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It’s not about leadership skills, it’s about organisational behaviours

This article first appeared as a feature in Training Journal January 2015

If things didn’t change, we wouldn’t need leadership: we could simply manage the existing, well-known process, doing the same thing over and over again in a nice, comfortable way.

But things do change, and organisations must themselves adapt constantly to reflect this challenging fact of life. As the pace of change accelerates, we need leadership of a very high calibre to keep organisations relevant and successful.

Leadership development programmes train leaders to meet this challenge. However, such programmes tend to exist in a kind of vacuum: leaders are ‘developed’ in business schools and then sent back in their new, improved state to an organisation that has not itself, by definition, moved on.

This is a lot like taking the most promising soldiers out of the trenches of the First Word War to become a new generation of leaders, training them in modern tactics and the use of new weapons, then sending them back to the trenches. Everyone in the trenches has the same old weapons and is using the same old tactics, yet the new leaders are expected to lead the troops to a remarkable and unlikely victory.

The need for organisational transformation

What is needed, clearly in this analogy, is an overall transformation of the strategic situation: a process of organisational transformation of which the new leader is a key part – but only a part.

Continuing with our WWI analogy, the new leaders who have been plucked out of the trenches should be sent, not back to the trenches, but to work with the chiefs of staff, and through them the army as a whole, on the use of the new tactics and weapons in order to transform the strategic situation.

Leaders can and must lead the process of transformation but it is unreasonable to see the development of leadership as wholly separate from the process of organisational transformation; it merely invites failure. The ultimate goal, after all, is not highly developed leaders but transformed organisations.

There are, we suggest, three main obstacles to achieving this in most modern organisations.

Skills or behaviours?

Firstly, there is ongoing confusion between the development of leadership ‘skills’ and ‘behaviours’. Developing a change in behaviour is much more challenging than developing new skills. It is relatively easy to decide what skills to build on and improve, how to train for those skills and how to assess to what extent skills have improved. It is far harder to define behavioural change requirements. There is also disagreement as to what behaviours we want to change and how to go about changing them.

Too little, too late

The second obstacle to successful leadership development is that it is offered too late in people’s careers, at a time when ideas, attitudes and behaviours are well-established and harder to change. And, certainly in the case of internal promotions to leadership positions, when the individuals already have a substantial degree of alignment to the prevailing approaches and attitudes of their organisations. By this stage, they may find it difficult even to envisage how and why they or the organisation should change.

How much better would it be to offer leadership training to a wide range of employees, early in their career?

Modern organisations need leadership at every level; people at all levels of seniority want and expect to be able to lead at various times and on a variety of projects while happily following at other times and in other situations. This applies all the way up to the top leadership team, where self-confident colleagues should be willing and able to pass leadership around between them. Organisations have a huge, and arguably an increasingly desperate, need for leadership in depth –absolutely not the same as management in depth, which is all too common and is a large part of the issue.

Behaving in ways which prevent what you need

Thirdly, and finally, there is the issue of the behaviour change space: what are the behaviours that we should seek to change as part of the learning process which will bring about organisational transformation? In My Steam Engine is Broken, we identify ten such core behaviours, set out as ten core paradoxes of modern organisational behaviour, because they prevent the very outcomes that most organisations know that they need. In particular, they prevent self-direction, self-motivation, commitment and creativity: the very things that an organisation needs most from its members in a knowledge economy.

These paradoxical behaviours, have been inherited from the industrial era. They are so deeply ingrained that we unconsciously repeat them; we have come to believe that this is how we are supposed to behave.

The paradoxes are to do with issues of control, measurement and ‘efficiency’; with the belief that the job of management (the word ‘leader’ tends to drop out of the vocabulary that describes industrial era organisations) is to measure and control the behaviour of ‘workers’; with the failure to encourage individual responsibility or self-organisation; with the stifling of creativity and innovation; with the absence of true diversity and with, indeed, leadership behaviours.

The aggregation of marginal gains

If we begin to transform these old modes of thought and behaviour, then the organisation itself can begin a process of transformation. It is practically impossible to transform something as unwieldy as an organisation through one leadership initiative. Yet starting to rethink our behaviours, and introducing these behaviours throughout the organisation by means of an ongoing learning process – little by little and piece by piece – will begin to transform the organisation into a place that offers challenge and fulfilment to its members, and which thrives and adapts as a direct result.

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Is your organisation stuck in the Industrial Era?

Is your organisation stuck in the industrial era? Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis. The results that you will be given online on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Managers think; workers do

Back in the heady days of the Second Industrial Revolution, when the United States was busy applying the technologies developed in the first Industrial Revolution to create a burgeoning consumer economy, the principles of Frederick Wilmslow Taylor’s Scientific Management were seen as a blast of bracing fresh air; a glimpse of modernity.

In the bad old days, said Taylor, workers would muddle along, using their gumption and initiative, rules of thumb and accumulated wisdom. But this would not do. This was inefficient. A new breed of managers would be recruited to systematise what had previously been a woefully haphazard state of affairs.

As Taylor wrote in The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911:

The managers assume … the burden of gathering together all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae which are immensely helpful to the workmen in doing their daily work. In addition to developing a science in this way, the management take on … other types of duties which involve new and heavy burdens for themselves.

These new ‘rules, laws and formulae’ would, under Taylorism, not merely be ‘immensely helpful’ to the workers, they would come to rule the workers’ lives.

The work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.

The workers, relieved of the ‘burden’ of all of the thinking that had previously been required of them, were now able to get on with the business of being as efficient as possible.

Monsters in our organisations’ collective unconscious

It is easy (and enjoyable) to parody Taylor, mainly because he is beyond parody. He genuinely believed in a rigid distinction between workers and management and that it was the job of managers – not workers – to think, analyse and plan.

It should be said that Taylor believed that workers should be rewarded for the greater productivity that resulted from the efficiencies of the new system and that his approach of breaking any activity down into its component parts – the basis for later ‘time and motion studies’ – is a useful way of analysing and streamlining any repetitive process.

The problem with Taylorism – and it is a very big problem – is that it crept into the psyche of the modern organisation back in the early twentieth century and has stayed there ever since, like an unresolved childhood trauma, creating inappropriate and damaging behaviours.

Most organisations unwittingly still behave as if manager’s think and plan and workers just ‘do’. While these organisations pay lip service to ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ this is, in fact, unwelcome or merely impractical: things are to be done in ‘the one best way’ because to do anything else risks ‘inefficiency’ (and because old-fashioned managers don’t want workers wasting their and everyone else’s time by running around having bright ideas).

In our new book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, Dr Mark Powell and I attempt to haul some of the monsters from the modern organisation’s collective unconscious out into the light of day. We argue that the modern organisation is like a steam engine that modern leaders keep trying to fix, when what is needed is a complete replacement. We explore deep-seated, knee-jerk management obsessions with control, measurement and efficiency, and the typical modern organisation’s woeful approach to such vital issues as communication, leadership and innovation.

We are all knowledge workers now

We are, in fact, all ‘knowledge workers’ now. If a task is literally mindless and repetitive, then it will and should be automated. What human beings bring to any task is, or should be, their ingenuity; their innate sociability; their willingness to rally to a cause, bouncing ideas off each other in a search for the best solution to the common problem.

But few organisations have cultures that genuinely encourage these uniquely human talents.The pull of old, steam engine, industrial-era habits is too strong. We categorise and control; appraise and retrain; dictate and confine; manage and demotivate.

Is your own organisation stuck in the industrial era?

Find out now by taking our quick, twenty-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis.

The results that you will be given on completing the survey are slightly light-hearted, but the issue is very serious.

Work needs to be fit for this century, not for the last.


Please  join the debate with #howsteamareyou and follow us on Twitter @MySteamEngine

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Leading with trust and inspiration – and without a plan!

Piers IbbotsonA guest blog by  Piers Ibbotson, founder of Directing Creativity and contributor to My Steam Engine Is Broken.

Leading with trust and inspiration – and without a plan!

People appointed to leadership positions are in a framework of people already incumbent. This is a big problem. When a new leader is appointed there is often a flurry of activity. People will get moved, fired, replaced, their job description changed – sometimes a whole new team will be selected, but the emotional fall-out from these actions is enormous – it can undermine the effectiveness of the new group for months, even years.

My advice? – don’t bother.

Use “bricolage”- make your project from the materials you have to hand. Who is there? What can they do? What will get them going in a new direction? Any group can be rallied to action with the right handling – of course it means that to some extent you have to operate without a plan and with a high level of trust. People in leadership positions are responsible for delivery and that responsibility hangs heavy – they have to show they have a plan. So they pick a new team, they set targets and they drive people to achieve them. They reward them with bonuses when they succeed, and fire them when they don’t.

Managing by target-setting avoids the messy and unpredictable business of leading people; it allows managers to hide behind numbers and an idea that they are running a well-oiled machine with inputs and outputs. It delivers alright – but what is the cost? In the end it produces a savage, competitive work place, ruthless, driven and deeply unhappy: A place without loyalty and often without morals. Don’t do it.

If you trust and inspire people, they will perform

Getting a group pointing in the right direction and working hard; needs constant, hands on, face-to-face, work. That’s it. You won’t have time for anything else, so tell the higher ups to leave you alone while you get on with it. People will go in the direction you want them to go, if they can see the point of the destination and are noticed for the work they do – noticed – that’s enough. Financial rewards are nice but no substitute for the real thing. And being noticed means that the leader has to be there, close up, to see. Not to manage, not to interfere, but close enough to see what they are doing and give acknowledgement – and maybe some advice. People find it hard to believe that if you trust and inspire people they will perform, but there is abundant research to demonstrate that, beyond a minimum level of reward, extrinsic motivations like bonuses have little or no effect on behaviour.

People are motivated by their perception of the behaviours of those near to them, not those far away. They take their cues from their neighbours, but if they don’t know their neighbours, and if their neighbours are competing with each other to hit their targets by whatever means, regardless of the consequences, that is what they will do. If the boss is right next to them, literally, they will be influenced by them, but when the boss is not, which can be most of the time, you will have an organisation in which the fallout from competitive behaviour can destroy as much value as it adds.

Being present with your people

Take a real risk. Tell people the truth and inspire them to come up with the answers – then trust them to deliver. The solutions they find will not be yours, they may not be what you want, or what you thought would work, but they will be solutions. Your job is to watch, closely and supportively, what they are doing; encourage, help, and occasionally deflect, forgive, or forbid, actions that are clearly doomed or dangerous. Remind them of where they are heading. You cannot dictate their actions; that is being a dictator, not a leader.

Over time you will move them to a place where they are delivering something that works, that they own and they have made in collaboration with each other. Some roles may indeed need to change, some people may want to leave, but that should not be where the process starts. Over time, your followers will evolve a mutual trust and understanding that makes them resilient, creative and ambitious. Being a leader is about how you are, from moment-to-moment in relationship with others. It’s about being present with your people and trusting them as you make your way together.

The legacy of a leader lies in the qualities of the community they leave behind when their work is done. The person who leads them there really isn’t that important.

 Is your workplace stuck in the Industrial Era?  Find out now with our quick 20-question How Steam Are You? survey for an instant analysis.

More about Piers Ibbotson

Piers Ibbotson is one of the contributors to My Steam Engine is Broken.  After a successful career as an actor with the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he became assistant director, Piers now runs bespoke theatre-based training and development programmes for business through his company Directing Creativity, applying techniques and practices used in theatrical ensemble work.

You can read more about Piers’approach in chapter 4 of My Steam Engine is Broken, ‘The Innovation Committee’, and chapter 5, ‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me’.

A version of this blog first appeared on LinkedIn in June 2014.