Paradigm shift for leaders

Organizational agility presents an existential crisis for middle management. While visionary leaders looking at the big picture are still essential, much planning now is emergent and bottom-up. And decision-making happens much more on the ground in real time.

Consequently, in an agile organization, the traditional middle manager’s role – to communicate, direct, and control – is tossed aside.

Some companies are even removing all middle-management layers. They have a senior leadership team at the top and everyone else is a front-line worker or front-line supervisor. “For example, the Finland-based Agile home nursing company Debora has all of its 700 nurses working in self-managing teams and reporting directly to the CEO with no layers in between.

What is required in this paradigm cultural shift? One of the biggest challenges will be to transform and reimagine the role of leaders.

As Colonel Stanley McChrystal suggests in his book Team of Teams, “the temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as gardener, enabling rather than directing.”

The Zappos CEO uses the analogy of the mayor of a city to discuss the role of leaders, saying, the mayor doesn’t tell its residents what to do or where to live. Instead, provides certain infrastructure that a city must provide, such as the grid: water, power, and sewage and basic laws that a city enforces. And for the most part, what happens when a city grows and innovates is a result of the self-organization that happens with a city’s residents, businesses, and other organizations.

For the role of leadership to change in an agile organization, the following is clear:

  • Research indicates the path to organizational agility depends on the starting point. It is clear that leadership and cultural challenges will be similar and especially acute for large, slow bureaucracies. They must spur faster change despite a management layer that threatens to sabotage agility out of fear and ignorance.
  • Managers are groomed and rewarded throughout their careers for applying one set of behaviors. It will prove very difficult to relinquish control and adopt a completely different approach to leading and managing.
  • Only with a sense of humility and curiosity will the leader of the future succeed. Once control is relinquished, an executive’s understanding of the organization is inherently incomplete and overly simple. The organization will often invent, innovate, move fast, and become vastly smarter and more capable than the mere sum of the parts; but only if executives can guide, influence, inspire, without controlling, and with humility.
  • Leaders will need to spend more time doing work and less time directing and controlling others. Successful organizations will have a lot more leadership emerging bottom-up, a lot more value-adding work getting done, fewer bosses and a lot less “bossing of others,” which doesn’t particularly add value.

When I ask my two daughters to unload the dishwasher, and the older one decides she will “supervise” the younger one, two things result. First, the younger one becomes disgruntled and unhappy. Second, the dishwasher gets emptied far slower. I have learned my lesson - now I tell them both to unload the dishwasher and I will supervise.

As the world gets more agile, slow companies must get on board to keep up with the pace of change. To do that, they will have to tackle their culture and the deep-rooted mindsets of their people.

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