Category Archives: teamwork

Is the Term Leader Obsolete?

Umair Haque believes that leaders are responsible for the breakdown of our institutions and organzations.  In some ways he is right.  an updated persepctive on how we should manage our institutions would be healthy.

Clearly, most of those aspiring to the leader label have let us down. So now what? I propose that we develop a cadre of leaders who are willing to stand by a set of prescribed principles and virtues; further, I would suggest that we update the definition of leadership to incorporate the unique features of a global society.

Is it possible that the term “leader” has lost its allure, its freshness.?  Is it time to dump it and move on to a more meaningful term that has not as yet been blemished by organizational theory and practice — something more hip, with a little more pizazz?  That’s where Umair Haque is choosing to “lead” us — on a magical mystery tour of terminology and semantics.  But there is some truth in his offering.

Blogging for the Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque launches in by condemning the leadership of world leaders; in his words, ” This relationship isn’t working out…We’ve tried to make it work.  But it’s not us — it’s you (really)”.  To this extent, I agree — many of those in positions of leadership are just not getting the job done.  And it’s embarrassing.  In this global society, every failure, every demolition is a condemnation of the capitalist principles we have been dumping on the rest of the planet.

After a great deal of careful thought about leadership as a concept, Mr. Haque suggests that the problem is “leadership itself”.  In his view, rather than continuing with a “relic of 20th century thinking”, we should be “rebooting” leadership — coming up with a new way of managing people and institutions.

Haque suggests that the way we define leadership and the way we allow individuals to execute it is the problem. Let me present an alternative interpretation. The problem is not that leadership is obsolete; the problem is that the concept is in fact too advanced.   There are still many who are oblivious of what leadership means in spite of the masses of literature on the subject.  Just as our religious teachings and writings espouse love for humanity, there are those who will subvert their intent via  convenient misinterpretation.  There are others who chose an expeditious path or fear the loss of control that they feel would accompany embracing true leadership.  Leadership concepts seem clear enough; still leaders, due to ignorance or for personal reasons chose to abandon the game plan.

Following are summaries of Umair Haque’s arguments:

  1. Leadership skills were developed for a 20th century economics; the skills are not timeless.  He provides a couple of definitions of leadership that seem to support his view.  Really?  Leadership IS a timeless concept.  There have been leaders well before the 20th century and there will be leaders long after.  Leadership is a concept that continues to be redefined as the times dictate.  Most recently, the internet has created a need to re-examine how we can lead in a networking environment.
  2. Leaders do not lead.   Large emerging organizations create a need for someone to be a leader — specifically to navigate the politics of being a leading organization.  The role he describes is more of a manager of complexities.  There are individuals “lucky” enough to be the heads of organizations that were “lucky” enough to be every successful.  We have incorrectly assumed that these are great organizations with great “leaders”.  Being in the right place at the right time does not make someone a leader; leadership is earned just as respect is earned.  Still, there are organizations that experience success because of leadership.  And there are examples of this success cited in Mr. Haque post.  In fact, I was fortunate enough to work for a leader who worked the leadership principles with excellence.  And because he did his organization thrived.
  3. Leaders are employed to lobby for and help sustain dying organizations that would serve society best by dying a gracful death.  I agree.  There are individuals who fill this role and who are retained for this purpose.  However, I question whether these people are in fact leaders.  Calling someone a leader does not in fact a leader make.
  4. Since our institutions and organizations are in fact broken and outdated, our greatest challenge is not leadership but “building” better organizations.   Calling those who run our organizations by a different label isn’t going to change the quality of leadership or buildership.  In my mind, we still simply don’t get it.  Further, what Haque is suggesting is a redefinition of what leadership means.  Since we must address the challenges of the day, this is a healthy process.
  5. Leadership is the art of becoming, well, a leader. Constructivism, in contrast, is the art of becoming a builder — of new institutions. Like artistic Constructivism rejected “art for art’s sake,” so economic Constructivism rejects leadership for the organization’s sake — instead of for society’s.  I think it is healthy to continue to find new ways to look at the world and refine our thinking.  I think a number of the principles identified in this post are worthy of inclusion in a revised definition of leadership;  just as Bill Murray continued to relive Ground Hog Day until he understood the message and got it right, humanity will continue to experience disintegration and disunity until we get it right.  Still inventing a new term simply does not address the issue.  For a person to lead, they must understand the principles of leadership and  commit to understanding and executing the principles.  The people Hague is talking about in his article simply are not leaders.  Haque provides a list of individuals he calls either leaders or builders.  In my model, there are those who lead successfully in a particular way and there are those who lead for the purpose of building.  Further, in this list, there are some who are still trying to make their case as leaders who build (Obama) and those who have no business in a list of leaders (Palin).
  6. The 21st century doesn’t need more leaders – nor more leadership. Only Builders can kick start the chain reaction of a better, more authentic kind of prosperity.   What we need are more leaders who understand leadership and have the commitment to work it; I agree that “builders” are a critical part of this definition of leadership.
  7. Finally, Haque provides an arbitrary and convenient set of principles of constructivism.  For example, in his first principle he implies that leaders don’t learn from experience.  I think that true leaders would disagree with this belief.  I could spend a complete post examining these rpinciples.

I like that fact that Mr. Haque is starting a consultation on this issue.  He is quite right in assuming that many individuals that we call leaders are in fact failing to lead.  He is also right in stating that these people are in key positions and their lack of quality leadership has contributed to the deterioration of our  institutions.  However, twinning the concept of leadership with these absent landlords of leadership is problematic.

Put the blame where it belongs — not on the concept, but on the individuals failing in their responsibilities.  Continue to refine the definition of what leadership means by adding ideas such as inclusivity, unity and the good of all.

Leading Employees Through the Process of Change

This ladder is the perfect metaphor for the challenge of change.  It is an uphill battle full of twists and turns.  Those having an attitude of change require commitment, persistence and patience.

This ladder is the perfect metaphor for the complexities and dimensions of change. It is a frustrating uphill battle full of twists, turns and disappointments. Those having an attitude of change must be armoured with commitment, persistence, patience and lots of love.

I am sure you have heard it said that the only constant in this world is change itself.  And it is for this reason that I keep coming back to the topic of change, examining it from different perspectives.  With change going on around us at an alarming pace, our greatest wish might be to have the capacity to truly and comfortably keep up!   If only managers and employees could embrace change and alter their thinking “on demand”.

In my book, “Stepping Stones: Values Based Stories and Strategies for the 21st Century”, I acknowledged that change itself is a worthy value and allocated one whole chapter to the topic.  Change is simple to embrace when you are leading a process; as the conductor, you can detach from the anxiety of change because it is others who must comply with the flick of your baton.  However, when you are at the epicentre of a tumultuous and turbulent operation, you must share in the discomfort.  Yes, ain’t change wonderful!

In a previous post, I also introduced brief therapy. Most therapeutic tools address change directly using a rational approach, while confronting the conscious mind; brief therapy, in taking on the most difficult disorders enters through the back door, tapping into the sub-conscious mind and using the element of surprise and what many clients would perceive as being irrational, maybe even nonsensical  assignments.  While many therapies fail, brief therapy is claiming sensational enduring breakthroughs for clients who had given up any hope of emotional health.

Many direct techniques seem promising at first glance; however the relief of symptoms is not lasting and after yielding partial and temporary results from yet another magic bullet, clients simply give up and learn to accept their albatross.

This leads me into my most recent discovery on the process of change.  Not a therapy, the work of David Logan, a participant in the annual TED seminars (filmed March, 2009; posted Sept.2009), offers a model on how change occurs and thus some insights on how change agents can address the subject.   In this presentation, he is talking about tribal leadership — in his language, the people we associate with everyday form into tribes of  people ranging in size from 20 -150 members.

David Logan infers that tribal association influences how we understand and then participate in this world.  The weaker the tribal association, the weaker the capacity of the individual to participate in significant change.  He breaks down this human understanding into five categories or stages.

The first and least developed stage is “life sucks” and about 2% of the world’s population find themselves mired in the misery of this tribe.   They associate with individuals who have a commom understanding of the world and have severed from functional tribes to practice their own dysfunctional behaviour. Their group behaviour is justified by the fact that the complete tribe shares the “life sucks” perspective.  They are not positioned to participate in any meaningful change proecss.

The second stage is “my life sucks”. Sadly, 25% of people are stuck here, lacking belief in themselves and their capacity.  Although this is still a negative and a dysfunctional behaviour it represents an evolution in that the individual has escaped from the constraints of negative group behaviour.  The individual no longer acknowledges the need for membership in a reinforcing dysfunctional group.  Still their limiting vision of their personal reality affects the contribution they are capable of making in this state.

The third level, representing 48% of the population, is “I’m great” The positive side of this tribe is that the individual sees their own value.  On their own, they do their job effectively.  The challenge is that they do not value others.  The absolute limitation of this behaviour is that they cannot particpate effectively on teams of positve likemanided people.

The fourth level is “We’re great”, and it is great that almost 22% of folks have aspired to this level.  These are people who work in teams to achieve common work goals; with excellent leadership they have accepted a work vision and are working cohesively.  They have aspired to group benefit.

The final and optimal stage is “Life is great” and only two percent can be found at this level.  These are people who have a world embracing view, who are working for a fundamental global change.

In David Logan’s interpretation, true leaders only exist at level five.  Since his interest is in a world embracing change, leaders must be at this level; of course, it could be argued that leaders at level four indirectly support movement to level five, by drawing membership in level four.  Still at stage four group size is limited.  There is still a comparative view as opposed to an all inclusive stance found at stage five.

Since, as Mr. Logan points out, individuals only have the capacity to move up one level at a time, absolute change is a long term challenge.  Following are four difficulties that leaders, alias change agents must address:

  • What kind of manager are you?: Where do you fit on the continuum?  If you are reading this blog, there is a good chance you have at least reached stage three.  If, however, you intend on leading your employees to the promised land, you will need to embrace “life is great”.  It is interesting that this stage is strongly consistent with the writings of the Baha’i faith.
  • Considering your workplace, at which stage do the members of your group reside?: In the absence of leadership, your employees could all be members of different tribes — that is, at different stages.   It is interesting how the five stages come together and give the illusion of a cohesive community.  A conscientious manager will invest in truly knowing both thee limitation and the potential of the employee.
  • Develop strategies to gradually move all employees up the ladder: Knowing that your employees most likely will be sitting on different rungs of the ladder, you will be called upon to develop customized individual programs. It will not be easy.
  • Patience will be your greatest friend: As you try to inspire your crew to step up a rung, they will occasionally succeed and they will just as often fail.

This model highlights the importance of one of my persistent messages – that the true leader manages people; when epople are effectively managed, they will effectively deliver products and services.  What is your view of this model?  Please let me know what you think.

The Overwork Phenomenon

Reflections on Workplace Perspectives

Corporations who exploit their employees by manipulating an "overwork culture" are killing employee motivation, commitment and ultimately, production.

Corporations who exploit their employees by manipulating an "overwork culture" are killing employee motivation, commitment and ultimately, production.

The Business Pundit, in his April 6, 2009 post,  shares five ways that organizations sabotage their own success by breeding incompetence:  using numbers as the only device to measure performance, spreading workers too thin, expecting too much too soon, putting a bigger premium on politics than performance, rewarding mediocrity.

    Each of these contribute to poor employee morale; and, I have watched organizations self destruct, oblivious to how manager competence distanced the employee from organizational goals.  I have also consulted with owners and managers feeling the pain of their own poor decision-making.

    I would like to focus on one of these — overworking employees.  I am sure you have heard of survivor syndrome.  During downsizing,  employees dismissed or laid off tend to attract our sympathy — loss of income, threat to home and family, challenges of being rehired in a difficult economic climate.  Those who keep their jobs are referred to as survivors.  They keep their positions and maintain their income.  However, in a poorly managed environment, remaining workers can be asked to work harder and longer hours.  The risk, of course, is fatigue and eventual burnout.  This employee may end up on sick leave or may willingly choose to leave.  Indeed, the survivor will only survive in a competently managed work environment.

    This kind of burnout may also occur in growing companies.  As  companies expand, there is a point where revenues are not sufficient to fund needed growth in staff.  In this situation, managers will lean on the goodwill they have built with their best employees.   They will pressure trusted and devoted staff to work harder and longer hours.   Initially, the request will be for a short period; however, tettering on the edge between ordinary and superior, the manager will demand more help.   As one distraught manager shared with me, “I pushed them too hard for too long.  I lost the employees that I knew would be key players in my expanded company.  They no longer trusted me to treat them fairly”.

    No employee should be expected to overwork for an extended period of time.  This level of dedication could be achieved for a short period with the promise of benefits like promotions and stock options;  however, eventually something will give — employee health, employee morale, employee performance, employee trust.

    We should not overlook that managers are also under a great deal of stress, either from their managers expectations, overpromising to their managers out of fear or from the bleak reality that their businesses are under threat of extinction.  Still, overworking employees can be blindly perceived as an optimal short term strategy.  Managers must develop, perhaps in consultation with their reliable and trusted staff, more sustainable work strategies.

    Corporations can also contribute to the problem by creating fear of job loss.  In a highly competitive work environment and job market, corporations need their employees to overwork so they can compete, let alone survive.  In Reflections of a World Citizen, the blogger cites ” Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives” (Bunting , 2004).  Bunting’s shocking finding is that corporations are in fact engineering the overwork mindset causing job intensification, in effect burning out their workforce.  She refers to this action as “the most exploitive and manipulative work cultures developed since the Industrial Revolution”.

    The problem isn’t whether employees can find work says Anonymous Employee-Helping You Solve Your Problems at Work .  The problem often is that employees end up with too much work affecting their lifestyle, their health and production.  In effect, the culture that our material society has created in not healthy or happy for the employee.

    I have focussed on overwork to make a point.  The essence of this issue is the role that managers can play to ensure that employees are healthy and productive.

    Have you found yourself caught in one of these work environments?  How did you cope?  What do you see as viable solutions where workers are under constant stress to work long hours?

    The Risks Associated with Empowering Employees

    If empowerment results in your "boat being beached", then you may want to examine what you need to change.  Effective empowerment is a thing of beauty for managers and most importantly, team members.

    If empowerment results in your "boat being beached", then you may want to examine what you need to change. Effective empowerment is a thing of beauty for managers and most importantly, team members.

    Empowerment — friend or foe?  In simple terms, it depends on you.  First you must understand what empowerment means and then you must have the willingness to execute effectively.

    A school principal had little good to say about technology.  “I thought that e-mail was supposed to make my life easier” he lamented, “I now have to start work an hour earlier so I can check the surprise e-mails before the school day begins.  You know the ones — I can’t show up for work today because of a death in the family or an illness or some other complication”

    This is not empowerment; the manager has sold the farm.  This manager has allowed this system improvement to dictate the rules of the game.  By having no boundaries around the implementation of technology in the workplace, he has told his employees, “go ahead and behave as you wish, complicate my day; I empower you to treat me anyway you want”.

    I am sure that teachers would love the looseness of this operating principle.  They can share their excuses impersonally while the principal is left scrambling to fill teaching holes.  Technology has changed dramatically since this complaint was lodged — texting and immediate messaging are now common place; however, the lesson continues to be relevant.  Empowerment comes with guidelines that strengthen the team; these operating principles are both ethical and practical.  That is, empowerment only works where there is respect for team members and for the system itself.  Empowerment only works if the loss of control of the work to team members can be offset with effective and regular substantive communication.

    I am not trying to discourage you from empowering your employees; there are just too many good reasons for continuing in what many managers would consider a stressful dilemma.

    For example, LaTosha Johnson at Brazen Careerist comes at the issue of empowerment from two points of view — the importance of getting employees excited about their work and the importance of fulfilling the prophesy that the people you hire are indeed the “best and brightest”.   Failing to empower is indeed the greater sin when compared to the complications of mismanaging the empowerment process.

    In this difficult economy, restaurants are trimming costs, offering discounts and promotions; however, the restaurants with the strongest instincts for survival are implementing employee empowerment as a survival technique says Evan Noetsel in his blog, Chef’s Stirrings from Chef Magazine.  He shares the story of Ian MacGregor, president and owner of  The Lobster Place.  “My general management philosophy when it comes to employees,” he said, “is that nobody ever washed a rental car–meaning, if an employee doesn’t feel like they own something, they’re not going to take care of it. So, we try and empower our employees as much as possible because no matter what level they’re working at, if they feel as though they have ownership over their group of responsibilities, then they’re much more likely to stay with us than turn over, the way [that] is typical in the industry.”  In this case, empowerment means employee retention and avoiding expensive recruitment and training costs.  It also means employees working harder and more efficiently.

    As a manager who appreciated the power of the employee, I was quick to empower; however, I was also cautious in how I empowered employees.  So this Friday in “Craig’s Top Five List”  I will offer five strategies that the manager can employ to effectively empower employees.

    Measuring Success in the Workplace

    Reflections on Workplace Perspective…..

    As you know, I am constantly in search of ideas from other domains that might be of relevance for the workplace.  One rich source of leadership can be found in the domain of team sports; and when I recently discovered a TED presentation recorded by John Wooden, a coach I highly respect, I knew he would provide some useful food for thought.

    Drawing on a lifetime of experience working with young athletes, coach Wooden offers his personal paradigm for measuring success in his sport.  For those of you who don’t know John Wooden, he is considered by many to be the best college basketball coach of all time; he currently holds the college record for most career wins.

    Although the record holder for career wins, retired basketball coach is best known for his leadership skills in developing young athletes and men.

    Although the record holder for career wins, retired basketball coach is best known for his leadership skills in developing young athletes and men.

    In this TED presentation, Coach Wooden comments on how coaches, players and fans are conditioned to measure success in terms of games won or points scored. In his mind there is a dilemma with this kind of measurement – each of us is blessed with different levels of ability. That is, from year to year, the collective talents of the players he is able to recruit can vary dramatically.  This fact alone means we must find a more balanced and instructive measure of performance that establishes a level playing field; and one that supports motivation and high levels of achievement.

    So, coach Wooden offered the following model of performance:

    • Performance is measured in terms of effort. “Always be the best you can be”. If you put in the effort, “the results are about what they should be”.  Further, winning and losing can be poor indicators of effort, since a great effort can result in a loss and poor effort can result in a win. Wooden suggests that we never speak about winning; instead we should focus on the effort or action required to achieve the goal.
    • Coach Wooden also places a great deal of importance on character. “Character is more important than what you are perceived to be” and can be defined in several ways: appearance (be neat and clean, no profanity), attitude (no whining or complaining, no excuses, never be late, be prepared to learn from others), respect for others (never criticize a teammate, never try to be better than someone else).
    • The coach reminds us that our personal peace of mind is important; and measurement of this is in “knowing that you do the best of which you are capable”.
    • Finally, coach Wooden cites a quote from Cervantes: “the journey is better than the inn”. Specifically, do not allow perhaps unrealistic objectives to distract you from enjoying the process of effort.

    There is a wisdom in John Wooden’s model that can be applied in the workplace.

    • Clearly, the achievement of goals is important; however, managers and employees, in an effort to impress their supervisors or to overcome low self-esteem, will over promise — the consequence of poor goal setting is pressure, anxiety, stress, anger, resentment and potentially burnout.  Although supervisors always want more, they will respect a manager who promises realistic levels of achievement.  Further, Wooden’s lesson is simply that we should set goals around activities or events over which we exert some control.  Winning and losing and excessive deadlines are beyond our control.
    • The character of the manager and the character of the team are key factors in achieving success.  Although they are not pure measures of success, they are determinants of success;  that is, the knowledge that my team has a positive attitude, a winning attitude and respect each other, will improve my chances of success.
    • Although organizations have performance measurement systems, it is useful for employees to hold themselves to account on a regular basis.  This means a little soul searching that you have indeed done your job to the best of your ability.  In this regard, the employee has the best handle on their own performance and the employee that regularly documents their own performance over the course of the year will usually surprise their manager with how much they have achieved.  But as Wooden points out having this information in hand is very comforting to the employee; that is, “I know I worked hard and produced for my organization”.
    • Finally, for employees to be fully invested in the outcome of their work, they must also enjoy the journey.  They must enjoy coming to work everyday and associating their their colleagues.  They must also enjoy the work.  This is where soul searching is essential.  If you do not enjoy the journey, there is no way you can perform to your potential; if you are putting in time for a pay cheque, it is time to review your career path and move on.

    What is your experience? Do you feel this model would work effectively in your workplace? Do you feel the pressure of unrealistic goals? On Friday, I will continue on this theme citing the work on another coach — me.  Friday’s “Craig’s Top Five List” will comment on how my experience coaching team sports was instrumental in defining my approach to management.