Leaders and Systems

With the publication of Henry Mintzberg's new book on managing naturally, there has been a flurry of discussions about managing and leading. Are they the same or different? Do managers need to be leaders? Can an organization thrive without leadership?

All very interesting. All "right up my alley," so to speak.

Lately, in working with some client organizations, I'm sensing that the current leadership model in practice is quite different from the one we may sometimes espouse (i.e. leaders as visionary, wise, virtuous, courageous, role models etc).

The folks I've been working with lately (managers and professionals in the health care sector) describe their workplaces as fierce and stressful environments that are not for the feint of heart. Places characterized as:

~ lean, driven, and aggressive
~ production-focused, numbers-oriented, short-term
~ having high sense of urgency; valuing speed
~ where everyone is being asked to do more with less
~ where employees are expected to sacrifice for the sake of the business

Workplaces that are going in over-drive, filled with exhausted and fearful members, hanging on to what they've got because they don't want to end up on the unemployment lines.

What sort of leaders are heading up such workplaces?

Years ago, I once shared a plane ride with the CEO of a rapidly growing telecom company where I was a member of the Training and Organization Development team. I asked him what keeps him up at night. His answer: "People and systems."

As the years have rolled on, I've come to the conclusion that People and Systems are two of the most critical things that smart managers keep their eye on if they want to stay in business and thrive. Within each domain, there are key skills, including leadership skills. So yes, effective managers acquire and use leadership skills. These are very helpful with the People aspect, as well as in managing the business itself and its many stakeholders.

What is not as well understood is the Systems side of management. What are the Systems skills that an effective manager acquires and uses? Perhaps an analogy will help.

In the human body, there are many interacting systems; for example, the digestive system, the circulatory system, the neurological system, and the respiratory system. Each is integrally related to the other. A fault in one system affects the others, as well as the whole organism.

A smart person keeps close tabs on their own inner systems (i.e. their health) by paying attention to the indicators that are constantly monitoring the systems. In other words, by listening to the body.

Coming back to organizations, today's managers are motivated to have high performing systems, systems that produce repeatedly, reliably, on time, and on budget. Systems that, as Stephen Covey reminded us, deliver the golden eggs.

Where does "health" come in? To paraphrase Covey, it's in taking care of the goose.

Posted by Terrence Seamon, Dec 13, 2009


Don Blohowiak said…

Great points. Appreciate your observations about the tenor of so many workplaces today (and so short-sighted as that stress is so often self-defeating), and the import of attention to systems.

My own observation as an executive coach and organizational consultant, is that the attention to Systems is missing for two prime reasons:

1. Most managers do not think systemically. They have not been trained to do so, and little in their life socialization natively prepares them to think this way.

2. The organizations most managers work in do not encourage a systems orientation. In fact, while some institutional proclamations talk about putting "the company's interest ahead of your own," or "doing the right thing for the team" and other, similar platitudes, their policies are exactly contradictory to this. Individuals are assessed for personal accomplishments, not contributions to the overall success of the organization. They compete for internal resources, rather than work cooperatively to leverage limited resources most effectively. And on and on.

Finally, if organizational leaders did take a systems view, they would be doing many things differently: priority-setting, hiring, resource allocation, compensation and rewards . . .

Managerial myopia perpetuates the unfortunate and defeatist conditions you so eloquently describe, Terry. If managers would rise to lead from a systems perspective, it would mean leaving behind many outmoded, irrational, and counterproductive conceptions to which they currently condemn their organizations.

BTW, Dr. Ruth Zaplin and I just completed a chapter on the import of managing with a systems-orientation and revisiting managerial beliefs in evidence-based management (EBM). You can find it at http://tr.im/HrEd.

Thanks again, Terry, for your stimulating post.

Flourish, serve, enjoy!

Don Blohowiak

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