On Leadership: Riding Dead Horses

When you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.
This ancient Sioux saying seems obvious enough; I mean who in their right mind would try to ride a dead horse, right? Well maybe not.

Strange as it might seem, I have met many in leadership who are attempting just that, trying to ride dead horses – and with commendable enthusiasm at that! The fact that the horse is dead, whilst obvious to others, is seemingly lost on them.

dead horseIt is obvious that the character and style of leadership is changing. In a changing world that much has to be obvious. As the irrepressible forces of technology, institutions and values undergo constant change, the impact on leadership is inevitable. In a world where how we organise and go about our business is adapting constantly, leadership that remains fixed and static is rendered obsolete, irrelevant and well…dead.

The three primary convergent forces driving the change viz. technology, institutions and values, impact on unaware leadership with the same force and consequence as the Titanic’s fatal encounter with the iceberg.

Technology has transformed the way in which we do business. Never before has so much information been available to so many, so quickly. In the past information was powerful is so far as it was guarded, today exactly the opposite is true. Information is valuable only as far as it is shared. Old mindsets towards information, especially the mistaken belief that one can ‘manage information’ are constantly being shown up for what they are, old, outdated and in our current context, erroneous. The belief that we can ‘manage information’ is simply a modern day business paradox. Besides the impact of technology on information (the lifeblood of any organisation), technology has transformed the way in which we work. The ability to network means that we need not be ‘in the office’ to be working effectively. ‘Virtual offices’ are a reality and offer potentially huge savings together with enhanced effectiveness.

Although not necessarily suited to all business models, virtual offices are often held captive by old attitudes to work that believe that if the boss can’t see you, how will he or she know if you are giving your pound of flesh? The difficulties faced by ‘Boomer bosses’ (Boomers refers to a generation born between 1946 – 1960) to master and feel comfortable with modern technology causes it own problems. For one thing it creates dependencies on those for whom living in a connected world is as water to a fish. Technology forces the hand of leadership and ruthlessly exposes outdated attitudes and behaviours. Leaders who fail to get to grips with the implications of this change driver are riding a horse that is already dead in the starting stall. When that bell sounds (and it sounded some time ago) they are left for dead. Technology has changed and will continue to change business models and current leadership cannot afford to ignore or assume that they will not be impacted by the ever evolving nature of technology with all its opportunities and threats.

When it comes to the institutions in which we work it is apparent that the nature of the beast is changing. Central organisational models, supported by impressive hierarchical structures, chain of command and clearly defined functions are giving way to decentralised models. In these decentralised models power and decision making is being pushed to the boundaries, or as Ridderstale and Nordstrom in Karaoke Capitalism, refer to it, the ‘brains are at the borders’. The clearly delineated job descriptions and functions are giving way to multi-tasking, flexibility and mobility. If hierarchical towers serve as a caricature of the modern corporation, the market square better denotes the emerging post-modern institution through which we now do business in the global context. In a world where nimble dexterity is an essential business characteristic, central hierarchies offer ponderous decision making with the added disadvantage that those making the decisions are usually far removed from the battlefield. Old styled hierarchies reward longevity and experience and are places where rank and authority are ingrained through title and privilege. The values and mechanisms used to keep this status quo well-oiled and functioning are a thing of the past – to all but those still astride this dead horse that is! Changing the structures to reflect and take advantage of these changes occurring through technology and shifting values is easier written than done. In the process some strong corporate moulds have to be smashed and resistance overcome. It requires savvy leadership, appropriate timing and determination if it is to succeed.

In some of the organisations in which TomorrowToday has been involved we have seen just how difficult it is to make structural changes. Things that would seem easy to change (reserved parking, titles, offices – to name just a few) are met with howls of protest and deep-seated unhappiness by those who perceive themselves to be the victims in the process. These are the very things that when discussed with no threat of actual change are met with, “it’s not that important” but prove to be anything but when change actually occurs, in much the same way that the prefacing words, “with all due respect” usually signals the launch of an out and out attack and should really be taken to mean, “with no real respect”.  Listen out for those words in your next meeting!

Finally, leadership is impacted by the change that can be seen in who it is that walks through the front doors of your business everyday. These people not only are your staff but also form part of your customer, client, and supplier base and generally populate the people chain of which you are part. We are talking about that generation referred to as ‘Generation X’. This is a generation that looks and acts unlike the Baby Boomers who precede them and understanding their values becomes key to interpreting their behaviour.  The point is that Generation X’s behaviour, driven by their underpinning values, stands in stark contrast to that of those with whom they share their work space. The contrasting work behaviour between these generations is causing mayhem in most companies as bosses find themselves at a loss as to how best to attract, retain, motivate and reward the ‘Bight Young Things’ – the talent that they know they need to retain if they are to sustain and extend their success. Leadership which fails to understand the fundamental differences in values that is driving such behaviour is liable to employ the wrong methodologies in attempting to lead Generation X. A simple example of this difference is the contrasting way in how the different generations approach authority and respect. For Generation X respect has to be earned and has nothing to do with title or position. Of course this isn’t the case with older generations for who title and position garners immediate respect. Failure to understand this difference can lead to both wrong approaches and assumptions being made.

The new generation are looking for different things when they join a company. They need change flexibility, informality and information. They are individualistic (bad news for the traditional team-building initiatives) and are asking different questions of their employees. Recently I was told by the person who heads up talent development at Johnson & Johnson that he had recently been asked by one of their ‘Bright Young Things’ whether or not it was okay to bring his dog to work! The questions being asked are changing and underpinning the questions are different expectations and values.

It is not difficult for leaders to stay in touch with the changes that are occurring in all these fields of technology, institutions and values (people), the difficult part is acting on it. Many attempts at harnessing the opportunities these change drivers deliver result in cosmetic responses rather than the deep seated changes that are required. It is understandable of course but nonetheless still means that leaders are attempting to ride dead horses.

And so if you find yourself astride a dead horse…the best strategy is to dismount!

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