Leaders vs ‘people power’

As the past few days have shown, few do pomp and ceremony like the British. Ignoring rain, job losses and a failing Europe, Britons have thronged the streets to mark the Diamond Jubilee of their beloved Queen Elizabeth II.

Sixty years in the ultimate leadership position might be beyond the ambitions of your typical chief executive, but the British monarch offers some salutary lessons. The Queen takes her work seriously; she walks the talk. Her impact, in part, has been derived from a deep wisdom, warmth and humility in the job. Her listening skills are reputed to be impressive, her humour is dry and understated (so British), and leaders of all stripes queue for her counsel. Above all, she is authentic. At the age of 86, Queen Elizabeth continues to troop around the farthest reaches of the Commonwealth, although younger members of the Royal household – especially Prince William – are playing increasingly prominent roles. As succession planning goes, it’s deft and effective positioning.

With her light touch, the Queen’s style is far removed from the command-and-control model of her militaristic forebears – and many business leaders. Yet, once the celebrations wrap up, republicans will be back agitating for the abolition of a leadership role they say is an anachronism. As the head of the local republican movement put it, “we want our political system to be based on the power of the people”.

In a few weeks’ time, the eyes of the world will be back on London for the opening of the Olympic Games. Lining up as one of Australia’s strongest gold medal hopes will be the men’s hockey side, the Kookaburras, coached by a man whose ideas on “the power of the people” once caused deep ructions within the sporting establishment. An outstanding sportsman, coach, politician and medical doctor, Ric Charlesworth is a strong proponent of the “leaderful team”. He introduced the concept to Australia’s national women’s hockey side in the 1990s and the Hockeyroos went on to win nearly every top hockey title in the world. “A single leader can generate only so many ideas and concentrate on only so many things,” Charlesworth told Forbes magazine. “A critical mass of leaders allows for more possibilities and more solutions and ideas to be filtered by the group. You’re therefore likely to come up with better answers. Plus, having multiple leaders ensures that all feel they have a say in decisions.”

Once regarded as radical, Charlesworth’s ideas on self-organising teams are gaining increasing currency in the new, network-centric version of work, where it’s less about managing and more about collaboration and knowledge-sharing. This new view of work implies a far different skillset and some influential thinkers, such as London Business School’s Gary Hamel, assert that  “management as usual” is now dead and people had better prepare themselves to manage without managers. To make the point, his December 2011 Harvard Business Review cover story was provocatively titled, ‘First, let’s fire all the managers’. In it Hamel dissects the example of Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processor. Morning Star employees have no bosses, there are no titles and no promotions, workers negotiate with their peers, everyone can spend the company’s money, and compensation decisions are peer-based. It’s also the market leader.

Morning Star’s self-organising model may be deemed to be the exception rather than the rule yet even in Japan, not known as a hotbed of organisational change, companies are experimenting with different management approaches. Tokio Marine Nichido Systems was once a bureaucratic, vertically divided, passive and “exhausted” IT company. By 2011 its dramatic transformation story had earned it a place among the winners of a global management innovation challenge staged by the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey. Key to the company’s change efforts: a strong focus on self-direction and autonomy among staff. Tokio employees can choose their work hours and workplace, supervision is kept to a minimum, and staff are encouraged to choose their own job according to their ability and preferences. “People unleash their abilities when they do the job they love,” said Tokio’s head of strategic research, Tsukasa Makino. “Trusting people is the best way to guide them to do the right things.”

This post first appeared on unclutteredwhitespaces.com.

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