It is time we recognize that our current approach to leadership development is a waste. $50 Billion and research says there is nothing to show for it. It's only value is perpetuating the fantasy of a tiny minority ruling over the majority. This has been the view since the beginning of time. We still kneel at the altar of gods and goddesses … and wonder why there is no measurable value in developing leaders. We believe that training emerging leaders as sages will make them better rulers when the more power they acquire the further they are from their greatest source of brilliance – their staff and their customers. Or to be blunt, the higher they rise the stupider they get.
In an article titled, Leadership - It's a System, Not a Person! author Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School takes on the $50 Billion leadership development industry and states: From the beginning, learning about leadership was, for good and sound reasons, all about leaders: single individuals who could, despite being a tiny minority, control the overwhelming majority and on occasion, single-handedly change history. She goes on to say: the leadership literature - was focused for eons on gods and goddesses, sages and princes, philosopher kings and virgin queens. The basic model of leadership has not changed. It is time to change it.
People are frequently promoted because of their technical skills. Nurses move into senior positions because they are good nurses. Associate engineers become senior engineers because of technical experience. Eventually they become leaders when they need to manage people with technical skills different than their own. They can no longer rely on the prowess of their technical skills to manage and direct others. They are part of a system of leadership. The system serves as their platform. However, without platform design, individual leaders default to the traditional role of leaders = leaders tell followers what to do. All too often, the results are revenues at any cost, profit at any price, and production not matter what the risk.
Case: In September the U.S based - Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), sited a major automotive parts manufacturer and its staffing agency for repeated safety violations. The most notable of which was a robot that malfunctioned. A young woman, laboring to meet demands of leaders who required quota be maintained at any cost (usually at the expense of worker’s personal time and safety), stepped in to clear a sensor fault. It abruptly restarted, crushing her to death. She and her family had been planning a wedding. Now they were planning her funeral.
Two Lenses of Leadership
There are two lenses through which to view leadership. 1) The lens of the individual leader seeking to influence others; and 2) The lens of the organization which should be structured to deliver measurable value. All systems, including the leadership system, should be designed and aligned with the delivery of this value. But Barbara Kellerman points out that the 40 year old leadership industry "has not in any major, measurable way improved the human condition, which is precisely why it should be reconsidered and reconceived". In our view, the solution is understanding leadership as a system which is the platform for leadership success. Without a designed leadership system or platform, individual leaders operate to their own sense of mission and organizational performance becomes highly variable.
Recently, a colleague and I were asked by a small regional hospital to assist them in developing a formal model of leadership. Our one stipulation was that it would be developed as a system rather than a program to train leaders. They were all for it.
Step One – Identify System Focus or Purpose
The first step was to determine the purpose or focus of the system. After much discussion, they realized that exceptional healthcare outcomes would only be realized if staff and patients enjoyed a sense of empowerment. Staff needed a sense of empowerment to fully utilize their passion and commitment to care for their patients. Patients needed empowerment to fully engage the healthcare system around personal health. Thus, the purpose and focus on their leadership system become – empowerment. In short, every individual leader operating within their leadership platform has a singular leadership focus – empowerment.
Step Two – System Requirements
This initial conversation then engaged a larger group of senior leaders and resulted in a well-defined set requirements structured around:
- Clear plan for training and deployment of the system; and
- A simple set of metrics to monitor system performance.
Creating a Path to Success
Like any system, be it the solar system, the lymphatic system, or a data system, leadership when seen through the organizational lens as a system becomes highly manageable and measurable. It becomes the platform engineered to execute the mission. It becomes a path to creating value for the patient. In short, every process must be measured against both its intended medical outcome as well as how it promotes empowerment. This platform or system gives the emerging leader a clear path to success because they are connected to both staff and the patient.
Leaders Know How to Lead
The impact of a designed leadership system that could be graphed, modeled, and measured was almost immediate. The director of training will train emerging leaders to a specific set of system requirements. The HR director will hire leaders to a specific set of requirements. These include both technical skills as well as clearly identifiable leadership skills. The CEO and COO can monitor the performance of the system to two simple indicators – staff and patient safety. Both of these are easily measured.
When we finished, the Director of Nursing stated: “I have always been promoted because I was a good nurse. Then they put this title on me of ‘leader ’and I had no clue what I was supposed to do. Now I know”.
Some Will Not Fit
As the system requirements became clear there was the realization that a few leaders will just not fit. Doing good work but as leaders there will be other organizations where they will fit better. This was a hard but distinct reality. In addition, it takes time for a system to become part of the culture. The leaders of this hospital are smart in that they are giving the roll out of the system plenty of time. They are also giving the senior leaders who assisted in the design ample opportunities to modify the structure and take ownership. When fully deployed, they will fully own it.
Deployment takes design and intentionality. Without a clear plan to deploy the system or platform, it will not go further than the design stage. This hospital determined that the Director of Training would be critical to deployment of the system. Thus, he is adding modules to his onboarding and existing leadership training. It takes time to implement a new system. This is true of a new financial system, new data system, or new leadership system. Deployment requires clear strategy for the system to be fully installed.
First steps in system design is to determine the function or purpose of the system. Ideally, the purpose of the leadership system is the methodology that leaders will use to execute on mission. When Paul O'Neil took over the Alcoa Company he said the purpose of the leadership system was staff safety. The brilliance of this was that safety impacted every system, every process, and every work unit in the company. By focusing on improvement in worker safety, he improved every process in the organization. In addition, union support, which had been contentious, got on board because who could argue against worker safety? The results were an increase in quality, costs went down, market share went up and shareholder value increased by 5 times during his tenure.
Barbara Kellerman, barbarakellerman.com
“Leadership – It’s A System, Not A Person!” Daedalus, 2016
Theo Yu, Ph.D. canditate, Bakke Graduate University