Monday, April 28, 2014

The Great Leap Backwards

With so many leaders feeling overwhelmed, many are defaulting to command and control leadership as their primary mode of operation. Whenever I encounter it now, I think of it as the great leap backwards. I know most leaders are choosing this way of working with people because they do not know any other way that will work, especially when change is so constant and messy.

In seminars now, I often point out that most senior leaders are either recovering controlaholics or just plain controlaholics.  It’s what got them to this level of leadership but clearly what will prevent them from becoming an exceptional and transformative leaders.

However, the push back I get from these same leaders is consistent. They routinely point out the importance and need for organizational order and predictability. Now, I am not against order and predictability. In daily operations, these are important, but I am against the great leap backwards to command and control as the primary and only means of helping people move forward through strategic change.

As I explain in seminars, command and control is based on fear, intimidation and dominance which does not generate anything more than forced movement forward. There is no ownership of the work, just work and more work. However, what many leaders desire during difficult, complex and challenging organizational change is for people to be resilient, adaptive, aware and creative.

Yet, what they forget is that command and control as a form of leadership focuses more on stability over change, i.e. the maintaining of status quo. However, successful organizational change, and the leaders who implement it, is often based on the understanding or expectation that there is a better or more effective way of doing something. Command and control, on the other hand, is based on getting something done, and then returning to status quo.

Furthermore, command and control often focuses on lowering that which has caused a level of disequilibrium or chaos within the organization. As a result, it often begins with the what-to-do factor rather than the why-to-do factor. The result over time is that it perpetuates passivity, resistance and resentment. It also involves assigning blame which rarely results in greater clarity and commitment from all involved.

There is another way of leading in difficult times but it requires a great degree of discipline and thoughtfulness.

First, we need to focus on alignment. Leaders who comprehend the importance of alignment recognize that the interconnectedness of the strategic nexus, i.e. the union of mission, vision and values with the strategic plan. These leaders are in an agreement in thought, word and deed with this nexus and act and work in accordance with this nexus. They choose to lead others with a strategic mindset rather than an efficiency initiative perspective.

Second, these same leaders focus on making sure they are creating the future rather attempting to control it. They understand that we are leaders and followers are really co-creating the future. It is not a “I create and you follow” mentality, but instead it is a “we create together” perspective. As Margaret Wheatly reminds us, “People only support what they create.” 

Therefore, leaders need to continually build trust and rebuild trust on a regular basis. They also need to show up, pay attention and listen carefully to others. This careful consideration of others’ perspectives needs to be taken into account, because it creates psychological safety to see what is really happening rather than what we think should be happening or want to be happening.

Third, these same leaders focus on empowerment. I think this is one of the hardest choices a leader can make, because it means giving up control which is something we often think we do, but in reality rarely do. It means choosing not to default to command and control even when the work is difficult.

The U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary defines command and control as “the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission.” What most people do not recognize is that effective command and control is based on a bi-directional flow of timely and accurate information. Yet, this rarely takes place outside military circles because most people who default to command and control do it through fear and intimidation rather than respect and integrity.

When we as leaders choose to focus on alignment, co-creation and empowerment, it means we have to work from a place of clarity, commitment and connection. And those we work with have to know why the work needs to get done, not just how and what needs to get done.

This week, do not choose to make the great leap backwards. Instead, seek a new path so we can engage in the meaningful work of building a better and more effective future for all involved.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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