Leadership Assessment

Why is it different? . . .
Well, now that you ask, I guess it's really not different - at the foundation level, that is! However, it is significantly and profoundly different in application - and that's the 'rub'.

At the root level leadership is still what it always has been - the focusing of the desire for change that's resident in others and the accompanying facilitation of a sustainable new reality.

Making it work in today's precarious market however requires a radically different approach, if for no other reason than (and there are many other reasons) our staff - the people who should follow - has totally different perspectives based on some perceived unsettling experiences over the past twelve-to-eighteen months.

If there's anything worse than staring into the abyss of an economic recession, it's knowing that there is an abyss but being powerless to do anything to protect yourself from it. Many of those who are now expected to respond to change opportunities are in this second category - still blind and definitely fearful.

There's a story about a man who, while walking along a cliff edge, slipped and fell. There was a 400-foot drop to a rocky beach below and certain death! At the very last moment, the man reached out and grasped with one hand the stem of a small shrub growing just below the lip.

As he hung there, not daring to move and watching the roots of the shrub gradually separate from the rock face, a passerby appeared at the cliff edge and offered help. "Let go of the shrub and grab my hand!" the rescuer instructed.

There was no way the doomed man would let go of the shrub; precarious though it was, it was his only security. Even as the shrub was torn loose and the man plummeted to the beach below, he hung on to it for dear life!

My questions dear leader, are "How do you think the would-be rescuer felt as the man fell? Is there anything he could have done differently to save the man's life?"

Now translate that feeling to your impending organizational future. We appear to be emerging from the recession and one thing is now very clear - things are going to be much different than before. What this means is that we'll need to change to meet the changed market conditions for if we don't, we'll have reduced options - at the best.

There's no point in us trying to lead meaningful change if our people are emotionally resistant - whether from fear, anxiety, uncertainty or whatever. We must find ways to encourage them to let go of uncertain securities and to grasp our leadership initiatives. Just how do we do that?

Dealing with Uncertainty . . .
The first and vital issue is to rekindle the desire for change to the point that it surpasses the need for security, and that's a tall order. The shocks of the past year or more have surely cemented in a hard-set resistance to anything that's not one hundred percent certain. It's much better to play it safe and to minimize risk.

On the other side of the scale though, there's the proven fact that mankind is the most adaptable creature that ever walked this earth - so far! We are hard-wired for survival and we'll do whatever we have to with that goal in mind. It's also true that much of the change we'll need is organizational change, collective and collaborational change, but this actually constitutes the sum of all the personal changes that occur in each individual.

We could attempt to persuade, to cajole, to incent or to direct needed changes yet bitter experience will have demonstrated that this is not easy and often not even possible. We need a more subtle approach. Fortunately there are role models and pathfinders available to our purpose. They are an integral part of our culture - the informal culture that many, if not most, leaders tend to ignore.

Consider the following analogy; organizational culture is an iceberg floating in a sea of circumstance. Eight-ninths is submerged, out-of-sight and so often out-of-mind. The visible part is misleading (as the Titanic discovered), and this represents our formal, published Values.

The eight-ninths below the surface is comprised of four elements, separate yet interlinked -

  • Heroes - the golden-haired boys and girls we favour and promote
  • Myths - the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to pass along the essential truths of our organization
  • Rituals - the often obscure practices that mark the rites of passage among our members and
  • Networks - the unseen communication and decision influencers that work to drive rumours and similar political impediments under the surface.

I do not have to ask you which factors are more powerful in influencing employee behaviour - the formal Values or the four informal influencers. What I should ask is why we do not take more advantage of these unofficial yet ultimately compelling forces.

Where there is uncertainty in the organization it will be felt in the dissonance between formal and informal cultures. The informal factors in combination are credible while formal Values may be perceived as wishful thinking at best.

If we were to apply a little influence to each of the four informal factors (Heroes, Myths, Rituals and Networks) and cause them to be both aligned with the changes we seek, as well as internally coherent at the same time, we would create the desired change within the influential informal culture. This way it would not be seen as an imposition.

How do we get there . . .
Start by recognizing what the informal culture is right now. Simply ask any newly joined person for the answers because, for sure, this has been the focus of attention as (s)he attempts to integrate him/her self into the organization. In addition to this, learn to listen with your eyes - observe!

Now design / redesign each informal factor by promoting new heroes, telling new stories/myths, encouraging fresh rituals or squelching older less appropriate ones, and by deliberately using the informal networks. Every small intervention will help to create a cohesive and continuous pressure for change which you may then reinforce.

Specifically, heroes are role models. Recognize, respond to and reward those who are working for needed change and ignore those who elect to oppose it. There's much power in ignoring unproductive or incompatible behaviours, far more than is to be gained by confronting and resisting it (this only creates 'anti-heroes'!).

Opportunities to tell new stories, each with a vital learning point deeply embedded, will arise during meetings, in newsletters, by email and in social venues. The secret here is to simply tell the story and not to beat everyone around the head with the learning point. If the stories are credible, the learning points will emerge in different ways for each listener. Do you recall the impact stories have had on you in the past?

Rituals tend to go deeper into the informal culture, and they are sometimes beyond the 'ken' of most employees. They are detectable though, usually as 'rites of passage' - the small behaviours that separate out those who are 'accepted' / in the inner circle from all others; they also define the informal decision makers and power brokers who can be anti-heroes. Note who lunches with whom, identify those who are consulted informally or quoted as 'experts and authorities' and how they are treated by staff in general.

Networks are the lifeblood of the informal culture and as such they're clearly identifiable. Who do you tell when you'd like something to be broadly known? To whom do you go to 'prime the pump' when you want to grease the skids or influence a decision? These are the entry points for the insidious networks that host rumours and peddle power.

To be successful you will need to make all of your interventions coherent - aligned with your desired intent and with one another - consistency of purpose is critical. It may take a while to plant the seeds and to gain the desired momentum for effective change, and there are no quick fixes or shortcuts; the biggest challenge is to close the credibility gap by building a bridge one brick at a time.

The Bottom Line . . .
We often speak of driving change but this is a heavy-handed approach at best; people respond to change best when they think it's their own idea. We acknowledge this whenever we quote the old maxim, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink". We can tell, we can even yell, but it's frequently better just to sell.

Change invites resistance if it is imposed; it works more easily if it is insinuated. This is a leadership skill that has to be learned if we intend to prosper in the future because the cruder, more directive strategies used by managers must rely on certain shared outcomes that all involved can relate to; this simply cannot be guaranteed.

Finally, leadership is an exercise in divergent practices, as opposed to management which is convergent. Divergent behaviours are almost impossible to control and will become even more difficult with uncertainty. Trust is an essential component and I've yet to meet the person who can command me to trust him or her. I have to discover trust for myself and I probably cannot tell you just how I achieve this.

I'm heavily influenced by what is going on around me in general, more so than by any single or focused source. In uncertain times, I sense that trust emerges in a myriad of tiny packages.

Think about it!