The Leadership Problem

Political, organizational, and corporate leaders are  either outsiders or insiders.  Insiders who rise to leadership positions almost always do so by mastering the existing structures and ways of doing things.  In short, the best of them do what has always been done, hopefully better, while the worst cling to the most comfortable ways of the past, often rigidly enforcing certain rules and procedures, whether or not they’re the best for the present times.

On the other hand, outsiders who become leaders of established organizations or institutions are generally far more open to change.  In addition, such leaders carry with them ideas and practices that have worked in other settings.  As a result, as I’ve observed over the years, both in government and business, “outsider” leaders all too often impose changes without any understanding of the history and processes that created the practices and procedures that worked in the past for the organization…and that still do, even if not so well as the leader and those the organization serves would like.

Like it or not, there are reasons why institutions behave the way they do, and a leader needs to understand those reasons and the conditions that created them before attempting to make changes.  Also, at times, the environment changes, and the impact of those changes affects behavior.  One of the greatest changes in the political environment in the last century has been the combination of the electronic information revolution with the pervasiveness of the media.  The end result has been to make almost any sort of political compromise impossible, as witness the recent electoral defeats of politicians who have attempted or supported compromise.  While “purists” attack and condemn any politician who even attempts a compromise political solution, governing is difficult, if not impossible, without compromise, since most nations, especially the United States, are composed of people with differing interests.

Thus, a political leader who wishes to hold on to power cannot compromise, at least not in any way that the media can discover, but since actual change requires at least partial support from those with other views, any leader who manages change effectively destroys his own power base.

In the corporate world similar factors play out, with the major exception that a corporate leader is under enormous pressure to maintain/increase market share and profits.  So is every division head under that leader, and, as I’ve observed, time after time, subordinates are all too willing to implement changes that benefit their bottom line but increase the burdens and costs on every other division/part of the organization.  Likewise, I’ve seen so-called efficiency/streamlining measures imposed from the top end up costing far more than the previous “inefficiencies” because all too many organizational leaders failed to understand that different divisions and/or subsidiaries had truly different cost structures and needs and that “one size does not fit all.”

In the end, a great deal of the “leadership” problem boils down to two factors: lack of understanding on the part of both leaders and followers and the unwillingness/inability to compromise.  Without understanding and compromise, organizations…and nations… eventually fragment and fail.

4 thoughts on “The Leadership Problem”

  1. hob says:

    If a leader has to understand a system fully before making decisions, key solutions to the problems would have to be disregarded if the system itself creates those problems.

    If the leader disregards the multiple parts of a system and focuses only on solutions to the given problems, he risks diverting resources in a way that would collapse key parts and create bigger problems.

    You seem to be suggesting that the only workable solutions to these problems is to build sister systems while acknowledging that the first systems are more often than not compromised.

    Strange, it sounds almost like life reproduction/evolution models.

  2. No… a leader has to understand why the system developed and what issues and problems it addresses… and that means then entire system. Too many leaders do exactly what you point out — focusing on the immediate problem without understanding the ramifications for the system of the system or organization — and that almost always creates more problems.

  3. hob says:

    But your point about multiple view points needing addressing, and a leaders power depending on their support, would make a no win loop.

    Somebody’s view point would have to be shifted, and that would be possible if said leader has either, compromised the original system, or their authority is not based on that system in its entirety being preserved. Implying that a sub structure can exist and does exist to tackle the problems that the system was designed for, the leader just needs enough information to see it.

    This would be the perfect theoretical model but in the real world a person of such understanding would never have been appointed.

  4. hob says:

    Sorry, accidentally hit the submit button without completing what I was trying to say…

    So, if a leader is appointed on the basis of supporting the various view points who appoint him, and if we presume that said person cannot have the understanding which Mr Modesitt’s model would require because he has been appointed–the only way solutions can be implemented is through deception. And that to, taking into account the most powerful views having to be maintained regardless, as they would be in on said deception.

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