24 March 2011

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Questioning questioning

“Advice for the Leader-lorn” is an irregular series in which Dr. Mark answers your leadership questions. If you have a thorny leadership situation that you’d like Dr. Mark to address, send your question to Dr. Mark.

Today’s question comes from M.D., who asks, “There’s that old lawyer adage, ‘never ask a question for which you don’t already know the answer.’ As a manager, my staff expect me to provide direction and inspiration, but I don’t want to appear to be overly directive. So, I ask a lot of questions which are typically aimed to make them think about options and alternatives that I want them to consider. However, lately, I’m torn because on the one hand, I don’t want to appear to be unknowledgeable, but on the other, I feel that I’m not uncovering all the information I need to make decisions. How can I change my style of questioning without my people losing respect for me because I suddenly ‘don’t know” what they think I’m supposed to know?

This is an important question, M.D., and thanks for having the courage to ask it. Many leaders believe that, by virtue of their position, they are expected to see all, know all, and make the right decision—every time. It seems that we have evolved into living the myth of the omnipotent and omniscient leader. At one time – especially in the hierarchy of guilds – it was more-or-less true that one attained a senior position, and earned the privilege and respect that came with it, by virtue of one’s technical skill, expertise, and ability to mentor apprentices and journeymen. This idea morphed into the concept of the “lead hand” in the factory environment, later becoming the phenomenon of the highly expert individual contributor being promoted to supervise or manage their department.

As the practice of management itself became professionalized, mostly since the 1960s, the expectation that the manager or executive would have complete knowledge of their department persisted. Cartoons like Dilbert reinforced the idea that subordinate workers who actually knew more than their “pointy-haired boss” could do a better job of managing, especially when said boss masqueraded their lack of knowledge. And largely because of the latter, the former is often made true!

There is another adage that comes from the world of continuous process improvement via Professor Kaoru Ishikawa that may prove useful: “Each person is the expert in his or her own job.” By separating the notions of technical expertise from managerial – or even better, leadership – expertise in your own mind, you can begin to feel more secure in what you do, and enable your staff to develop their own sense of autonomy and mastery in what they do. Such a separation may feel like you are ceding some degree of control; if it does, you're on the right track!

The perception of giving up control – and a leader’s mostly futile and counter-productive desire to hold onto control at almost any cost – is often at the heart of directive, as opposed to inquisitive questions. Great leaders can inspire autonomy and mastery among their staff – in other words, give up a large measure of control – in favour of creating environments in which innovation and new ideas flourish. For the leader, this means authentically living in a space of inquiry, in which, as Marshall McLuhan observes in his book, Take Today, “Discovery comes from dialogue that starts with the sharing of ignorance.” Such leaders inevitably find two things: First, such discoveries, more often than not, increase the space of alternatives thereby enabling the leader to make more effective decisions. And second, their people come to respect their leader even more, since genuinely seeking their advice increases their sense of Economic-ba (that is, feeling valued); leading with  humility while providing strong referent leadership are highly respected in the UCaPP world.

13 March 2011

The Inner and Outer Aspects of Sustainability

The Oxford Leadership Journal has a worthwhile article in the current issue by Sara Schley: Sustainability: The Inner and Outer Work. In it, she describes how even those organizations that subscribe to the notion of a “triple bottom line” - success determined equally though economic, social, and ecological measures - are often not recognizing the integration that is required among these elements. She explains how an intense focus on achieving triple-bottom-line results may actually be counterproductive, drawing people away from practices necessary to achieve holistic success:
First, the way that most people operate with the triple bottom line ignores the real synergy among its three dimensions – social, economic, and ecological. In practice, efforts tend to be fragmented; companies institute “social policies,” “green practices,” and financial reporting systems without ever linking them together.

The second reason that a focus on the triple bottom line alone isn’t enough is that it allows people to ignore the “inner work” – the personal practices and disciplines that provide the perspective and internal stability needed to make a difference in the long run. The very ideals and aspirations that lead people to an interest in sustainability can also drive people into a frenzied cycle of “fixes,” actions, and imperatives, ultimately leading to wasted efforts and burned-out people.
She goes on to explore the ways in which inner work - contemplative practices and awareness of the emotional connections and effects we create among our various decisions to act - provides the appropriate guidance needed to be truly effective in achieving an integrated, triple bottom line. The important thing to recognize about living in a complex world is the fractal nature of these effects: to accomplish a healthy, triple bottom line for our organizations, we each, individually, must remain committed to achieving a healthy, triple bottom line for ourselves and those whom we touch. That, of course, is the essence of tactility.

09 March 2011

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Compassionate or Responsible – Which to Choose?

“Advice for the Leader-lorn is an irregular series in which Dr. Mark answers your leadership questions. If you have a thorny leadership situation that you’d like Dr. Mark to address, send your question to Dr. Mark.

Today’s question comes from Brazen Careerist member, J.S., who posts, “When in conflict [i.e., conflicted over which alternative to choose], which do you want your leadership to be: responsible or compassionate?

A challenging question, J.S.! When a leader confronts opposite polarities for a decision that appear to pit “being compassionate” against “being responsible” in the leader's mind, one is almost automatically moved to ask questions like, “being compassionate towards whom in what context?” and, “being responsible to whom or to what objective in which context?” The answers to such questions are never obvious; nor are they easy. So what is important to do is to understand the context within which the polarity itself takes on useful meaning, which is distinctly different than simply asking the context of the decision itself.

The polarity exists as a polarity in the leader’s mind only relative to a particular frame of meaning. In this case, the polarities of compassion versus responsibility may gain useful meaning when framed in ethical terms; that, in turn, suggests checking in with individual, role, and overarching organizational values. First, one must do a values check with respect to the organization of which the leader is a leader, and a value check of the leader's intrinsic personal values. Notably, the leader’s intrinsic values as a person may not necessarily coincide with those of the assumptive role of “leader.” It is often the case that people – particularly in BAH organizations – will assume a set of behaviours and attitudes that they believe are consistent with an extrinsic expectation of the leader role. That, in part, is why otherwise good people do what turn out to be some very bad things. If there is a misalignment among the organization’s values (your organization has had this “values” conversation among its members, right?), the values of the leadership role, and the values held by the individual who occupies that role, then what you have is a mess—and importantly, no basis from which to be able to come to an appropriate decision.

When it comes to alignment of values, the leader must first be a whole human being, because without that grounding, there can be no ethical foundation for leadership; hence, there is no foundation for effective leadership in a contemporary context. The organization as an entity must understand its collective values, to ensure they are aligned with the whole values of its constituent members (specifically, all those whom the organization touches, which comprise more than those who show up for work at 9 a.m., and those entered in the accounting system).

Assuming there is consistency (more or less) in this intrinsic organizational values check, the next move is to appeal to the organization’s “Effective Theory of Action.” That is, the leader must consider the question, “will the decision have the effects that are consistent with those the organization intends?” (also known as the organization's tactility – whom it wants to touch, and how it wants to touch them). An organization’s tactility can be expressed via the five valence relationships that bind an organization’s diverse member constituencies—economic, socio-psychological, knowledge, identity, and ecological, with no one valence having precedence over any other, that is, an organization ideally strives for balance.

With this dual framing in terms of values and tactility, finding an appropriate and effective course of action that respects both polarities of being compassionate and being responsible should be either relatively straight-forward, or at the very least, rendered “discussable” and sufficiently well-framed to engage appropriate members in a useful conversation.