March 5, 2011

The Organization Needs to Ask Itself Tough Questions to Survive

Warren Bennis, in 1993, noted the following in his bookAn Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change”:

Given the nature and constancy of change and the transnational challenges facing American business leadership, the key to making the right choices will come from understanding and embodying the leadership qualities necessary to succeed in the volatile and mercurial global economy. To survive in the 21st century, we’re going to need a new generation of leaders – leaders, not managers.

Almost 20 years later, I suppose we are all haunted by the words of Bennis.

It’s my personal opinion that the word leader should denote and be applied to everyone in an organization. Every single person must play a leadership role in today’s organization. Furthermore, every single person should be treated & trusted as a leader; someone that helps to achieve the overarching goal of an organization, no matter what the intent is defined as.

There is always an ‘us’ in trust.

An example that comes to mind occurred roughly 50 years ago at NASA. It is alleged that during a tour of the NASA Space Center, President Lyndon Johnson came upon a janitor at work in the building where the lunar module was being housed. When asked by the president what his role at NASA was, the janitor pointed at the lunar module and stated, “To help get that thing up to the moon.”

Another is the cultural and business transformation story of Telefonica, detailed in the case study Transforming the firm for the digital era: An organizational effort towards an E-culture by Juan Llopis, M. Reyes Gonzalez and Jose L. Gasco. (Human Systems Management 23 (2004) 213–225 213, IOS Press) In it, the authors detail a long-term evolution at Telefonica where they passed from an informatics culture to an informational culture; through the involvement and participation of its entire 145,000+ workforce.

When an individual decides to join an organization, they inherently make a decision and arguably take a leap of faith. Does the existing culture measure up to one’s personal expectation, values, beliefs, and so on? Or, have they made a mistake in joining the organization?

Other questions to consider:

  • Does the organization treat everyone as leaders, or, is it rife with command and control tendencies, using ‘managers’ as a basis to carry out top-down objectives?
  • What sort of alignment and connection do you personally have with your organization?
  • Is your organization evolving to become both transparent and inclusive?
  • Does your organization include you in the process of drafting objectives, surfacing ideas, and generally feeling a part of the mission?
  • Are you engaged? (ie. does your organization care to ask you for your opinion before executing on objectives?)
  • Do your senior leaders walk the talk of open, collaborative leadership? Do they even use Enterprise 2.0 technologies to bridge the connection gap?

Over the coming quarters, it’s my belief that senior leaders in any organization will be facing a culture crisis. If organizations don’t realign such that all employees become trusted leaders, they will suffer dire consequences. These human capital calamities include both high potential and over-performing personnel departing for pastures that are not only greener, but that treat everyone as a leader.

If the organization of tomorrow isn’t aligned and connected to the leader of today, their demise may be slow, but it will be assured. No one will confute this reality when it begins to occur with more frequent force. (see Digital Equipment Corporation,  Circuit City, and Nortel Networks)

3 Replies to “The Organization Needs to Ask Itself Tough Questions to Survive”

  1. Dan,
    As a leader (dare I still say “manager”?) in a mid-size manufacturing organization as well as a graduate student in training and development at Roosevelt University in Chicago I found your post thought provoking. I agree with you on the necessity for every organization to constantly transform itself in order to continue striving (or surviving). That includes, among many other things, leadership and management.

    My disagreement is more with the generality and absoluteness with which the philosophy of “leading at every level” is used. I think it may be overused and overstretched. I would argue for a more foundational approach, which one might consider a pre-stage for leadership. I call it the concept of the critically-thinking, self-directed employee.

    Following the old IBM-motto it is characterized by employees who “think” and take initiative. That includes, as in your NASA janitor example, understanding the greater purpose of one’s own doing. It also encompasses the will to take upon oneself the execution of the own ideas. This goes much further than what you call “drafting suggestions” and “surfacing ideas” and can be the decisive difference between a Monday-morning quarterback at work and a high-performing employee.

    It also takes an organization – and this is where I am in full agreement with your view – that gives employees the room to make and execute their own decisions, or, as you say, an organization that is not dominated by command and control structures.

    But there’s a general limitation to this concept, as well as the concept of leadership at every level. Simply speaking, not everybody wants to be a leader. Adding another aspect: leaders also need followers, although the two roles are not mutually exclusive. This may be a blessing, because if everybody only wanted to “to do their thing” organizations would end up in a continuous state of confusion. Let’s say it clearly: some direction remains necessary. Does it have to be a full-fledged command and control structure? Certainly not. The truly successful organization of the future can balance (and continuously re-balance) between direction from the top and allowing self-directedness at every level.

    Jürgen Juffa

  2. @Jurgen – thanks for stopping by. Perhaps we are saying the same thing? My definition may be more resolute to yours, but in essence, I believe that with ‘everyone as a leader’, it is those foundation level skills (eg. critical thinking, self directed, empowered, etc.) that need to be instilled and released in all employees.

    Leader/leadership are terms that, for me, have been associated to the few. My argument is that we all have it in us to lead (if the definition revolves around points made above) and as such, we all have a complimentary role to play in the success of an organization.

    Hierarchy is going to be found in organizations forever. It’s my recommendation that ‘situational hierarchy’ be the mechanism that replaces it, empowering all employees with the capability to be leaders as an organization begins to employ more collaborative, heterarchical and ‘wirearchical’ approaches to org design.

    I agree that everyone may not want to be a ‘leader’, as it is classically defined. But, if everyone is a leader, and that new definition simply allows for the ability to participate freely in the growth of an organization, well, that’s panacea to me.

  3. @Dan:

    thank you for expanding on your views. I could not agree more. The potential to be unleashed through the consequent use of this approach (whatever the nuances and whatever either one of us may call it) is indeed enormous. And, yes, that will entail some evolution away from the classical hierarchical org design.

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