Wisdom from The Leader's Handbook - Part II

Photo by Shane Rounce / Unsplash

Welcome back to Part II, if you haven't already seen Part I, we're talking a bit about The Leader's Handbook a book that summarizes new skills of leadership and management needed for the 21st Century, many stemming from W. Edwards Deming, Japanese Management (Kaizen, Gemba) etc. The book was first published in 1998 but still contains useful advice and ways to manage and lead teams and organizations in more holistic ways. It does this by focusing on the competencies needed by those who embrace a new style of working.

We covered competencies 1-3 in Part I. These new competencies reflect the author's thinking around skill development areas needed to transcend classical command-and-control hierarchical management structures.

  • Competency 1 -  Ability to think in systems, and how to lead systems
  • Competency 2 - Ability to understand variability and manage in relation to it.
  • Competency 3 - Understanding how we learn, and leading organizations that are able to learn.

Here in Part II of this post, we'll be looking at the last three competencies:

  • Competency 4 - Understanding people and why they behave as they do.
  • Competency 5 - Understanding the interdependence and interaction between Competencies 1-4 and how each impacts the other.
  • Competency 6 - Giving vision and meaning to organizations.

Together these 6 competencies and their interconnectedness (through competencies 5 and 6) are the foundation for a career's worth of skill development and training. I plan to keep diving into various threads from these competencies in future blog posts.

🧠Understanding human behavior

When we think about the ways in which people behave and act, it is often based on intrinsic psychological factors. When we're building a modern firm that seeks to think in systems, continuous improvement, and focus on quality and improvement, we must restructure organizations so that they are able to consider how to motivate, relate and build trust with everyone involved. Motivation can be intrinsic, or extrinsic, and how we cultivate motivation in others is an important skill for any modern manager. Motivation isn't just about manipulation with incentives, shown time and again to have limited impact and usefulness.

As cognitive, social and psychological sciences have advanced, we've learned a lot more about human behaviors and how people think and work. Much of our brain "software" has its roots in evolutionary adaptations that have enabled humans to survive in quite a different environment than we find ourselves in the modern world. As we learn more, we're able to become meta-cognitive (thinking about our own thinking) and better understand how to build institutions and organizations that are better adapted to these human behaviors. Late in the industrial era with Taylorism or the birth of quantitative management, workers were manipulated in order to benefit the firm. This divide between management and workers perpetuates top-down thinking and limits the complexity of work.

Relating with each other is often a source of challenges and conflicts when we don't do the work to better understand each other's perspectives and points of view (see Whakawhanaungatanga). You can have all the motivation and relationships you want, but if people don't trust each other you'll have limited ability to bring change and improvement to companies and systems.

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Thinking Prompt
Do you and your organization consider how you, your staff, and your customers think?
Can you think of a time that this kind of empathy and understanding of others and their thinking helped you solve a problem in your organization?

Further Reading:

🕸Understanding interdependence and interaction of systems

As problems in research and business have become more complex, it has become more clear that we need to understand the interdependence of systems. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated supply-chain disruptions, inflationary pressures, and constituent domino effects, it is clear that we live in a complex and interdependent world. Much of how we deal with these complexities is to be reactive rather than proactive about changes as they happen.

If we're able to build mindsets for systems thinking and consideration of the interactions and interdependence of systems, we are able to adopt new paradigms and ways of thinking that allow us to transcend disruption. We bring together the four topics above from competencies 1-4, thinking in systems, understanding variability, understanding how we learn, and understanding people. The interaction space between these competencies is the interaction space of the new type of company or firm. Does it collectively (across all staff) have each of these four competencies, is it operating with shared goals, and separations of concern?

To better understand this interdependence within and between organizations takes intentional work to observe and introspect. Formal and informal means of introspection and analysis can be an important first step in building an organization that is able to understand its role as a participant in many interacting systems.

Dr. Deming pulled all of this interaction space together in what he referred to as a "system for profound knowledge" which you can see in the following diagram.

From The Leader's Handbook p44
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Thinking Prompt
What are some interdependences you have with another unit of your organization?
How do others perceive the organization you do most of your work within? Is it the same way you perceive yourself?
Are there key vulnerabilities to your organization which you are able to sense, but have no way to communicate to your leadership?

Further Reading:

📢Providing vision, meaning and direction

The work of providing vision, meaning, and direction is complex and challenging. However, as we build organizations with the ability to have a kind of fractal construction, this meaning, vision, and direction help to guide the work of various contributing parts of the whole. This vision and meaning work is the necessary context by which other parts of the organization can operate with relative autonomy and contribute to the overall goals of the organization. Modern management has many rules of thumb and tricks like Jeff Bezos' Two Pizza Rule (Never hold a meeting where there are more participants than you can feed with just two pizzas) for how to flatten work hierarchies, but scant time is spent on the kind of leadership necessary for things like the Two Pizza Rule to actually work.

For our organizations to have fractal autonomy, we need a clear vision, meaning, and direction which are shared at a deep level. A management class that believes in the vision, but hasn't done the work to translate it to frontline workers will increasingly find itself challenged in modern working environments. As we've seen in the Work from Home (WFH) discourse post-COVID-19, having a misalignment between your front-of-house workers and your management can be a key strategic miss-step in the current era. Leadership is no longer about certainty and complete mitigation of risk, it is about the possibility, opportunity, and collective capability.

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Thinking Prompt
Is your leadership message the message of the leader, or an organically co-created and evolving vision which represents the collective capabilities of your organization?
What are the obstacles to co-creating a shared vision for the future of your org? How do these relate to power structures in your organization?
If you were asked to transcend or challenge these traditional structures, what would be the way you approach it?

Further Reading

🆕A new kind of leadership

In this 21st Century, post-COVID information economy, we need new ways of working that embrace the underlying complexity of organizations and their work and impact on the world. This cannot be done in traditional command-and-control kinds of ways. History is littered with counter-examples of how command-and-control does not work past a certain scale. Whether it's companies, governments, non-profits, or social enterprises. We can all learn from how natural systems with simple components work together to have emergent complexity and capability.

If you've enjoyed this article, are looking to build a learning organization, or otherwise grow the resilience and competency of your team, please reach out. I love to hear from you.

I help teams consider their collective capabilities, future visions, and strategies for building impact-driven organizations which can co-create a rich and resilient future. This work starts with understanding your people, how you work today, and what you aspire to, and facilitated conversations toward how you reach your goals for impact and sustainment.

Jonah Duckles

Jonah Duckles