Management for the battlefield

One of my roles in supporting leaders is as an executive coach. And as you could imagine, I hear about leadership challenges almost on a daily basis – and it’s often not a very inspiring story.  For example I was recently coaching an executive who was describing the difficulties he was experiencing in holding people accountable and getting them to focus on what matters to the business.  He was frustrated by their lack of ‘get up and go’ and apparent lack of ‘skin in the game’.

As the story unfolded, it was clear that the executive had at least an equal part to play in his department’s underperformance.  Why?  It was clear from the stories he was telling me (and himself) about his staff that he had been operating from a traditional command and control framework. This mode of thinking is still pervasive and it’s symptoms include disengagement, lack of innovative thinking, disempowerment and ‘work to rule’.
And it happens on a large scale and also in the smallest ways.
Recently I was in a reception area making small talk with the receptionist, when I noticed the flourescent light directly above us flickering.  I commented how annoying that must be to which the receptionist indignantly replied, “Yes, it sure is, but it’s not my job to fix it so I guess it’ll just have to keep on flickering!”
Mark Steyn, CEO of Hudson A/NZ, recently conducted research into enagement and employee morale and states “In every aspect of current workplace sentiment – whether job satisfaction, motivation, morale, perceived stress levels or job security – employers are clearly unaware of their employees’ frame of mind.”  Despite 44 per cent of employees indicating that employee morale in their company has plummeted, only 26 per cent of employers acknowledge that workplace morale had dropped, recent research has revealed.
All of this smacks of a command and control paradigm of management.
We are used to thinking that someone must lead and someone must be led, someone must decide and someone must have decisions imposed upon them. The power to command, control and dominate others is the mechanism of the traditional outside power structure (the one where people in superior positions dominate people in subordinate positions). When the outside power structure is changed to an inside power structure, people will need to adjust to a change from one structure to another.
Without a change in structure, people will continue their current practices based on their beliefs, habits and the mental patterns that these create. Therefore a different conception of leadership is needed – one that empowers the person (inside authority and personal power) and not the position (outside authority and positional power).

The kind of leadership we have will change, not because of the person in a position, but because of a new reality that will bring about new conditions for power-sharing in the organization and in the workplace.

We know for example that no one person, not even the CEO can make large scale change happen without engaging large parts, if not all, of the organisation.  It is incredibly naive to think that positional authority is sufficient to engage people and get the best from them. In reality, leadership requires a broad skill set outside the traditional boundaries of formal authority and management.

For example, are we treated according to what we know and what we want to contribute or are we merely treated according to our position? Today organizations are managed by hierarchic structures, meaning that the people occupying superior positions manage people in subordinate positions. In other words, employees are treated according to their positions and not according to their competence, which makes absences caused by structural – and not personal – factors.  It is the power structure of the organization that produces incompetence and ineffectiveness.

Why do we continue to behave in this way and reinforce tradtional power structures?  If we take a closer look at the evolutionary traits of the hierarchic structure, the superior positions prove increasingly valuable in terms of wages, superannuation, benefits and other privileged arrangements. The leaders have a lot to gain by protecting and defending their positions against internal and external threats and they have a lot to lose if they don’t. It is also how we were managed, and how our manager’s managed them and so on.

Let me be clear about one thing – I am not advocating a ‘free-for-all-do-what-you-want’ style of management.  What I am advocating however is a move to a values-based culture where there are high levels of respect and trust, where communication is real and transparent, and where people’s talents and strengths are leveraged rather than stifled. In fact, the real sign that an organisation is moving beyond the realm of command and control management is where leaders can successfully do one thing – generate leadership right through the organisation.  It is only then that major change, exquisite strategy execution and highly engaged people is a possibility.

In fact, even on the battlefield there is lots of evidence to show it’s not always the best leadership approach (the German army was renowned for giving it’s soldiers authority on the front line), so why do we continue to adhere to it in organisations?  Who knows – if we can move to a different paradigm in organisations, the flashing lights and other broken systems and processes might just get the attention they deserve.

Management for the battlefield