The Problems Of Top-Down Leadership

Given the diversity of beliefs and the passionate intensity of opinions, is there any right answer for how organizational change is accomplished? Is it dictated, or facilitated? Mandated or guided? Driven or led? And is there a single meaningful answer?

Some of the greatest innovations – not just of our lifetime, but throughout the ages – are the products of a select few individuals seeing, understanding and believing a truth where all others saw fallacy, lies and heresy. Any radical change to the established order of the world started with a handful of iconoclasts who dared to look at the world through a different lens. Whether the product of genius, madness or slightly unhinged creativity is irrelevant. They saw the world differently, and refused to accept a reality out of lockstep with their convictions, merely because theirs was the sole dissenting voice in a world of conformity.

Is corporate leadership today any different?

Numerous gurus, change programs and leadership models embrace the innovative power of the collective over the exercising of personal power by a dominant few individuals. Yet if innovation has historically been a product of the few wearing down the many, how does communal input foster quantum leaps in creativity? How does the consensus voice of the masses, collectively performing their established role, develop the impetus and insight to image a new order of things? Can they?

Changing the world requires an ability to embrace a vision writ large – very large. Creativity is the inspired re-ordering of the familiar into something new, and the foreign into something of value. It requires a mental remove from today's problems and issues, and an imagining of a broader future that is nothing more than dreams – but with a will to turn those dreams into a reality. Can we as a collective group step back from our day-to-day challenges, problems and concerns, and see a broader vision that can exist only because we will it into being? Can we step back and see the forest, when our daily functions require intimacy with not trees but bark?

But if the collective is the driver of corporate innovation, why is it the actions of individuals that seem most worthy of attention? Appointments of CEOs have massive influences on stock prices – up and down. Corporate performance is often described as a product of one individual's leadership. A succession plan – or failure to implement one – is regarded as a bellwether of subsequent corporate performance. The success of organizations like Coca-Cola, General Electric and IBM is not considered a product of the thousands of people they employ, but of the individual leadership qualities of Goizueta, Welch and Gerstner.

And yet leadership in a vacuum isn't leadership at all. What impact can any CEO have, speaking to an empty room? It is the people that work for an organization, and their willingness to accept, embrace and further a leader's vision, that ultimately determine results. Yet the most common measure of an organization is seldom the quality of its staff, and all too often the quality of its leaders.

This begs the question of whether leadership is truly the driving force, or merely the lowest-common-denominator explanation. Certainly the business press is far more comfortable with the appointment, dismissal or promotion of any one individual as an indicator of subsequent performance than the far more complex, uncertain and impenetrable analysis of the social, cultural and group dynamics within an organization and their ability to drive forward or bury organizational performance. We are a culture that likes easy labels, and complexity is therefore anathema. All too often, the only time that actual staff are regarded as having influence on an organization's success is when collectively grouped under the pejorative ‘union'.

But when was the last time a CEO had a really great idea? In point of fact, when did a CEO last have time to have a really great idea? The innovation we love to embrace all too often happens in isolation and obscurity. We fail to appreciate the effort, single-mindedness of purpose, and sheer time it takes to develop a really great idea. The innovative CEOs of today became CEOs long after they were innovative. And all too often they are now enjoying the fruits of their much earlier labours, rather than developing new ideas themselves. When was the last time Bill Gates wrote a computer program?

Leadership is a key quality in successful organizational change. Innovation is equally critical. The bodies responsible for these disciplines, however, just might be mutually exclusive.

To quote an esteemed innovator of his own time, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”

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1 Comment

  1. The people at the bottom level of a business are often the ones who understand the company best, they see things on the front line and even spot problems with the company first. Getting their advice and ideas can do wonders for a company but so many leaders look down on these people and ignore them out of hand

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