Hidden Lessons in Leadership #25

A New York Times interview with Dominic Orr, president and CEO of Aruba Networks, highlights the importance for a leader to understand the organization as a system and to relate to its’ employees as people.  Together these two principles are essential for creating a workplace culture that affords high levels of performance.

Performance is an emergent property of the system and thus it is not reducible to one component or even to the sum of individual components.  Because performance arises or springs forth from the interaction of things—neither oxygen nor hydrogen are wet, yet water is—it is essential for effective leadership to create the environment wherein the interaction among people is positive and collaborative.  In referring to the old HP-way (where he once worked) Dominic acknowledged the importance of “the basic assumption that each employee wants to do well, and they are capable of doing well, so as a manager you have to give them that environment to flourish.“

Accordingly, if an individual is not doing well, approach this situation with the understanding that performance, no matter good or bad, is emergent.  Hence don’t immediately conclude that it must be the person’s fault. Rather consider the system and acknowledge that you, as the manager, are responsible for the system.   So ask what is it about the system that could contribute to this performance? Dominic’s approach is to first question whether as a manager he did something wrong.  This line of questioning is consistent with understanding the organization as a system.   Dominic will “question whether they have been matched to the right assignment.  From the background, from the skill set, have you (as the manager) created a productive environment for them?”

Dominic supports his focus on collaborative efforts when hiring leaders as well.  As he said, “whenever I’m interviewing for a new executive in any discipline, I look fat how they might enhance the capability of the team.  It is about actualizing potential—the environment contains the nourishment that enables a flower to emerge from a seed—so culture is capability critical.

Creating a humanly productive environment is better than any other alternative.  Why?  Because employees are people (human beings) they seek to engage in meaningful work—after all who wants to do pointless work—and if provided the opportunity the potential that lies within each can be actualized.  Dominic asserts (and I paraphrase) fundamentally people work for three things: to have an impact, to have fun and to be rewarded/compensated (and not solely financial).  In essence leaders must not act on people as if they are objects instrumental to the material gain of the organization. Leading/managing people as if they have potential will most likely foster the emergence of (their) potential.  As Dominic claims, “a leader has to ultimately lead with the heart…I think great leadership means that the people who you’re leading feel you, and sometimes you don’t even need to say a lot of works.  And the way they feel you is they know you care, that you believe in what you say.  You have the passion and you live by it.”  Relate to employees as people, as you are, and show you actually care.

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