Sir William Slim and Organizational Change

Recently I posted a critical view of the notion of organizational vision, especially as the term vision has evolved into specific targets for production or behavioral change.  I talked soon after with my friend John Dick from British Columbia about this and he suggested that I take a look at the life and works of Sir William Slim.

John told me that of one the most outstanding examples of institutional transformation occurred in World War II in Burma and is described in Field Marshal Sir William Slim’s autobiography “Defeat Into Victory”.

To set the historical context:   In early 1942 Slim was appointed commander of Burma Corps, described by a compatriot as “a promotion one would not have wished on an enemy, let alone an old friend”.  In late 1932, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the newly organized 14th Army Group comprised of a polyglot of British, Hindu and Muslim Indian, Gurkha, and East and West African formations.

His 14th Army (known as the “Forgotten Army) fought in difficult terrain against a highly committed enemy and did so with limited resources and with one of the most ethnically diverse forces in history. He led that army through a long retreat, restored morale, then led it to victory.

Slim recognized that one of his first tasks following the retreat would be to strengthen the morale of the defeated and shattered army.  He reasoned that “morale, if it is to endure, must have certain foundations: spiritual; intellectual; and material.  Spiritual first, because only spiritual foundations can stand real strain. (Slim wasn’t using the term spiritual to refer to a particular religion – and of course he had many different religions represented among his troops.  It is likely he intended something more like “connected to a larger purpose, emotional, intuitive.”) Intellectual next, because people are swayed by reason as well as by feelings.  Material last – important, but last because the very highest kinds of morale are often met when material conditions are lowest.

He elaborated the foundations of morale as follows:

Spiritual

  1. People must be made to feel that they are engaged in a good and noble enterprise that is important to society.
  2. The method of achievement must be active.
  3. People must feel that what they are and what they do matters towards the goals of the enterprise.

Intellectual

  1. People must believe that the goals can be achieved; that they are not out of reach.
  2. People must believe that the organization they work for is an efficient one that will provide a context for the effective employment of their efforts; that it will not squander their time and emotional resources on useless or irrelevant activities

Material

  1. People must feel that they will get fair and respectful treatment from their superiors and from the organization.
  2. People must be given a voice in decision-making.
  3. As far as possible people must be given the legal and material tools to carry out their jobs effectively and efficiently.

From late 1943 to May 1945 Slim totally changed the culture of the 14th Army Group, then fought a brilliant series of offensive battles that led to the defeat of all Japanese forces in Burma – the single biggest land-based defeat of the Japanese in the war.

On rebuilding the moral and effectiveness of the British/Indian army, Slim ascribed the failures of his predecessors to overly rigid strategies that became liabilities when situations were in rapid change.  He defined a good strategy as “a commonly understood and accepted framework or basis from which to adapt to uncertainty and change.”

He points out that a strategy begins to enter obsolescence the moment it’s formulated, and thus is time-limited and must be regularly revisited.  He attributes his successes to the creation of a flexible strategy that provided both enough direction to ensure cohesion and sufficient latitude for his field officers to make plans, take decisions and initiate action based on local conditions and changing circumstances – not a bad objective for any organization!

Slim also wrote about leadership and management: “What is leadership? I would define it as the projection of personality. If leadership is this projection of personality then the first requirement is a personality to project. The personality of a successful leader is a blend of many qualities – courage, will power, knowledge, judgement and flexibility of mind.”

And, finally, he clearly thought of leadership as an art: “Leadership is of the spirit compounded of personality and vision; its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, time tables, and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.”

What strikes me is that writing over seventy years ago, Slim captures the essence of the most contemporary thinking on leadership!  Contemporary leaders would do well to listen to this “voice from the past.”

The Manager and Social Support

Many recent graduates in business and public administration find themselves valued by their “bosses” because they bring new and “cutting-edge” ideas and skills to the organization.  For example, a young woman with strong analytical and methodological skills is hired into a rather conservative accounting-oriented budget office in a local government.

The new employee, let’s call her Susan, immediately feels pushed aside by the existing group.  There are “sniping” conversations in the hall, there are rumors and stories about Susan’s past work, and the older group generally leaves Susan out of anything that might be welcoming.

Susan tries to be friendly and goes out of her way to develop positive relationships with her colleagues.  She asks them to participate in her projects, she invites them to lunch, and she tries hard to keep a smile on her face – even when it’s tough.

But much of the situation is out of her control. Her manager gives her the choice assignments (knowing that she alone can get the specific work done).  He also asks her to make presentations to the City Council on her projects and joins the Council in praising her for her excellent work. That’s good, but it only fans the flames of jealousy in the office.

Susan faces a dilemma and is now considering leaving the organization just to find a more supportive environment in which to work.  As she considers her options, there are several things on her mind.

  • She might talk with her boss about the situation, though recognizing that there’s little that he can do. (On the other hand, if he doesn’t know what’s happening, there’s nothing he can do.)  See below for some options.
  • Susan could leave for greener pastures. At some point, the work environment can become simply too oppressive for someone to remain. Of course, Susan’s experience will help her sort out in advance the office culture in a new location.

These possibilities are often discussed, but here our interest is in what the manager or leader does in this situation?  One response might be that this is small potatoes – there are many more important things to do.  And to some extent that’s true. The manager might also take the position that, as an adult, Susan will simply have to work out these difficulties on her own. And to some extent that’s true as well.

But such a hands-off approach by the manager has its downsides as well. We talk a lot about the complexities of major changes or organizational transformations, but sometimes forget that small changes can be disruptive as well. If the manager sees the skill set and perspective that Susan brings to the organization as important for the future, he should be attentive to not only rewarding that new perspective (which seems to be happening), but also creating an environment in which that perspective and the people who hold it can flourish.

We know that the full engagement of people in organizations depends in significant part on the social support they find on the job.  Clearly, if Susan is not finding such support within her work group, then the manager should look for other opportunities to bring her into contact with others elsewhere in the organization that share her perspective.

This could be done through temporary assignments in other parts of the organization, through creating cross-functional team projects, or through leadership development programs aimed at the next generation of top managers in the city. (Note that all of these suggestions have a explicit purpose of contributing to the work of the city, but an implicit purpose of bringing together “the best and the brightest” to form a network of support for new ideas and perspectives.)

It’s always worth the manager’s time to consider the social support (or lack thereof) that employees like Susan are receiving.  Their continued engagement depends on it.

Pope Francis’ Critique of the Bureaucratic Personality: Are We Listening?

Yesterdy Pope Francis delivered a blistering critique of the Catholic Church’s administrative apparatus directly to the leaders of that body, the Roman Curia. Citing fifteen “ailments” that afflict the church bureaucracy, the Pope addressed problems of that group, but more generally raised questions that should be thoughtfully considered by all who work in large organizations, whether corporate or governmental.

The Pope began by remarking on the limits of a bureaucracy “that is not self-critical, does not stay up-to-date, (and) that does not seek to improve itself.” This condition is fed by leaders or managers who consider themselves indispensable, and “transform themselves into masters, (believing) themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.”

The Pope also derided the tendency of those in large bureaucracies to lose their “inner serenity, vivacity, and boldness” and become “working machines.” In doing so, he pointed out, leaders, managers, or others lose their capacity for empathy and emotional “sensibility.”

There is also excessive planning and functionalism, in which “the apostle plans everything in detail and believes that, by perfect planning things effectively progress….” In contrast, and very much in keeping with the contemporary critique of stale and tradition-bound organizations, the Pope recommends “freshness, imagination, and innovation.”

Next is the sickness of poor coordination, where the organization “loses its harmonious functionality and its temperance” and where “members do not collaborate and do not work with a spirit of communion…..”

The Pope also took aim at “excessive industriousness,” the failure to rest, to reflect, and to replenish, both spiritually and physically. The result of this lack of recovery time is stress and agitation, both of which are antithetical to individual health and to job performance.

After several ailments pointed more directly at the Curia, the Pope also noted the tendency for those in large organizations to become indifferent toward others, losing “the sincerity and warmth of personal relationships.” Among managers and leaders, this tendency may become even more acute, as they come “to treat others – especially those they consider inferior – with rigidity, hardness, and arrogance.”

Finally, there is the disease of accumulation, when “the apostle seeks to fill an existential emptiness of the heart by accumulating material goods” or when “the apostle transforms his service into power, and his power into goods to obtain worldly profit or more power.”

In my view, the Pope provided not only a critique of the church bureaucracy but provided enormous insight into what we might call the “bureaucratic personality.”  Certainly many organizations are adopting more progressive practices, emphasizing creativity and innovation at the organizational level and meaningful engagement at the personal level.

Still today, most of us live in the shadow of organization, acting out an organizational ideology that makes us more objective, impersonal, and aloof than we would, upon reflection, prefer. Despite changes at the institutional level, an increasing number of today’s managers and leaders seem to exhibit heavy-handed, top-down management styles.

How often, even recently, have we seen managers and leaders who consider themselves superior, even indispensable, who lose touch with “the real people,” and who display excessive ego? How often have we seen those same people become rigid and harsh in their relations with subordinates?

Similarly, we can easily think of managers and leaders who plan excessively, impose their own vision, and fail to adapt to changing conditions.  And we have we seen managers and leaders forsake the ideals of their organizations in pursuit of wealth and personal power, resulting in dramatic inequities in income and rewards.

Individually we have often failed to engage in self-reflection and self-critique, which might lead to positive change in the way we act.  We have let stress and “agitation” overcome us. We have failed to collaborate and to commit to the team. And, in pursuit of machine-like efficiency, we have neglected personal relationships and failed to engage with others in an empathetic and caring fashion.

In all of these areas, without even conscious thought, we forgive our managers and leaders and ourselves, saying that’s just the way things work – that’s how things have always been done. But, as the Pope points out, things don’t have to be that way – whether in the church bureaucracy or our own.

I would suggest that the first corrective is simply a recognition and an articulation of the human problems of large organizations, something the Pope provided for the Catholic Church, and something we might do for each of our own groups and organizations. A period of self-reflection, self-critique, and dialogue might appropriately follow.

We need to focus on opening new spaces for freedom, autonomy, empathy, humility, patience, commitment, caring and concern in our workplaces.  We need to address ways to get work done without damage to the human spirit. We need to talk about these things – not through gossip or finger-pointing – but through patient, tolerant, and reasoned conversations.

Just as it will not be easy for Pope Francis to reform the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, it will not be easy for us to reform our own organizations. But the fact that the Pope chose the holiday season, a time of reflection and new commitments, to make his statement, suggests that this might be an opportune time for all of us to think about how we might build more humane organizations and encourage more communal and supportive leadership.

Perhaps this is the season to address the human concerns of autonomy, collaboration, and engagement in large organizations – not in pursuit of greater productivity and economic gain – but in pursuit of greater significance in our lives and in the lives of those we lead.

Denhardtleadership.com

The Vision Thing – and its Limits

Many years ago, President George H. W. Bush made a now-famous remark about “the vision thing.”  Since that time, the vision thing has become an essential part of the lexicon of leadership.  When people are asked what constitutes leadership, they will almost always say something about vision – that the leader is the one with the vision and the one with the power to move the organization toward that vision.

For most organizations today, the process of setting a vision is usually done through some sort of strategic planning process, sometimes a formal process involving many different stakeholders, but often an informal process in which the organization’s founders or those at the top simply create and send out their vision for the organization. In either case, the vision is a long term statement of a desired future, and is typically elaborated by a statement of mission, which explains the rationale of the organization and the means of achieving the vision.  Based on the mission statement, more specific objectives are then developed.

I’ve recently become skeptical of the vision thing, especially as a definition of leadership.  At a practical level, many groups and organizations create (or unveil) a new statement of vision, mission, and objectives, experience about three weeks of buzz, then ignore the stated vision, etc. and go on their merry way.

There are several reasons for this. Some plans are simply not implementable – they bear little relevance to the actual work “on the ground.” Others are almost immediately outdated, simply because things change so quickly. To quote Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, “Any plan won’t survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different. It will never be the plan.”  And when this happens the plan becomes irrelevant and simply takes up shelf-space.

Second, and even worse, is the opposite effect – groups and organizations become so tied to their vision that it acts as a straightjacket, preventing members of the group from recognizing emerging trends and responding to those new circumstances. Many start-ups fail precisely because their founders are so tied to the their vision, so psychologically committed, that they fail to see that what they hope to accomplish is unachievable or has already been done by someone else, preempting the market.  And often just a slight deviation from the vision would have saved the company.

Certainly groups and organizations need a direction or a path to start out on, but they also must recognize when they need to move in a new direction or take a new path. More than tunnel vision, they need peripheral vision, the ability to see the big picture, including emerging threats and opportunities.  And they need agility, the capacity to learn and to change directions in both a nimble and sophisticated way.  Indeed, I would say that the capacity for agility and adaptability trumps vision and plan every time.

Third, in my view, the vision thing is simply not essential to leadership.  Leadership is about energizing a group, an organization, or a society.  Certainly a group may be energized by the beauty and elegance of a vision – think, “I have a dream” – but there are many others ways that groups can be energized as well.   A group may be energized in reaction to a disaster; a group may be energized by an attack from outside; a group may be energized by someone modeling excellence in performance.

The role of the leader is not to create the vision, but to develop and articulate a direction and purpose for the group or organization.  The opposite – having a vision or mission imposed by the leader – may generate early excitement, but over the long term will likely suck energy away from the group or organization.   And, as we noted before, visions and plans quickly encounter “contrary realities” and lose their relevance to a rapidly changing “real world.”  Frequently, those “on the ground” will recognize those contrary realities more quickly than those at the top and active resistance may occur.

A vision, in such cases, quickly turns into fantasy.   Just as many other “positives” carry with them the seeds of their “negatives,” so it is with vision.  Merriam-Webster cites the following synonyms for “vision”: chimera, conceit, daydream, delusion, fancy, figment, hallucination, illusion, phantasm, pipe dream, unreality, fantasy.  How many visions have you seen that ultimately turn into delusion, etc.?

Finally, leadership must appeal to both the head and especially the heart. In contrast to real acts of leadership that do both, most strategic planning processes implicitly seek to rationalize the organization’s vision through statements of mission and objectives that drain the vision of whatever emotive power it may have held at the outset.  In implementation, vision dissolves into technique.

Leadership Slogans are neither Right nor Effective

Management consultants, university-based commentators, and self-proclaimed self-help gurus have provided oceans of leadership slogans, pithy but memorable guidelines to the best leadership qualities and behaviors.  Among these, “Managers do things right, leaders do the right things.”  “You have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”  And, “Would you rather be right or effective?”

Now, as you would expect, some of these are helpful, even inspiring.  But many are simply taking up extra space in our already cluttered minds. Even worse, some are actually misleading.

These slogans share several characteristics.  First, they have become so much a part of the folklore of leadership that no one is really sure where they came from.  (All of those just mentioned are from time to time attributed to Peter Drucker, Warren Bennis, Marshall Goldsmith, or Peter McWlliams.)

Second, and more important, they assert a half-truth as if it were a whole truth.  They simplify to the point of misdirection. This difficulty is, of course, the problem faced by anyone taking a complex subject and trying to distill its essence.  Doing so is important, especially for leaders, who need to state things in the clearest and most meaningful way. But at some point the drive for simplicity prevents our conveying the full meaning of the issue at hand.

Unfortunately, many leadership slogans fall into this trap.  In an effort to simplify, they forego the subtlety and complexity of the human experience.  And, as they become guides for the values, the ideas, and the actions of leaders they may actually constrain the possibilities of what Ghandi (and more recently Franz Ferdinand) called “right thoughts, right words, right actions.”

Let’s take one of these slogans as a case in point – “Would you rather be right or effective?”  The logic here is that some people are more concerned about their being right than getting the job done. If you are stopped at a four-way stop and it is your turn to go – but you see a car coming full speed from you left with no intention of stopping – sticking to your “rights” and moving into the intersection is probably not a good thing to do. Similarly, marriage counselors associate being right (and placing blame) with most marriage problems.  And there are plenty of other examples.

But, though often helpful, the advice contained in this slogan doesn’t always work.  For one thing, this slogan conflicts with other slogans.  In this case, the implied call to be effective rather than right contradicts the other slogan above: “Leaders do the right things.”  So which slogan do you follow?

Moreover, the slogan implies that it is important in all cases to be effective, but in truth there are plenty of times when it is important to be right.  If my plane is falling from the sky, I want a pilot who knows the right thing to do to bring it down safely. And if the pilot does so, I’d then say that’s a pretty effective bit of flying.  But I certainly don’t want to opposite.  I don’t want someone to whom I have trusted my life to be effective at doing the wrong thing – effectively flying the plane into a mountain.

Things become more difficult when you realize that there are two senses of the word “right” – one is that right means “correct” – and that’s the way we’ve been using the term to this point.  But right also means “ethical.”

Obviously, in the contest between being ethical and effective, being ethical always comes first – or at least it should.  This is the sense underlying the other slogan – “Leaders do the right thing.” We certainly wouldn’t want leaders to effectively do something unethical, though they often do. Mark Twain advised, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

In any case, while the simplicity of leadership slogans makes them tempting, leading by slogans is neither right nor effective.

A Passion for Meaningless Work?

Research tends to show that workers who are passionate about their jobs and consider their work meaningful are more productive than those who don’t. But there are limits to what leaders can do to create meaningful jobs that people can be passionate about, especially at the lower levels of organizations.

Think about how one might identify and pursue one’s passion. Some may be able to identify a passion early on. And for some, doing what they most enjoy becomes a career – professional golfers come to mind.

But these folks are rare. There are limited openings in the “passion professions” and only those with the right combination of skill, talent, connections and just plain luck are allowed to enter.

Others who make that effort and fall short typically find themselves in pretty low paying and often dead-end jobs. And, frankly, it’s a lot easier to be passionate when you have money.

For the rest of us, even if we can identify our passions (which is hard enough), pursuing those passions as a part of our career may not be so easy.

We are likely instead to find ourselves in jobs that provide limited opportunities for self-expression, much less passion. And for many that’s okay – we are willing to work in meaningless jobs in order to have enough money to pursue passions completely outside work.

Others are left searching for the quick self-discovery the self-help gurus recommend – either at work or elsewhere – and often feeling guilty because they can’t figure it out.

Many jobs simply are not all that meaningful, hardly the kind of thing to arouse passion. Maybe the leader can articulate a set of values that some will find compelling, but values stated at the top rarely permeate an organization with general enthusiasm. And indeed there’s an ethical question about whether leaders should even try to “make” followers passionate about their work – or anything else. That’s a personal choice,

If passion, meaning, or purpose lead to increases in productivity, leaders might follow one of two strategies: 1) hire for technical skill and teach the personal qualities or 2) hire for personal qualities and teach technical skills. There are some indications that an increasing number of companies are using the latter strategy.

For example, Southwest is known for its casual, relaxed, and funny flight attendants. But the company doesn’t run a “comedy school.”  Instead it hires people who already fit the image the company desires. Google’s hiring process has much the same orientation.

We are also beginning to discover that having specific achievement goals accompanied by measurable objectives is not the best way to discover one’s passion or calling. Both leaders and others would do well to consider their purpose (not their passion), better stated in terms of “big ideas,” “directions,” or “sets of values.”

This may (happily) lead to the direct opposite of the rationalized life, as in Natalie Imbruglia’s musical response to those who tell her to get some direction: “Intuition tells me, how to live my day.  Intuition tells me, when to walk away.  Could have turned left, but I turned right. But I ended up here (bang) in the middle of a real life.”

It is appropriate and in fact healthy for people to engage in serious reflection and discussion about what is most significant in their lives. Doing so is an important exercise for individuals and especially for potential leaders who want to better understand themselves in order to lead others. But requiring that this be a rational process may be quite limiting.  “Real life” is better built around emotion, intuition and beauty.

Curiosity is Not Just for Killing Cats

A basic premise of much work on innovation today is that innovation is creativity applied to real-life problems. Creativity provides the spark of insight that is manifest in an innovative process or product. But there is another element at play in the process of innovation – curiosity.

In discussions of innovation, curiosity is typically given short shrift. Creativity is seen as the main force leading to innovation. Meanwhile, curiosity labors beneath the surface and without enough recognition. And since curiosity is not fully recognized, it is not sufficiently developed as an essential skill in the process of innovation.

Historically curiosity had a more elevated status. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”  What is it about curiosity that makes it so significant, even if undervalued? Simply put, creativity and innovation are impossible without the natural inclination to be curious about one’s surroundings.

Leonardo da Vinci, certainly a “creative,” commented on the role of observation and curiosity in his life.   “I roamed the countryside searching for answers to things I did not understand. Why shells existed on the tops of mountains along with the imprints of coral and plants and seaweed usually found in the sea. Why the thunder lasts a longer time than that which causes it, and why immediately on its creation the lightning becomes visible to the eye while thunder requires time to travel. How the various circles of water form around the spot which has been struck by a stone, and why a bird sustains itself in the air. These questions and other strange phenomena engage my thought throughout my life.”

Observation and curiosity occur almost simultaneously. The act of observation is accompanied by the most basic question of the curious mind – “why?” And the question “why” leads to more precise examination. Observation and curiosity, in turn, lead to creative problem-solving designed to understand and to reshape the phenomena in new ways.

How might curiosity be advanced – short of our being touched by a fairy godmother? At the individual level, there are several things parents and teachers could do to help encourage curiosity in kids – all of which fall into the category of not squelching the natural curiosity of children.  1) Parents and educators should recognize the importance of encouraging the “why” questions as opposed to finding them annoying and shrugging them off to move on to other things. 2) Educational systems, with parental encouragement, could focus on open-ended learning goals rather than simply learning what the teacher prescribes (or what’s likely to be on the exam). 3) Teachers could allow more time for observation and curiosity as opposed to moving immediately toward problem-solving – especially rational problem-solving. “What’s the question” is often more important to answer than “What’s the solution?” Yet the latter seems to get more attention in homes and schools. But a pretty bright guy, Albert Einstein, described himself as exactly the opposite, saying “I have no special talent. I’m only passionately curious.”

At the organizational level, there are similar recommendations, again all designed to eliminate obstacles to our natural curiosity. 1) Replace impenetrable organizational silos with openness, transparency, and the sharing of ideas. By definition, curiosity cannot be constrained; it must be given breadth, perhaps even limitless breadth (though see the comments below on risk).  2) Build cross-functional and cross-disciplinary teams, where people bring different views to the table. NASA managers have commented on how the astronaut corps changed as it went from a group of test pilots who saw the world in very similar ways to a group of doctors, engineers, scientists, and teachers, each bringing different perspectives to their work.  3) Remove obstacles to collaboration. Often the most well-meaning regulations, performance management systems, and reporting mechanisms limit the possibility of people doing what’s most important to creativity and innovation – exercising curiosity together.

There is still one missing element, however. Carries with it risk – remember that curiosity killed the cat. A certain amount of risk is inevitably associated with curiosity. There is risk at the individual level, as curiously exploring dead-end paths or not connecting them with nearby outlets can result in limits on promotions, salary increases, and reputation. And at the organizational level putting too many resources into failed explorations can be very costly, again in many ways.  But for now I suspect that the problem is not too much curiosity and too much risk, but too little. Remember curiosity is not just for killing cats!

*With appreciation to Paul Danczyk for his insights and encouragement. Not a single cat was injured or killed in the production of this post.