Are we leading production units or human beings?

Leadership models under the microscope.

02 September 2009, by Tracey Swanepoel

Recently, a group of South Africa's top business and political leaders went away to a tropical island to among other things, come up with a new model of leadership.

Hearing about this made me think about what's old and what's new in leadership. How do we move from one model to another? Is it an either, or, both or none situation? In the words of Monty Python... is it "time for something completely different" in leadership?

What a juicy topic! And why should the "island lot" have all the fun? I rallied around some friends and colleagues to discuss, debate and chew over their views on leadership and leadership models. After all, if you define leadership as the process of influencing or persuading another person to follow you, or act in a specific way, leadership is a game that everyone can and does play.

Coffee shops were abuzz. Fists slammed on tables. Voices were raised. The level of passion took me by surprise! In the end two distinct camps emerged: on the one end of the continuum were the proponents of the "don't think just do" model. This is still an old favourite and no doubt a legacy of the old military-style hierarchies that have dominated our workplaces for the last hundred years. Its supporters cited efficiency, reliability, repeatability and an assurance that things would get done and done right almost every time. A quote that summarises this view: "Do you really want a guy that does the same mundane job every day to think?"

Fortunately this view was vehemently dispelled by the camp at the other end of the spectrum: protagonists of empowerment (in the individual, not the political sense) above all else. Listening to this group, it all sounds so easy: just remove the barriers like hierarchy, structure, status symbols (like reserved parking), office hours, and dress code. Focus on the output and we are all set for leadership in the 21st century.

In reality, of course, it's not as simple as it looks. Tinkering around with the tools of leadership (structures, hierarchy, reward and remuneration) in the absence of a clear perspective on whom one is leading, is a recipe for disaster. I've seen what happens when layers are removed from a structure with the aim of creating an empowered environment, yet nothing else, particularly the leadership philosophy, has changed. The very people who should benefit the most feel abandoned, bewildered and burdened by an additional sense of responsibility, and lack the skills, confidence or ability to rise to challenges or capitalise on opportunities. The tragic legacy of the old model is that the "little boxes" even if physically removed, remain mentally entrenched for a long time to come.

We need to get deeper than the tools. Fundamentally we need to answer the question of whether we view employees as production units or human beings? The leadership model born of the answer to THAT question would be logically consistent, authentic and sustainable in a way that a new toolbox never could be.

Meantime back at the ranch while we are all debating, discussing and pontificating, leadership (like other stuff) happens. Right now, leaders are busy making more leaders, role-modelling behaviours that will form the basis of the new leadership model.

How do we bridge the gap between the old and the new? (Assuming we see people as human beings rather than production units). Jumping from an ice cold shower into a steaming bath shocks the body. So too, moving from one leadership model to another, however well intentioned, will shock not only the leader, but his/her constituency too.

Perhaps there's wisdom and inspiration to be found in a poem that I've always viewed as a template for leadership: Rudyard Kipling's "If" ( Written for Starr Jameson (of Jameson Raid fame), I see it as a practical guideline in terms of dealing with ambiguity without sacrificing integrity.

Rereading this poem, it struck me that effective leadership right now is all about balance. If we could BALANCE:

We could make a start at role-modelling a new kind of leadership. Not driven by a new toolbox or skills set, but underpinned by the idea that we are in fact leading human beings, not production units! Our own humanity automatically qualifies us. Remembering it is what will ultimately help us to get the "balance" right.

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