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The Work of Leadership is an Investment

Although people like Jim Collins can conduct research showing what leadership behaviours really make a difference and how such behaviours characterise the best organizations, the lessons can be overlooked by the vast majority of those responsible for the future. It is easier to feel that one is making a difference now. Too often the “boss” can get off on seeming to wield power by shouting, threats and other intimidatory behaviour. To no avail except to drive the hapless employees to bad behaviour, sometimes with worse consequences.

Ronald A. Heifetz is cofounder of the Center for Public Leadership in the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the author of “Leadership Without Easy Answers” (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994) and “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading”, written with Marty Linsky (Harvard Business School Press May 2002). His research focuses on how to build adaptive capacity in societies, businesses, and nonprofits. (Heifetz speaks and consults extensively in the United States and abroad and is also a physician and a cellist.)

In “Learning to lead: Real leaders say, “I don’t have the answer” (Ivey Business Journal January/February 2003), Heifetz and Donald L Laurie (of Oyster International, a Boston consulting firm) observe, “As the downfalls of CEOs in the past three years illustrate, staying the course can lead to distaste. The times are certainly challenging, but today’s leader can succeed only by creating and promoting an environment in which he or she and managers learn to respond in new ways, in effect unlearning traditional responses, especially the ones that sees the CEO say, “No problem, I’ll fix it.””

In their article, “The Work of Leadership” (Harvard Business Review January/February 1997, p 124), Heifetz and Laurie elaborate on the major themes of their work over past decades. Talking of the increasing changes in organisations and in societies, markets, and technology and the changes being forced on organisations to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways of operating, Heifetz and Laurie identify the most important task for leaders in the face of such challenges as ” mobilizing people throughout the organization to do adaptive work”.

Stone wall, Budapest (More)

They continue, “Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge. We see adaptive challenges every day at every level of the workplace — when companies restructure or reengineer, develop or implement strategy, or merge businesses. We see adaptive challenges when marketing has difficulty working with operations, when cross-functional teams don’t work well, or when senior executives complain, “We don’t seem to be able to execute effectively.” Adaptive problems are often systemic problems with no ready answers.

And the crunch point: “getting people to do adaptive work is the mark of leadership in a competitive world. Yet for most senior executives, providing leadership and not just authoritative expertise is extremely difficult.” The explain, “executives have to break a long-standing behavior pattern of their own, providing leadership in the form of solutions. Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.”

Second, “adaptive change is distressing for the people going through it. They need to take on new roles, relationships, values, and approaches to work. Many employees are ambivalent about the sacrifices required of them and look to senior executives to take problems off their shoulders.”

“When I got to the BBC we had a-I think one of the mantras of the company was, we want to be the best-run public sector organisation in Britain. Now I just said, it’s a very valid aim, but nobody in their right mind’s going to get out of bed every morning saying, ‘I want to be part of the best-run public sector organisation in Britain.’ So we changed it. We said, we want to be the most creative organisation in the world. And that’s what everything was aimed at. How do we become the most creative organisation in the world? How do we come up with great ideas, how do we make sure that they can get on screen or they can get on the radio or they can go on to our online site?”

Greg Dyke on “Big Ideas” talking to ABC Radio National “Book Talk”‘s Ramona Koval

“But both sets of expectations have to be unlearned. Rather than providing answers, leaders have to ask tough questions. Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders should let the pinch of reality stimulate them to adapt. Instead of orienting people to their current roles, leaders must disorient them so that new relationships can develop. Instead of quelling conflict, leaders should draw the issues out. Instead of maintaining norms, leaders must challenge “the way we do business” and help others distinguish immutable values from the historical practices that have become obsolete.”

An example much in the news in recent months of heightened conflict is provided by Greg Dyke, recently resigned Executive Director of the BBC. Interviewed on “Big Ideas” Sunday 17 October 2004 by ABC Radio National’s ” Books and Writing” presenter Romona Koval, Dyke had this to say in respect of rule setting in organisations: “You’ve got to persuade them. You can’t just set rules.” He also decried the way that those who take risks in the public sector often end up “before some parliamentary committee in front of some sort of ill-informed member of parliament, who starts giving you a really hard time about something he knows nothing about, and your defence cannot be, well actually I took the risk and I thought it was worth trying, but it didn’t work

” My view of organisations is that they work at their best when the people in them feel valued as opposed to being afraid. So I set about trying to change the culture of the organisation, really. And to start with, I don’t think anybody believed me. They were not used to that sort of leadership, which is what I’d developed over 20 years. It was what I’ve always been quite interested in. The reason I took the job at the BBC or one of the reasons was could you do to 28,000 people what I’d done to 1,000. Could you try and get them all feeling part of the same organisation, all feeling proud of what we were achieving, together.”

The transcript of the interview can be found at the “Big Ideas” site. Dyke is the author of ” Inside Story”, Harper Collins, 2004) His loss from the BBC is in my view tragic and certainly as he tells it another example of “base spaniel fawning” on the part of those expected to govern the organisation. That is quite apart from the events which were supposed to have led to his resignation being required. No organisation can afford to lose outstanding leaders! None!

“My view of organisations is that they work at their best when the people in them feel valued as opposed to being afraid. So I set about trying to change the culture of the organisation, really. And to start with, I don’t think anybody believed me. They were not used to that sort of leadership, which is what I’d developed over 20 years. It was what I’ve always been quite interested in.”

Greg Dyke on “Big Ideas” talking to ABC Radio National “Book Talk”‘s Ramona Koval

The similarity between the approaches that Dyke adopted and the lessons in “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and other texts based on actual evidence and analysis is striking. Changes are being made following Dyke’s departure. Dyke’s successor Mark Thompson, on assuming the job in March 2004, said, ” Our task is going to be to change the BBC more rapidly and radically over the next three to five years than at any previous point in its history. We believe that over the next decade the BBC will have a bigger role than ever in building public value, creating a far more open, responsive, agile BBC and always putting our audiences first.

“The corporation must “keep up with the pace of change” Thompson has said. ” The BBC must “grasp the nettle” of bureaucracy and plough the cash into content and programmes.” About 2,900 jobs are to be cut, mainly from administration departments, while savings of £320m a year are to be made. ” Now is the moment where we really do have to grasp some nettles there and say is there a way we can run this organisation more simply, more directly, with fewer meetings and less complexity and therefore transfer many, many millions of pounds out of that part of the BBC and into programmes.”

As part of the changes, Chairman Michael Grade has announced that the board will now be supported by a dedicated Governance Unit and the governors themselves will move away from management. He said the governors would be moving to new premises away from the BBC’s main Broadcasting House and White City sites.