Leadership – a persistent, resilient culture.
As a culture, leadership is commonly practiced in a manner that fits into a framework that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote about 25 years ago in their book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They describe companies who had lost touch with their founding values yet continued forward with the cultural practices derived from those values as unable to maintain focus and direction. Values are the lifeblood of a company, where the cultural practices represent how an organization functions.
Leadership has become a standardized approach to the operation of an organization. As I listen to people describe the function of leadership in their organization, it is often difficult to identify the values that inform what leadership means. It is much easier to identify the cultural practices that cause leadership to be ineffective. Here are three.
I didn’t have a word for this kind of leadership until recently. I do now. It is called “agenda-driven” leadership.
For a long time, I thought that this was what leadership was about. It sounds like a focused form of leading. But I realize that it is not what “Essentialism” or “The ONE Thing” are advocating.
Recently, I saw an extreme example of agenda-driven leadership up close. I was hired to conduct a workshop for the mayor and council of a city. The experience was disturbing. I’ve seen single-minded egotistical leaders trying to force their views upon an audience. I had not seen it where almost every member of the group acted in this manner. The interaction was a form of civil war. It looked like this.
Each member of this board ran for election based upon an agenda that they conceived as the most important for their community. The approach works well for getting the tribe that is formed by the agenda to get the candidate elected. The more narrow the agenda, the easier to demonstrate the other candidates as ill-suited to serve. The reality is that no community, nor any business, functions well when its leaders ignore the whole in favor of their personal agenda.
The result is the chaos of warring factions competing to secure power and establish the legacy of their leadership.
Fragmented Perspective of the Organization
As will be seen, each of these three cultural practices is tied together. An agenda-driven leadership is a product of a fragmented understanding of the organization, or in the case above, a city.
In an organization, a fragmented perspective manifests itself through a breakdown in communication between levels of an organization. I’ve spoken with more than one middle manager of a corporation who shared with me that she didn’t know if anyone truly understood what her job was. As one fellow described to me the chaos at his company, he was constantly pulled off projects to begin new ones, never completing the ones he had begun.
A fragmented perspective comes from the lack of alignment of the three dimensions of leadership in the Circle of Impact model. There are two levels to this alignment. The key alignment is between the ideology of the company, its people, and the structure. Fragmentedness looks like a lack of clarity about the reasons why we are doing what we are doing. Fragmented leadership shows little respect and trust for people because they are simply performers of assigned tasks. It is a culture divorced from values and human relationships where the structure drives all the decisions.
Second level fragmentation is the breakdown between the four basic aspects of every organizational structure. These four parts are products or programs, operations, finance, and governance. When they are not in sync, then the company becomes fragmented. This particularly true under agenda-driven leadership. The leadership cannot see the whole of the company, but only the parts as separate enterprises. Even adopting a systems perspective does not change this as most systems are structure-oriented.
The result of this cultural practice is chaos as everyone works in an environment of isolation and detachment from a values-based purpose of the company or community.
Leadership as an Elite Organizational Function
Agenda-driven, fragmented leadership is a product of the cultural persistence of the idea that leadership is done by an elite, select group of people within an organization. This is a cultural practice left over from the industrial age. That world is gone. It has been replaced by an age of knowledge work, as described by Peter Drucker. In this culture, each person is responsible for learning and acting upon their learning. But the fragmented way organizations function makes it very difficult for this to happen for people.
Elitist cultures persist in organizations and societies as centers of power. They fail because the reality of the information age is that no one person or small group of persons can master the range of information that is available to inform decision-making. This is agenda-driven, fragmented form of leadership is a persistent, residual culture, not based on values that inform the present, but based on cultural practices derived from value systems that are no longer relevant.
The result is the chaos becomes more entrenched and resistant to change. The people who live and work in these environments will feel the chaos at the center of its culture. Many people, I have found, believe that this is just the way things are. So, they accommodate themselves to circumstances that cannot provide for them feelings of satisfaction, fulfillment or gratitude.
What Today’s Leadership Can Look Like
In my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative to Ignite Change, I describe the transition taking place in how leadership and organizations function.
All leadership begins with personal initiative. It is an act of personal choice. We choose to do something. We choose not to do it. The choice leads to a change, and not just any change, but one that is intentional and purposeful.
Leadership is open to anyone. It does not discriminate. All that is required is a person taking initiative to make a difference. This is the sole basis of what it means to be a leader from the perspective of the Circle of Impact. All leadership begins with a personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. This is all that it takes to lead.
* Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change, pg. 52
Where Change Begins
It happens in two places.
First, in the recognition that everyone can function in a leadership capacity within their role in an organization.
Second, senior executives must recognize that their role as leaders has changed. The old elitist, agenda-driven, fragmented perspective of leadership produced leadership-starved cultures.
To create leader-rich cultures means that senior leaders become the facilitators of leadership. In doing so, they can begin to see the whole of the organization or community. In doing so, they foster a social environment of respect, trust, and mutual contribution. Values which unite people lead to a unified organization or community. Unity allows for each person to contribute at higher levels of their potential.
This is the new persistent, residual culture of leadership which will lead into the next century.