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Resolving The Leadership Paradox: The Doctor’s Dialogue

by Michael Maccoby

Published in: Research Technology Management, Vol. 39, No. 3 May-June, 1996 pp. 57-59.

The question I am most often asked by leaders of knowledge based companies is: How can I get these people to change?" These people include direct reports as well as the rest of the organization. When I question leaders about what they have tried to do and why change is so difficult, they almost invariably say something like: "I've explained our problems and the need to change, but I don't want to be a dictator. You can't just order these experts to change. If I do that, I'll lose credibility."

The organizations I work with — a research laboratory, a medical center, financial institutions, engineering and telecommunications companies — depend on high level knowledge workers, people with specialized expertise. The higher they have risen in the organization, the more certain are these experts that they know what needs to be done to be successful. Many of them think of administrators as a burdensome cost rather than a value added.

However, knowledge intensive organizations must adapt to dramatic changes in the business environment. What succeeded in the past may no longer work. The researcher who used to throw an invention over the wall without worrying about its application must now focus on adding value for a customer. Otherwise, the customer will throw the invention back. Traditional approaches to problem solving are being challenged by lower cost alternatives. Customers who once bought products now demand partnerships with their suppliers. Leaders must guide knowledge workers out of their comfort zones and stimulate them to innovate together while breaking down the bureaucratic barriers that impede making full use of organizational competencies.

The leadership paradox is that strong leaders are needed, but they cannot command change in the hearts and minds of knowledge workers. To resolve the paradox, they must become strong leaders who people want to follow.

Four Styles of Leadership

Graphic: Relationship of Leader to Led

In Why Work? I describe four styles of leadership in terms of the relationship between the leader and led. These styles are presented in a two-by-two chart. One dimension of this chart is the motivation of the leader which can either be for personal power or the common good. The other dimension is the motivation of the led who may either want to follow or else feel they have to follow the leader. In other words, they may either be motivated by a belief in the leader's message or by fear of the leader. (see illustration)

Organizational leaders who are motivated by the common good not only reject the role of the dictator who rules by fear; they also recognize that demagogues who seduce followers with false promises cannot maintain the trust essential for cooperation. Ideally, they would like to be democrats who can count on full participation in the change process. But first they must convince key people that change is necessary.To do this, leaders must become organizational doctors in two meanings of the term: physician and teacher. This means diagnosing the organizational illness and communicating the urgency about treating it. And as teachers, they must facilitate a process of organizational learning about what it takes to succeed, what it takes to adapt the organization to the business environment.

Develop a Learning Process

The role of doctor is a new one for many leaders. They need help in developing a learning process for themselves and the organization. The following advice for leaders integrates lessons I have learned by working with leaders of change and by applying theories of other consultants such as Russell Ackoff, Michel Crozier, Chris Argyris and Don Schön.

• Begin with your direct reports, the leadership team. Clarify the pressures to change: customer demands, competition, costs. Create an open dialogue. Encourage questioning and conflicting views. Use data to resolve differences. Benchmark other organizations. Gain agreement about the compelling reasons for change. In practice, some teammembers will be more motivated to change than others. Some may assent to the need for change, but silently hold a theory that change means return to the "good old days when professionals ran things and we did not have so many administrative types around."

• Invite the team to express their theories about what needs to be done. These theories should be questioned in the light of results. This is what Argyris and Schön call double loop learning.

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Single loop learning has to do with feedback from results to modify practice, while double loop learning has to do with reflecting on the theory when the results do not meet expectations. Here is an example. Here is an example:

Many managers at ABB of Canada believed they could sell more products by improving quality and cutting costs. When this did not produce expected results, their first reaction was single loop "learning", to work harder on improving product quality and lowering costs. However, they were encouraged to question the theory and interview with some of their largest customers. These customers challenged the theory. They were ready to make buying decisions, not merely on the basis of the quality and cost of individual products, but on the basis of a larger relationship. They were responsive to the idea of a strategic partnership in which ABB would provide not only products but also knowledge. They wanted help in solving their problems, increasing their productivity and meeting new competitive and regulatory challenges. In return, ABB could become sole source provider of their power and automation needs. When ABB managers learned this, they were compelled to revise their theory.

• Once the leadership team agrees on a new theory, translate it into strategy and practice. Managers may need to redesign the organization to support the new strategy, by attending to the alignment of structure, systems, processes, measurements, skills, rewards, management style and shared values. For ABB of Canada, the partnership strategy required a new account management structure with new skills. Account managers needed to develop trusting relationships both with customer companies and across ABB business units and divisions. They needed to facilitate teamwork across functions and business units. They needed understand the customer's strategy and business environment. (See "Building Trust in Alliances", Michael F. Wolff. RTM May-June 1994. pp 12-15.) The account managers also needed new information systems to keep track of products, customer information and financial measurements.

To make these partnerships function, all managers had to sign on to shared values of teamwork and meeting commitments. At ABB of Canada, the process of designing an ideal organizational system was led by Paul Kefalas, the president and CEO and Borje Fredriksson who heads the account management organization. However, about 50 senior managers (general managers and above) participated in the design process and worked on strategies for closing the gaps between the ideal and present organizations. All of these managers needed to understand the reason for change and be able to explain them to their organizations.

• Establish an interactive process to implement change and facilitate organizational learning. All parts of the organization - divisions, departments and business units - need to determine what the ideal design means to them. What are the gaps between their current practice and the new design? How do they propose to close these gaps? What resources are required? The doctor-leader should participate in this process, by emphasizing the new business logic and responding to interpretations and proposals.

Interactive design is difficult for many managers to understand. They are used to either direction or delegation, orders or autonomy. An interactive process is neither. It is a dialogue. The change process will benefit from wide participation, shared knowledge. But leadership has overall responsibility for strategy and values. A design by one group may suboptimize efficiency. An example might be an information system that is incompatible with other systems or rewards for one group that are considered inequitable by the rest of the organization.

• As people and the organization begins to change, collect and make use a good stories. We learn how to behave by combining principles and stories. The Bible teaches this way by combining, for example, the sermon on the mount with stories of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son.

• Become a role model. Like a good doctor, keep learning. Demonstrate that you are a synthesizer or better yet a humanizer rather than merely an analyzer or energizer (see M. Maccoby, Raising the level of Management Thinking, by participating in the interactive dialogue and defining part of your work as the development of people and teams.

I have reported in other RTM articles how Goran Collert of Swedbank, Goran Lindahl of ABB, Barry Horowitz and Jack Fearnsides of the MITRE Corporation, and Bjorn Mattsson of Cultor modeled openness and interactive design. (See: "Human Engineering Leads to Operation Principles for Global Management". RTM, Sept.-Oct. 1995. pp.58-60 and "Teams Need Open Leaders" RTM Vol. 38 No. 1 January-February, 1995. pp. 57-59.) By meeting customers and encouraging innovation, they also modeled a commitment to learning and change.

The resolution of the leadership paradox requires leadership not by brute force, but by intellectual power and conviction, persuasion, interactive dialogue, and continual learning. It requires confidence and engagement. In the process of leading change, managers learn that the soft factors are often harder than the so called hard factors of structure and systems. They discover that the human side, the different ways people process information, their values and attitudes, can either facilitate or block learning. They find out which teammembers are with them and which are not. And they discover that they need to use their own emotions wisely both to maintain their enthusiasm and move others.

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