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Can we survive without leaders?

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Can we survive without leaders?

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It’s fashionable at the moment to believe that our organizations can almost do without leaders.  Philosophies such as holacracy do away with managers altogether, with the responsibilities of management performed either by the system itself or dissipated throughout the roles of all employees.

It’s an approach I’m not sure I agree with.  Even in the most distributed of organizations, leadership is still important, if only to ensure that the culture of the organization is maintained and leaders behave in the right way.

Of course, that isn’t to say that management isn’t changing.  It’s fair to argue that there is little need for the five traditional roles of a manager as outlined by Henri Fayol way back when:

  1. planning
  2. organizing
  3. commanding
  4. coordinating
  5. controlling

But that doesn’t mean of course that adaptive organizations are anarchical beasts.  The manager does indeed play a crucial role in such an organization, but their role is more refined than that outlined by Fayol.  Indeed, it is broadly speaking limited to two distinct tasks.

Providing context

The first of these is to provide both the organization as a whole, and the employees within it with a context.  The context is crucial because it outlines three things that are essential to ensure the organization retains a focus.  It outlines the reason for the organizations existence (it’s purpose), it outlines the core principles by which it functions, and it outlines a high-level design for the business.

These things help to set out the over-riding goal for the organization and some principles by which it will go about achieving that goal.  In essence it’s providing the organization with some boundaries and rules by which employees can then play by.  They help to give empowered people some guidance on how to behave that are crucial to ensure that all employees work together.

Providing coordination

The second main task for the manager to provide therefore is that of coordination.  Once the context has been outlined, it’s important to understand if that guidance is being adhered to.  Thesense and respondphilosophy at the heart of adaptive organisations applies just as much internally as it does by pulling in external data.  It’s crucial therefore that managers play a strong role in monitoring what’s happening and adapting accordingly.

It should be said, this isn’t focusing on how people go about their job.  That’s very much the preserve of the old make and sellapproach.  Rather it’s ensuring that what people do fits well together.  The actual way people go about doing their job is largely decided by them, within the guidance outlined in the context phase from earlier.

I think these two facets are crucial to a successful business, and as such are crucial tasks for managers to provide the organization.

Under-appreciation of management

So, it’s fair to say that I think management remains crucially important, which is where the problem lies.  For instance, the recent Global Workforce Trends Survey revealed that a tiny proportion of people want to manage, with millennials particularly unenthusiastic about the role.

The study suggests that the key to cultivating leadership talent in young employees is to ensure leadership is an ongoing thing rather than a more formal career path.

Which is great, except there seems little indication that organizations are investing in this process.  A second study highlights the poor levels of investment into leadership skills.

“Managers are often ill-prepared for success in a leadership role,” the report declares. “Many of them aren’t trained at all in how to engage, coach or develop their teams. And if they are trained, it’s through programs that aren’t aligned with company strategy, lack the support of senior leadership, and are delivered as ‘once and done.’”

It’s a dangerous game to play.

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