by Mark Cole and John Higgins
A message arrives…
Many emails from people with organizational heft like to take the sting out of the need to respond quickly by signing off with something like:
“I like to work flexibly so I’m posting this message outside of normal hours and don’t expect an immediate response”.
At face value, this looks like an example of enlightened and progressive management and leadership. Nothing should, of course, be taken at face value, especially in corporate settings. This blandishment conveniently effaces power.
If this arrived from a colleague or a peer, we’d probably assume that it meant what it says. But the higher up the corporate ladder it comes from, the more immediate is our response.
Now what’s going on for the leader who signs off like this?
If they ignore the presence of power and hierarchy in the workplace, they are pushing it into the shadows, as if it doesn’t matter. They may – from their elevated position – actually believe it doesn’t matter, which casts considerable doubt on their capacity for social understanding and empathy for those less relatively powerful than they are.
To the powerful, power is not seen to be important; to everyone else, it is a tacit yet significant factor in their day to day lives. Working with a more nuanced understanding of power in which we are all both an object of and a vehicle for power, to shove it aside is to deny a critical feature of human relations, to render it unspeakable despite its pervasive presence.
If the leader is sending that message whilst recognising the power that is at play, they are at best duplicitous or at worst Machiavellian.
This is why – in Leadership Unravelled – we identified the suggestion that “We’re all in this together” as one of the six foundational myths that constrain modern management thinking in a capitalist economy. Power is conveniently shoved into the wings, obscured in the shadows whilst the display of pseudo-equality distracts from the realities and consequences of inequality .
We can stress-test the idea of “We’re all in this together” by looking critically at the idea of “loyalty” in a corporate context, where people are invited to see loyalty as speaking to a binding and equal experience. It is no longer enough that we turn up to work and do what we are paid to do to the best of our abilities, we have to buy into an entire ideology of work.
In this ideology, we are expected to manage our own resilience and invest in our continuing development, as part of the individualistic “Me PLC” conceit that neo-liberalism imposes upon us all. At the same time, our distinctive quality as an individual is erased in favour of a corporate cookie-cutter version of ourselves, one that absorbs the corporate values and offers uncritical loyalty to the firm.
We speak more and more these days about the “leadership distance” that one finds in large corporations, with senior managers so far away from the business of the business that they can make no meaningful contribution to the company. Instead, they busy themselves with changing light bulbs in the clouds, fiddling around in the candy-floss world of visions, missions, values and strategy. Meanwhile, down below, performers and their direct managers are focused on the practicalities of delivering fit for purpose goods and services for the company’s clientele.
The main significant, and largely negative, impact that those senior leaders can actually have on the capacity of the business to do what it does is through what they might do in respect to merger, acquisition, outsourcing, reorganisation and transformation.
In the context of loyalty the demands from the workforce co-exist with its absence amongst the senior cadres of management. Did the management of P&O ferries demonstrate loyalty to the company and its workforce? The idea that the executive suite at the corporate HQ was “in it together” with the staff in the engine rooms and galleys of their ships is risible.
Senior leaders are too often loyal to nothing but leadership and some vague notion of a greater good. They are rarely loyal to the organisations whose upper tiers they occupy. And they are very, very rarely loyal to the people who deliver the day-to-day operational performance on which the fantasy of senior leadership justifies itself.
If we accept that we’ve seen an ideological shift from the binary of manager-employee to that of leader-follower, then it is possibly to think of the idea of loyalty as a key feature of followership. To follow is to have trust in the person who seeks to lead…and to demonstrate loyalty to them. The leader’s loyalty is not reciprocal: they are loyal to one another and their share- and stake-holders.
Embracing your ethical self
The question, then: do you want to be a good leader, rather than just be the sort of leader that we’ve come to put up with these days? Let’s excise the word “good” from that – and instead invite you to embrace the idea of practising ethically. If your answer at this juncture is anything like a “no”, then – in your heart of hearts – you probably know you’re not suitable to assume the responsibility to lead.
If your answer is “yes”, you have a difficult road ahead of you, but one that is best walked in the close company of as many others as you can possibly tempt to join you. And here are five simple orientations that will help you on that road:
First, you need to pull power from the shadows, which means acknowledging it and putting it at the forefront of every conversation.
Second, you need to declare your power and the power that acts upon you.
Third, you need to commit actively to attending to voice and silence around you, to listen to hear rather than listen to react.
Fourth, you need to interrogate your own commonplace, scrutinising everything that you think and plan to do in your role as leader, in order to allow it to deconstruct itself in front of you.
Lastly, you need to use your new openness and capacity to hear in order to create more and more space for dialogue, spaces where you may not hear what you expect – or, indeed, want – to hear but where you will hear what you need to hear.