All 4 entries tagged Leadership

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March 18, 2009

Obsession with targets

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When will organizations and (especially) governments learn that the use of arbitrary targets is a fundamentally flawed practice? There is much condemnation at present of the tragic loss of life at Stafford Hospital and no doubt someone will be found to blame and appropriate action taken. Job done. Problem solved. Or is it? I suggest that a scapegoat or scapegoats will be deemed to be the cause of a badly run organization and the underlying root cause will continue to remain unexamined, far less eliminated.

The outcome at Stafford Hospital is an extreme case of what happens when organizations or individuals foist arbitrary targets on other organizations or individuals. When failure to meet these targets is likely to be career limiting or have other undesirable effects on one's employability, they become the focus of daily life rather than the purpose of the organization.

An organization is a system and a system should have an aim. To achieve that aim processes are developed. Processes have an inherent capability arising from their design. Their actual capability is dependent on the quality of materials, equipment and people that are used to create and run the process. All of these processes should work together to achieve the aim of the system. If the system is not achieving its aim it is necessary to understand the root causes of under performance and take corrective action that improves its capability. The changes implemented should be monitored for efficacy and further improvement action taken as required until the system is achieving its aim.

Now let us imagine an organization that is not achieving the required level of performance, or is costing too much to run. Let us apply targets to focus the people in the organization and get them to perform better! How to reduce the cost of running the organization? Well, let's not recruit to replace staff who have left; cut back on training; don't replace aging equipment; reduce maintenance effort; outsource to a lowest cost bidder. I am sure that with a little imagination we could find myriad ways of reducing the cost of running an organization. And don't forget that these cost savings are not usually done in one fell swoop. No, this is death by 1000 cuts. No single action to delay recruitment, purchase equipment and so on causes catastrophe, but collectively over time the capability of the organization degrades until it is operating so far from its design capability that it fails to meet its primary aims.

So, instead of introducing arbitrary targets, institute leadership. Put in place leaders who understand the nature of a system; who understand that the output of all processes is subject to variation; who understand that working hard without knowledge can never lead to improved performance; who understand that to get the most out of a process, the people in the process have to feel valued and enabled to contribute to the improved performance of their process.

To setters of arbitrary targets I recommend that you get out of the library or preferably purchase copies of a couple of books which, if you spend sufficient time to understand, will help you to realize that setting arbitrary targets is a poor substitute for leadership. When you understand that you will start to know what is really required to help organizations and individuals to improve their performance.

October 08, 2008

What is leadership?

The Management for Business Excellence course started last week with registration and induction and the intake of 24 started the first module, Creating Business Excellence on Monday. Organized into 4 teams, the module starts with 30 hours team study on 6 mini-projects.

I suggested that there was an opportunity for everyone to lead a project; everyone could take a turn in monitoring the use of time, managing the paperwork etc. No instruction was given on how any of this could best be achieved and it appears from recent blog posts that there are different ideas about leadership and there exists in some teams frustration and perhaps a little tension. So perhaps the question that arises is “What is leadership?”

Bernard Bass, a respected scholar on leadership, has written that there are as many definitions of leadership as there have been attempts to define it, and so it is perhaps to be expected that ideas about leadership differ when people join a course from different parts of the world and are placed in a team that ensures the widest cultural mix.

I have analyzed 20 definitions of leadership that have been published in journals over the last 50 years and conclude that my definition of non-coercive leadership captures the essence of all of these definitions. Leadership is the process of influencing the thoughts and activities of followers toward achievement of shared goals. This definition implies that the leadership is non-coercive, otherwise the goals would not be shared. They may be agreed due to the use of power or fear, but not necessarily agreed and I think that this is most relevant to the team situation in the Management for Business Excellence course.

There is a great difference between personal power and positional power. If someone assumes leadership of one of the Creating Business Excellence projects, the other team members may go along with that person. But he or she has not been granted positional power by the group, and I think that is unlikely to ever happen in this scenario in which teams are made up of future leaders in whatever career they choose.

Thus, unable to rely on positional power to coerce team members to follow, the leader in this situation has to use personal power to influence and this must surely start with identification of goals for the task that all share. That’s all very well, but have we got time for this? Wouldn’t it be simpler to give the leader the positional authority and let him/her get on with the task? We could do that but this would not be leadership (in my opinion), it would be headship. Headship, through positional power, can influence the activities of followers, but will their thoughts be influenced in the ‘right’ direction? Will the goals be shared? Without hearts and minds working towards achievement of shared goals, how can headship compete with effective leadership?

If as I do, you find it useful to look at extremes, take a look at any one of a number of 20th century dictators and compare their accomplishments to a thought leader such as Gandhi. I know whom I would prefer to follow.

December 11, 2006

Leadership module

Last Friday (8 Dec 06) saw the end of the Leadership and Excellence (LE) module, one of the core modules for the EEE masters degree and an elective module for the 5 students from other streams. This year the three teams comprised a mix of elective and EEE students and from the outset I was pleasantly surprised at how well the elective students adapted to the different learning environment that has been created for the EEE degree. Without the benefit of the induction week and the previous Practices and Principles of Excellence module, the elective students seemed to embrace the lack of lectures, learning through completing mini-projects in groups and discussing topics of interest in seminars. All of this was supported through the use of forums, blogs and most importantly, the Learning Grid.

Everyone was encouraged to take the opportunity to lead a project or exercise and both Graeme and I were once again delighted at the depth of learning that the LE students demonstrated during project presentations and seminars. The two weeks finished with a planning operation for an outward bound exercise, called the Leadership Challenge. It was interesting to see the different approaches of the leaders and their team members. The exercise is effective because everyone forgets that it is an exercise and gets really immersed into achieving the best plan, scoring the most points and thererfore, everyone behaves naturally.

I thoroughly enjoyed this module. It was great to be in the company of the LE students – their energy and enthusiasm was sustained at a high level throughout the module and many of the reflections in the blogs showed a high degree of insight. I feel that they have achieved a huge amount in just two weeks and I hope that this will provide a foundation for their leadership practice when they leave in ten months time. Thanks everyone.

November 22, 2005

Lifeboat leader

Yesterday the participants on the Leadership and Excellence module took part in an exercise named 'Lifeboat Leader'. They worked in groups of 4–6 and the scenario was a cruise ship that was expected to sink in just over an hour. Lifeboats were plentiful and the task was to select one from 6 people the group would prefer as their leader. The groups had to select a second choice as well. They were given short biographies of the candidates for leader and based on this information they had to make their choices.

I thought that the outcome was most interesting. Three of the four groups chose candidate A and the fourth group chose candidate B. This is not a question of right or wrong choices. The needs of the members of the fourth group were different to those of the other three groups, based on their expectations of a leader in that particular situation.

What are the implications of this for the practice of leadership?

If a leader is appointed to lead a group rather than be elected by the group as leader, the appointee should be conscious of the needs of the people following to ensure maximum influence towards the achievement of the goup's (leader's) goals.

Candidate B was second choice as leader for one of the groups but last choice for another. Therefore, if you find yourself in a position of leadership in which you would be the least natural choice of leader for the people you are intending to lead, there is some work to do to develop a positive influence in your group. On the other side of the coin, if the appointed leader remains blissfully unaware of the needs of the group, what is the probablilty of the group performing well?

This exercise was conducted as part of a study of what is leadership. Definition of leadership to follow tomorrow's presentations.

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