Leadership and Facilitation

A Tale of Two Leaders . . .

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .  So begins an epic story, written by Charles Dickens in 1859, recounting the fortunes of people in two cities – London and Paris – during the French revolution of 1789. With well over 200 million copies sold, it ranks among the most famous works in the history of fictional literature.

The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period. It follows the lives of several protagonists through these events.

The most notable are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay is a French aristocrat who falls victim to the indiscriminate wrath of the revolution despite his virtuous nature, and Carton is a dissipated British barrister who endeavours to redeem his ill-spent life out of his unrequited love for Darnay's wife.

Permit me to use elements of this story in order to demonstrate a modern parallel – today’s business revolution. If I may, I’ll borrow Charles and Sydney who both aspire to the role of business leader.

Charles is the well-intentioned and somewhat privileged leader who has emerged from the challenges of a working world that has changed around him even as he struggled to master it. Today, there’s an apparent workers revolt and he is in real danger of being dispossessed despite his accrued learning and significant other assets.

Sydney is an struggling leader who is presently not convinced that he has used his time and talents well in his formative years even though he, like Charles, had a good beginning. He feels he has squandered his credibility and perhaps dissipated the trust of his people. He now seeks redemption.

You will be familiar with the ending of Dickens’s wonderful story and I shall not attempt the same final reconciliation – so presume nothing. Just come along for the ride – it should be most instructive and well worth your time.

Charles in a Nutshell . . .

Charles was raised as a traditional manager in the corporate world. He joined his company straight from university in an ‘entry’ role and by a combination of judiciously rotated experiences, regular promotions and keeping his nose clean, he eventually achieved a responsible director-level position with several managers and more than sixty employees reporting through him.

He has a sound track record as a supervisor and has usually met his assigned objectives without fuss or bother. He’s in line for a vice presidency and the heady atmosphere of strategic level contributions and recognition. While he has little to single himself out from other candidates he has been loyal to the company, is reasonably popular among his colleagues and finds general favour with the senior executive ranks.

Through the twenty years of his career to-date, Charles has been rather too busy on corporate issues / challenges to be able to develop his management and leadership knowledge and skills formally. For certain, he has a great deal of related experience but much of this has been made redundant by changes that have been happening around him. He confesses to his closer confidantes too that he’s somewhat bemused by the strange, self-centered attitudes of young people who have joined the company in recent years.

Technology has been a challenge, and also the changing faces of regulations, standards and business practices, however he has done much more to stay abreast of developments in these areas; he’s even justifiably proud of his acquired computer literacy.

In short, Charles has retained the original template of leader / management perspectives and perceptions that he learned during the formative years of his business life and he’s acquired some great abilities to retain and even enhance his proficiencies and efficiencies along the way.

His ambition has been to make vice president before he is forty and he would appear to be well on his way

A Word about Sydney . . .

Here’s a different story. Sydney had the same privileged beginning as Charles but events flowed less smoothly. For starters, he wasn’t able to keep his nose as clean as he ought to have done – a free-thinker, he had an irritating habit of challenging his superiors when directives didn’t seem to make sense. He was often imprudent, voicing his opinions at inappropriate times, expecting, perhaps unreasonably, that common sense might prevail.

Over time, thanks mainly to his expert knowledge and long, hard work, he has progressed as a supervisor     / project manager, then as a departmental manager (since there was no one else available with suitable qualifications at the time) and finally he scraped into a Director’s role by learning to toe the party line more often than he had in the past. Along the way he has taken a few courses in Organizational Behavior and Psychology, primarily because he was curious about these things.

He hasn’t been developing against a master plan simply because it never occurred to him and no one had encouraged him to do so. He would describe himself as ‘pragmatic’ – doing what has to be done to get the results needed, not just by the company but also by those involved. He’s stayed up with all the external forces that have affected the company and especially those which impacted on his people – without whom he knows he’d be lost.

As he looks back over the past twenty years he wonders if he hasn’t ‘blown it’. He has a deep-seated desire to contribute more than he is at present, mainly because he can see that it’s needed and others appear reluctant to stick their necks out. He sees a good amount of mediocrity, both above and beside him, but he’s not confident that he’s that much better than anyone else.

He’s aware that he has deficiencies as a leader and manager but he recognizes that he has some substantial talent resident in his people. It’s often a struggle to assist them as corporate policies aren’t especially friendly and systems are resistant to needed change. He consoles himself with the idea that their time will eventually come and perhaps they’ll do a better job than their predecessors.

He would really like to make a profound difference to the success of the organization – but how?

The Critical Decision . . .

To which of these worthy persons would you give the vice presidency, and why?

The crucial question, in my opinion, is "Are you serious about change?” If you are generally satisfied that the organization is on a safe and predictable course for the future then it wouldn’t matter particularly; Charles would be the safest choice but is unlikely to generate any spectacular results; Sydney will probably be a tad more disruptive but could ‘care-take’ the position for a few years. Perhaps there’s an outside candidate?

If the decision appears to be somewhat more difficult than it should be, you have only yourself to blame. People don’t live forever and the need to prepare someone for the role is entirely predictable. This does not appear to have happened.

However, you counter, there’s been a revolution. Who could have predicted the radical changes that are happening as we speak? There’s no security in the traditional structures of business; technology and geo-political factors have taken care of that. So how can you prepare for a future when things are so uncertain? In addition, the young people of today are demanding, yes, demanding different working opportunities, relationships and rewards and they aren’t ready to compromise. This only complicates an already complex scenario.

We’re compelled to move forward into the unknown and there is little comfort in all the preparatory work we’ve done; as we’re trying to set a course and speed for the future the ground is shifting under our feet. Consider, briefly, how much business is transacted over the internet today as compared with just five years ago! Where will this be in another five years? Or in three years? Or even two years? We simply don’t know for certain and yet we must make plans; we need to invest!

An Insurance Policy . . .

At first blush, neither Charles nor Sydney seems to be what we are going to need. But wait! Let’s look again.

In our last issue of Polaris Digest we spoke at length about the leader’s need to focus – it can be both short and longer term. This is definitely an essential component of leadership in both dimensions and we cannot evade the responsibility to provide it. The other part of the leader’s role though is facilitation – the art of getting things done by and through others. If you look carefully at Sydney’s track record, this is precisely what he has learned to do.

He has learned the rudiments of human behavior and his attention has been on people rather than on systems alone. As a project manager he may well have learned the hard way that if you don’t have your people on-side, then budgets and schedules will overrun your expectations. Above all, he’s come to appreciate that if his people aren’t successful then neither is the organization.

Your insurance policy is your people, especially those at the front line of your business. If they ‘will’ the business to be successful, they’ll find a way to make it so. All they will ask in return is that you don’t get in their way – in fact if you could provide a little help, some support and encouragement, this would be icing on the cake. Given the power to act, they will create value for your customers and they’ll secure market intelligence and feed it back to you so you can plan for the future – theirs as well as yours.

In the uncertain circumstances of today’s business climate, I’d be looking for leaders and managers who have their attention on the front line of the business, not on the executive suite. Give me a rough diamond like Sydney and I’ll make him even better at the vital role of facilitating outcomes. With Charles, I’d have my work cut out!

The Bottom Line . . .

Business today is fluid – more so than it has ever been; if we are to survive and prosper, we need to be fluid too.

Fluidity in business is measured in responsiveness and adaptability. This is best expressed in the relationships and underlying culture that forms our organization. It is here, precisely, that we need to focus if we seek enduring results. Our fate lies not in our stars but in ourselves and in our preparedness to support success in others.

A Tale of Two Cities ends as Sydney faces the guillotine – a sad and undeserved end you might think. However, he also finishes his life as a fulfilled individual, satisfied that he has redeemed himself by his selfless act, able to offer comfort to another and secure that his life has been worthwhile. He finds this in offering himself for others.

The greatest accolade any leader can earn is to have created success in others, to have inspired emerging leaders, and to have left an indelible legacy in the form of others who are ready to replicate what he or she has done – perhaps even more. For a manager it’s similar – to get results through others by making them successful.

The key is facilitation, leveraging their contributions by supporting them with yours.

Think about it!

I’d welcome your questions, comments and suggestions. We can all learn through dialogue and your viewpoints will undoubtedly gain more value when shared. Please contact me at david@andros.org.