Friday, August 20

Redefining Leadership: What Do We Need?

There is a bit of a buzz about the Netflix vacation policy. It mirrors our vacation policy (with the caveat that all the work gets done) in that there is no policy.

But really, this simple discussion point is much bigger than all that. It goes all the way to the top of the leadership totem pole. Too many rules kill innovation.

Where Leadership Continues To Miss In Modern Times.

A few years ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review that focused on how many emerging leaders didn't necessarily have the leadership skills needed for the post they were pursuing. If I recall, the article pinpointed the lack of critical thinking skills as the problem. New leadership seems paralyzed by adversity. But it's not just new leadership. It's almost everybody.

It's almost everybody because there is propensity in many organizations to eliminate autonomy. In many cases, children are taught this all their lives. It's subtle, but it comes in the form of which books they are allowed to read (specific books based on specific skill levels), the structure of their day (get tasks done, earn free time), and how lessons are taught (rote memorization).

Basically, some of these kids are learning you need to do A to get to Z. Never mind that D takes you to Z more effectively. It doesn't fit the program, policy, or rules. It doesn't matter that you can start with any letter in the alphabet and get to Z. Someone has already eliminated all of the other letters as starting points. The place to start and the pace to learn is set in stone.

I've been fortunate to have several dozen great interns and employees over the years, but I have noticed some slippage in the desire for autonomy, even among the good ones. They are increasingly likely to wait for instructions. They want their work day planned out. And, if they complete the tick list, they want a reward. This used to perplex me, because I believe this video (hat tip: Angie Alaniz)...

Dan Pink's lively RSA animate is awesome. It suggests that if you give people autonomy, they excel. I believe he is right, but there is another dynamic that is undermining the concept. Some of the people coming up through the ranks now aren't used to autonomy at all. Some don't want it. And the reason they don't want it is because with autonomy comes accountability.

Sure, as Pink points out, people get very excited about autonomy in their personal lives. But what he misses is that being autonomous in our personal lives doesn't require all that much accountability. If you don't get it done or no one likes the YouTube video that was one month in the making, there are no consequences. If I don't work on my book today, there is no editor or publisher to follow up with me on the deadline. At least, not yet.

Ironically, if there are consequences (such as poor health choices or bad investments), there is an increased pressure to hold other people accountable, e.g., it's McDonald's fault if we eat too many burgers and the investment firm's fault if we pick the riskiest venture for the hope of a higher return. It's kind of weird, when you think about it. Where does this come from?

I'm starting to think it starts when kids enter school, especially public ones that have more rules and regulations than their private counterparts that tend to outperform. And this anti-autonomous training carries over into adulthood.

Guidelines Are Fine If They Don't Box Thinking In.

Modern organizations don't need "sandbox covenants." They need to teach people that it's okay play in the sand. That it's okay to make policy exceptions. That autonomy is okay with accountability. And that they ought to be prepared to stand up against regulations because of one so-called questionable decision.

Who knows? If our leadership had better decision making skills, they might even realize that working to end a recession and working to end a recession a certain way are two very different things. I won't hold my breath. Mostly, I ignore the recession. But the way I see it, the more more rules we make will keep us stuck in the muck for another two years or longer.
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