3 Priorities for Leaders Who Want to Go Beyond Command-and-Control
July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
With Jim Whitehurst.
It’s cliché to say that “command and control” leadership is no longer relevant in most organizational contexts. But — especially in large, global, diverse organizations — what should it be replaced with? Leaders increasingly need to model traits that reflect the values and culture of the organization in which they operate. It’s nearly impossible to capture all those traits — every organization will have a different set of norms and customs. But there are at least a few essential leadership traits that we find common in many firms today.
First, in a world in which labor markets are fluid, leaders must inspire and impart purpose.When one of us interviewed young leaders for a book, two of the top three reasons they sought particular jobs were “intellectual challenge” and “opportunity to impact the world;” and other studieshave consistently highlighted the increasing focus younger workers in particular place on purpose in the workplace. Anecdotally, that emphasis on finding purpose in our workplaces and in the companies we patronize — or as Simon Sinek might phrase it, starting with “why” — is redefining the way innovative companies like TOMS, Zappos, Whole Foods, and Google attract and retain talent. And at Red Hat, where one of us is CEO, the organization’s mission is a powerful catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners for creating technology the open source way. The people who succeed in that context are those who are most inspired by that mission and are able to pass that inspiration to others and impart purpose in everything they do.
Second, as the pace of change in the marketplace quickens, leaders must adapt and engage.Many modern organizations simply can’t afford to hold constant for too long. To some extent that has always been true. One of our favorite quotes is from World War I German field marshal Helmuth von Moltke who said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” The other favorite is Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Command-and-control isn’t a fading leadership model simply for cultural reasons, but because modern organizations must respond in real time to fast-changing consumer preferences and agile competitors. This can only be done effectively when leaders have engaged their organizations deeply enough that employees aren’t simply executing tasks; they’ve understood and internalized the “whats” and “whys” of the strategy deeply enough that they can innovate on and improve that strategy as the market demands. This requires intensive, one-on-one work. At Red Hat, for example, the senior team is held accountable for how associates (Red Hat’s way of referring to “employees”) answer the question: “I understand Red Hat’s strategy and what I can do to make it successful.” This call for engagement and adaptability also requires leaders who are willing to empower the community to adapt and solve problems, and who are willing to listen to those with whom they work rather than simply doling out commands.
Finally, in this environment so reliant on inspiration, purpose, and engagement, leaders must embody authenticity. Bill George, among others, has written eloquently on the demands of authenticity for some time; but the demands of authenticity — and the ways in which colleagues can perceive a lack of authenticity — are widening. In our travels speaking to young and senior leaders alike about the changes technology is catalyzing in modern organizations, the theme of increasingly blurred personal and professional lives — wrought by a combination of social media and “always on” mobile technology — has been perhaps the most prevalent. Coworkers know who you are and what you value and can more easily discover when your personal values and actions conflict with what you say in the workplace. We see this as positive because it allows leaders to be themselves at work — vulnerabilities, values, and all — and view those very vulnerabilities and emotions as a central way in which leaders can connect with coworkers in deeper, more human ways, an opinion shared by others like Brene Brown. This very personal approach to authenticity also helps reinforce the truth that there is no one prototypical effective leader. A variety of leadership traits and characteristics may succeed in different circumstances and their combination in the context of a team leads to strength in diversity.
Are you and the leaders with whom you work learning to adapt to a changing model of leadership? Certainly, there are a multitude of traits that will be important depending on the context in which you work. But inspiration and purpose, adaptability and engagement, and authenticity will be critical to most leaders in the information economy.
This was originally posted at Harvard Business Review.