The greatest leaders spark curiosity about the system

Our goal had gone walkabout

On my travels, I found myself teaching systems thinking in a university which broke a large course into 25 student groups. A few people determined the curriculum and an army of people taught students who wrote a common examination.

I was shocked by the examination papers. Students rambled on tossing in whatever thoughts came to mind.

We sensibly had an interim examiners meeting and I voiced my concerns. Well, it seems that I was the one to have misunderstood the curriculum.  The curriculum designers were trying to convey the idea that there are many perspectives on any issue. They didn’t see a common goal or direction as an essential part of any system.

I am cursed with an “open mind” so I hastened to the internet to double-check and the idea has hung around my mind ever since as unfinished business does.

3 misunderstandings about system goals

I’m afraid that systems do have common goals. That is entirely the point. But it seems that this is a point that is often misunderstood.

Some people think the system’s goal is their goal

No! There are still multiple perspectives. We can add the system as a virtual person and ask what is the system’s goal! We have the boss’ goal, we have the system, goal and we have each of our goals.

Some people think there is no common goal

It is true that the organization does not have a goal. An organization cannot think! When we say that the organization’s goal is X, we must ask who says that?

But we not only want to understand the multiplicity of goals but we also want to understand how the many goals come together and how the system goal morphs in response. We cannot ignore the system goal ~ or we do as a sailor might ignore the weather ~ at our peril.

Some people think goals are constant

They are ~ for a second. Goals morph as situations change. When we ignore the dynamic quality of goals, then we get mission creep. Conditions change and if we don’t stop to think about what we want, what we all want, we find ourselves doing too much of one thing and too little of another. A mess in other words. Goals are infinitely variable.

Articulating the morphing of goals in any group is what makes a leader

A leader understand the multiplicity of goals in a community and sees how are contradictions and conflicts, agreements and alliances come together to make us what we are – how the whole comes from the parts and affects them in turn.

A leader is a person who is able to articulate this dynamic mix so that we feel supported by the whole and essential to its well being. This is a tough call when a group is determined to quarrel or terrified by its destiny. The hall mark of a leader is that he or she looks for the common ground where we all belong and keeps looking.

Facilitating the agreement is the hallmark of the greatest leaders

Helping us find that common ground is the hallmark of the greatest leaders. We often doff our caps to leaders who were in the right place at the right time. They represent what is the best about ourselves and we throw them into the limelight to remind us of who we are and where we are going. In time, we choose a new leader because our direction has changed and we need new icon on our bows.

We remember these leaders because these were times that we felt great. The greatest leaders, though, help us identify the right questions. They know how to “bound” the group. They know how to focus our attention on the question that we must answer if we are to find the way forward and the place where we feel great.

That’s why it seems as if great leaders set goals. They set a boundary which focuses our attention on question-asking.

It is not the goal that is important, but our compulsion to find out how we should reach the goal.

Colin Powell once said “Leadership is about ‘Follow Me!. Even if it is only out of curiosity.”

Leadership is the art of engaging the imagination in the search for collective answers.

The system is important. With good leadership, we accept the system as a virtual person ~ a popular virtual person who we all want to look after and please.

To trust trust again. The Economist, will you help?

This week, The Economist said something shocking: Departing bank bosses weren’t venal, they were useless.

My thoughts exploded like a box of fireworks meeting an accidental match.

Why do the English smirk quietly at the “cock up” theory of management?

Why is it that the English assume that it is better to be an incompetent boss than a competent thief?

I think – I may be wrong – that we think incompetence does not imply disloyalty. “He is really on our side after all”.

But, is “cocked up” management loyal?

But, is rubbish management loyal – to you and me?  I want you to follow this argument.

“Bank bosses” aren’t “the boss.” They have bosses above them, who in English law are called the Board of Directors. The Bank bosses are employees. So why did the boss’ boss allow him (or her) to be incompetent, consistently, over a long period of time.

The inescapable conclusion, sadly, is that they don’t care about managers do to us.  That is why I prefer a competent thief.  They were never on my side.  They didn’t pretend to be.

An incompetent manager, and worse a whole chain of incompetent managers from bottom to the very top, hurts me 3x over.

#1  I suffer from their bad management. The company loses money and we lose our jobs.

#2  I am bullied into following bad working practices on their say-so.

#3  Everything I do is tainted by their incompetence.  Instead of working on what works, we work on what doesn’t work and it backwashes through the system distorting promotions, training, selection, recruitment, education.  The end point is that we have nothing to show for our efforts and we detest each other.

When the boss’ boss says incompetence is OK, provided you are a mate of mine, there is loyalty, but it is not to us.  We should be shocked.  Deeply.

Do you trust your employer any more?

The Economist might be vaguely amused by it all, but fortunately, the people have noticed.  Elsewhere, in the same issue or within a week, The Economist reported that the tables have turned and fewer than 1 in 4 people trust their employers.

I am heartened.

Rants are pointless.  What are we going to do?

I hate ranting.  When I am irritated,  I like to work through it and come up with a plan of action.

This is what I am going to do.

#1  Stop relying on chains-of-command to know best

Writer, Paolo Coelho, tweets.  If you are on Twitter, follow him.  It is him, not a ghost writer. Yesterday, he put out a Confucious Clone:  Only a fool follows the crowd.  Wise people make up their own minds.  If I am involved in something, I want to know what is going on.  I want to see the accounts.  I want to know that I can ask questions.  And I want answers.  Or, I depart.

#2  Audit my filters

I will never know or understand everything and like everyone else, when I am a “noobe”, I rely on my friends’ judgements.  But the more filters I understand, the better.  Each month, I will take one filter that is important to me, and systematically research the questions I should be asking about say, the fuel that goes in my car, the milk I drink, or the way the local town council is elected.  I won’t wait for a crisis before I start to think.  I’ll do my upgrades systematically.

#3  Celebrate trust

And then I will celebrate trust.

Not mindlessly.  I’ll actively recommend what works and tell people the criteria I use.  They’ll gain from my filters and I’ll gain from their feedback.  (I’ve found when I tell people why I trust someone, they tell me why they do, or don’t, as the case may be.)

I’ll learn more – but that goes under #2.  My real goal will be to spread trust – to celebrate that we have something to trust and to learn to trust trust again.

What I want from The Economist

And from The Economist, I would like to see some better reporting.  I appreciate the writing, but for wit I can go to Radio 4.  From The Economist, I want information that leads to action.

I don’t want to hear gossip about the ‘good and the famous’.  I really don’t care.  I don’t do the celebrity thing.

Having lived in a country that was prone to bragging to the point they would brag about being modest, I learned an important distinction between bragging and celebration.  Bragging says look at me – but when you try to join in, you get knocked back.  Celebration is an invitation.

I want my news organized for action.  Tell me something I can do something about.  Don’t erode my trust further by pretending something is OK when it darned well isn’t!

The essence of leadership is follow me

Even if it is only out of curiosity

Now who said that? Colin Powell, I believe, speaking to HR managers in the UK.

Culture, attitudes, behavior

My friend Steve Roesler at AllThingsWorkplace posted today on workplace culture, and how hard it is to change behavior. This is a central topic in social and organizational psychology. Can we change an attitude without changing behavior? Can we change behavior without changing culture? What sustains culture?

Earlier today I read a similar article in TimesOnLine on whether politicians can change British drinking culture by decree.

David Aaronvitch used a neat phrase:

“Fashion, popular culture, whatever you call it, found a way round authority, because it didn’t depend upon authority, or even upon establishment approval.”

This is the same phenomenon that Steve is talking about: informal culture and power. Should we despair as the TimesOnLine suggests? Brits are drunks – live with it and laugh at politicians nannying us again? Can cultures be modified?

How do we change patterns?

My social media friends will phrase this differently: can we organize viral campaigns?

I think we often put the cart before the horse.

Change effects tend to be spiral, or recursive. In other words, the change creates the change. And a forward change can cause a backward effect, necessary for the forward change.

So why the cart before the horse? We want the cart to be moving along with the horse following.

To get change, we have to join in. We have to be there in other words. We have put ourselves out there and be changed in the process. We have to believe that cart is worth pulling. We have to notice when it starts to roll back and judge whether to roll with it or dig our heels in.  We have to believe in it enough to feel the harness rubbing . . .

It is the linkage that is critical.

Being a player

In organizations, it is the willingness to be a player: to really put our money on the table. Willingness to win and to lose with everyone else.

  • Are we willing to sit at the table and make tough choices? And be accountable for the consequences?
  • Do we believe in our people enough to be accountable on the bad days?
  • Can we have the courageous conversations about what is truly rotten?
  • Can we accept the challenge about how we have treated people?
  • Can we do all of this will only one end in mind – keeping the group there for its members?

We don’t want to be talked at.  We want to talk with people who are also vulnerable in that their pride, future, pleasure, is also at stake.  We want to talk seriously with people about why we are doing this, whatever this is, and authentically discuss what is at stake for everyone.

Can we link our our futures to that cart?

Leading from within

This is the competency that HR Managers struggle with.

This is the competency that I hope social media managers will learn early ~ to be a player.

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Who moved my mouse?

Who Moved My Cheese?Image via Wikipedia

I am looking for my mouse

Clay Shirky at Web2.0 Expo tells the story of a 4 year old who gets bored looking at a DVD and crawls around the back of the screen: “I am looking for my mouse”. This is the story of child brought into a technological age where we expect to participate in whatever we do. “Looking for the mouse” is the mark of a generation who expects to take initiative.

Who moved my cheese?

Just ten years’ ago, we were delighted by another story, an allegory, Who moved my cheese? This story is about a generation who does not expect to take initiative.  Indeed, it resists taking the initiative.  It wants to ‘put the clock back’.

We spend a lot of time crying, “we want the cheese to come back.”  Or, words to that effect.  We celebrate the past rather than the emerging future.

The positive message of this allegory is that once we can move beyond fear, we are free to move on, and find fresher, more interesting, more enjoyable cheese.

My advice is “follow that mouse!”

I live a double life as I have said before. In my one life, I work with Zimbabweans who are frozen in terror about the changes going on in their country. Their fears are real, and justified. So too, is their desire to go back to a time when cheese was there for the taking. Their liberation will ultimately come when they stop protesting the unfairness of it all and start to explore their future.

In my other life, I work with HR professionals who are also frozen in terror.  In the case of HR, there is a little cheese left, but not much. The world has moved on to work patterns where there are new demands and new generation who says “I am looking for the mouse”?

For Zimbabweans and HR professionals, I am looking for my mouse has a sadder meaning The mice have already detected the dwindling cheese supply and have left.

My advice is “follow that mouse”!