The Gentle Leader

Why do organisations exist? What is their purpose? What should be the ‘status’, roles and rights of different stakeholders? In the total history of mankind, the modern day organisation is still something very new, so to a large extent, we’re still engaged in a process of figuring out the answers to these questions.

The earliest organisations were tribes of hunter-gatherers where people came together out of mutual benefit. To serve one’s personal best interest entailed contributing your best to the group. Where necessary, there were traditions and norms in the group that enabled cohesion and a sense of duty and loyalty. leadership was often determined by lineage, sometimes by strength, size and simple power.

The industrial revolution brought very different kinds of organisations – far larger, more complex and with many more artificial processes to create the sense of belonging, commitment and common interest. There are plenty who are willing to say that the primary role of such organisations is to maximise value for the owners – everything else is peripheral. If this is true, then the duty of leaders is to organise all resources and stakeholders in the best possible way to achieve this aim of owner value growth. And further, those who are best at achieving this rise to the top and become the leaders.

We know that these things called organisations can cause some very odd human behaviour. For one, isn’t it pretty odd when we think about it that in organisations where only 13% of employees say they are engaged, all the employees turn up daily, on time and do the work they’re told to do, at least in principle. Further, we know from the work of experts like Stanley Milgram (famous obedience experiments) that the authority, status and title of being a leader can enable us to hold enormous and powerful sway over others. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiments, he took subjects in to a lab situation where fake other subjects were required to learn and memorise random pairs of information. When they made mistakes the subject was required to administer an electric shock to them. If they showed disquiet about doing this they were instructed to continue by an official, lab-coated technician who clearly held authority in the lab. Shockingly (pun intended), almost all subjects in this situation continued to administer ever stronger levels of shocks to the person in the other room, even when they were screaming for mercy or even appeared to have passed out due to the extreme pain. They may have shown stress and anxiety in what they were doing, but all the time the authority figure told them to carry on doing it, they continued.

Modern society has many ways, right from when we’re very small, of drilling in to us the importance of compliance with authority. Whether it’s parents or teachers in school, so much of what goes on is about obedience, compliance and rewards and punishments are used continually to reinforce the ‘correct’ behaviours. To my mind, this raises some critical questions that i believe we’re not asking enough and where we shy away from the very difficult discussions we need to have;

a) As parents and educators, we need to challenge ourselves in critical ways as to our role and duties when dealing with children. Is our primary duty to teach them how to comply? When schools put ‘citizenry’ on the syllabus is this about performing a role for society that will make people do what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told?

b) As parents and educators do we inadvertently find ourselves acting as the agents for compliance with the small minority who wield the real power in our society, whether those are politicians or big businesses? Do we see frequent examples in our school activities and the syllabus that are actually about reinforcing, for example, beliefs that consumerism is a good, healthy and positive way to exist in the modern world? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, teach children that having things, acquiring things and joining in the pursuit of the latest shiny objects is a positive, healthy way to live in the world – almost that it’s our duty? The reality is that whether we like it or not we live in a modern society where if a sufficient number of us switched to consuming more for our need rather than our wants, modern consumerist, production based economies would hit crisis very quickly.

c) As educators, especially in the private sector, we’re fond of selling our credentials on the basis of our inclination to develop young people who will be leaders tomorrow. However, do our actions match our words? If we teach children in elementary classes that blind obedience is the only way to comfortably succeed in our classrooms, are we actually producing tomorrow’s compliant followers and obedient grunts, rather than true leaders? Worse, are we, at times, producing those who will be very good at ‘kissing up and kicking down’ who will form the vital middle layer that enables the vast majority to be controlled by the tiny minority?

d) Further, are those of us engaged in International education in developing countries part of an inadvertent process where we trade off access to greater worldly knowledge and exposure for the efficiency of compliance that will ensure that those countries don’t rise to preeminence at the expense of our own ‘Western’ countries current superiority?

e) If we are leaders in the educational domain, why do our schools need ‘anti-bullying’ policies? Is bullying such a ubiquitous and natural activity that we need a deliberate policy against it? Or, is that we create such awful artificially competitive environments in our schools that children’s behaviour is steered towards acts of physical violence towards each other as an unfortunate byproduct?

f) If we are leaders in the educational domain, how should we lead if we wish to have schools/ organisations that are sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders and produce a caring culture that provides the right environment for children to grow and develop naturally?

g) What, if anything, can educational leaders already teach leaders in other types of organisations? It already seems to me that there’s ample evidence that old style leadership ways of manipulation, sticks and carrots and force/ pressure are not producing the outcomes that the organisations seek for the longer term. I personally know that I had been trained in many ways in the traditional and conventional late Twentieth Century leadership approaches and style during my time working for a major UK bank.

As I transitioned in to the education sector, especially in Asia, I realised that I had to un-learn so much of what i took for granted. If I had lead in education the way I had lead in banking I would have achieved very poor results. In my early career I often had bosses who would ‘provoke and cajole’ me to be very task oriented. People issues certainly came second. Even as I was later encouraged to shift my position, it was conveyed that you needed to give people a higher priority (after making sure that you make all the top-down targets that are set). So, you get the classic middle-manager stress – you’re told to be a people person and to carry people with you, whilst being managed from on high in a thoroughly task oriented manner. The result, for many is phony people orientation that is actually more manipulative than caring.

So, having been thinking about these things (what else do you do with a four day Chinese New Year break from the office?) I was stimulated to write this piece when i read this article from Greg Thompson of Bluepoint Leadership Development.

Bluepoint Leadership – The Gentle Leader

In the article, Greg makes the case that the time of the ‘wolves’ is over – leaders who use good, bad, honest and dishonest means to achieve their goals and to meet the simple ends of maximising owner value at any cost in organisations. Instead, he advocates for a form of leadership that is far more akin to Servant Leadership. Some make the mistake of interpreting servant leadership as the leaders making themselves martyrs to organisation and people, everyone’s whipping boys to be used and abused. I don’t interpret it that way. For one, in the pursuit of the best interest of the most, there are times when a servant leader is duty bound to get tough with individuals who put their self-interest ahead of the collective needs. Also, the leader has a duty to lead the debate around vision and the fundamental purpose of the organisation. They then owe it to the collective group to address issues of individuals whose ideology or actions are incompatible with that agreed vision. However, when they have to deal with such situations, they must maintain the dignity of the individual and deal with circumstances with compassion. people need to be given reasonable chance to align, but the key is alignment to a commonly agreed and shared set of goals, rather than something artificially imposed from the top.

The rewards for getting leadership right in this age are more motivated and engaged employees, the fish shoal swimming in a common direction, less worthless conflict, lower employee turnover and a greater ability to attract highly motivated, talented employees in to the organisation.

Some fear that gentler, more collaborative and open leadership leads to harm to the interests of the organisation. Plainly, if a company has the scope to introduce technology that will significantly reduce costs compared to competitors, but at the expense of 30% of employees losing their roles, it requires a very mature level of understanding throughout the organisation to engage employees in a debate that sees them put the organisation’s needs ahead of their own short term self-interest. However, if employees in that scenario knew that the alternative was loss of competitive position and maybe even the complete failure of the organisation, they may see and understand the need. The compassionate and gently lead organisation provides support and help for retraining and job alternatives for those impacted and the level of trust is such that they understand what needs to happen.

Community in organisations and trust isn’t necessarily built in those challenging times. Rather, it’s built over the long time whether things are going well or poorly, so that there is a surplus of trust to be drawn upon in those challenging times.

In conclusion, school and educational leadership comes in all sorts of shades and levels of quality. However, I believe we’re now in a time where the best of schools leadership offers lessons and guidance to the leadership of many more types of organisations about what it means to build community, to lead with caring and compassion and to give a genuine voice to all stakeholders whilst leading towards a vision which is truly inspirational for all stakeholders.

Beyond Performance Reviews

If you had to create a system from scratch that would contribute to having higher levels of work engagement among employees, would you create a conventional, traditional performance management/ review system as exists currently in most organisations? My guess is that few of us would choose to do that, at least without skepticism and a certain degree of sadness that we wished we had something better. Why - because we know of enough reasons why conventional performance review systems don't contribute to improved or increased engagement and more often, we know that they can be highly demotivational for a significant proportion of our team members.

Who would willingly choose to engage in a process that is ostensibly intended to improve performance, to drive up standards across an organisation and keep 'all the fishes' swimming in a common direction, where the evidence actually suggests that the process demotivates many and leaves others ambivalent about the process, their longer term career and life aspirations and the contribution they make to the organisation?

In knowledge-based organisations and professional fields the process of finding, recruiting and integrating new people is an enormously expensive one. It doesn't necessarily appear as a defined line in budgets, so many of these costs are concealed and hidden in other working costs. In addition, turnover of people, the inevitable times when there are gaps when a position is left vacant because a suitable person can't be identified all act as further hidden costs. It's even worse than that, though. Finding people who are a perfect fit is almost impossible. So, people are taken in to the organisation and considerable time and effort goes in to helping them to fit the roles for which the organisation needs them. In those circumstances to either lose the person or (maybe worse), to have the person stay but never really fulfil their potential is a massive cost. When it happens too often, you have an underperforming organisation that can never really be all that was dreamed or envisaged.

So, we have to be open to all ideas and possibilities about how to lead knowledge workers effectively, in ways that are respectful and respected. To lead people in ways that enhance people's potential contribution, make them feel certain that they're in a place where their personal and organisational goals can be aligned and to see that their future dreams can often be achieved in some form in the organisation (instead of believing that they must go elsewhere).

Ironically, i suspect the lack of meaningful discussion with employees about the future - their futures - is one of the reasons that so many reduce their organisational existence down to just a discussion about money. If i believe the organisation isn't interested in me and the future i dream of for me, then i might as well at least get as much money from the organisation as i can for the limited period that I'm going to stay.

As Russ Laraway highlights in the video above, and in this Fast Company article the biggest shortcoming of performance management reviews (when they happen and even when they're done well) is that they are inherently backward looking. Worse, to my mind, is that they don't look at the past from the perspective of what was important to the individual, but according to a checklist of tasks or deliverables that the organisation wanted from the individual. Laraway acknowledges that the past is an important part of career discussions, but from the context of the person's whole past and especially those aspects of the past that hold clues to who the individual is and their priorities today.

I wrote yesterday about the millennials and how they are different - requiring different approaches from us in the workplace. This is a classic example. As highlighted in the video shared yesterday, they want more attention to be made to them as people. Attention to their aspirations and dreams is something they want, so this approach makes sense and will strike a chord.

We live with a new reality. Workplaces have changed in the last 20 years or so. Leaders cannot be making assumptions that because they issue an order or instruction or declare that something is to be done in a particular way (or even the statement of a vision or mission) that it will be blindly followed, obeyed or done as stated. This isn't to say that millennial employees are willfully disobedient. It's more that they see the workplace and a job as something more transactional. In those circumstances, respecting the individual has dreams, taking time to understand them, their past and those dreams for the future fits right in with the sort of attention they seek in return for their professional contribution.