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Influence, not power yields better output from employees

My first leadership experience came when I arrived in Kenya in 1977 to be the general manager of the local subsidiary of a multinational IT company.

Both the Kenyans who reported to me and the Brits to whom I reported expected me to be the proverbial “Big Man”, perceived as all-knowing, all-wise and all-powerful.

And when I refused to buy into such an impossible scenario, when I took time consulting with and developing the newly-promoted management team around me, I was branded by my bosses as “weak and indecisive”.

It was something I learned to live with, knowing that my style meant that the staff felt more respected, more empowered, more motivated – and hence more productive.

Dominant personalities anywhere tend to impose their will on others. Never mind if their title and corresponding authority make it possible for them to adopt a “do as I say” approach.

Yet more so in these days of flat organisational pyramids and loose networks, not to mention the nomadic tendencies of knowledge workers, it is unlikely to get a leader very far.

The challenge for such leaders is to graduate from being perpetual overloaded decision-makers and dispensers of instructions to becoming spreaders of positive influence.

OK, other than in the middle of a crisis perhaps. You need a particular kind of strength to hold back from micro-managing, and a boldness to trust others and to delegate to them.

This in turn presupposes an optimistic disposition and a positive view of human nature. It was Douglas McGregor who in 1960 introduced his Theory X and Theory Y, where Theory X supports the view that we humans are lazy and try to avoid work. Theory Y, meanwhile, postulates that working comes naturally, and also that under suitable conditions people do seek responsibility.

Each set of assumptions leads us to a different view of how we can and should lead. If we think people are intrinsically lazy then we must control them firmly for work to get done.

Theory X also imagines that most people prefer to be told what to do, and dislike taking risks or assuming responsibility. So again, we must play the “stern parent” to the “naughty child”.

Theory Y calls on us to provide inspiring visions and to focus on aligning individuals’ objectives with organisational ones.

If this is present then they will feel free to use their imagination and creativity to perform optimally. Adherents to Theory Y believe that leading through supportive influence rather than controlling authority is the path to take.

The way we lead is reflected in how we behave, and to grow our circle of influence we must be emotionally intelligent.

This means that we must, as Stephen Covey told us, “seek first to understand, then seek to be understood”, which in turn requires us to ask questions rather than feel obliged always to provide answers, and to be open listeners.

We must lead by example and build win-win relationships with those around us. We must be coaches and enablers of those we lead, appreciating that the more they grow and the more trustworthy they become, the more we free ourselves to focus on higher level strategic issues.

Such cultures, where leaders create enabling environments for learning and growth, should percolate throughout an organisation. So when we talk about leaders and leadership we don’t only mean CEOs and directors.

Indeed there are no exceptions to leading, as we should all exercise reflective self-leadership, where the coach within acts as our positive influencer.

In today’s world of rapid and uncertain change, no leader can afford to pose as “The Big Man”.

Contemporary leadership requires men and women in positions of responsibility to reassure those around them so they may cope with all the inconvenient disruptions of this 21st century while fulfilling both their own goals and those of the organisations where they work.

Leading through influence is far less efficient than exercising top-down authority. But unless one approaches leadership in this subtler style, respect and loyalty will be eroded and for sure the outcome will be unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating.

Kind of leadership needed to deal with a crisis effectively

I was in London last month at the time when snow covered the city, to work on a leadership programme with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

One of those with me carried a wonderful book that I then also bought, The Greats on Leadership by Jocelyn Davis.

In it Mr Davis offers summaries of what 24 great authors have had to say over the centuries about different elements and circumstances of leadership, and then discusses these in a contemporary context.

So for instance he builds on Machiavelli’s writing to explore change, Plato’s to examine justice, Bernard Shaw’s to promote vision… and Shakespeare’s to help leaders deal with crises.

Mr Davis turns to Shakespeare’s Henry V for inspiration on the subject, lauding the victor over the greatly superior French forces in the battle of Agincourt as a “learning leader”.

I read this chapter with particular interest as on my return from London I was a member of the faculty delivering the Transformative Leadership programme run jointly by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication and the Harvard Kennedy School, within which one of my sessions was on the voice of leadership in periods of crisis.

Our whole programme was based on the Adaptive Leadership approach promoted by Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School, about which I wrote in an earlier column.

Heifetz explains how leadership must be treated as an activity rather than a position, and in his chapter on crisis Davis quotes Heifetz at length on the subject.

The Harvard professor, acknowledges Mr Davis, writes eloquently on the “learning zone” and its importance to teams and organisations in crisis, showing how it exists between the overly cool comfort zone of complacency and the too-hot-to-handle zone of danger and panic.

In normal times we exist in the comfort zone where stress levels are low, but an emergency hurls us into the high-stress danger zone. There, effective leadership as practiced by the likes of Henry V delivers the sharp focus and fast action that overcome the tendency merely to fight, flee or freeze.

Mr Davis then explains more about how to remain in such a zone at these most difficult times. He does this by constructing a chart that shows “Unity” on the vertical axis and “Agility” on the horizontal one, where both need to be high for the learning zone to be alive and well – more so during and after times of crisis.

It’s not so hard for unity to be high in normal circumstances, when there is less urgent need for extreme agility. He calls the upper left quadrant, with high unity and low agility, the “complacency zone”, where signs of impending crisis are met with a chorus of “Around here we always… “.

He then takes us to the lower right quadrant, his “Disconnection zone”, where agility outweighs unity and everyone worries about saving their own skin – the Titanic syndrome. At least as lamentable is the lower left “Blame zone”, where both unity and agility are low and the concern is blame-avoidance.

Finally to Henry V territory, the upper right “Learning zone”, where great leadership first asks how we can resolve our problems and move forward together; then how I contributed to the difficulties and what I must do differently to avoid making the same mistakes again; and only after to examine how they, the other team members, contributed to what happened and how I can coach them to learn and be better prepared for the next crisis.

In the discussion during my session on leadership in crisis the participants — some of whom were in leadership positions in large hospitals — reviewed the recent one at Kenyatta National Hospital, where head surgery was performed on the wrong patient. And later they reflected on how they had dealt with crises that involved their own organisations.

What about you? Are you in the league of Henry V? Or would the Titanic have sunk under your command too? In this volatile and uncertain world of ours, it’s good for all of us to reflect on how effectively we will deal with our next crisis.