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Greg Park

PCM Consulting

Managing Director

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Exit the leadership vortex: to whom do operational leaders ultimately owe allegiance?


I was recently at a function at the House of Commons at which the seasoned CEO of a multinational financial services organisation aptly described the environment of business leadership much akin to operating in a vortex. In reality, amidst widespread confusion, if not chaos, leaders lack effective control of the speed, direction, indeed the ultimate destination and survival of the organisation.

Coming from someone who had been an executive director of a number of major financial services organisations this is a dramatic if not frightening statement, but nevertheless undoubtedly came from many decades of practical experience, insight and reflection. 

The role of operational leadership

My own experience would be very similar. In such a situation you apply every ounce of professionalism, experience, intuition and judgement, but ultimately depend upon a fixed smile, looking confident and keeping paddling desperately, albeit out of sight.

Deny vehemently or nod knowingly, this is certainly the reality of operational leadership, those leading at the centre of the organisation, ultimately responsible for achieving targets and objectives.

I’m talking about those who must translate strategy and policy into a form of clarity, direction and guidance which energises and engages those who must consistently deliver the “goods”.

Here’s a relevant quote from Metheny (2013) [PDF] from Jan Farran, Wharton Senior Fellow, who made the comments in 2008:

“Middle managers explain strategy and the overall organisation plan so that it makes sense and is relevant to the everyday worker.”

If operational leaders fail in this translation and doubt and confusion reigns then the “vortex syndrome” must inevitably have a dramatic effect on operational effectiveness and sustained performance.

The vortex and sprint leadership

Many leaders have erroneously come to accept the inevitability of this “vortex” as the natural context within which leadership takes place. Effective leadership is therefore recognised as achieving optimal performance against the odds, in the absence of effective control, rather than making an effort to respond to if not control the vortex.

Given the continuing dominance of the vortex syndrome it is unsurprising, perhaps even justifiable, that leadership decision making, with few exceptions, continues to be driven by rationality, pragmatism and expediency, a sprint rather than marathon mindset. 

Those few organisations which have survived and grown over sustained periods have sought to “manage” if not control at least some of those factors which create the leadership vortex. In so doing they have achieved a more sustained and even performance.

As Sir Keith Whitson, Group Chief Executive of HSBC Group, stated at the turn of the millennium:

“We are not managing for the next reporting period, we are managing an organisation that has survived and prospered for almost 140 years and is running a marathon, not a series of sprints.”

Exiting the vortex syndrome – square the circle

Whilst there are many reasons for this syndrome, including the increasing pace and complexity of change in the context within which the business operates, I believe that there is a much more fundamental issue at the heart of this energy and performance-sapping phenomenon. This is that the logic and priorities of the business organisation are increasingly inconsistent with the twenty first century business reality.

Operational leaders, those who must energise employees upon whose knowledge and active participation the organisation is increasingly dependent, find themselves increasingly unable to square the circle between the dominant, embedded organisational principles and priorities and the culture required to energise key “assets”, namely people, towards sustained and optimal performance.

As Sir John Bond, former Executive Chairman of HSBC Group, put it in a speech at the China Centre for Economic Research, Peking University, in 2001:

A company is an abstract concept, the product of a lawyer’s mind. Human beings are what bring a company to life and shape its destiny.”

To whom do leaders owe allegiance?

At the heart of this issue is the delicate question of to whom does the operational leader owe primary allegiance in order to effectively carry out their primary responsibilities of operational effectiveness and optimal sustained performance? Once this question is answered we can then begin to clearly define what must be the critical perspectives, attributes and capabilities of the operational leader.

This is the new reality: a focus on people and relational intelligence, rather than production and process, leads to sustained performance and profit, as reflected in a quote by Xerox PARC guru John Seely Brown:

“The job of leadership today is not just to make money: it’s to make meaning. Effective leadership wins people’s minds.”

I discern little except smoke and mirrors in respect of re-aligning perspectives, priorities and intra-organisational relationships. At the heart of the task are two issues; a sense of leadership authenticity and a sense of employee belonging and “ownership”, as reflected in the following quote by George (2003):

“We need leaders who lead with purpose, values and integrity; leaders who build enduring organizations, motivate their employees to provide superior customer service.”

Make the connection: people = performance

If there is a disconnect between the prevailing organisational values and priorities and those required for effective operational leadership there will inevitably be a shortfall in employee commitment, which negatively impacts productivity and performance.

In the twenty first century business context this is practical leadership 101. Operational leaders must acknowledge that a logic which does not actively motivate, energise and engage employees through relationally intelligent leadership, evoking trust, co-operation, a sense of obligation and common purpose, is a millstone which makes sustained, optimal performance but a pipe dream. 

In order to diminish the effects of the vortex it is critical that the dominant culture of the organisation, those principles, perspectives and priorities which dominate the cognitive processes of leadership decision making, resonate with the key “assets” upon which organisational performance and survival are dependant, people.

Energise to engage

The distant, indifferent leadership approach which continues to dominate organisational leadership culture is a significant, hidden drag on optimal performance. As asserted by Cross et al (2003):

“People are energised by interactions in which a compelling vision is created —– people are energised by interactions in which they can contribute meaningfully —— people are energised in interactions marked by progress”[vi]

Despite the continuing “pruning” of middle management it is critical to recognise the increasingly pivotal role of operational leadership in energising those key “assets” which ultimately deliver organisational performance and survival.

If the leadership vortex is not to be exacerbated we must recognise and institute a new set of relational priorities within the business organisation which truly reflects the twenty first century reality if the ambition of sustained, optimal productivity and performance is to be realised.

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Greg Park

Managing Director

Read more from Greg Park

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