August 22, 2014

Legitimate Leadership and the Issue of Control

origin_8095592977I have consistently argued that in the course of establishing a legitimate relationship based on Care and Growth of the subordinate, the leader has to continuously review the level of control in the relationship. The degree of control in a relationship has to be appropriate to the maturity of a subordinate (a contention which is at the basis of the Situational Leadership argument). Since growth itself is an incremental process, the control that is exercised over a subordinate will only be appropriate if is continuously reviewed.

This criterion seems obvious when one is looking at the matter from the point of view of the individual. It is, in a sense, self evident that people become more capable over time and that they could and should be entrusted with more. However, the criterion has a fundamentally disturbing consequence for the organisation.

The reason for this is that all organisations are, in principle, webs of control mechanisms. If one listed the things which are associated with the idea of organisation, then that would include the elements such as systems, structure, authority, hierarchy, policy and so on. Every one of these words has a control implication. If we argue that the control exercised over the individual has to be appropriate to level of the maturity of the individual, we are suggesting that the degree of control exercised should be subordinate to the maturity of individuals. In this sense, the organisation is therefore subordinate to the individual, not the other way around.

This view challenges one of the key assumptions which people have held about the organisation, and that is that it somehow exists over and above the individuals in it. Most people typically have an organogramic picture in their minds when the think of organisations, with individuals inhabiting all the little boxes. The organogram is like a big pyramidic house and the individuals find their place “within” the organisation. There are a number of necessary consequences to this idiom.

Firstly, it is quite difficult to avoid the mentality of the victim among employees. When the organisation exists as a superordinate reality to the individuals it becomes a prison that robs people of their autonomy and individual accountability. Their day to day reality is one which is regulated from without, by the organisational world out there, rather than by their own conscience and will. Consequently they start to loose their will, their oomf, so to speak.

Secondly, there is a necessary entrenchment of mediocrity that follows. Because the organisation necessarily has to work with averages it becomes somewhat hostile to individual flair in principle. One often hears the comment that production workers might be a very capable people in their private life, but when they arrive at work they are required to leave their minds at the gate. This is frequently exacerbated by how the organisation deals with non-compliance. When someone steps over the line the immediate response is to institute another control to ensure that the particular problem does not arise again, rather that holding the person concerned accountable. The effect of this is to reduce everyone to function at the level of the lowest common denominator.

The negative implication of this is further compounded by the fact that whenever you impose a control you shift accountability for the thing that is being controlled from the person who is doing the thing to the person who is controlling it. This results in poorer accountability, and a greater need to control. So a control is imposed on the controller, and so on.

The answer to this problem lies in overturning the way we view the relationship between the organisation and the people. It is not organisations that employ people, rather it is people who employ the organisation in order to serve a customer. The organisation is the tool that is employed by the people, not the other way round. When viewed from this vantage point it is clear that controls have to be continuously reviewed in order to ascertain whether they are enabling. Rather than squeezing the people into standard boxes, the boxes are continuously stretched to empower the people.

If one does not do this, the necessary lack of accountability and cultivation of mediocrity, which the traditional view of organisation engenders, eventually threatens the very sustainability of the business. The standard response of organisations in these situations is to employ a consulting organisation that executes big brown paper business process re-engineering exercises. The results of these are normally to cut out all the wastefulness that naturally flows from the traditional view of organisation, with incredibly traumatic consequences for all concerned. However this is done without revisiting the model which the leadership have of organisation.

The basic model is that an organisation is a frozen, crystalline thing that has to be de-frozen and brutalised and then refrozen into a more sensible form. The problem with this is that the moment that the consultants leave the rot starts to set in again, sowing the seeds for a further, equally traumatic business re-engineering exercise later.

The trick is to keep the organisation unfrozen, so that at every level of the organisation there a tiny incremental shifts that are happening in the direction of cultivating greater flexibility, ownership and accountability further down the line. The effect of this is that the organisation starts to behave more like an organism than a machine. Because there are small incremental steps taken in the direction of greater accountability it becomes flexible enough to track its market over time.

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