes. However this knowledge is only restricted because it is not distributed well. In most cases there is no functional reason for restricting the distribution of this knowledge. If a clerk in sales understands the workflow in manufacturing there is no great risk. However it gives a clerk the ability to consider whether or not they would like to be in manufacturing, & allows them to contribute ideas to manufacturing. This is empowerment. If only managers understand the details of operations, they functionally have power to control those operations and they need to have that power, along with the accountability. If knowledge of the operations is widely distributed, then the ability to control and manage those operations is widely distributed. That knowledge is relatively easy to distribute and there is great value in doing so.

We need focus on the boardroom. One thing I would add or even expand on — which is a big driver to many leaders “moving on”, is that so many leaders have used a traditional playbook based on various academic and historical approaches that highlight a legacy based mindset, that is clearly not fit for today’s environment. It’s outdated now. If covid has done one thing, it has certainly shone a bright light on the capabilities of leaders to move quickly and decisively in a fluid and dynamic environment. The problem is, boards and so many leaders have a traditional approach based on managing complicated processes. Today’s business is now very complex, and most certainly fluid, where the pressure to adjust, is becoming overwhelming for leaders — hence them “jumping ship”. The place to focus is the boardroom, they are the custodians of the “right change” in leadership, its whether they have the capabilities to fully understand and grasp what a leader for 2022 and beyond really should like? The sands are shifting quickly, time will tell how this will play out…

Systems matter. As you rightly describe, we need to work on all layers. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa; it was clear that, until all were represented in national governance through having voting rights, nothing else could deliver a viable nation. Similarly in business; we need a viable approach in the first 5 strata of business to get a viable economy. (Inner-person, inter person, org design, incorporation, local business ecosystems) p.44 in the book Rebuild the Economy Leadership and You. That is why I chose to follow Buckminster Fuller’s advice: build a prototype complete new system that works, not try to change the existing system. Check out what Evolutesix regenerative startup factory is doing

We need to start in school. Whilst it’s essentially good to debate, often nothing actually changes! Lots of words, thoughts, PPP, graphics etc…We need to start with educating our children at school on Politics and ‘real’ Social Economics; in other words ‘life, real life’. Our Children are the future. We have to give them an education on life and for life and all it’s twists and turns. Schools currently deal with the basics. How many of us know what we want or who we really are at that age?

From: “Sunday Morning Thoughts on LinkedIn” — I will report some of the interesting LinkedIn dialogues here, paraphrased and applying the Chatham House Rule — trying to protect some of the sentiments, thoughts, and above all our stimulating discussions from oblivion ;-)

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Otti Vogt

Disruptive thinker, amateur poet and passionate global C-level transformation leader with over 20 years of experience in cross-cultural strategic change