How is Your Leadership Changing?
I'm sad to report that in the past few years, ever since uncertainty became our insistent 21st century companion, leadership has taken a great leap backwards to the familiar territory of command and control. Some of this was to be expected, because humans usually default to the known when confronted with the unknown. Some of it was a surprise, because so many organizations had focused on innovation, quality, learning organizations, and human motivation. How did they fail to learn that whenever you impose control on people and situations, you only succeed in turning people into non-creative, shut-down and cynical workers?
The destructive impact of command and control
The dominance of command and control is having devastating impacts. There has been a dramatic increase in worker disengagement, few organizations are succeeding at solving problems, and leaders are being scapegoated and fired.
Most people associate command and control leadership with the military. Years ago, I worked for the U.S. Army Chief of Staff. I, like most people, thought I'd see command and control leadership there. The great irony is that the military learned long ago that, if you want to win, you have to engage the intelligence of everyone involved in the battle. The Army had a visual reminder of this when, years ago, they developed new tanks and armored vehicles that traveled at unprecedented speeds of fifty miles an hour. When first used in battle during the first Gulf War, several times troops took off on their own, speeding across the desert at high speed. However, according to Army doctrine, tanks and armored vehicles must be accompanied by a third vehicle that literally is called the Command and Control vehicle. This vehicle could only travel at twenty miles an hour. (They corrected this problem.)
For me, this is a familiar imagepeople in the organization ready and willing to do good work, wanting to contribute their ideas, ready to take responsibility, and leaders holding them back, insisting that they wait for decisions or instructions. The result is dispirited employees and leaders wondering why no one takes responsibility or gets engaged anymore. In these troubled, uncertain times, we don't need more command and control; we need better means to engage everyone's intelligence in solving challenges and crises as they arise.
We know how to create smart, resilient organizations
We do know how to create workplaces that are flexible, smart, and resilient. We have known for more than half a century that engaging people, and relying on self-managed teams, are far more productive than any other form of organizing. In fact, productivity gains in self-managed work environments are at minimum thirty-five percent higher than in traditionally managed organizations. And workers know this to be true when they insist that they can make smarter decisions than those delivered from on high.
With so much evidence supporting the benefits of participation, why isn't every organization using self-managed teams to cope with turbulence? Instead, organizations increasingly are cluttered with control mechanisms that paralyze employees and leaders alike. Where have all these policies, procedures, protocols, laws, and regulations come from? And why do we keep creating more, even as we suffer from the terrible consequences of over-control?
Even though worker capacity and motivation are destroyed when leaders choose power over productivity, it appears that bosses would rather be in control than have the organization work well. And this drive for power is supported by the belief that the higher the risk, the more necessary it is to hold power tightly. What's so dangerous about this belief is that just the opposite is true. Successful organizations, including the Military, have learned that the higher the risk, the more necessary it is to engage everyone's commitment and intelligence. When leaders hold onto power and refuse to distribute decision-making, they create slow, unwieldy, Byzantine systems that only increase risk and irresponsibility. We never effectively control people or situations by these means, we only succeed in preventing intelligent, fast responses.
The personal impact on leaders' morale and health is also devastating. When leaders take back power, when they act as heroes and saviors, they end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and deeply stressed. It is simply not possible to solve singlehandedly the organization's problems; there are just too many of them! One leader who led a high risk chemical plant spent three years creating a highly motivated, self-organizing workforce. He described it this way: "Instead of just me worrying about the plant, I now have nine hundred people worrying. And coming up with solutions I never could have imagined."
Sometimes leaders fail to involve staff out of some warped notion of kindness. They don't include people, they don't share their worries, because they don't want to add to their stress. But such well-meaning leaders only create more problems. When leaders fail to engage people in finding solutions to problems that effect them, staff don't thank the leader for not sharing the burden. Instead, they withdraw, criticize, worry and gossip. They interpret the leader's exercise of power as a sign that he/she doesn't trust them or their capacities.
Assessing changes in your leadership
With no time to reflect on how they might be changing, with no time to contemplate whether their present leadership is creating an effective and resilient organization, too many leaders drift into command and control, wondering why nothing seems to be working, angry that no one seems motivated any more.
If you are feeling stressed and pressured, please know that this is how most leaders feel these days. Yet it is important that you take time to notice how your own leadership style has changed in response to the pressures of this uncertain time. Otherwise you may end up disappointed and frustrated, leaving a legacy of failure rather than of real results.
Some questions to think about
Here are questions to help you notice if your leadership is slipping into command and control. If you feel courageous, circulate these questions and talk about them with staff.
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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