Leaders, Power and openness

January Rain

 

The last day of January 2015 and much-needed rain is finally falling here in the Wairarapa.  We have only had 17.6mm (0.69 of an inch) this year and it is making for a dry summer, grumpy animals and nervous farmers! With the sound of rain on the corrugated iron roof, my first exercise in putting fingers to the keyboard this year continues – kind of – from where I left off in my last blog of 2014. I talked about the concept of power and responsibility – and since then, a few things have bugged me.


The first bit that bugs me is this:

Social exchange is complex and power doesn’t have an absolute level or amount. In constructed societies (like our human ones) explanations and organizations, we – that is, cleverer people than me – have found ways to conceptually ‘sort out’ different bases of power, but in nature these can be much more inter-twined. What I mean is, ‘power’ – in the context of my horse metaphor – doesn’t derive from my position (or that of my horse). It doesn’t stem from a sense of legitimacy of the position I occupy relative to my horse. There is no additional power I derive from controlling rewards. My horse doesn’t see me as a symbol of achievement, like for example business executives might when they see successful superiors. I am not the manifest ‘superego’ of the herd that is created by my horse and I working together, like perhaps a leader of a gang of hooligans might be.

There is also this: Whilst I might be charismatic at times, I am not personally endowed by my horse with infallibility and wisdom – in fact, quite the opposite. Any time I think I know best, my horse has many ways of handling out lessons in humility! Finding part of the answer to my earlier question about what is going on here might be found by thinking about (and trying to understand) what the horse perceives is going on….and in some ways, I think it comes back to Burns and his exploration of the influence of motives and purpose. Many studies seem to confuse three key elements: the holding of power, the willingness to exercise power and the tendency to exercise power.

And then there is a question gnawing: “If all that adds up to a list of what I am not, then as a leader, what am I?”

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To try answering the question, I am going to look at what I consider to be a dimension of power – and I suppose as a leader, the associated responsibility. The dimension is that of ‘voice’ – speaking up to a leader with constructive criticism…even when it is uninvited or unwelcome!


 

To frame the problem:

It helps to realise that this idea of ‘voice’ is a discretionary behaviour. What I mean by that is, ‘voice’ is a piece of behaviour that people you work with can choose to remain silent about. Let me just put more emphasis on this particular point, because it is important – team members can choose to provide information with the intention to improve organizational functioning to the leader, or not; they can choose to remain silent. Sometimes, that might actually involve them withholding crucial information – for any number of reasons. I also want you to think of behaviour as crucial information; it tells us something important as the symptom, the manifestation, of what is really going on – especially if we are leaders!

I have read Sheryl Sandberg espouse the importance of ‘leaning in’. I have observed on numerous occasions ‘brainstorming’ become little more than overbearing individuals imposing their pre-conceived (and often poor) ideas on a group. I also have experience of both being involved in a meeting or working group (and running meetings or working groups) where exceptional input or insight comes from unexpected people around the room. After mulling that over, I decided the strangle tingling sensation in my head must be an indicator of thoughts formulating. The tingling continued as I reflected on the number of times I have listened to leaders and decision-makers saying things like, “I want you to challenge”, or, “I am open to ideas, so put them up and let’s hear them”. Blah, blah, blah, blah!!!


 

In the majority of cases and as so often happens, the ‘saying it’ and the reality have proven very different.  Curious, given that there is good research to suggest there is benefit to putting the words into action:

Back in 2002, some work by Early & Gibson looked at the way multinational teams work. It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of their findings suggests the improvement of organizational functioning requires as a key element that team members voice their ideas and insights, especially to the team leader, and especially where the team is diverse in membership. Subsequent work by two researchers, Christian Tröster (Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany) and Daan van Knippenberg (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands) on the effects of leader openness on ‘voice’ in teams with diverse membership. One of their findings shows the importance of leader’s openness as an effective characteristic in encouraging ‘voice’. Tröster and van Knippenberg’s study also suggests that leaders who are open to ideas and suggestions of minority members are more approachable, more likely to receive new ideas and suggestions on how to improve operations, and such leaders are also more likely to find genuinely novel solutions.

There is good news…

Leaders can be trained to ‘listen’ better to their subordinates. Subordinates can also be trained to communicate effectively – both these elements are fundamental, and our clients work with us because we are good at delivering on these fundamentals. Ultimately, it is important that ideas being conveyed are understood; the response to the ideas being conveyed is open, and the desire to benefit from diverse membership is genuine. If your organization functions in an environment that is complex – or complicated; or even chaotic – as many multinational companies with global operations do on a daily basis, then as leaders you cannot afford to assume that people will speak up with ideas for constructive change. In training myself to ‘listen’, I found that not only does a horse help me, but I have learned how I can help other leaders by using horses in both demonstration and as metaphor.


Back to the question then: As a leader, what am I?

 

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It can be uncomfortable for leaders to express this, but it is necessary if you want to excel. It is not about ego, or grand-standing; it is about being honest with yourself.  I am a leader who is open; receptive. I listen – carefully – and I pay attention to the little things. I think of and treat behaviour as crucial information. I want to hear the ‘voice’ of people working with me and for me – especially those who are quiet, or being drowned out by the noise of others. I challenge….a lot…and it hasn’t always been popular, but it has always been done with a desire to make the machine work smarter, harder, faster, better. I am not afraid to use my voice and I try to create an environment where others find the courage to use theirs; I am also far from being perfect! It has not been an easy lesson to learn, but I understand that as a leader I am sometimes wrong; I am willing to accept that I don’t know best. I accept that ultimately I am always responsible for the consequences of decisions, and I don’t let that unavoidable reality create an environment where mistakes can’t be made.

When the emergence of early morning or the onset of evening is characterised by me working with a horse in my training ring, I often consciously think – I am mindful – about the exchange taking place. At such times, ‘power’ doesn’t have an absolute level or amount – and I sure as hell don’t hold it. The horse absolutely has a say in things; the horse has a ‘voice’ and if I want the horse to consider me as a leader who makes it feel safe, approachable and worthy – then I have to earn it. I do that with patience, with a mind-set that is receptive to input and because no two horses are ever the same, with a mentality that constantly seeks novel solutions to whatever issue we are working through together.

The expression, ‘horse-whisperer’ comes from an old philosophy that a good horseman or horsewoman can hear a horse ‘speak’ to them, but a truly great horseman or horsewoman can hear a horse ‘whisper’. With a horse, the provision of information is mostly non-verbal; it is what we might call ‘body language’ and other behaviours. The expression of all these things can be subtle, or explosive and dramatic; it can be with the least amount of effort expended, or with incredible willingness. Regardless, the horse provides us with crucial information, which ultimately serves to improve the way we function together. For that kind of result, it requires that I pay attention; I tune in and concentrate – I listen. From both my military and business experience I know that the consequences if I don’t can be serious.


 

Let me end by asking you to think about this:

 

As a leader, what do you do that ensures your people choose not to be silent? Or are you unable to hear anything over the sound of how awesome you think you are?

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