24- The Modern Leader: Style One. II. The Challenges

January 12, 2009

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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. 


23- The Modern Leader: Style One. I. Education and Experience

January 5, 2009

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I. Education and Experience

In my previous six blogs I focused on three different styles of premodern leadership that have appeared in similar form in many different models of leadership and in conjunction with premodern social systems. In the six upcoming blogs I will provide a description of each of these leadership styles as they appear in modern societies. In each instance, the role of leader merges with that of manager. The successful leader, in other words, is a success manager—and management can be taught and managers can be created. Managers operating in modern organizations are not born into greatness nor do they necessarily need external forces (such as enemies) or auspicious circumstances (an appropriate vision at the right time and place) to be successful. They are “manufactured” in standardized formats—much like the products and services created by the organizations they manage.

I begin in this blog and the next blog with the modern version of the first leadership style. In its premodern form, this leadership style focuses on wisdom. In its modern form this style focuses on the role of the leader/manager in SHARING THE WISDOM with other members of the organization. This sharing of wisdom is engaged through effective delegation and supervision, through teaching and through mentoring. When a modern manager delegates, he or she is essentially “educating” the person being supervised regarding the job he or she is to perform. Supposedly, the manager knows more about the job to be performed than does the subordinate. The manager assigns specific tasks to the subordinate, in part because the subordinate is not as knowledgeable (at least initially) about the tasks to be done in order to achieve specific objectives. As in the case of the premodern leader, the issue of subordinate maturation and experience often arises: at some point the subordinate may very well know more about the tasks to be performed than does the manager. Under these conditions, the subordinate either passively accepts the manager’s orders (even though these orders are not always correct, appropriate or maximally efficient) or offers some alternative suggestions. Hopefully, the latter option is viable—though all-too-often we witness the subordinate grumbling about the foolish or stupid “jerk” who is serving as manager.

Similarly, in the case of manager as trainer and mentor, the modern version of wise leader is engaged. We assume, once again, that the manager is more experienced and skillful than the subordinate and that the primarily goal of the manager is to share this wisdom. In some cases, teaching and mentoring is quite explicit. I have worked with (and greatly admire) one leader/manager who defines his primarily role in the organization as that of teacher and mentor. He believes that he is doing a good job when he has made himself dispensable by teaching and mentoring his new hires. Unlike the threatened modern manager, this highly experienced leader/manager has no problem with succession planning—he is constantly in the business of building capacity in his staff. Wouldn’t it be a joy if we could speak similarly about all modern managers!

Educated for Management

What about education of the managers—those who are assumed to be “wise”? Obviously, not all education of managers comes through their interactions with a gifted, experienced and caring leader. Much of what modern managers learn comes from the management development program they took as young men and women or from the ongoing management education they receive as aspiring leaders in an organization. During the 20th Century, management education was one of the major growth industries in North American colleges and universities. The whole notion of management education and degrees in management didn’t even exist prior to the 20th Century. Management education only emerged when “management” was identified as something that can be taught and as something that some people do as a “livelihood” (rather than being an addition to their other duties in the organization—such as “running the place”).

It has also become clear that a manager doesn’t have to receive her degree from a high-pedigree university in order to be a successful manager. In fact, many management program (undergraduate and graduate) are conducted by schools that are very low on the higher education totem-poll. These are institutions that primarily serve matured men and women rather than young adults. The University of Phoenix and National University come immediately to mind when identifying “convenient” institutions that serve working adults by teaching about management. These institutions are often primarily supported through tuition revenues paid by corporations that assign value to this form of education for their employees. These management education programs not only provide an education to the up-and-coming managers but also serve as an incentive or benefit that attracts and retains promising employees.

I identified a bit of irony in an earlier blog with regard to premodern leadership training and education. Prestigious education has rarely been directly devoted to the acquisition of leadership skills—usually because an assumption is made that leadership can’t be taught. The prevalent premodern assumption is that only character, discipline, and broad-based knowledge can (perhaps) be taught or inculcated. It is quite a different story with regard to modern management education. It is assumed that management can be taught—though it is interesting to note that very little data actually have been accumulated regarding the improvement of management following completion of an MBA program. Perhaps, it is the perception of support for management development that is critical—not the actually acquisition of knowledge and skills that are applicable to the daily challenges of contemporary management.

Leadership, Experience and Education

I mentioned with regard to premodern leadership that a man or woman does not have to be formally educated and prepared to become a leader. The premodern leader may attain this status as a result of substantial experience in the field or organization. This assumption does not seem to hold true in most modern organizations. Managers are expected to obtain (or at least work on) an MBA if they are to advance in the organization. I have recently worked with one organization that actually expects their managers to obtain a second or even a third MBA degree in order to “keep up” with contemporary management practices. The head of HR in another international corporation with which I work estimates that a mid-manager who works in her organization throughout their career will obtain the equivalent to seven MBAs by the time they retire—this seven MBAs being comprised of not only degree programs but also management development programs being conducted inside her organization.

This HR leader admits that there is little data to support the claim that these seven MBAs produce better managers than a lifetime of managerial experience. Furthermore, she is the first to admit that the informal mentoring and the formal delegation and supervision that occurs in the “trenches” often provides an employee with more and better training and education than the seven MBA programs. But she isn’t about to admit this to her own bosses, given that they are directing substantial funding to her in-house management development programs and to full or partial reimbursement of tuition payments for external management education programs.

In my earlier blog concerning Style One premodern leadership I asked: what kind of experience seems to be important? To end this blog I will ask a comparable question regarding modern leadership and management: what kind of ongoing education and training really makes a difference in the performance of leader/managers in modern organizations? Are there other ways in which wisdom can be effectively shared? What about coupling management education with mentoring and with organizational coaching? How does career counseling and how do career ladders enhance (or block) effective management development? These are questions to be addressed in future blogs. In the next blog I provide a brief description of the challenges which a modern leader/manager of wisdom faces—especially in a postmodern world.

18- The Premodern Leader: Style One. II. The Challenges

November 24, 2008

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II. The Challenges

The positive and perhaps overly optimistic portrait of the wise leader which I offered in the previous blog needs to be moderated—for the wise leader is not always so gracious and delighted with the transition of leadership to the next generation.

The Leader’s Ambivalence

The premodern leader can at times be quite resistant to this transition and may be threatened by the acquisition of new knowledge and additional experiences by younger men and women. This threat and resistance is often couched in ambivalence. The wise leader teaches and encourages education, yet doesn’t want the new kid on the block to become too smart or too experienced. I have worked with many young men and women from Asia who come to the United States to obtain a Masters Degree in Management. Their father (and presumably their mother) fully supports them in obtaining this education. They provide the funds to support this advanced education and enable their son or daughter to take time off from their life in Asia in order to study in the United States. Yet, when these young men and women return home, freshly “educated” in the new models of management, finance and marketing, they often bump up against a surprisingly resistant parent. The outcry of frustration is common (though usually softly spoken by my Asian students): “Why did my father [mother] pay for this education if he [she] doesn’t want me to use it!!” I now suggest strategies whereby they “ease in” their suggestions for change and improvement. They look with “appreciation” on the practices of their father or mother that are fully aligned with contemporary management practices.

The Followers’ Ambivalence

Even when the wise leader is fully open to the transition in leadership, there is often a hesitation on the part of other members of the organization to acknowledge, let alone actively support, this transition. They have relied for many years on the wisdom of the “old” leader and do not yet trust the competence of the new leader—he or she is not yet “tested” as to the practicality of their wisdom. Do we dare risk relying on this person’s experience, when we have the wise, old leader to guide us? Ironically, even when the knowledge and expertise of the old leader is now “out-of-date” – which is very common in our technologically-driving, postmodern world—there is still a yearning for that which is known and reliable. The old leader either no longer has an agenda to press on the organization or has an agenda that is widely acknowledged and which other members of the organization can factor in when taking into account the advise or guidance offered by the old leader. Wisdom, in other words, is based not just on the experience and expertise of the wise leader; it also is based on the experience of those who follow this leader: the followers are “wise” about the leader’s “wisdom.”

Succession Planning

The challenge for this form of leadership can thus be summed up in two words” SUCCESSION PLANNING. When a wise leader is playing a key role in an organization, then plans must begin very early regarding the preparation of other men and women to assume the wise old leader’s role. This involves not just the mentoring of the new leader(s) by the old leader, but also the building of formal programs that prepare the organization for this transition in leadership. In some instances, these formal programs involve placing a new person in an interim leadership role (alongside the old leader); in other instances, it means the use of rituals and rites regarding the succession; in yet other instances, it means sending the new leader off for additional training or education. With regard to this third option, I have always been impressed with the policy of many religious orders (particularly orders of Catholic nuns) to send someone who is about to assume a position of leadership to an executive leadership program (at Harvard, Yale or a comparable institution). This provides the new leader with an opportunity not only to step away from their own organization to gain a fresh perspective, but also to return to their home organization with new credibility (like Alexander the Great) and with reassuring breadth and depth of “wisdom.”

We are still, in many ways, living in premodern organizations and living in the back of our minds and hearts in a world that yearns for men and women of wisdom. It is important—perhaps essential—that we recognize this premodern reality and acknowledge this premodern yearning for a certain type of leadership. As I will note in future blogs, we yearn also for other types of leadership and look for other types of leaders in our hybrid world of premodern, modern and postmodern social systems. 


17- The Premodern Leader: Style One. I. Education and Experience

November 17, 2008

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I. Education and Experience

In my previous blog I identified three different styles of leadership that have appeared in similar form in many different models of leadership and in conjunction with premodern, modern and postmodern social systems. In the upcoming blogs I will provide a somewhat more detailed description of each leadership style and place it specifically in one of the three social systems.

We begin in the first two blogs with the premodern version of the first leadership style. In its premodern form, this leadership style focuses on WISDOM. A person is assigned leadership in a family, clan, group or organization because this person has more experience than anyone else or because this person possesses some fundamental and distinctive knowledge either because this competency is inherited or because it have been taught to the wise leader (usually as a result of this person’s inherited wealth or great promise as a young person).

Alexander the Great is certainly one of the vivid personifications of this premodern mode of leadership. Alexander was “born into greatness.” His father had been king of Macedonia and, even more importantly, Alexander displayed great potential as a young man—physically and intellectually. Perhaps most importantly, Alexander was the only pupil of one of the legendary teachers of all times: Aristotle. Thus, at a young age, Alexander was identified as a wise leader (we will also see that he is identified, as well, as a brave leader and as a leader of vision). While most WISE leaders in premodern societies don’t arrive at their leadership position until accumulating many years of experience and expertise, Alexander was able to assume a leadership role, based on wisdom, at a very early age, in large part because of not only his inheritance (father was king) and his early display of competence, but also because of his credentials as a pupil of Aristotle.

Educated for Leadership

We find that this accumulation of prestigious credentials is found not only in the ancient world of Alexander, but also in contemporary society. Men (and women) who have graduated from such universities as Harvard, Yale or Stanford are assumed to be not only prepared for leadership but also, in some way, to be deserving of leadership. They have studied hard in high school (supposedly), which enabled them to be selected to a highly competitive college or university. We see this respect (even “reverence”) for a prestigious education in the recent selection of American presidents. They have all graduated (undergraduate or graduate school) from either Harvard or Yale (Clinton, both Bushes, Obama).

The irony is that this prestigious education has rarely been directly devoted to the acquisition of leadership skills—usually because the assumption is made that leadership can’t be taught. Only character, discipline, and broad-based knowledge can (perhaps) be taught or inculcated. This is often identified as a “liberal arts” education or, in previous times, as the form of education that was becoming to a “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.” It is interesting to note that all liberal arts education up until the start of the 19th Century in the United States was devoted to such topics as moral philosophy, literature, rhetoric and theology. Science was not taught in an American college (or university) until West Point began offering courses in this “ungentlemanly” area of knowledge in the early 1800s.

Of course, there were no courses to be taught in management, finance, marketing or any related area during the 19th Century. These tasks were not to be handled by true leaders. They were to be engaged by hired hands. Courses in management were not even taught in American colleges and universities until the 20th Century. In fact, management theory and education is exclusively a product of the 20th Century and is one of the major areas of growth in American higher education.

Leadership and Experience

Even when a man or woman is not formally educated and prepared to become a leader, he or she may attain this status as a result of substantial experience in the field or organization. Harold has been selling real estate for 30 years. He knows the market in this city better than anyone. He certainly deserves to be the new managing director of this agency. Susan opened this organic food store twenty years ago – long before “green” became “golden.” She is not only the owner of this store, she is also the undisputed leader of this store. Everyone turns to her for advice and she makes all of the key decisions regarding new products, marketing and displays—despite the fact that she only comes to the store two days a week (having gown a little weary of the daily drag of operating the store). Richard has been a farmer for many years. His father and mother owned a farm and Richard grew up feeding chickens, operating and repairing farm equipment, and listening every morning to the farm reports on the local radio station. He is now working for a large agri-business operation—yet he is still turned to for advice. Through his stories and sage observations Richard still holds the attention and respect of men and women much younger than himself. He is an informal leader of the organization, even if many other people occupy positions of management at higher levels in his organization. 

What kind of experience seems to be important? We tend to value both breadth and depth of experience. We look for wisdom in someone who has “seen it all”—meaning that he or she has not remained in one place for many years, doing only one thing repeatedly. Twenty years of experience is not assigned much validity if this person has learned everything in one year and simply repetitively enacted this year of experience for twenty years. We also tend to look for wisdom among those who can reflect back on and articulate their rich experiences. They are often brilliant story-tellers, even if they usually remain rather quiet (unless asked to provide advice or guidance). These men and women often are natural (and informally-designated) mentors. They enjoy teaching those who are younger or less experienced. They take great delight in seeing other people succeed as a result of sharing their expertise and tend to view these younger or less experienced people as protégés rather than rivals. We talk in psychology about the shift in attention from personal success (one’s own accomplishments) to a sense of collective significance (the accomplishments of other people or one’s family, group or society).

Having identified some of the factors that contribute to the “making” of a wise premodern leader, I turn in the next blog to a brief description of the challenges which a premodern leader of wisdom faces—especially in a postmodern world.