Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Follow up on Harvard Business Publishing Voices Blog on Effectiveness and Focus

Following a Twitter posted link yesterday, I found the blog post entitled The Key to Effectiveness-Focus. This is what Norman wrote about the

classic questions of focus and bandwidth

by way of a comment on the same site:

The late Stafford Beer, who did brilliant work on governing with Viable System Models, wrote that “Ethos was the ultimate variety reducer”.

The governing paradox is that policy makers must regularly enlarge variety to absorb vital new ideas; whilst then reducing variety to focus on what to manage; and how; and when. It seems that failures occur regularly in each direction.

Both tasks require abstract thinking skills, concept creation, relevance testing, understanding of multiple communications’ trajectories and persuasion time constants. These must be linked to critical path planning, causality analysis of a high order, input-output analysis, and strategic awareness of present and alternative demand possibilities and their future impacts.

Ethos – defined as the characteristic spirit and genius of a society, culture, policy, system or idea – or an amalgam of them – embraces the summation of what we stand for today; it is also tomorrow’s vision of what we want to stand for then. Stafford Beer called these two distinct positions “the inside and now” and the “outside and then”. Thinking about them requires successive utilization of divergent and convergent multi-disciplinary thinking, together with abstraction, transduction and learning skills, if change is to be managed successfully.

So one can redefine governance as continuing ethos management from now to then; as eras are created and fashions and zeitgeists pass. Or, at its simplest, if what was promised in an election is to be delivered in office.

In retrospect, what President Obama and others failed to realise was that Health Care Systems’ Policy-making attacked far too many constituents’ views and value systems for fast decision-making that would stick. His decisiveness and need for control, his team’s skills and policy options, what future care would provide to whom, etc. all had to take account of the different ethos and value systems of a vast multitude of constituents that cut across and within all party lines.

In retrospect it was an elementary mistake to make for a team whose collective bandwidth had only previously practised on-the-fly policy-making, speech writing, opinion forming, multi-media broadcasting, perception and manipulation in one on one contests and debates; rather than governing a digital society in all its complex variety. He recognized this recently in a working meeting when he said something like “I want more people in this room around this table, with different opinions than you have provided here”. What he did not see is that he alone cannot take the decision of what they come up with round the table. Enlarge the assumed participants in increments of 5 and you will soon get to a number of those involved where you will agree that it is unworkable. A more rigourous option-generation and decision-making system is required. Put simply no single person can absorb enough new data to take rapid decisions on their own, without a process to aid them. And whatever it is, that degree of bandwidth, information processing, knowledge building and multi-disciplinarity is not a normal meeting.

Additionally, just adding to available inputs, by using the internet to allow fully open inward communication of external ideas and publishing them as “Wordle” diagrams will not do. The need is both to take in more inputs and to understand how to manage the contradictions, paradigms, systems of thought and analysis, complexities, alternative values, potential policy shifts and conflicts of opinion which their variety provides. Ultimately, I expect we will need to define another governmental separation of state power – beyond the executive, legislative and judiciary to become skilled in the on-going variety all of this. I know of no country or institution which does this well, so there is a pressing need to create one ab initio. We could call this fourth separation of power the “Plurality” – E pluribus unum; out of many, (ideas to) one.

Without such continuous, because institutionalized, organic thinking across all aspects of society, government ( and /or regulation ) will not be matched to the complexities of preventing the emergence of critical national and global problems that require urgent solving – if not first prevented in a “just in time” or “well before they become urgent” way.

The number of upset countries, distraught citizens, failing companies and failed leaders thrown up by the global financial crisis proves just how much such basic reappraisal of our bandwidth in governing, regulatory, organisational, structural, constitutional,institutional and leadership systems is still required.

Opposing opinions must be reconciled more effectively by institutions learning to practice higher order unifying concepts, such as ethos, so that all of the best available knowledge is properly evaluated and absorbed by the governing system, rather than “Wordled” or manipulated by dumb software.

True bi-partisanship has a multitude of faces whose opinion polarities must be subtly handled. A new ethos of health care that won broad acceptance, beyond the simplicities of the victorious ideology, was the only way to achieve this goal. And that task, as it turned out, tested the Democratic party’s governance well beyond the limits of its academic advice, bandwidth, competence, experience, culture and processes.

How can it recover without addressing the true complexities involved? Which academics, or businesses, or system engineers or researchers or citizens have bits of the answer; and who will focus this into a new governance vision?

According to Stafford Beer, it is ethos alone that can unite disparate policy functions, purposes, meanings and motivations clearly, to summate what an organisation, nation or political party stands for. In my view, good government is Ethos Management, and I suspect he would agree.

Perhaps the modern democratic state needs to be redesigned around these precepts if vision, policies, values and multiple motivations are to be captured in a distinctive ethos, enacted by a Viable System and coupled with the effective governance that leads to optimized citizen engagement and satisfaction for the majority, without alienating too many minorities. Then we could hope that we have at last created an organisation and operating culture, that is best suited, to carry out the ruling values, derived from the distinctive ethos, which summates the critical policies that citizens voted for. Yes we could!

– Posted by Norman Strauss
September 2, 2009 12:24 PM

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September 2, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, diversity, Knowledge, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Times take on female directors impact

Apologies for a messy post. This comes from my E71 mobile due to BT broadband unavailability since last evening. I could not leave alone the research that generated such opposing reports. Why this happened remains open to speculation.

More articles about LSE study came out in The Times yesterday. The title could not be more different than the one I posted about from FT yesterday Women bad for business? It’s men who are susceptible to groupthink The Times Business Editor goes as far as to call the implication in FT that women on corporate boards are bad for profit ‘BUNK’

August 8, 2009 Posted by | diversity | , , | Leave a comment

Why oh why quality papers fall for sensational titles or are women still fair game?

I am really angry, sad and ready to pounce -all 3 at once due to media fueled attacks on professional women.

Latest in the line of summer games aimed at senior and professional women is the article in FT today (link coming later from computer). The title claims that WOMEN DAMAGE PROFIT of companies on whose Boards they sit (the print copy of FT has tthe same article on p.16 under the title Doubt cast on women in boardroom). When you read the article it says nothing of the sort. The researchers observe that women sit on the Boards of companies that HAVE lower profit and smaller market capitalization. There is no indication of whether the profits ACTUALLY fell since appointment of female directors or where they like that before they were brought on board. Similarly, we are not told if market capitalization was lower at the time of appointment. Boo to FT!

Since the beginning of the week Harriet Harman has been piloted from all sides. It started with a ridiculing her comment that more women at the top reaches in the banks would have made a difference to male driven competitiveness of winner takes all variety. It then moved onto her comment that Labour should have a woman in one of the top two jobs – hang on everyone, she was not asking for men to step aside and give both jobs to women for a change! That could have been noteworthy. When pens and daggers came out relating to Harman’s decision to get Rape Bill tightened, it all became too much, at least for me.

So, could all this be the result of mysogeny of journalist profession which according to Richard Reeves, Director of Demos, has the highest proportion of private school educated members of all professions -boys rebelling against a Headgirl.

Time to grow up me thinks.

PS. In the weekend FT Emma Jacobs rounds up on Harriet Harman critics in Sisterly suggestions cause hysteria. However, she conveniently forgets to mention her own paper and Brotherly uproar about female directors misreporting of the research.

August 7, 2009 Posted by | diversity, Government, News, Style, Values | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Academic spat about the role of women managers/leaders in the current economic climate and the real influence

It is interesting to watch academic spats spill into the quality daily press especially when they go against the grain. Here we have three female professors, each from a different top 5 European Business School, responding to a male professor of a less well-known European Business School.

Let me start by saying that I totally agree with the starting position of Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski where they register

dismay at the quality of debate on the role of women in the financial crisis. Specifically, we question the basis for current speculation that the meltdown might have been averted had more women been running the business world.

What I am surprised by is the lack of quality in their own argument, as I will show below.

Compare the titles: Soapbox: why women managers shine followed by Claims that women are inherently more cautious are deeply troubling. Now, let us look at the arguments and supporting data.

Prof. Michel Ferrary is the first author and uses statistical comparisons, namely his research on the correlation between French company stock index and percentage of women managers in the respective companies. He finishes with two questions about the conclusions one could draw about performances of feminised companies in different conditions. In turn, the letter authors Profs Herminia Ibarra, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski offer no data whatsoever yet finish with strong admonition that one must

beware of perpetuating unfounded stereotypes along the way.

More surprisingly, they choose to interpret the closing question from Prof Ferrary’s comment as

speculations (that) also come with dangerous implications

and follow by restating it to serve as a proof of their main point:

we are deeply troubled by claims that women are inherently more risk-averse or cautious or prudent than men, and that this essential nature somehow makes women more suited to leading in a downturn

So their whole argument hinges on whether one agrees that

Several gender studies have pointed out that women behave and manage differently from men. They tend to be more risk-averse and to focus more on a long-term perspective. A larger proportion of female managers appears to balance the risk-taking behaviour of their male colleagues.

This is an area where a lot of the research has been done yet the letter writers offer no data at all. They could have consulted Prof. Deborah Kolb short note Are Women Really Risk-Averse of March 9 in the Washington Post for research results.

The conclusion is best summarised by Ms Jackie Orme in End of the ‘ego driven’ leader who simply states

What we most need is a greater mix of personal qualities in our leaders.

As for the future importance and position of women leaders it is not the professors who decide. Ms Sarah Best has a telling example

The FT has already told us (March 11) that, of the 50 people in the world who have the position, skills and contacts to see us through the financial and economic crisis, just five are women. Women taking a leadership position? I’m not sure, it all sounds very risky to me.

At the same time (March 8th) Washington Post Leadership blog has asked its Distinguished Panel of 20 Experts (five of them are women) to address the similar question Testosterone and the Crash — you can read all answers there. With statistics that show that only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and that median bonus for men in largest USA companies is 3 times larger than for women it is clear that anything they had to say was just wishful thinking. May be the last word should be with Professor Warren Bennis:

Unfortunately, the explanations for the crash have little to nothing to do with DNA or brain circuitry but have everything to do with the serious design flaws of its system, a system run amok for a whole bunch of reasons and like all system problems are multi-determined: group think, greed, sloppy and lax regulation, and close to zero transparency. Those are the problems and they are deep and there’s no silver bullet like testosterone — or lack of it — that can solve them.

March 14, 2009 Posted by | Business thinkers, diversity, Economics, Leadership, Letters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

People are noticing we were wrongly led – who and what now?

While various pundit produce a growing number of articles and papers on the causes of the world economic problems, one things is becoming very clear. We were led into the credit crunch and crisis of confidence.

I know this is a bold (!) statement. A very short explanation will suffice for now.

First, while we were led this leadership was not of the kind we currently recognise as such. The leadership was blind through sheer lack of the awareness among those at the top of various organisation. They simply failed to recognise that the multinational corporations they may be running or an ever increasing number of G-type groupings (G8, G20, EU etc) they belong to mean one thing – world is strongly interconnected! This matters far more than anyone has recognised so far. Some commentators are thus calling for systemic solutions or looking for systemic approaches. Surprisingly, these voices are still in great minority. They also seem to be coming from non-anglo-saxon world.

The failure to understand the need for a systemic perspective permeates the regulation as well. Basel I and Basel II are clear examples here from the banking sector.

The second characteristic of the crisis is easily explicable by Darwinian evolution. A growing chorus in the press, including the Financial Times, and in the UK Parliament is bringing up so far un-sayable fact that our corporate Boards are highly inbred and lack vigour, real talent and true diversity. In other words these large companies as they are now are a dying breed as much as dinosaurs were.

Add to this the third circumstance – that of the steadily declining education and bonus systems rewards for failure, and we have truly serious situation. Decisions are being made by people caught in the stampede of the press and TV stations hungry for instant action. Politicians make pronouncements about initiatives and policy changes that take far too long to start. When they are implemented, sheer complexity of the systems to be introduced (IT as well as human) overwhelms the capabilities of those charged to make it happen. Long standing dumbing down of education coupled with lack of transparency of the conditions for progress up the organisational ladders and supported by a totally warped reward system, make for a real witches brew!

However, the solutions proffered by our Governments do not appear to show that the politicians or their advisers have grasped these simple truths. They show little inclination to engage in serious thinking. All the summits in the world are no substitute for taking the strategic leadership stance to explore the situation for what it is – a mess of our own making that requires a different approach and totally different group of people to solve it! Same goes for HR Directors, for all their optimism and expanding role!

We are not talking about the whistleblowers. We are advocating leadership by Mavericks and Contrarians. It is clear that HR Departments and their function are very much behind the times. New skills and approaches that handle paradoxes, dilemmas and dynamic situations as well as people with capabilities to build relationships are needed and yet in very short supply! However, even under the conditions of threat, current powers that be along with those who put them there continue to follow the lemming route of more of the same just bigger.

This is neither desirable nor necessary. We need a new party and people with real courage. What next and how to go about it is the topic of a future post.

February 19, 2009 Posted by | diversity, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment