According to Alex Lowy and Phil Hood, the best leaders in business and other fields when faced with a tough situation resist taking immediate action, they favor exploration, consultation, and understanding as a first step. Context comes before content, imbuing actions with timeliness and relevance.
For leaders, dilemmas are often more important than answers. Big challenges tend to be complex, ongoing in nature, and highly resistant to simple “fixes.” Fixes are often symptomatic in nature, especially when applied without a full appreciation of forces at play in a situation. Of course, in the real world of competition, time is a luxury few can afford.
However, acting with inadequate diagnosis and insight is an even more costly indulgence. We need leaders to provide direction and to shape meaning in ways that guide organizational and staff efforts, and this means recognizing, defining and dealing with the prime dilemmas of the day. In so doing, they bring focus and tension, and create the necessary context for organisational action and success.
Leadership Under Renovation: Proceed With Caution
Most would agree that the conditions under which leaders operate are undergoing considerable redefinition; placing new limits and pressures. The convergence of communications and work technologies provides a useful orientation for understanding the new terms of engagement for contemporary leaders:
Understanding is the new constant. Until the middle of the 1990s organizations operated under relatively stable and predictable conditions. Suppliers could dictate terms, and count on customer loyalty — options were often few, and as for the future, the next year was usually pretty much like the last.
This is no longer the case, as globalization and information technology open the floodgates to intense competition and perpetual, innovation-led change. Very little is predictable anymore, and agility is increasingly more important for survival than size and scale.
The implication of this for leadership is a shift in focus and key contribution. Staff needs leaders to monitor and interpret events in the external environment, raising the flag on new entrants while putting important developments into perspective. Leaders help the organization to make sense of signs and to adapt in healthy ways.
Hierarchy is replaced by the ability to contribute value. Authority was once clear and respected within well-defined hierarchies. The boss was in charge, everyone knew who the boss was, and played by the rules. If you broke the rules, you were fired. Today, most organizations are a combination of matrix functions that exist to deliver a product or service that is likely to die out over time.
The implication of this for leadership is that authority is not what it used to be. Management as a discipline continues to offer coordination of efforts (although this to is changing; with improvements in communication, jobholders often do a better job of self-organizing). Leadership however, must be earned by adding value that merits the respect and willingness of staff to follow.
Single firm boundary is replaced by inter-enterprise web collaborations. Organisations are evolving from separate entities with fixed boundaries to highly permeable webs of interdependence.
Partnering allows firms to minimize fixed costs and risk, while improving operations, realizing savings, increasing flexibility and attaining geographic coverage.
The implication of this for leadership is the dispersal of leadership function and process. Staff can be anywhere, anytime.
They may work for another company altogether, tightly integrated with staff and value-exchanges in one’s own organisation. Personal presence is less important vision, organization and timeliness, when communication is rarely face-to-face.
Knowledge replaces tangible assets as the prime competitive factor. The ability to deploy competitive knowledge better and faster than the competition is increasingly the key differentiating factor for a business. As firms invest in improving their knowledge-handling capability, organization of information becomes more important, as do customer communications and key-employee retention.
The implication of this for leadership is the need for a deeper understanding of knowledge processes and the ability to steward these with competency and credibility.
Leaders Manage Dilemmas; Managers Solve Problems
Leadership is both a role and a mindset. As managers, the priority is on solving problems quickly to allow processes to occur seamlessly, and people to do their work impeded by distraction or the absence of resources and support. As leaders, the priority is on making sense for the organization, its staff and stakeholders.
Leaders manage dilemmas whilst managers solve problems. As most leaders are also managers, it is crucial to recognize the difference between the two modes, and to develop the ability to operate in the one best suited for any situation.
Unfortunately, leaders often lack sufficient awareness and flexibility, resorting in most cases to solving the problem – make it go away, so work can proceed. Like the proverbial repairperson that only has a hammer, all challenges are treated as nails that need to be pounded out of the way. Employees want answers and the boss is supposed to be smart and able to solve problems and make decisions. Isn’t that what it is all about?
Add to this, that solving problems well is often the reason one has risen to the position of leader in the first place. But when it comes to fulfilling the demands of leadership, this can be a set-up.
There are occasions when solving a problem is itself counter-productive and efforts to do so will only add to the mess. These are times when perspective, patience and understanding are necessary.
Managing dilemmas becomes important when the context is as or more important than the content. It is when consequences are significant and likely to be felt only at a much later point in time.
System thinkers like Peter Senge point to the associated danger of unintended consequences. In complex situations, secondary effects of decisions are often more important than primary ones. The unintended consequences of success or an investment need to be anticipated.
Lowy and Hood give the stark example of the aftermath of the so-called United States victory in Iraq, where early celebrations were soon replaced by suicide bombings.
Be careful what you wish for. Many the star succeeded in their personal career pursuits only to find their lives collapsing under the strain of media attention and unreasonable expectations.
In such situations, leaders are needed to interpret forces and help shape the context for decision-making and action. They do this by engaging themselves in the issues to understand competing forces.
They create models of possible future scenarios to be able to prepare for what is not controllable. They pose a lot of “what if” questions to tune the corporate antenna into both strong and weak environmental signals.
They search for patterns, and challenge themselves and others to think twice about anomalies and factors that may have been too quickly dismissed. The leadership mindset determines what they see.
Armed with inspiration, discipline, and commitment, they equip themselves to be able to focus the attention of the organization on what is important. All this is possible when they attend to dilemmas. They are the leader’s muse and source of direction and renewal.
By Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)