Last week was spent on the road checking in with clients and helping them manage changes within their organizations. Oftentimes, the causes for such changes are presented to me as breakdowns in communication, unrealized opportunities, performance problems, inadequate adaptation, and gaps in the flow of resources. The clients’ default reactions are hierarchical: someone needs to be contracted or hired, someone else is opting to retire, others need to be reassigned, and others still, let go. However, the reality is bigger and more complex than having a few people go and bringing in fresh blood. Change, in a flurry of what’s working, what’s not, and what could work better, first requires that these disparate conditions be placed within a framework. This is followed by convening people whose interactions have the potential to make a positive difference for their organization within that framework. Their interactions lead to more appropriate and measured actions through goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.

Sustained Conversation

As explored more fully in an earlier posting, organizations consist of sustained conversations–the basis of all human social behavior. If one wants to change an organization, change the conversations its members are having. On one level this is simple and straightforward. Matching forums with meaningful agendas is at the heart of what strategic framing and organization design is all about. People draw upon their power to convene within a social system to setup a wide range of conversations and sustain those that are deemed the most important. Of course, the point of these conversations when establishing or sustaining an organization is to gain alignment–the energy source for growth, progress, and success of any organization.

There is a clear association between those who have the power to convene for alignment and leadership. In fact, while there are hundreds of definitions for leadership, the one I use is “the exercising of power by an individual within a social system to produce alignment.” Productive, collective effort within a social system requires people to be pulling on the rope in the same direction. And through that alignment, motivation is stimulated.

Alignment occurs in three ways:

  • Integrity. Just as an organization has integrity, so do people. Purpose: why am I here; principles: what do I stand for; intentions: what am I up to, constitute the foundation of institutional and personal integrity. When I feel that my integrity is held in the integrity expressed by others and, ultimately, their organization, I am motivated to participate in what they are doing to see how our collective efforts can be leveraged.
  • Vision. Imagining a world where one’s purpose, principles, and intentions play out so that others can see it, too, and want to be part of making it happen is a powerful act of vision. Any vision is based first in personal experience. When it is presented to others such that they can shape it with their own dreams and create a shared view of what is possible, the vision becomes an engaging, motivating force.
  • Fear/Greed. Visions cannot become reality without drawing upon the talents and skills of those who do not necessarily align with the values of integrity or share the same vision. Their motivation comes from a combination of “what’s in it for me” and “what will happen to me if I don’t participate.” The fear – greed continuum appeals to the baser instincts of people in areas where their absence of detachment affects their decisions. For the vast majority, it is easier to do what one is told, to do one’s job, to follow the rules. Alignment means playing along to enjoy the benefits and avoid the pitfalls. But it is a route that is susceptible to the corruptive forces of the hierarchy as explored in a previous posting.

Depending on the circumstances, leaders draw upon the energies available within each of the three types of alignment to advance the organizations they lead. Some have integrity so unquestionably solid it compels others to follow despite not having a clear picture of what the world would look like if everyone behaved according to these values or a hierarchical structure upon which to calculate the cost, risk, and benefit of participation. The most notable of such leaders represent particular spiritual or philosophical belief systems that became the cornerstones for the most persistent social systems in human history. Certainly the evidence is strong that there is much to be gained from fronting one’s core values as a key element in leadership. But, not everyone is ready to cast their lot with someone solely on values alone. This may garner alignment at the outset, but they need more to stay aligned.

Leading the Vision

Some leaders are able to describe through words and graphics how the world could look if a particular set of core values were adopted such that many others are immediately engaged by it, resonate with it, take it as their own, and start down the path toward making it reality; the vision of one becomes the vision of many. However, the more likely scenario is that one person’s vision matches the visions of others to one degree or another, but not completely. In this case, the effective leader introduces a process by which multiple visions are brought together into one shared vision that holds critical elements for all who want to pursue it. While a shared vision produces alignment, it commands the strongest buy-in only by those who were there when it was created. The leader must stay vigilant in continually representing the vision to those who are new to the organization and in some instances prompt further adaptation of the vision to hold others who come in later.

With both integrity and vision, the virtual or physical presence of and interaction with the leader is essential to maintain alignment. Collective efforts that have dependency on one leader are at risk to go astray unless a formal system is setup to manage the behavior of people in the organization. Formal systems provide boundaries that determine who is in and who is out of an organization, enable the formation of hierarchies, enact rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, and establish processes that manage the work of organizations. Within a formal system, the vision of the organization is translated into sets of actionable goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Alignment is achieved when people work these plans. Some leaders are effective enforcing this type of alignment within the formal systems by encouraging them through the promise of reward should they accomplish what they are responsible to do and threatening them with undesirable consequences should they fail. It is the classic case of “carrot and stick” motivation. In other words, the fear – greed continuum is alive and well.

Strategic Framing

As mentioned earlier, my work with people in client organizations is about framing their circumstances so that an appropriate set of conversations are convened and the participants can make a positive difference in helping their organization adapt. The evolving design of the organization is based on the results of certain conversations that need to happen: does the organization need to recall its integrity–get back to its roots, so to speak; does it need to renew its vision–see itself in an entirely different way filled with more possibilities; does it need to redirect its formal system–become more consequent and disciplined. These questions require different conversations and depending on whether the organizational alignment is better derived from integrity, vision, or fear – greed determines the leadership skills required to make the conversations happen.

Therein lays the challenge of doing my work wellmatching the skills of leaders with the circumstances where they will prompt alignment. And if there are no immediate leaders available with the requisite skills, I coach those who show talent and interest so they strengthen their “toolkits,” gain confidence in their capabilities, and embark upon leading in new ways under unfamiliar situations. And helping those people become more evolved, well-rounded, and flexible leaders is what makes doing this work worthwhile!

Originally posted by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday February 1 2006 on Diary of a Knowledge Broker

Photo Credit: photologue_np on Flickr Commons