The mission and responsibility of corporate management is to steer the company to reach its goals. This is a big task and involves the supervision of different aspects of all business areas. The complexity of the task is obvious. The work of management teams is supported by a range of business information technology applications. Yet the available business applications also shrink and eventually misplace the focus of management, especially that of top managers, business leaders. This paper describes a concept based on the notion of aporia that could be a guideline to valuable management thinking and strategic decision making. The concept focuses the work of management on a higher purpose and helps to rethink the philosophical foundations of management and the work of leadership.
During an era of recession or slowing growth, in global corporations where operation is complex and influenced by different interests, finding the right focus of management thinking and ensuring that management decisions are executed as they are meant is essential to hold companies on the right track. This is even more so if you have to take into account the different shareholder and stakeholder expectations, like revenue/profit growth, sustainability and value creation.
To highlight how complex the situation is we have to mention all the tools and applications that are aimed to assist managers and leaders in their supervisory and decision making activities. These tools can be a great help and a major distraction at the same time. By using the business information tools managers can get detailed insight into the whole operations of their company. Choosing the wrong set of data or sticking to data too much can distract managers from what they really should be focusing on.
It is not by accident that Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People became and still is a top-selling business book. His first major statement is that the focus of management in the second half of the 20th century shifted into a wrong direction. The leadership thinking in the 150 years before World War II. focused on “character ethic” attributes such as integrity, humility, courage, patience and the Golden Rule. These basic principles of effective living and true success depended on integrating these principles into one's character. One of Covey’s favorite authors was Ben Franklin, whose autobiography was representative of this kind of literature. Covey noticed a significant shift in the leadership success ideas published after World War II. He realized the world had moved away from the character ethic toward what Covey calls the “personality ethic”, where success was more based on personality, technique, appearance and having a positive mental attitude. In my understanding the personality ethic shift also involves what leaders take responsibility for and how. Covey’s last book addresses this question and highlights the need of thriving for greatness, beyond being effective.
While vision is emphasized by leaders a lot, their real focus is on quarter by quarter execution and figures. There lies the catch of management information systems and their misuse. MIS gather immense volumes of information about the company and present it to higher management in a clear and understandable way. It is so irresistible to be informed about everything in the company and to be presented with the most important issues of business that MIS data and especially Balance Score Cards become the sirens of top managers and board directors. They know that their role and responsibility is to govern the corporation being liable to all stakeholders  but analyzing excel charts, making decisions on red/green fields on management reports is so comfortable and risk avoiding. The management consultancy industry has great responsibility in sustaining this situation. Instead of confronting their clients with essential questions the majority of consultants share “best practice” advice based on red/green excel tables. The generation and analysis of these excel tables isn’t just resource consuming at all levels of the company, in most cases it is unnecessary and distracting for top managers if done in such extent.
„To be or not to be: that is the question” is the opening line of Hamlet’s monologue and one of the most famous and most often used quotes in literature. Besides describing a human drama and a faithful son’s fight this question relates profoundly to the real dilemma of every leader.
Ancient Greeks called aporia a figure of speech in which the speaker expresses real or simulated doubt or perplexity. In classical rhetoric, aporia means placing a claim in doubt by developing arguments on both sides of an issue. In business life an aporia can be any decision situation where all the available arguments of both sides of the given business decision have equal weight thus make it impossible to decide based on pure data.
In our view the valuable focus of leadership must be an aporia concerning the companies current business issues or strategic plans. By finding and answering these big questions, leaders will be able to give guidance to their colleagues and the corporation they lead. Answering the questions should be based on a positive approach, guided by positive psychology’s business application. The approach we believe is the most efficient is Appriciative Inquiry, used succesfully in solving organizational deadlocks. If combined with real empowerment in the execution of the plan, these organizations will outperform hierarchical ones, especially those with red/green focus.
We believe that leaders, bord directors should focus on organizational, business and strategic issues where questions like the following arise.
Tradition or change? Vision or reality? Freedom or responsibility? Logic or emotions? Plan or improvisation? Discussion or reflections? Justice or compassion? Creativity or concentration? Confidence or consideration?
We call this way of adressing corporate issues the aporia approach. Finding these issues is not an easy task but it can be facilitated with the systematic safeguarding of the company’s business interest.
For example, the usual reaction to declining figures is the ever increasing data collection at all levels of the company. That is good and necessary for the first line managers who can use these data to focus on areas that need more resources or commitment. But the self-justifying mechanisms of regional management shift the focus of higher management from value issues to red/green excel ones. So in case of slowing sales top management deals with how to trim headcount and operational expenditure instead of finding the underlying value question, like for example confidence or consideration, freedom or responsibility.
The aporia approach helps organizations and their leaders find valuable questions the answering of which will advance the business of the company. We believe that the aporia approach is a good tool in the decision making process of top level management. Questions that can be answered based on red/green excel tables should be answered and taken responsibility for by lower level managers who gathered the information into those tables. Top level managers should focus on questions that imply values.