If you describe an organization run by enlightened leaders, it can sound utopian. Emotionally intelligent, strategic people managers encourage teamwork and the development of skills; teams work with passion to a sense of common purpose, enhancing the quality of life of each other and the customers they serve.
What I have discovered in my years as a researcher and adviser is that such organizations really do exist, and many achieve such high levels for decades. The puzzle is not whether such high-level leadership is attainable, but why such fantastic examples do not have wider influence.
Of course, even the best-run organizations are not utopian. They make mistakes; sometimes serious mistakes. But they see these as opportunities for learning, not a pretext for hurling accusations at selected scapegoats. They are not immune from the economic cycle, either. But they avoid irrational exuberance in the good times, have fewer cutbacks in the downturn, and emerge from a recession more quickly and in better shape than their competitors.
There’s actually no secret in what constitutes a well-led, human organization; the challenge is disseminating lessons from one to the other. The evidence base is well established. A major barrier is that, in our data-obsessed culture, we tend to skip over the real human dynamics. Also, the lessons are often fragmented: something about employee engagement here; something about good strategy there.
My new book The Management Shift: How to Harness the Power of People and Transform Your Organization for Sustainable Success (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) represents an attempt to bring all the elements of enlightened organizational leadership together: theory, evidence and practice; the Why, the What and the How. I wanted to put the whole jigsaw puzzle together, and I’m delighted to be able to report that the initial reviews from leadership experts around the world support my claim to have achieved this. See ‘Praise for The Management Shift’.
My approach centres on a concept of ‘Levels’ of leadership, from 1 to 5, where Level 1 represents deeply dysfunctional organizations with unenthused or even embittered employees; all the way to Level 5, those with highly engaged and skilled teams motivated by passion.
What I’ve been able to show is that with careful analysis, an organization or team or department can be placed at one of these Levels. There is a particularly significant transformation, akin to metamorphosis, from Level 3 – functional but limited operation; to Level 4, where engaging leadership begins to take effect. It is a shift from controlling to emergent leadership. What my research has also shown is that traditional approaches to business management actually prevent executives from moving to Level 4, by emphasising control, targets, budget-setting and hierarchical orders.
The highest level of business performance is a three-dimensional affair; it concerns the beliefs, mindsets and conduct of the executive team, as well as their capacity to understand markets and identify threats and opportunities. It involves harnessing the ability within the whole workforce. The most lasting change comes from attending to all aspects: the Why, the What and the How.