Saturday, July 31, 2010

Improving One's Ability to Lead Cultural Organisations

(The following constitute the speaking notes for Professor Guptara's day-long seminar for Leaders of Cultural Organisations, arranged by Sampad, in Birmingham, U.K., in 2009 and 2010. The talk was interspersed with group work and exercises intended to apply the dry ideas and principles to improving our life and practice as leaders)

In my experience over some 30 years, leaders of cultural organisations in the UK are highly motivated and idealistic. Of course, there are always some exceptions, but our performance as leaders can be improved by paying attention to the gaps between our innate idealism and motivation on one hand and, on the other hand, the performance level desired or required.

Some of these gaps are what might be called internal, while others are external.

The external dimension consists of understanding the political, economic, social and technological environment - though it will also be referred to repeatedly below.

(Extensive discussion of global trends in politics, economics, society and technology)

The internal dimension relates to personal qualities of leadership. One must have an honest understanding of oneself in terms of what one knows and does not know, and what one can do and what one cannot do. That is not easy or simple, because it usual to over-estimate or under-estimate each of these things. There are many things that "one does not know that one does not know", and there are things that we think we know adequately till bitter experience reveals the contrary to us.

In fact, which of us can say that he or she really understands, for example, even what drives us to be leaders? For non-leaders the question of what motivates them may be important in an exclusively psychological or spiritual sense. For us leaders the question of motivation is important also in a practical sense: the clearer one is about one's motivations (what the motivations are, versus what they should be), the better it is for the leader. That is a huge subject, and we could spend all day exploring it but, for the moment, let me simply recommend it to you as something to examine in yourself. Exercising one's ability to look into oneself honestly is important. Individuals who become great leaders make it a regular practice to spend time examining themselves before whatever God they believe in, whether that be money, pleasure, power, popularity, or (more desirably) some ideal, principle or Person. So that is my first practical suggestion for us if we wish to improve as leaders: let us systematically examine ourselves, our motivations and abilities, our areas of knowledge and ignorance – begin to get a clearer picture of where we are strong and where we are weak. That takes a degree of honesty with oneself that can be painful but is always worthwhile.

The next thing I want to raise with you is that, because we leaders are energetic people, it is easy for us to ignore (or never even realise) the following fact: it is our followers who determine if we are successful as leaders. Obviously, followers will be uninspired if they do not trust, or otherwise lack confidence in us as leaders. To be successful we have to somehow "convince without trying to convince" our followers that we are worthy of being followed. Instead, too many of us find our attention diverted to trying to impress ourselves, our peers or our superiors.

Moreover, even if we are actually worthy of being followed, we have to have the technical ability to hold and to guide our followers. There is a lot there to chew on, so let's think about that a little. Followers are of different sorts, and therefore require different styles of leadership. For example, a new follower requires more supervision than an experienced follower. Moreover, followers can be poorly motivated or easily discouraged, and these require a different approach compared to those who are self-starters or those who are naturally persistent, optimistic or have greater stamina. Hershey & Blanchard's suggested the following guide to interactions with followers:
- highly immature?: Tell
- moderately immature?: Sell
- moderately mature?: Discuss
- highly mature?: Delegate.

So that is my second point. To be a good leader, you need deal with people according to their own personalities – and to do that, you need to have a good understanding of your people, their needs, emotions, and motivation. I hope you see how that is linked to the first point: your ability to understand yourself is intimately linked to your ability to understand others.

Another technical ability is communication, and that is not simply the messages you send out but also the messages which others in your leadership team send out. Much of this is non-verbal: how you behave is as much part of communication as what you say. What you do "sets the example". Your behaviour and actions either build up or weaken the relationship between you and your subordinates. We will come back to this matter later in the day.

Yet another matter to think about is the situation in which you are, the overall situation in which communication is taking place. Since all situations are different, what you do in one leadership situation will not always work in another situation. You have to decide not only the best course of action but also the leadership style needed for each situation. For example, you may need to confront a employee for inappropriate behaviour, but if the confrontation is too late or too early, too harsh or too weak, then the results may prove ineffective or even counter-productive.

Well, that is quite a lot to keep in mind. Let's backtrack a little and ask ourselves what leadership actually is – how would you define leadership? One reasonably good definition of leadership is that it is the ability to exercise influence for the purpose of achieving one or more goals by applying one's beliefs, values, ethics, character, knowledge and skills.

People exercise leadership in two principal ways:
1. by shaping their organisation to make it more cohesive and coherent, and/or
2. by influencing individuals to accomplish a mission, task or objective.

Again, there is a lot to think about and indeed to apply here. My guess is that most of us focus on the second matter, and don't do enough in the first area.

That is linked with a deeper point. Are we actually managers or are we leaders? MANAGERS assess tasks & develop strategies to accomplish those tasks, focusing on day -to-day operations and issues, while LEADERS look more to the future (are "visionary"); they interpret the environment and shape the organisation in order to try to secure a more successful future for the organisation.

Look at it this way: if you appointed to a leadership position, you are clearly a "designated leader". But that does not by itself make you a real leader. The question is: have you won, or are you winning or earning recognition from your juniors as a leader on the basis of your ability and/or other characteristics?

Although your position as a manager, supervisor, et. al., gives you the authority to accomplish certain tasks and objectives in the organization, such power does not make you a simply makes you the boss.

Leadership makes people want to achieve high goals and objectives, while bosses tell people to accomplish a task or objective. A good phrase to keep in mind is that "leaders unleash the optional energy of their followers". What is "optional energy"? That energy which followers do not need to spend in order to retain their jobs. That energy which takes them beyond their job descriptions, beyond the call of duty. And as you know, that is what makes the difference between an organisation that is merely managing to exist versus an organisation that is making real impact.

Some of us become leaders because of our personality traits; others may find that a crisis or important event has caused us to rise to the occasion, which has brought out previously-unknown or even extraordinary qualities in what was, earlier, an apparently ordinary person. But some people choose to become leaders by learning leadership skills. And the truth is that, if you have the desire and willpower, you can become an effective leader at your own highest level. You can rise to your full potential through a continuous process of self-study and training - but most importantly, experience and mentoring. That is of course partly what your course is about.

Let us return to the matter of followers. They observe what you do and deduce from that some ideas of who you really are. For example, they decide whether you are competent or incompetent, and whether you are honourable and trust worthy, or only a self-serving person who uses authority to look good and get promoted. Self-serving leaders may well be effective in the short run, because their employees have to obey them. Self-serving leaders succeed in many areas, at least for some time, because they present a good image to their superiors at the expense of their colleagues. But self-serving leaders are not successful in the long term, because they have merely employees, not true followers.

In your subordinate's eyes, your leadership consists of everything you do that effects the organisation's objectives and their well being. That includes: competence, ability, character and dedication to your organisation's goals.

Respected leaders not only have clear beliefs and character, but also an understanding of their people and of the tasks that need to be done; on that basis, they implement, provide direction and motivate.

It is probably time now to turn the hourglass around and look at the entire subject from the bottom up by asking the question: What makes us follow leaders?

If we analyse why we have ourselves followed leaders, we will probably conclude that it is our perception of three things:
(a) their level of competence and ability,
(b) their values-in-action, and
(c) their sense of direction.

What do I mean by "a sense of direction"? Well, that again consists, I think, in three things:
(i) the ability to convey
(ii) a believable vision of the future, as well as
(iii) a convincing view of how to get there.

Let's put it this way: leaders are in fact social architects. It is their job to analyse the environment, and then design strategy and structure, so that things can actually take place and make an impact, while maintaining room for experimentation and adaptation. By contrast, if leaders drop their vision too much to detail, they end up becoming petty tyrants and de-motivating followers. The challenge is that some attention to detail is always needed – because the devil is always in the detail.

So if you want to be effective as a leader, you have to be neither a pushover nor an abdicator. Think of yourself rather as a catalyst, as a servant who supports, advocates and empowers. What does that mean in practice? Not merely believing in your people, but communicating that belief effectively (that is particularly important because many of your followers may lack self-confidence and even believe that they do not have abilities that they actually do have); further, being a catalyst and servant means visibility and accessibility; it means finding ways of increasing participation by everyone, sharing information, and moving decision making down to lower levels in your organisation.

Effective leaders build coalitions by clarifying what they want and what they can get; by assessing the distribution of power and interests; by building linkages to other stakeholders; by using persuasion first, and using negotiation and coercion only if necessary. Regretfully, applying pressure and attempting manipulation are common tactics, but lead in the long term to ineffectiveness.

Effective leaders are prophetic, inspirational. They understand that an organisation is a stage to play certain roles and give impressions; that they have to use symbols to capture attention; and they have to try to frame experience by providing plausible interpretations of experiences.

Ineffective leaders either do not understand the partially-theatrical nature of organisations, or come across as fanatics or fools, or people merely using smoke and mirrors.

Fred Fiedler proposed three areas to think about:
* Leader-Member Relations (Good/Poor)
* Task Structure (Structured/Unstructured)
* Leader Position Power (Strong/Weak)

This is somewhat similar to, but also dissimilar from, the 3 overlapping circles proposed by Professor John Adair, the world's first Professor of Leadership, who describes leadership as a functional relationship between the three basic variables: task, individual, team. In brief, his point is that if the task needs a team to accomplish it, then building and maintaining the team is an essential component of accomplishing the goal. If the team needs are not met the task will suffer and the individuals will not be satisfied. But a team, in turn, cannot be maintained or built up if the needs of the individuals in the team are not met. We can learn a lot about improving our effectiveness if we look at how we do our job as leaders by viewing it in turn from the perspective of the task, the team and the individual.

My next point is that, too often, we tend to choose people with the same type of personality as ourselves, or to go for our favourite person, but this weakens a team's ability to approach problems and implementation-questions holistically. It would take too long to go into this in detail today; the best work on how to provide balance in teams has been done by Dr Meredith Belbin, and I recommend his work on team roles to you.

I now want to get on to the question of organisational and national cultures, where I think we will cover territory which may be of surprising novelty to you, given the fact that we are ourselves from the field of culture, but we are of course looking here at culture in a wider sense than is usual for us. There are difference in culture (or in "how things are done around here") in ethics and religion, but also in work-related matters.

Let me put it to you that one way of classifying the world cultures is into Green, Black, Red and White.

Green cultures are oriented to "pie in the sky when you die" and tend to make no substantial "material progress" (examples are India and Indian-influenced civilisations, such as Bali, through many, though not all, phases of history).

Black cultures can be thought of as traditional cultures round the world which lived so much in fear of the unknown and/or awe of nature and/ or awe of the supernatural that they also tended to live in a highly sustainable mode but without making what we today call material progress.

By contrast, Red cultures have an almost pathological lack of fear of the unknown and make - untrammelled "progress"- e.g. Western/Global society since about 1990.

White cultures were or are marked by love of humans, God and nature, and drive toward balanced progress even if they never achieve it of course (examples are Reformation societies, the Methodist movement, the Clapham Group/Victorian England).

A quicker way of classifying societies is in terms of Task Cultures vs Relationship Cultures. Some cultures are relatively task-focused (e.g. northern Europe and North America) while others, basically the rest of the world, is relationship-focused. I do not mean that the rest of the world gets nothing done, or that there are no relationships in northern Europe or northern America – but there is a difference of emphasis. In one case, for example, you can easily do business with people you do not know or may not even like ("business is business"); in the other case, you only do business with people you like and trust ("how can you do dream of doing business with someone you don't know?).

Still another way of distinguishing between cultures is on the basis of the degree to which they are guilt-oriented versus the degree to which they are shame-oriented. This influences the degree to which the culture is committed to penalties that are perceived to be proportionate to an offense, in contrast to the degree to which the culture is committed to penalties are tokenistic or disproportionately huge. This is really the difference between cultures that believe, when you do something wrong, that you should “pay and go free” versus those that believe that, if you do something wrong, it can basically never be paid off because you have what is sometimes described as “a black face”. It is also interesting that there is an emerging international acceptance of Biblical ethics. Something in the human heart recognises what is right, regardless of the system of belief in which one is brought up. As India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru put it: "I am a Hindu by birth, a Buddhist by philosophy, a Muslim by culture, and a Christian in ethics".

Yet another way to think about these matters is to think of the degree to which cultures are built on absolutes versus relativism. In some, the absolute tends to dominate (think of Iran today) while, in others, the relativistic or pragmatic tends to dominate (e.g. in the USA). I am not saying that no one in Iran is pragmatic, nor am I saying that no one in the USA believes in absolute standards for example of morality! Still less am I recommending either alternative! I am simply trying to draw your attention to ways in which we can think of cultural differences. By the way, it is interesting that, as cultures lose belief in their Absolute (whatever that is), they also lose cultural cohesion, producing sub-cultures that are mutually uncomprehending and opposed to each other - as is happening in the USA today.

Well, dear colleagues, our time is nearly up. We have covered a wide variety of topics, and I hope that you have found some of them useful. May I conclude by wishing all of us the best as we seek to apply some of the insights which I hope that we have gained today, so that we can actually improve our performance as leaders.

ENDS Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Clay said...

Thanks for blogging on this Prabhu. It's great to have an overview of the day available to refer back too. It was an inspiring and insightful day.