For several decades there has been considerable concern over a scarcity of leadership and also a large gap in management skills. Part of this has been filled (sometimes perversely) by management schools and the abundance of MBA programs, but this has neither turned the tide, nor has it satisfied the lack of effective managers.
A secondary approach may be to reduce the need for managers and leadership by what has been termed “Substitutes for Leadership” (Bennis 2009) and I will cover that aspect here.
First a few notes on leadership vs management.
The ability to lead vs just manage in a commercial organization is heavily influenced by two external dynamics:
- The amount of “clutter” that you encounter in terms of overhead administrative tasks. If you are too busy just getting the “command/control/report” stuff done, there simply isn’t time to lead because to lead you need “big picture”, and that vanishes when you are nose down and bum up.
- The support from senior management. You can only lead as far as your boss lets you. If your boss allows no space in which you can lead, then no leadership can take place.
I have sometimes been in the position where I suspect that “something different” needs to be done, but am too “busy” to devote time or the energy to think about it in any depth.
This leads to two scenarios in the life of anyone wanting or having to lead.
- Firstly it’s almost a 24hr/day job and innovation requires breathing-space (which may be why “eureka” moments are so often reported to be in the bath, out walking, or dreaming).
- Secondly, sometimes it seems like one just has to take a short term failure to have a long term success. Sometimes I have allowed my managers to fail in their daily and weekly goals because that’s the only way they will have the resources to put something different into place that will likely lead to a long-term improvement. Likewise, my boss let’s me do it.
Bennis posits that there is a “chasm” between leadership and management, and he paints leadership in a very flattering light – being “holders of trust” and “conquer[ing] the context”.
However, since he also says that leadership can be learned, shouldn’t we see leadership as just a set of tricks that a manager should learn if they want to improve?
Bennis further proposes that the time of Ford, Taylor, and Weber are over and that organizations are (and must?) changing the paradigm to “inspire people, empower them” through leadership.
“Pull rather than push” he says.
So what do we mean in terms of attributes when we give somebody the honorific of “Leader”?
Here are five that I have teased out of the research and my personal experience:
- Being exemplars of an attitude or behavior or way of seeing things
- Served as role models
- Inspired me to act or think in a different way than before
- Triggered enthusiasm in me, I felt energized to do something with eagerness
- Fostered cooperation
This boils down to “teaching” and “motivating” – but what if the people didn’t need a guru to teach them anything, and had no problem with self-motivation?
The paradigm assumes that the leader knows stuff that the rest don’t, and that they have to be motivated to action – but what if they self-organized to a large degree and were themselves the authorities in their subject domain?
What if the “pull” doesn’t come from one’s managers?
The Information Age has brought us to a situation that contradicts in many instances the assumptions of Taylor’s view of the workforce, and instead of all workers being simple units of production with the intelligence of an engine of production external to them, we now have knowledge-workers who often (usually) know more about their subject domain than their bosses and effectively are the engine of production.
In this scenario we also see that self-motivation is caught up in people who are passionate about what they do – they frequently don’t view life as a split between “work” and “life” but rather as a synergy that gets them money for doing what they are passionate about. Collins (Collins 2001) describes this in terms of organizational superiority in which those firms that excel put three dynamics together:
- Being Passionate about what they do
- Excelling in their subject domain
- Receiving sufficient revenue to satisfy shareholders
The same principle holds for individuals, and anybody who is passionate about what they do and excels at it requires little coaching by a boss, and nor do they need to be coaxed or punished into doing their work.
I view this mixture of dynamics as follows:
(I assume that if you have none of the three it implies that you are either dead or a ward of the state)
Motivation shifts from extrinsic rewards and punishments to intrinsic forces within the individual based on a passionate interest in the subject domain.
Leadership replacement can be seen in various structures:
- Forums and committees where individuals come together out of choice
- Groups of “highly skilled professionals” that self-organize into SIGs, Guilds, etc.
- Professional Communities of Practice
Reflecting on the five attributes I listed earlier, we can expect somebody who knows their stuff and is passionate about it, has the support of a Community of Practice to find their own exemplars of an attitude or behavior or way of seeing things in their CoP, serves as their own role model or finds one, is self-inspired, and requires no extrinsic or external motivation.
But would they cooperate and foster cooperation?
The success of the Open Source movement seems to suggest that they do, and that self-management and peer-pressure succeeds in a way that formal management cannot and which corporate leadership seldom does.
The remaining question is how to put this to work in a corporate environment where the power structures are not designed to allow people to be self-regulating, and where there is a vested interest in prioritizing financial results over domain success.
Given the way that commercial encyclopedias have been beaten by Wikipedia, perhaps we need to show some leadership and change the structures a bit!
That is my story, and I am sticking to it.
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Bennis W (2009) Bennis W. “On becoming a leader”. Public Affairs (2009)
Collins (2001) Collins J. “Good to great”. Harper Collins, 2001.
Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.