Why are good leaders hitting the wall in traditional organisations? Have you ever noticed that those few leaders who earnestly seek to develop themselves and their teams often get frustrated, give up and leave? In spite of everybody crying out for more “agile”, “empowering” and “responsible” leaders? I will suggest the challenge is systemic: the maturity of an organisation can never transcend the maturity of its leaders… and its teams.
In fact, when senior leaders in traditional organisations start to yield positional power, their environment will often respond in a hostile fashion. And that is no surprise! We expect leaders to be “loyal marines”, always in control and ready to execute. The necessary ambiguity of shared leadership — often not helped by the lack of well-articulated processes, absence of collaboration cultures and misaligned incentives — is often highly problematic. Moreover, when such collaborative leaders enter the scene, traditional power holders are sorely reminded of the illegitimacy of their feudal behaviours. Which very frequently, let’s say it diplomatically, is rather unwelcome…
But in my experience the problem is not only one of corporate antibodies: initial skepticism often becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.
- If leaders readily yield their positional power, they can be perceived by their own units as manipulative and removed from day-to-day operations (“head office politicians”), or as “naive aliens” who break unwritten rules and pursue idealistic phantasies whilst being unable to play the corporate game. As a result, teams are often on the fence. But when followers are unwilling or not ready to accept newly gained ownership, chaos and lack of accountability are certain to ensue. Soon, leaders are perceived by their bosses as out of control and not “on top of their game”, with obvious consequences.
- But even if successful in creating “downward” engagement, trouble looms “upwards”. If leaders stop defending their “turf”, seeking to inspire their peers to follow a more collaborative paradigm (“we are all in this together”), they will quickly find themselves sidelined by colleagues who master a zero-sum political career game. Moreover, at the first mishap or mistake, skeptics will openly demand abortion of all heretical experiments, if not the experimenter’s head. Thus, when leaders seek to raise above their context, they will often get themselves into deep trouble. (Not even to mention legal and regulatory requirements to maintain concise and transparent delegations of authority.) Without the most senior sponsorship (read: the CEO) many progressive leaders will ultimately surrender and leave for pastures new, or to set up their own consultancies and coaching practices — to help others avoid their own mistakes.
What is the solution? I believe two aspects are important: Firstly, a systemic problem requires systemic interventions. Unless everybody is on the same page, it is impossible to just “drop” positional authority. As often suggested, we might want to start small, but, more importantly, any approach must be holistic. It must include the consecutive and intentional development of personal agency and competency (of followers), as well as the coherent evolution of structures and processes, culture and incentives. This requires a very strong alliance of the willing, and excellent political skills on the side of the “catalysing” leader/s.
Secondly, leaders themselves must be willing to reframe their own roles: a shift towards systemic leadership requires us to enact the whole, rather than insisting on our own part. From managing in the system we move to the management of the system and eventually embody the system itself. This requires not only the acquisition of new skills, but also identity work. We often speak about “letting go of authority”, but that only defines what we lose, not what we gain. Leaders need to find new identity “anchors” in order to tap into the motivation and commitment needed to embrace a new role. And this is not easy — even when leaders empower others, they often continue to draw their solid sense of identity from their own power and status — we all have invested emotional capital into “being someone”.
In a nutshell, we must be careful to ingenuously demand the installation of “new leadership” paradigms. Only when both leaders and followers, and the organisation as a whole, are truly ready and willing to embrace shared power, can such shared leadership truly flourish…
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.
- “Moral entrepreneurs” sounds similar to a concept developed by Thijs Homan (a worthwhile read, interactionist perspective to change) who in studying how change happens reveals the importance of ‘activists’ who act in accordance with moral principles, in spite of resistances they may (will..) face.
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.
- Yes we also believe dialogic practices are critical whereas i believe a process-centric view (procedural fairness) of ethics for me is insufficient and a habermasian perspective — and I’m partly speaking out of terms here as our research isn’t deep enough yet — is fraught with difficulties. However, if we look at methodologies there’s a lot to learn from — art of hosting, t groups, appreciative inquiry, theory u, liberating structures, conflict management practices etc etc. James Priest was just looking at it from a perspective of decision making patterns in sociocracy. So i think we need to understand how we can activate collective thinking and develop it towards collective wisdom — which might require the institutionalization of “an ethos of participation” as Paul Adler calls it. More to ponder!
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…
- I wonder, though, how and why “the organisation” continuously ignore clear signs of dysfunction (such as turnover, burnout and weak performance) in teams lead by top leaders who obviously work towards power only and hence lack the leadership skills that make people and ultimately organisations thrive.
- Very good question of course and probably lots of reasons — short term focus over long term focus. Unwillingness to be vulnerable or admit own mistakes. Over confidence in one’s own abilities. Blaming external conditions and other factors. Willful blindness. Wrong numbers — looking mostly at aggregates of financials and satisfaction scores. Lack of diversity and stakeholders representation. Lack of women in the boardroom. Fear of failure. History. Outdated HR policies. Pay and rewards systems. Insecure overachiever consultants. Pressure on results… fact is that probably all of these symptoms are grounded in a problem of organizational character — lack of true meaning, lack of caring, lack of wisdom…
- I would like to reference Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s work here and draw analogies from the question “why so many incompetent men become leaders” (and ultimately massively contribute to the described paradox).
- Why haven’t altruist replaced politician and #humanity replaced managing upwards? One would think a more often reason people, not only leaders, hit the wall is due to persistent and inconsistent message and actions of leaders. Good and skilled people, including leaders, leave when they are rendered helpless and obstructed at work; it generally goes deeper than mere organisational culture.
- Yup…and we haven’t even started discussing personal authority gaps driven by perceptions built in our societies. Well, it has to start somewhere….till then, I’m flying solo.
- WHY ARE GOOD LEADERS CONSTANTLY HITTING THE WALL in traditional organisations? Because that’s exactly their job
- Change will come gradually if all those people who wish to change work together sincerely, and at the same time recognize, connect to, and appreciate the worth/value of their inner resources, their deep essence which cannot be taken away by those who control materialistic resources. Those who control unjustly they are also living under great fear and suffering though they maybe very good at putting “masks”. That’s why we have to re-define and bring such questions in common discourse, like: what is real happiness and growth…? This would also imply seeing the limitations of the measurement narrowly adopted through GDP and finding alternative ways to measure the overall common and shared growth…One example perhaps could be the GNH (Gross National Happiness) index in Bhutan.
- Yes indeed — What better measure of success but also a great motive and largely unapposeable, it’s also a simple understandable root for systematic transformation and systematic methodology. — you don’t need to be able to measure it yet, just strive for it systematically — since basic income underpins our happiness making money is a key priority but we have many priorities so we integrate the lot in one big happiness mission.
Integration of everything means starting fro scratch — with people in a foundation for the future. Here we will grow new industry and in time old industry will disappear over many decades.
Consumerism will fade away as we see the benefits of true love — that is really beautiful and far from the mad worthless rat race were stuck in now.
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?
- Yes, I am thinking the same — we need wise leaders as guardians not so much of the organisation, but of society. More like the elders who ensure that processes and enabling conditions are in place for people to develop and flourish, rather than constantly shooting each other in their own feet! That is also a little bit what I have in mind with a different role for leaders — there is a natural progression from “operating in the system” to “operating on the system”. But that is not an easy step. Plus, as you say, if the shareholders, supervisory boards, neighbours are all primed to push for short-termism and materialism, and if “dominance” remains the default interaction model between people… I guess we are — pardon my french — f**ked.
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?
- simple: CEO pay.
- Agree but…lets change board education so that they know as well
- Leaders must simply leave ;-)
- From a personal perspective — of course as Carol Sanford always says it is impossible for us to give advice — that would require us to have a lot more knowledge of your circumstances and the specific situation. What I will say is that there is a lot of learning in every crisis — “post traumatic growth”. Hence without trying to sound superficial, I would seek to make the most of the crisis — not resisting it but going deep. Holding the questions: What does life call for? What has energy? If there are multiple options which one feels right? How can you bring your unique contribution to the constellation of people you find yourself in? How can you reframe your role for impact? What is your most important “work” to develop further and grow? I meant to jump a few times and decided not to in order to develop further — before eventually moving on with a light heart. I reckon what matters most is to tap into our shared aliveness — both suffering and joy can have their role in that. Views anyone?
- My experience is that every crisis brings a great opportunity for growth and transformation. In the beginning it feels like a shattering experience but if we embrace this experience and the turmoil within us with self-compassion, and be watchful of the trap of “self-pity”, a new energy and strength start to manifest through us. After some time we often realize that the crisis was actually a blessing in disguise…I don’t know if this article would be of any help… https://www.schoolforselfinquiry.org/transformation_through_crisis.html
- It sounds like it is tough for you at the moment and hoping you can take some time for self care. Surrender and leave sounds like a good place. I wonder if it possible to apply that internally to your own thought process. I wonder if you have to have a coalition. I wonder if if it okay to let it all fail? I wonder if it is time for a cuppa of tea? I trust the next step will come for you because I know you are totally worthy of it.
- May I in a humble way offer you this? As you have arrived at a serious pain point, please listen to it and don’t run away from it. Life itself is knocking at your door!
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.
- That is a superb point! Knowledge is power, and maybe becomes a defense mechanism against the anxiety of not knowing… I am still struggling with the term “empowerment” — it seems to imply someone has powers and lends it to others. That might be purely semantic but I kind of like the thought that “we cannot empower anyone” — “people choose to be empowered”. In that sense, it is more about enabling people to “step into power”… but as I said, mostly semantics ;-)
- Yes, I have seen some critiques of the word empowerment. It’s kind of an umbrella term. I define power as a combination of capability, status and sense of power, where a lot can be tucked under “capability”. More accurately I would’ve said that the clerk has extended capability from having that knowledge, additional status from having access to the knowledge, and greater sense of power from the capability and status. The virtues of having the knowledge go further though, In terms of the person better knowing the value they create and who it effects, being able to contribute, have a sense of belonging to a larger whole and being respected and trusted.
- I recently came across the notion of power as “a change in potentiality”. I found that fascinating as it loosely links with Foucault’s theories of communication — power shifts something in “what is possible”, through changes in people, language, circumstances. Maybe an interesting further thought…
- That’s a good one! One of the challenges of #talkaboutpower is that It is intrinsically a “network effect” In the sense that it has many aspects many causes in many effects, So that it almost requires a system thinking point of view in order to wrap one’s head around it effectively. I often start with power is the ability to cause change and then modify it to say that power‘s the ability to control change. Because so much of power is used to prevent change, even for every man and woman just trying to maintain some stability in their routines.
- Knowledge has always been associated with power but it can also be interesting to explore the limits of knowledge based on thought and memory. Knowledge is a continuous never-ending process of learning as well as unlearning. Can we also recognize other sources of power? Like: trust, togetherness, empathy, compassion, clarity, responsibility, wonder and silence… Yes, there maybe a sense of arrogance and division when we talk about “empowering others”. Feeling of responsibility brings true sense of empowerment. The word “responsibility” means “my ability to respond” to any given challenge/situation. The more I am clear and free from irrational fears, the more enhanced, balanced and powerful is my capacity to respond!
- I love your comment! Responsibility, leadership with thrust instead of fear, enabling teammates. Exactly the setup of the leadership culture in our airline crew(s) — so much more powerful, less stressful and in the way to successfully master challenges together!
- I agree that power is certainly complex and has many manifestations. However on the first order of effect basis, Power is related to capability possessed by human beings. And the capability is largely governed by mental models, which are Closely associated with if not identical to knowledge. in the organization of workplace the most important knowledge is knowledge of how to operate the work processes. Remove that and everything stops regardless of any kind of emotional intelligence or sensitivity. The distribution of process knowledge is effectively not democratic because typically only managers have the best view of it in explicit, descriptive form. Distributing process knowledge allows staff to participate in the organization in a much more broad and profound way. This is nothing abstract or theoretical,this is absolutely doable, and the most progressive organizations do it.
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…
- Many thinks for adding further perspectives! Very interesting. A few things come up: yes, indeed, the traditional playbook has been perpetuated far beyond its usefulness and many business schools and academics and HR departments are still falling short of an axiological (and even scientific) requalification of their leadership development and economic theories. When it comes to “dynamism”, I think many people unduly mix adaptiveness and goodness — and we need both. Here, I move from a systemic perspective (which today many people are quick to endorse) to an ethical perspective (which most people have never truly investigated). We need a different model, not only to survive but to flourish. Finally, yes to the boardroom. There is a context within which our organisations operate that requires shifting. That said, I believe all levels of analysis — individual-agentic, relational-institutional, and systemic have truth. We probably need to experiment with a series of interventions at all different levels and see what sticks. None of this will work unless the power shifts — both in terms of structures, but above all in terms of minds. (Positional) hierarchy always starts in our heads…
- The business school and academia angle just highlight that the speed of change across the business world is outstripping the learning capacity of many business theories. But one thing I think holds true across it all — a point you’ve picked up on is that there has to be a more empathetic approach from leaders, where a moral stance is to the fore. Leaders of all organisations just ‘need to be better humans’, more #EQ most certainly.
Focus now must be — and always should have been, about our people and how we treat and train them. The cultural impact will be greater for businesses and the wider society in the long run.
- Often we learn parenting from our parents — often the leadership skills we learned are from leaders who learned theirs in the last century. Not good enough when the speed of change has increased so much. Work has evolved. A leader now must adapt, innovate and serve the team that serves the purpose. A whole new mindset. The personal element of this requires awareness and reflection — letting go of control is no easy thing.
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
- I agree with you that the problem is systemic. Since Bucky and many others knew, we can’t change systems, but can only replace old one with newer ones. Hence, my deduction is that very few of the current e.g. Fortune 500 companies will usher in this new system — because of the entrenched incentive structures they are inextricably linked with. I guess we won’t see an inverse game theory-type ‘de-compensation’ linked to ‘de-extracting’ linked to de-etcetera from the people in incumbents. What I can very much imagine is that the rise of DAOs, DISCOs, COOP2.0 and more broadly speaking — Stewardship-based forms of leading and following will attract a critical mass of Top-Talent amongst GenX, GenY and especially GenZ — which then at least has a chance to create a new version of musical chairs amongst the laggards, which today mostly comprise GenX an especially Boomers.
- I cannot agree more with the statement: “a systemic problem requires systemic intervention.” If you want better individual leadership, design a better system and train them to the requirements of the system. This is what Deming said long ago. I don’t want to get too boastful but my book, Leveraging the Genetics of Leadership is the first book of its kind that shows how high-impact organizations are changing the world through the design of their leadership system.
- This comes down so much to intentional change, with a strong unlearning component. Intentional systemic change is relatively new to the scene; historically, to change the apple-selling paradigm, you had to upset the apple cart, chop it into bits, burn it to ashes, and start over. Mindfully changing a system, especially since it means navigating into uncertainty, is quite an undertaking.
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 ;-)