Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rethinking Leadership in the organization

I read the original article written by Peter M Senge and found it to be profound, interesting and very relevant too. This article elaborates on the need for and different trypes of leaders in any organization and their characteristics. It also talks about the leadership challenges facing the leaders of today.

It is a big article and I have given the abstract. Peter Senge is the author of the book ‘The Fifth Discipline’.

“No Significant change will occur unless it is driven from the top”
“There is no point in starting a change process unless the CEO is on board”
“Nothing will happen without top management buy-in”

How many times have we heard statements like these and simply accepted them as “the way things are?" CEOs and other top executives talk about the need to "transform" their organizations, to overthrow stodgy bureaucratic cultures and to become ‘learning organizations". But evidence of successful corporate transformation is meager. Moreover, the basic assumption that only top management can cause significant change is deeply disempowering.
Why, then, do we accept it so unquestioningly? Perhaps there is an element of self-protection at work - the comfort of being able to hold someone else (namely top management) responsible for the lack of effective leadership. There is no doubt that a CEO who is opposed to fundamental change can life difficult for internal innovators, but this hardly proves that only the CEO can bring about significant change.
Let us consider some different statements about leadership and change:

  • Little Significant Change can occur if it is driven from the top.
  • CEO proclamations and programs rolled out from corporate headquarters are a good way to undermine deeper changes
  • Top management buy-in is a poor substitute for genuine commitment at many levels in an organization

These statements are supported by the experience of Leaders.
There are several reasons why many leaders have come to think of a more humble view of the power of top management.
First is the cynicism that exists in most organizations after years of management fads. When the CEO preaches about something, people roll their eyes and think, "Here we go again. I wonder what seminar s/he went to last weekend.
A second reason has to do with the compliance and commitment. Hierarchical authority is much more effective at securing compliance than it is at fostering genuine commitment. "
A third reason is a different type of leadership is needed is that top management initiatives often end up moving organizations backward not forward. This can occur in obvious ways, such as top management down sizing and reorganizations that have the side effect of increasing internal competitiveness, which ends up undermining collaboration and ultimately economic performance.

Even so, it must be acknowledged that many large scale change programs can only be implemented from top management levels. But such changes will not affect the corporate culture if it is based on fear and defensiveness. Nor will they unleash people's imagination and passions and enhance their ability to form genuinely shared visions. They will not change the quality of thinking in the organization, or increase intelligence at the front lines, where people confront increasingly complex and dynamic business environments. And they will do nothing to foster the trust and skills needed by teams at all levels if they are to reflect on hidden assumptions and to inquire into the reasoning behind their own actions.
People are regularly confronted the dilemmas posed by the conflicting views of leadership described above. Resolving these dilemmas requires fundamental shifts in our traditional thinking about leadership. These shifts start with the simple view of leaders as those people who 'walk ahead', people who are genuinely committed to deep changes in themselves and in their organizations and who demonstrate their commitment through their actions They lead through developing new skills, and new capabilities for individual and collective learning. And they come from many places within an organization.

We have identified three essential types of leaders in building organizations, roughly corresponding to three different organizational positions.

1 Local Line leaders - who can undertake meaningful experiments to test whether new learning capabilities actually lead to improved business results.
2 Executive Leaders, who provide support for line leaders develop learning infrastructures and lead by example in the gradual process of evolving the norms and behaviors of a learning culture.
3 Internal net workers or community builders who can move freely about the organization to find those who are predisposed to bringing about change, to help out in organizational experiments and to aid in the diffusion of new learning.

Local Line Leaders
Nothing can start without the committed local line leaders; individuals with significant business responsibility and bottom line focus. They head organizational units that are microcosms of the larger organizations and yet have enough autonomy to be able to undertake meaningful change independent of the larger organization. To create useful experiments, they must confront the same issues and business challenges that are occurring within the larger organization.
The key role played by local line leaders is to sanction significant practical experiments and to lead through active participation in those experiments (for e.g. a PM or a DM can achieve a lot through change in processes or better people management practices).
Without serious experiments aimed at connecting new learning capabilities to business results, there is no way to assess whether enhancing learning capabilities is just an intellectually appealing idea or if it can really make a difference.
In addition to playing a key role in the design and implementation of new learning processes, local line leaders often become teachers once these learning processes become established. They also become effective facilitators in the learning process. Their substantial knowledge and practical experience give them unique credibility. Facilitating others learning also becomes a powerful ongoing way for line leaders to deepen their own understanding and capabilities.

2. Executive Leaders
Local line leaders can benefit significantly from executive champions who can be protectors, mentors and thinking partners. Executive partners can make sure that the innovative practices are not ignored because people are too busy to take the time to understand what innovators are doing. By working in concert with internal net workers, executives can help connect innovative local line leaders with other likeminded people. They also play a mentoring role in helping the local line leaders understand complex political cross currents and communicate their ideas and accomplishments to those who have not been involved.
Part of our difficulty in appreciating the role that effective executive leadership can play in learning is that all of us are used to the 'captain of the ship' image of traditional hierarchical leaders. However these executives act as teachers, stewards and designers. They fill roles that are much more subtle contextual and long term than the traditional model of the power wielding hierarchical leader effective leaders can build an environment that is conducive to learning in several ways.
The first is by articulating guiding ideas. Guiding ideas are different from slogans or management buzzwords. They are developed gradually often over many years, through reflection on an organizations history and traditions and on its long term growth and opportunities.
A second way to build a learning organization is to build environments for learning through conscious attention to learning infrastructure. in a world of rapid change and increasing interdependence, learning is too important to be left to chance.
The third way to build operating environments for learning lies within the executives own domain for taking action - namely the executive team itself. It is important the executives recognize that they too must change, and that many of the skills that have made them successful in the past can actually inhibit learning.
I think these ideas will eventually lead to a very different mind-set and, ultimately, a different skill-set among executives. We must learn to see the company as a

living system and to see it as a system within the context of a larger system, of which it is a part. Only then will our vision reliably include return for our shareholders, a productive environment for our employees and a social vision for the company as a whole.

3. Internal net workers
The most unappreciated leadership role is that of the internal net workers, or what we often call internal community builders. Internal net workers are effective for the very reasons that top-mgmt efforts to initiate a change can backfire - oftentimes, no power is power. Precisely because they have no positional authority, internal net workers are free to move about a large organization relatively unnoticed.
When someone with little or no positional authority begins asking which people are genuinely interested in changing the way they and their team work, the only ones likely to respond are those who are genuinely interested. And if the internal net worker finds one person who is interested and asks, "who else do you think really cares about these things?" he or she is likely to receive an honest response.
The only authority possessed by internal net workers comes from the strength of their convictions and the clarity of their ideas. It is very difficult to identify the internal net workers because they can be people in many different organizational positions. They might be internal consultants, trainers or personnel staff in org development or HR. They might be front line workers like engineers sales rep. They might be under some circumstances in senior staff positions.
As practical knowledge is built, internal net workers continue to serve as organizational seed careers connecting like minded people from different settings and making them aware of each others learning efforts. Gradually they may help in developing the more formal coordination and steering mechanism needed to move from local experiments to broader organization wide learning.
As with local line managers and executive leaders, the limitations of internal net workers are likewise counterparts to their strengths. Because they don't have a great deal of formal authority, they can do little to counter hierarchical authority directly. Internal net workers have no authority to institute changes in organizational structures or processes. So even though they are essential, internal net workers are most effective when working in concert with local line leaders and executive leaders.

Leadership challenges

Leadership challenges inherent in building learning organizations are a microcosm of the leadership issue of our times; how human communities can productively confront complex issues where hierarchical authority is inadequate to bring about the change.
None of today's most pressing issues - deterioration of the natural environment, the international arms race, erosion of the public education system, or the break down of the family or the increasing social fragmentation - will be resolved through hierarchical authority. In all these issues, there are no single causes, no simple 'fixes'. There is no one villain to blame. There will be no magic pill.
Significant change will require imagination, perseverance, dialog, deep caring and a willingness to change on the part of millions of people. The necessity of creating systemic change where hierarchy is inadequate will, i believe, push us to new views of leadership based on new principles. These challenges can't be met by isolated heroic leaders. They will require a unique mix of different people, in different positions, who lead in different ways.

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