Thursday, May 04, 2006

To be a leader of any group, organization or movement of a significant size is to be in a position at the top, out in front and ahead of the curve. Leaders have their own perspective - they see farther, beyond the horizon and think outside the box. When this visionary perspective
is wedded to the ability to persuade and harnessed to ambition and persistence, there exists a leader who can move mountains. Real leaders are change agents.

The intrinsic disadvantage of leadership is the tendency toward isolation. As leaders acquire followers dedicated to helping the leader make the vision a reality, their very dedication causes a number of distortions to be introduced into the nascent system that in time may begin to increasingly affect the leader's own perception of reality - followers and, in particular, bureaucracies, create " noise" as a byproduct of their positive functions as well as from operating from the basis of a different position and perspective. Some examples.

1. Framing: Ideologically charged organizations are prone to pre-screen and self-censor the information flow on a conscious and unconscious level to fit the values propagated by the movement.

2. Status anxiety: As organizations become larger and more complex they tend to lose their early, collegial or informal character and begin a process of social stratification by creating an administrative hierarchy. Status in the organization provides an incentive for intriguing, office politics, rivalries, infighting and a host of behaviors which distort information flows.

3. Bureaucratization: The need to make the organization efficient, predictable and reliable leads to a standardization and uniformity of procedures within the organization. The cost of this efficiency is passive resistance to change on the part of the bureaucrats - partly because the prodedures are themselves a cognitive Frame and partly out of sloth and a preference for the easy and familiar over the hard, untried or new.

There are many other potential distortions and when taken to an extreme, these byproducts help produce such obvious irrationalities as "cherry-picking", "stovepiping", magical thinking" and "group think" that sabotage effective leadership and isolate the organization from reality. Their OODA loop is thoroughly corrupted to the point that the existence of a problem in the collective cognitive pattern may not even be recognized (or if suggested, rejected with great hostility). A classic historical example of this phenomena would be the Politburo of the Soviet Union which deliberated in grand, self-imposed, isolation. Such a system, it may be fairly said, was not resilient but ossified. Rigid, frozen and hard but also brittle.

Ossified systems cannot adapt to change because they do not produce leaders per se but rather managers and bureaucrats. Managers and bureaucrats are different from leaders in that while they too can become isolated, the nature of their role is invested in the culture of the system they inhabit and its rule-sets and procedures. They are creatures of the status quo and when holding power, rule from the center and seek to extend and enforce the authority of the system. While useful functionaries if kept within limits, when managerial or bureaucratic class preferences dominate an organization, then the organization loses resiliency becoming increasingly unable to adapt creatively to changing conditions.

How do you keep an organization or system resilient ? Some possibilities:

Continuous Engagement: One of the reasons I find "Development in a Box" concept of Steve DeAngelis so intriguing is the real-time connection and adaption link between the organization and the environment in the "third stage" of DiB. The engagement between institutional memory, rule-sets, self-monitoring and changing conditions does not break or stop. Change becomes part of the institutional culture.

Modularity: While organizations move faster when they are " flatter" you reach a point of diminishing returns with decentralization where the organization becomes amorphous and unable to sustain a concentrated effort or flow of resources. Embedding nodes of hierarchy in a relatively decentralized network - modularity - allows for greater cohesion and "local' leadership.

Continuous Learning: Not simply " training" but genuine learning should take place as the organization invests in its own members. The aggregate increase in new skill-sets and experiences infuse the organization with new ideas while increasing the parameters of possibilities.

Velocity: Borrowing a term from economics, on average, the people in a complex organization should move positionally at a certain rate. New people should be brought in and old ones given sabbaticals ( recall Continuous Learning) for a time to change their intellectual environment completely. Ideally, the organization would acquire a membership where most could demonstrate at least competency at several disparate critical tasks and excellence in an area of specialization.

The 21st century is shaping up to be the century of the network, the market-state and the emergence dynamic - leaders who do not cultivate resiliency in this era build upon sand.
Very interesting post, Mark.

I wonder, to the degree that the organization is made modular and structured to give members intellectual vacations, or on a cycle through the organization as new members are introduced, etc., etc., how necessary will the very idea of "leadership" be?

And, what exactly will that leader be doing, from day to day or even just whenever?

I wonder if the very idea of leadership, as we normally conceive it, necessarily leads to at least a little bit of ossification. However, if the leader's primary role or the heft of his leadership rests in perpetually breaking up ossification as it occurs or preventing it from occurring, that might be the sort of leader you are looking for.
Hey Curtis,

Fantastic observation. Perhaps the highest, truest goal of leadership is to make itself unnecessary ?

Probably more successful leaders have destroyed or damaged their own legacies by not knowing when to get out of the way, than anything else.
I work with a very smart, very creative IT team. The folks here know how to do lots of stuff. But most of them don't have a clue about *what* to do. That's where leadership comes in.

Rather than "unnecessary", I'd say that the highest goal of leadership is to make itself invisible.
"Rather than "unnecessary", I'd say that the highest goal of leadership is to make itself invisible"

Hi Matt,

Admittedly, a better way to express the idea. Gracias.
An interesting concept used at Google is to give the engineers great freedom to pursue their own ideas. Some percentage of the time they need to work on ongoing company projects, but a substantial amount of time (on order of 50%) is to be used to create and build upon their own ideas. This encourages new innovation and creative thinking by smart, experienced people. It is an example of a more 'invisible' leadership that has, up to now, been quite effective. This also gives workers more intellectual ownership and motivation in their work.
Hi Von,

I was not aware of that aspect of Google but intuitively, that would seem to be psychologically very sound.

Creativity requires freedom but also activity and tension. People who are locked into a rigid treadmill without any choices or control are rarely creative ( except perhaps at expressing rebellion). Likewise, endless amounts of time without limits or responsibilities seem to induce lassitude.
W.L Gore has been doing the same kind of thing Vonny mentions about Google. Fast Company had an article on how Gore organizes for innovation. Here's a link and a few quotes:


...We wanted a company where innovation is resilient and doesn't depend on the ingenuity of a single individual or even a small cadre of geniuses...

Gore's knack for innovation doesn't come from throwing money or bodies at a challenge, or from building a great ivory tower of an R&D lab. It springs from a culture where people feel free to pursue ideas on their own, communicate with one another, and collaborate out of self-motivation rather than a sense of duty. Gore enshrines the idea of "natural leadership." Leaders aren't designated from on high. People become leaders by actually leading, and if you want to be a leader there, you have to recruit followers. Since there's no chain of command, no one has to follow. In a sense, you become a talent magnet: You attract other talented people who want to work with you. You draw them with your passion for what you're working on and the credibility that you've built over time...

...Gore encourages its associates to spend some of their time -- typically around 10% -- on speculative new ideas...

...The Gore organization isn't as fanatically flat as some idealized accounts have made it out to be. There is indeed a president and CEO, Chuck Carroll, a quiet man who succeeded Bob four years ago. And the company necessarily has some structure. The four divisions (fabrics, medical, industrial, and electronic products) each have a recognized "leader," as do certain companywide support functions (human resources, information technology) and specific businesses and cells. But there is no codified set of ranks and positions as there is in the typical corporation. As a Gore "associate," you're supposed to morph your role over time to match your skills. You're not expected to fit into some preconceived box or standardized organizational niche. Your compensation is tied to your "contribution" and decided by a committee, much the way it's done in law firms. The company looks at your past and present performance as well as your future prospects, which takes away the potential disincentive for investing time and effort in speculative projects. Gore encourages risk taking. When Gore people pull the plug on a failing initiative, they'll still have a "celebration" with beer or champagne, just as they would if it had been a success.
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