[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]
II. The Challenges
As in the case of the premodern leader of wisdom, a modern leader who builds her credibility on wisdom may at times be quite resistant to any challenge to his wisdom. This challenge might come from those who report to him or from among his peers who may question his wisdom (especially when profound change is occurring inside the organization or in the environment in which this organization operates). Obviously, we now live in a world where profound change is occurring within and around virtually all organizations. This suggests that most modern leaders and managers of wisdom are living in challenging times.
This challenge is even greater when the existing leadership is based on premodern wisdom and the credibility of an organization’s leadership is based on modern principles of management and on the educational programs that transmit and provide verification of these modern principles. In a previous blog I mentioned that I work with many young men and women from Asia who come to the United States to obtain a Masters Degree in Management. Their parents are typically deeply embedded in premodern cultures and have built their credibility on the basis of premodern wisdom. These premodern leaders often feel particularly challenged by their highly educated sons and daughters who want to introduce modern management principles into their parents’ organization.
The Subordinates’ Ambivalence
The premodern “follower” is often ambivalent about transitions in leadership. They want their premodern leaders to always be wise, but also want them to acknowledge the growing wisdom of other members of the premodern organization. Similarly, at one level, the modern subordinate wants her boss to be wise. She wants him to be a good manager and to be “up-to-date” with regard to modern management principles. However, part of what it means to be a “good manager” is respect for the growing competencies of subordinates.
One of the mostly widely used models of modern leadership/management—that is offered by Hershey and Blanchard—is based on the assumption that the style of leadership and management should shift as the people being led becomes increasingly knowledgeable about the tasks they are assigned, are able to set high but realistic goals, and are able to work effectively with other employees. In other words, the successful manager not only transmits her wisdom, she also acknowledges and supports the growing wisdom of the men and women who report to her.
Much as the challenge of premodern wise leadership can be summed up in two words (“succession planning”), so can the challenge of modern leadership/management of wisdom be summed up in two other words: THOUGHTFUL INFLUENCE. As a carefully trained and educated manager in a modern organization one should not be in the business of controlling the actions of one’s subordinates. With control comes an environment of repression and intimidation. Subordinates learn very little in this environment and certainly are not being prepared for movement themselves into management and modern leadership. On the other hand, a lasses faire attitude is also counter-productive—in which the modern manager pretty much ignores their subordinates and treats the successes and failures of their subordinates with indifference. Neither extreme are appropriate in the modern organization. Somewhere in between is the process of influence: the effective manager teaches, mentors, supervises and delegates. Each of these managerial initiatives is intended to be influential. All-too-often, unfortunately, modern management training programs stress control rather than influence. It is all-too-frequently the case that the opposite actually occurs: managerial indifference and isolation. What would a managerial training program look like that emphasizes behaviors that lead to influence rather than control, and to engagement with subordinates rather than a reliance on formal supervisory rules and regulations that are alienating.
Thoughtfulness must accompany the pattern of managerial influence. Donald Schön writes about reflective practice as critical for effective leadership in contemporary society. He is referring to ways in which someone in a leadership role is always testing out their hypotheses about how to conduct business in their unit of the organization and even more importantly how to work with other people (including subordinates). This means that an effective leader/manager is open to and actively seeks out feedback on their behavior from other members of the organization—and in particular from their subordinates. This feedback, in turn, requires that the modern leader/manager is willing to articulate the assumptions they are making and the processes of reasoning that underlie the decision they make and the interpersonal strategies they are employing. Thoughtful influence requires, in other words, that the modern leader/manager is open to being influenced by other people. Paradoxically, when we are open to influence from other people, they are, in turn, more open to be influenced by us.
As I have repeatedly noted, we are living in organizations that are simultaneously premodern and modern—and are becoming increasingly aligned with a postmodern reality. Effective modern leaders/managers recognize this hybrid reality. Their wisdom is based, in part, on this recognition and on the adoption of multiple and flexibly employed styles of leadership and management when navigating these turbulent waters of premodern, modern and postmodern reality. These styles of leadership and management rely in part on wisdom and its modern application via thoughtful influence. There are also styles of leadership that rely on modern equivalents to premodern courage and vision. I turn in the next blog to the modern day equivalent to organizational courage—a commodity that often is in short order when we search for effective 21st Century leadership.