Saturday, October 17, 2020

Saturday Morning Musings - on the modern fallacy of leadership

I have commented before about the sometimes inverse correlation between the public prominence of an issue and on-ground reality. 

The 1990s were a period of restructuring during which many older workers in particular lost their jobs, many never to find work again. This was also the time when the literature and commentary focused on the importance of HR and proper people management. 

As we moved into the 2000s there was a growing focus on maximising the value of the brand. This was the time that newspapers stopped being newspapers and became mastheads instead. While the trend was pronounced at this time, it really dates back to an earlier idea, the idea that managing a larger firm was in fact managing a portfolio of businesses rather than a firm and its individual businesses as organic entities. Value maximisation came from managing the portfolio to extract maximum short term cash either directly or though buying and selling operations or trademarks. Perhaps not surprisingly, the focus on maximising the value of the brand coincided with a period of brand destruction.   

I recognise that what I have written is a bit rough and ready. I really need to go through and consolidate my business and management posts to tease things out. I have been writing on this stuff for long enough so that my posts and my own changing views provide something of an historical context, including the role of management fads and fancies. Still, it sets a context for this morning's brief muse. 

Listening to the radio I was struck by the focus on leadership and failings in leadership. In political terms we have the focus on the role of Premier Andrews in Victoria, in NSW on the extent to which Premier Berejiklian's status as leader has been diminished by the problems surrounding her personal life. In business, the problems facing Crown Casino are being attributed to a lack of leadership combined with failures in compliance. 

I'm not quite sure when this focus on leadership and failures in leadership first emerged and then became dominant. I am old enough to remember the older focus on management that was then swept away, replaced by leadership. 

To my mind, our current leadership focus is highly problematic. 

The word leader literally means the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country. This compares with one standard definition of manager, a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff. These two functions are different. 

Hitler was clearly a great leader, one who could command loyalty. However, he was a hopeless manager who led his country into a disastrous war where his incompetence as a manger guaranteed Germany's final loss. Alexander the Great was another great leader, but his empire fell to bits with his death. Churchill was a great leader, one whose leadership attributes were uniquely suited to the times. but he was not an especially effective manager. In business, Harold  Geneen built International Telephone and Telegraph into a great conglomerate, but his centralised authoritarian style left the company ill-equipped to survive his death.     

I have given these examples to try to illustrate the difference between leadership and management. To my mind, many of the problems that people attribute to poor leadership are actually management problems. In NSW and Victoria, the problems that emerged in the covid-19 responses did not reflect lack of leadership - both premiers were playing leadership roles in their own effective ways - but instead represented management failures.  Despite my reasonably extensive public and private sector management experience, I could not understand why the decision processes were so chaotic, why decisions were undocumented. Then I reflected on my own experience. 

Some years ago I chose to drop back down the hierarchy, to do contract work to try to support my writing addition. I ended up doing contract work within the NSW Public Service, working at a level I last worked at in my twenties. I was struck by just how sclerotic, centralised and hierarchical the system had become. As a simple example, there were five reporting levels between my policy position and the minister, each level with its own sign-off requirements. 

I was also struck by the absence of real management in the sense of managing people and resources to achieve objectives. Many old management functions had been taken over by centralised computer systems where the role of the "manager" had diminished to a tick-box compliance role. The "manager" had also to ensure compliance with a far greater range of policies, procedures and training requirements that, while no doubt important, had peripheral relevance to primary roles. Something akin to the older structures continued in some functional delivery areas for practical reasons, but in broad terms I was struck by the absence of management as I had known it.   

During this period I had to undergo ethics training. This wasn't ethics training as I had known it with its focus on the role and responsibilities, rather more training in compliance and fraud prevention. As part of the training, we were given a number of actual case studies. Talking to the trainer later, I said that the thing that stood out to me in the cases was the absence of over-sight. As a reasonably hands-on manger, I would have expected to pick the problems up early from direct observation or through the management information systems. Now there appeared to be two problems: the management information that might have revealed the problems was not necessarily accessible to the line manager, while the role and responsibility of those in "management" roles had diminished. They simply didn't have the supervisory access or responsibility that might have triggered an early response or even prevented the problem in the first place.

One feature of the decline in management has been a diminution in the role of and number of middle managers. We call this thinning out. The argument is that reducing the number of middle managers will save money and create efficiencies and responsiveness through flatter structures. This process is facilitated by modern computer systems. In practice, I have come to think that it actually increases hierarchy and centralisation, reducing the scope and role of managers.

I am, I think, a reasonably good manager measured by results and the loyalty and enthusiasm of my people. In becoming so, I went through a seasoning process combining a genuine interest in management with a staged increase in responsibility. 

By the time I became a section head I had been both 2IC and acting section head. It was a reasonably big section, nine staff, combining policy and processing responsibilities in a particular area. I then had considerable experience as an acting branch head before being appointed a branch head. Now managing branches with up to 39 staff and multimillion dollar program budgets I wasn't worried about the management role. In retrospect I was lucky because I had more scope and responsibility than equivalent levels today. 

If you had asked me during this period whether I thought of myself as a leader, I would have replied yes, but this wasn't my primary focus. I was a policy adviser and program manager focused on the management of my people to get results that I wanted. Leadership was something I tried to provide, but it wasn't my core responsibility. Management was.

Today when we talk about leadership I worry that we are talking about a concept of slippery meaning, setting up a straw horse that must lead to disappointment, that has limited relevance to what people have to do, that is hard to teach, 

Take your middle manager with limited power and authority. Now say that he or she must aspire to be a leader, that that is his or her core function. What does this actually mean? It is much easier to talk about and focus on the management role, recognising that not everybody can be a good manager. 

As we move up the organisation, leadership may acquire more meaning, but it is still a very limited and hierarchical concept, one lacking definition. Most CEO's will tell you that they want to empower their people. That is management speak, but it carries a truth: you may articulate a vision, but you require managers to carry it out. 

Many years ago when I first studied the emergence of new political movements, I was struck by a typology that said that all successful movements required three things: the agitator, the leader who articulated the need, the dream; the theoretician who codified the ideas so that they could be explained and used; and the administrator who actually made things work. These roles can overlap. 

1920 marks 100 years since the emergence of the party that became the NSW Country Party, something that I have been writing on, Within that new movement, we have Earle Page as the agitator, Drummond as the theoretician who articulated the constitutional basis for the new party, Bruxner as the practical administrator. 

If we now look at Victoria, Dan Andrews has been acting as leader who has, I think, been successful in that role. But his success, his achievement, has been sullied by management failures in delivery. Leaders without management struggle.            



Noric Dilanchian said...

Good post. Keep at it Jim. Suggested next titles:
- “Desperately seeking great managers”
- “Theory and management sausage, leadership sizzle”
- “Great leaders at dawn, failed managers at sunset”

Jim Belshaw said...

Love those suggestions, Noric. Will use them.

Thomas said...

Fascinating read Jim. It comes at a time where leadership and management are taking up a greater part of my working life than ever before. I would be greatly interested in reading more about your insights and ideas on these same issues. Don't think for a moment I'm not going to go back through your blog and try and find them.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Thomas and tanks. I'm sorry for the slow response. I will write more. I was thinking of you this morning reading the commentary on the US elections!