Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Local Problems with Global Significance?

Last Friday I had the privilege of helping facilitate a debate on the current problems and what to do about them with a group of highly insightful HR directors from some of Scotland's largest organizations. This debate was part of the CIPDs Roundtable discussions on 'Shaping the Future' and a summary of our deliberations will appear in People Management. However, in the light of recent posts I want to flag a couple of issues.

The first was that the group tended to see things in 'glass half full terms', describing the current crisis to bring about major changes in culture and the way in which managers and leaders manage. The second was the problems of reputation spillover from the banking crisis, both for bankers and for confidence among Scottish companies and employees following the problems of two of its major banks - RBS and HBOS - and new problems such as the demise of its largest building society, the Dunfermline.

During the debate, colleagues cited evidence of ordinary banking employees (in organizations relatively unaffected by the crisis) seeking support because of the vitriol being heaped on the Scottish banking sector. Much has been made in recent press commentary from the quality Scottish newspapers about this issue and needs little elaboration. However, much of the discussion focused on the impact of these failures on the reputation of Scottish companies generally and its managers. This represents a fast fall from Grace, paradoxically generated by the previous success of companies like RBS and HBOS, and its reputation over the last two hundred years for generating real innovation, e.g. the steam engine, television, telephone and even the principles of capitalism itself through the work of Adam Smith, a professor at Glasgow University. One of the potential consequences of this fall is a reversion to Scots managers 'knowing their place' and 'not getting above themselves', a problems discussed in an influential book by Carole Craig on the Scots' Crisis of Confidence.

To continue with this theme of management leadership, it is the subject of an Economic and Social Research Council/ Scottish Government event I'm taking part in on May 19th in Edinburgh. This event aims to bring policy makers, practitioners and academics together to debate the impact of new theories of leadership on the Scottish Public Sector. Two academics, Keith Grint from Warwick and myself, will provide some provacations to that debate in the form of an ESRC publication. Keith has written an excellent book on 'The Art of Leadership' and, among others, a recent paper on 'Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions; the Role of Leadership'. A key theme of his is a distinction between management and leadership rooted in n the context and nature of problems to be solved. Management, he argues, is about solving known problems, while leadership is about resolving new questions and issues - de ja vu versus vu jade (excuse the lack of accents)- for which there are no simple answers, only ambiguity, tensions and complexity. One implication of this is the innappropriateness of a model of leadership of all knowing forceful individuals being able to take decisions on their own or in a small cabal. This is the model of 'celebrity' or charismatic leadership in which many of us have placed so much faith in recent years, attributing them with almost mythical abilities and rewarding them on that basis (see last post). Keith's works brings together a long list of Greek philosphers and recent management academics including Aristotle, Kotter, Weick and Robert Chia, who have all discussed the importance of complexification rather than simplification in leadership and the need to draw on wisdom and reflective experience rather than schooled learning. Which brings me to my contribution to that debate, or at least one of them, because it is something close to my heart and a key message of my Managing People in Changing Contexts book.

A theme of mine will be that we have an increasing mistrust of senior leadership, not only in the private sector, as evidenced by the recent anticapitalist demonstrations and bad press, but also in the public sector in Scotland and elsewhere. We have some local evidence of this from recent research we have carried out in the NHS. Part of the explantion of this lies in our overloaded expectations of leadership and our culturally-generated implicit theories of leaders - we have come to expect them to have visions, be great communicators, motivate and inspire us, etc. And when they don't, we get very dissappointed and tell them so through surveys and focus groups. Another part of the explanation lies in the demands placed on leadership, which, in a public sector setting, are to meet strictly defined targets. Target setting, according to Grint, is a management problem and one that leaders in the public sector find it both easier and politically sensible to address. However, they do so at a cost, not only in failing to fulfil the expectations of their 'followers' but also at the expense of sound strategic and innovative thinking about creating public value. This requires greater involvement of those that can/ wish to contribute to innovation in public management, the creation of environments where risk taking can be exercised without individuals being nailed to the mask when they make mistakes, and the application and exercise of wisdom. This has been described as 'the achievement of ignorance' (Weick) - being able to admit you just don't know - but being confident enough while being ready to admit they you really don't know. It also means involving others who may know more - not rocket science but difficult to live with if you believe in management 1.0.

Other research we've undertaken shows that leaders in Scotland are less likely to seek solutions from business schools to their problems because leadership is not something that can be learned in schools. They are probably right in this assessment, which presents real challenges for the local business schools in being relevant and in making a contribution to the Scottish economy. A report shortly to appear from the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the Scottish business schools emphasises this point.

So, I'm going to go down the line of the need for a leadership/management 2.0 (see previous posts) articulated by Hamel and Birksinshaw in the Harvard Business Review recently to rescue the reputation of leadership (and management), and, beating my drum once again, the need to focus on innovation, a more realistic and modest 'branding' of leadership, its contribution/ relationship with governance and social responsibility.

More later when we've written the ESRC/Scottish Government pamphlet.

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