17 December 2013

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Help! I'm Trapped in a Government Bureaucracy!

Advice for the Leader-lorn is a periodic column that responds to leadership-related queries from the contemporary workplace. I invite your questions.

Today's question comes from a civil servant located somewhere in Canada:
I am a team leader at [a government department which may be provincial or federal, to protect the correspondent's identity] and recently participated in a leadership development program within the organization. Our first week of the program was kind of a revelation to me and I've since delved into anything having to do with leadership. After viewing your video, I was inspired to try and change my little part of the organization from BAH to UCaPP. My current position is the first step into a supervisory position within the public service, so you could say that I am quite low on the proverbial totem pole. My goal is to focus on what I am in charge of, as there is very little that I can control.
So I am coming to you in the hopes that you could spare a few minutes of your time to either point me in the right direction, share some advice, direct me towards some reading material, or blatantly tell me that there is no hope and to move on to something else!
I always find it interesting to meet recently appointed, especially low-level (potential) leaders filled with Quixotic enthusiasm for the contribution that they truly believe they can make. Please don't interpret what I am about to share with you as coming from someone with a jaded, I've-seen-it-all cynicism, although there is the very real possibility that my comments could be interpreted no other way. There is an unfortunate reality that organizational transformation is not - cannot - be a grassroots initiative unless the organization itself has that attribute of bottom-up, inclusive change "baked in" to its in-use values and practices. Governments tend to be an extreme case of organizational inertia due to its unique - and very contemporary - incarnation of bureaucracy that introduces a political control layer over top of what is already staunchly stifling bureaucratic processes.

Bureaucracies exist in order to remove human judgment from decision making and replace judgment (and often good sense) with systemic procedures and routines. There can be good and valid reasons to do this, especially when one understands organizational imperatives and operating systems from the ground of post-industrial age 20th century. (More on this in this paper on Enabling a Culture of Innovation that I presented at the Conference Board of Canada National Councils of HR Executives meeting in June, 2013.) What governments at all levels began doing in the mid-1980s was to add a layer of political control via these procedures that created a hybrid form of bureaucratic control that had never before been seen, and has since become the de facto operating mode of governments. The current Harper Federal Government is perhaps more efficient - if not overt - at it than most others have been, but in reality is no different in kind than the David Peterson Government in Ontario was at the time.

In particular, government bureaucratic machinery (by which I mean the civil service) have become extremely effective and systematic about stifling innovation and the type of independent procedural, process, and approach thinking that is a requirement for culture change. In particular, one of the key characteristics of a UCaPP-consistent organization is that it promotes and encourages Individual Autonomy and Agency, Collective Responsibility, and Mutual Accountability among its members. Can you really see that sort of transformation occurring in any government? Indeed, I often say that contemporary leadership is about enabling a conducive environment so that people come together to share common experiences from which an alternate future becomes possible. Most very large organizations (that are not on the brink of ruin or the destruction of their historically stable industry or market) truly advocate and encourage alternate futures. They need good managers to maintain, more or less, the status quo. They actually shun true leadership.

Do not lose your inspiration to create engaging environments that are indeed conducive to culture transformation. Organizations in general are dying for want of such inspiring leadership. More important, people are living their lives in silent (or not so silent) frustration in the depths of despair and cynicism because their workplaces are for most intents and purposes, intolerable, toxic, or simply stultifying. The world needs more true contemporary leaders.

09 December 2013

On Attributes of Creating a Great Leadership Environment

"He draws people out of their comfort zone,” he said, “but he does it subtly, challenging them with his openness and his commitment to change. He ends up making them rise to the occasion. He doesn’t just synthesize and sell a solution. He finds opportunities in the larger body of players to create circumstances where change can happen.”
- Former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff, John Podesta, speaking about Barack Obama, quoted in Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men.

Consistent with my contention that contemporary leadership is about creating environments where people come together to share an experience from which an alternate future becomes possible.