A recent HBR Blog post by John Kotter speaks to the confusion surrounding management and leadership. He continues by outlining three key mistakes people make in confusing management and leadership: 1) using the terms interchangeably; 2) using leadership to refer to those at the top of the hierarchy; and 3) thinking leadership is about personality characteristics (i.e. charisma). Let’s critically think about these mistakes to better understand their likely causes. Continue reading
Stephen Covey’s The 7-habits of highly effective people presented a discussion on Habit #1 about the relationship between one’s circle of concern and one’s circle of influence as a way of explaining the difference between being proactive versus reactive—the subtext being that effective people (such as leaders) are proactive. In the presentation, which is based on the premise that “we each have a wide range of concerns—our health, our children, problems at work, national debt and nuclear war”, the circle of influence portrayed is within and smaller than the circle of concern.
Because the circle of concern was larger than the circle of influence it seems Covey, in referring to the circle of concern, was actually offering a way of discerning what is in one’s control. However, if one’s circle of concern is larger than one’s circle of influence then there is an increased likelihood of experiencing a sense of helplessness and angst. Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” offers great guidance in this situation.
Effective Relative to What
The implication for those aspiring to be a leader is to become proactive by expanding your circle of influence in order to ensure you are working on things you control and can do something about, thus improving your effectiveness.
But effectiveness is not an absolute term: Its’ meaning is always connected to the desired end of one’s efforts—often reflected in what one uses to measure effectiveness. The measures most often used guide us to place focused attention on one thing rendering us blind to the unintended consequences of our actions. Thus depending upon what one is seeking to do being effective can be either constructive or destructive.
Al (Chainsaw) Dunlop was effective in realizing the single-minded end he desired—maximizing shareholder value thus reaping gains for himself and major shareholders—but in his wake he left considerable destruction. Though he severely diminished the viability of companies such as Scott Paper and Sunbeam, destroying the livelihood of many people, he made for himself a fortune and was proud of it!
If we look through the lens of systems thinking we see because of inherent interdependencies we influence far more than we realize. Thinking systemically reveals to us that everything is connected to everything else; that we can’t do just one thing. In other words our actions reverberate throughout the system.
The implication here is, if ones’ circle of concern is less than one’s circle of influence then there is a increased probability that acting solely in consideration of one’s concern will lead to the degradation of one’s environments—which includes social, industrial, economic and natural. In light of the many social and environmental problems created through past decisions and policies set by those in authority, the circle of concern has been considerably less than the circle of influence for far too many in these positions.
In regards to corporate executives primarily concerned, if not solely, with increasing shareholder value—coupled to the fact that they have a considerable influence upon the lives of others—pose a considerable threat to the wellbeing of people and society as a whole. It appears most of these executives believe the corporation stands a part from and independent of everything else and its survival alone is paramount. What seems to be not understood is the unit of survival cannot be the legally defined corporate entity but rather it must be the corporation plus its environments. Polluting the environmental systems—nature, humankind, society—as a way of satisfying self-interest and getting what you want will not make for a livable world. The concern must be more than shareholder value if there is to be a viable future.
Therefore, those aspiring to be a good leader mustn’t limit their concerns to that which is in his/her (direct) control. They need to expand their circle of care thus bringing the wellbeing of those they effect into their circle of concern. Leadership requires increasing one’s circle of care, especially as one’s circle of influence expands with the attainment of higher positions of legitimate authority. To do otherwise would no doubt increase the likelihood of harm and destruction.
When people are given the legitimate authority associated with a position in an organization or society’s government, he/she is necessarily required to demonstrate care and concern for those over whom he/she has been given formal authority. Sadly far too many become intoxicated with their newfound circle of control—and correspondingly the prospect of getting it all for themselves—that they ignore their responsibility for the care and concern of those whose lives they touch. Upholding this latter responsibility—bringing into congruence the circle of influence and the circle of care—is in large measure what separates the heroic leaders from the toxic leaders.
Toxic leaders are effective in turning organizations and societies over which they exercise control into black holes wherein potential is trapped and people are unable to develop and flourish. Until a sense of caring grows beyond concern for what’s in it for me those to whom we give positional authority will effectively do what’s good for them alone. Such effectiveness can’t help but to be detrimental to all concerned.
What we need is an increasing number of people striving to expand their circle of care and to bring it into congruence with their circle of influence. When people do this invariably they come to acknowledge their I-We nature. With this acknowledgement comes a deep and wide sense of caring and so those upon whom we bestow legitimate authority within our organizations and government will most likely exhibit the leadership we so desperately we need.
Until more begin to care about more of us our best efforts will continue to fall horribly short. To paraphrase Deming, best efforts absent of knowing what to do—without the guidance of principles—will result in a lot of damage. As Deming said, “think of the chaos that would come if everyone did his best, not knowing what to do.” Well look around, chaos is quite evident, is it not! We should remember that a narrow focus of attention is nothing if not a limited sense of caring. Need we continue holding onto our self-interest maximizing ways?
Faced with mass murders (e.g. Columbine, Aurora, VA Tech, Tuscon, Oak Creek)—62 over the past 30 years—coupled with the gun violence that happens every day we haven’t sought to understand these horrific events within the larger context from which they emerge. Until very recently America has been unaware that it has a problem.
According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, firearms were used in fully 2 of 3 murders in 2011. Not only is the U.S. a more violent society it also presents a strong demand for guns: By about 3 to 1 there are more licensed firearms dealers in the U.S. than there are McDonald’s restaurants. Though we love burgers we just adore guns!
What have we been thinking?
Being individualistically oriented and tending to reductionism as a problem solving approach we’ve turned our focus on the individual who committed the murder—as if these are all independent and unrelated to our culture. Thus we have turned a blind eye to the societal context only seeking information about the characteristics of the individual person committing the crime—asking why did he do it. We frame each event as the specific individual’s problem and this keeps us from understanding the system of causes, and so the pattern continues.
In the case of recent mass killings, some have brought attention (and rightfully so) to the fact that mass murders in the U.S. are not just a gun control issue but rather they are reflective of a mental health issue. Because of our society’s proclivity for reductionism and its associated either/or thinking many have shown the light of attention on mental illness as the problem thus keeping the prevalence and loose regulation of guns in society in darkness. Unfortunately this can be the seed of a growing miss-belief that guns have no causal effect here that it all resides with mental illness.
Guns don’t kill people; people kill people! The argument continues: Yes mentally ill people with guns is a danger but (and here lies the kicker) we can never eliminate the possibility of mentally ill people from committing mass murder with guns so we mustn’t infringe upon the right of law-abiding citizens to own any kind of gun they desire. What this is saying is that a gun is neither good or bad it is just an object that people use; so it isn’t the gun but the person that is the problem. The implication being that guns—buying, having, owning, and carrying guns of any sort—are not the problem. It is the particular person that is the problem. Is this argument reflective of good solid logic and problem solving or is it reflective of avoidance behavior and problem deflection? Would we be reasonable if we made the same argument about drugs and drug use?
Further there are those who don’t wish to see any real change so they employ a line of thought—that is a defense—where the only real solution is a 100% solution. The only solution they will support must completely eliminate the chance of murder by gun. In other words if whatever is proposed will not stop with 100% certainty every person who might want to use a firearm to kill innocent people then what is proposed is grossly inadequate, it can’t be a solution. Until such a solution is provided nothing should or can be done—status quo is sustained.
Yet another argument reflective of the relationship we as a society have with guns goes something like this: if more people carried a gun (to protect their self and others around them) then there would be fewer murders—it would be a deterrent to gun violence. The answer to too many guns in the hands of some people is to have more people with guns. Apart from the fact that accurately shooting a gun is not as simple and easy as what you see on television and in the movies, this argument rests on the false logic that having a gun deters others from bringing a gun to a gunfight.
An argument based on false logic is simply a strategy to turn the attention away from the system of causes and the creation of an effective solution to a well-defined problem. Offering up a red herring keeps people from defining the problem, identifying the system of causes of the problem and taking appropriate and meaningful action. It is no wonder we’ve been mired in this for so long.
Is it possible that material self-interest maximization is playing a role? How much does the profit motive relate to what an industry, businesses within the industry and policy makers who receive funding from the industry (i.e. elected officials) impact what they are willing to do? That is, could it be that the gun industry (and its lobbyist and those who profit from a strong demand for guns) just can’t let anything get in the way of the profit that can be derived from having widespread availability and unregulated sale and use of guns?
It’s the System
Clearly the usual arguments have done little toward developing an understanding as to why we have a pattern of gun violence in U. S. society—which by the way is the most violent among OCED countries. Yet we seem unable to understand the system of causes of the pattern because we are unwilling to honestly look at how the society we’ve created contributes to this phenomenon as well as others. Our problem goes far deeper. Why don’t we go there? Could it be that at some level those with the authority to affect fundamental change realize that what they believe and advance is no longer valid—what they know ain’t so—and that they too will have to change?
If a system doesn’t encourage and support something from happening it won’t continue to happen!
Unfortunately policy makers don’t appear to use both systems and statistical thinking, so they don’t continue asking why are the trends we have in society, such as gun violence and mental illness manifesting? We must cease trying to do a better job of inspecting individual events and turn attention to the system that supports/promotes the events continuing.
In their book The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett discuss the strong positive correlation between income inequality by country and: the index of health & social problems; the index of child well being; children’s experience of conflict; imprisonment; the percent of people with any mental illness; and the number of homicides per million. Negative correlation is shown between income inequality and social mobility and income inequality and level of trust. Each pairing shows the U. S. to be at the high end of positively correlated pairings and at the low end in negatively correlated pairings—not a good report card for America.
Although a correlational relationship does not imply cause-and-effect it suggest that the variables are linearly related. That is, as income inequality varies so too do these other societal characteristics—they aren’t independent, they move together and so one may affect the other or both are influenced by the same cause or causes. An understanding of the causes of the patterns begins with an understanding of the patterns caused, and so additional analysis leading to deeper understanding is needed.
We need to change
Unless people have the courage to let go of their attachments and the will to collaborate toward seeking a greater and deeper understanding of both the individual and collective (i.e. both cultural and policy/process) causes then the solution coming forth will be just re-action and compromise. Systems thinking, collaboration and deeper understanding, not compromise, will lead to understanding that can inform changes in policy to positively affect life in society.
As discussed in Hey Einstein Solve This recurring problems such as gun violence, mental illness and poverty are not structured and well-defined problems. If they were we’d quickly dissolve them and they wouldn’t recur! These problems require soft systems methods whereby we identify and challenge the underlying assumptions, beliefs and the sought after objectives that have guided current policy and action.
We should be asking: what is it about our system of orientation—not the values we espouse but the beliefs and values-in-practice and the ends supported and sought—and correspondingly the way we structure life and define success that is giving rise to these symptoms? What is the complex of causes—not the one cause or the one that various special interest coalitions are willing to compromise on—that is most likely at the root of what we are experiencing. Until this is done, all we will get are re-actions that pacify the masses and keep things essentially as they are.
The cultural change that is required won’t be easy and because of that it won’t happen without heroic leadership. However, the history of major change happening in America (e.g. women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmental protection, gay rights) shows that heroic leadership won’t emerge unless there is a critical mass of people that put their foot down making it very clear that we the people won’t accept anything less. This could take awhile, especially if few of us become part of the critical mass.
Let me begin with a statement from a previous posting:
“When people are given the legitimate authority associated with a position in an organization’s (management) hierarchy, they are also necessarily entrusted with the development of those over whom they have been given formal authority. Sadly some become intoxicated with exercising power over others that they deny and ignore the responsibility for the care and concern of others. Upholding this latter responsibility is in large measure what separates the good leaders from the bad.” Continue reading
Have you ever heard this preamble to a management directed action plan in intended to reduce or eliminate an undesirable effect: “what we’ve planned (for you) to do isn’t perfect but….” Continue reading
If management can control things then management can be effective and efficient in realizing the desired results and sustaining the business. You will find very few who would disagree with this if-then thinking. This thinking is so common that it is rarely, if ever challenged—until now. Continue reading
The paradigm that emerged in the 17th century set humankind as the conqueror and manipulator of all things for tangible ends. Moreover knowing something meant that it is expressible and explainable in the language of mathematics (i.e. numbers, measurements), as everything that was anything must be quantifiable and quantified if it is to be understood. Accordingly everything in the universe became an object to be measured and modeled into exact laws of cause-and-effect. Continue reading
The precepts of neoclassical economic theory (a.k.a. capitalism) have permeated almost every aspect of life in American society leading us to create both a materialistic and individualistic focused society. This has a tremendous influence upon how people understand society and organizations, the problems in society and organizations, and correspondingly the solutions people offer. Continue reading
Spend some time in most business organizations—as I have done over the past 35-plus years—and you will likely observe the practice of cascading goals top-to-bottom. Why? Because executive teams believe: a) it is the way to align organizational goals and people’s activity, to implement strategy; b) it is a way to exercise control over what happens in the organization; c) it is the means to holding people accountable and the basis for evaluating people’s performance; and d) it is what other executive teams do. Continue reading