Leadership and change in the new era – organisational self-knowledge and meaning

30 May 2013

Leadership and change in the new eraJean Fagan looks at how organisations must conduct themselves if they are to succeed in the new era of self-knowledge and a search for meaning and how being a learning organisation is key.

 ‘The first task of a leader is to make sure that the organisation knows itself.’    

I recently did a follow up visit with a candidate whom my colleagues and I had recruited from overseas around twelve months earlier. What he told me about his new job and how I felt after meeting with a number of other people in the organisation had me concerned; the dysfunction in the system was palpable. People at every level were unhappy.

How could this organization, with its brand-new repositioning, glowing vision, admirable values statements, dreams to be the best learning organisation, concern for its people, and efforts with its community (whilst at the same time demonstrating genuine financial responsibility), get to this?  A culture of fear, troubled relationships, avoidance of risk, marginalisation of those with valuable insights, promotion of others who lacked the capabilities for career progression, lack of information, and lost clarity.

So what had happened to the dream to be a true learning organisation serving the greater good of the community? How might you lead change to transform a troubled organization? I’ve looked at six important elements of leadership and change in this new era.

1. Organisational self-knowledge: Mort Meyerson, regarded as one of the most successful CEOs and extraordinarily successful in leading transformational change at Perot Industries, says that the first task of a leader is to make sure that an organisation knows itself. People at every level need to know the organisation and not be told it. You need to know:

When Meyerson became CEO at Perot, staff surveys were shocking. He spent the first six months connecting with people in the organisation and came to the conclusion that everything needed to change. The company and its people set about learning more about themselves from within. Implementing processes that facilitated discovery involved the whole system and worked to build new relationships, greater self-knowledge about the organisation, the community and customers, and greater capacity. Those people who had been identified as behaving in a way that was abusive and didn’t align with the organisation’s values were given the opportunity to learn to be different, but if they chose not to, they were generously supported to leave. There was no strong arming people out the door, just a conversation about the organisation no longer being a fit for them. It was important that the exit of staff was consistent with values.

Meyerson says there are three important leadership roles:

  1. Making sure that the organisation knows itself and that leadership embodies the values.
  2. Pick the right people and create an environment where people can succeed. Engage with people in the organisation to develop the strategy and grow the philosophy. Build collaboration and teamwork at every level.
  3. Be accessible. Connect with the human element.

2. What do we want to create? Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science (reviewed in the May 2013 issue of HGI Insight) says she believes this is the most important question that businesses or public sector organisations need to answer. She believes that in doing so, leadership may have to accept that in terms of greater meaning and shared purpose, people are unlikely to be willing to work to create greater cost reduction or growth or more profit or achievement of accreditation. She says her colleague goes even further in articulating this question by asking: how is the world going to be different because of your business/organization?

3. Organisational culture. Every organisation has a culture – it’s all about the values and behaviours expressed by leadership and employees. Confusion and cynicism arises when there is a large gap between articulated values on websites and brochures and actual values and the way management and staff behave. The larger the gap, the more destructive the result. A key to building a functional and energetic culture is to provide genuine support for learning. So often organisations refer to themselves as ‘learning organisations’ and then proceed to constantly give the message of ‘don’t make mistakes, don’t make the CEO look bad, don’t give us a surprise’.

Becoming a genuine learning organisation is critical. After a crisis, we need to ask ourselves, ‘what just happened here? What can we learn from it?’

What we don’t need to do is bury it and move on.

4. Meaning and change. All change involves a change of meaning and in large organisations there will be a diversity of perspectives about meaning. Where is the point that there is a shared and unifying meaning that will excite and energise people? Finding this point involves a process of exploring to identify different interpretations of how change will contribute to what people see as meaningful.

5. Human consciousness. Someone recently said to me that we are moving from emotional intelligence to a greater spiritual (i.e. who am I, what’s important to me) connection. We wanting to connect and find out more about ourselves and we want to have a greater connection with humanity. Most leaders by now recognise that democracy needs to exist, that command and control leadership is no longer appropriate. We are in an era of being self-directed and wanting different behaviours from politicians and the politics of organisations. We are transitioning through giving back authority to communities on major issues such as sustainable communities, education and healthcare and with that, people want also to connect with who they are as human beings, and not be treated in a mechanical fashion.

6. Leadership and self-knowledge: A leader builds an effective and successful organisation through values and personal style. Success must be defined both in terms of financial effectiveness and building interconnected teams of people who support and nurture each other.

To be successful, leadership must be genuine. Personal insight and getting over internal challenges is important. Taking responsibility is a fundamental element of effective leadership as is courage and congruency with the organisation’s values.