For today’s work we need Servant Leaders

As a manager, when things go wrong it is natural to want to know what went wrong, where the process broke down, and who didn’t do what was necessary. This often leads to the worst of 20th century style management: Blamestorming; Senior Management being able to point the finger at an agreed culprit (rarely a collective agreement). A more enlightened working environment may look for underlying failures of process or people without attributing conscious responsibility; for example, the training wasn’t good enough. In both examples the motivation is the same, to compartmentalise the issue into a single problem that can be either improved, removed or replaced, and where that problem is not ME.

I would suggest that if something has gone wrong, and you were in any way involved in the delivery, then you are culpable. The phrase goes “if you aren’t part of the solution, then you are part of the problem” – now turn that around. If there is a problem that you are aware of, and the problem still exists, then the solution hasn’t materialised, therefore you are currently part of the problem.

Before the 20th century, management was about the coordination of large numbers of individual resources applied to simple tasks (mining coal, spinning wool etc.) Early 20th century processes and their associated management were focused on increasing efficiency in the execution of defined tasks. More machines, more processes, and strong command aimed to ensure that algorithms were so effective for simple tasks that they could be extrapolated to tackle more convoluted and complicated tasks with multiple steps. However the premise was the same, merely on a larger scale. Control the individual’s actions within a well defined complicated set of tasks. The individual’s role in the system is to follow defined logic. The management approach was hierarchical; command and control, with the belief that the work that is being undertaken can be fully defined and understood.

However, this all breaks down when the issue to be addressed can no longer be expressed as a set of predefined tasks and a degree of independent thought is required. Towards the end of the 20th century in developed societies, there was a shift, and employees were increasingly required for their ability to think rather than just their ability to do.

21st century work is the analysis of complex problems – The identification and execution of small changes / deliverables that progressively reduce a problem to an acceptable size. At the start, there is a choice of which change(s) to make and how they could be made, so a clear set of predefined processes and tasks is not effective. The most effective approach to this type of issue is to work in small teams. The team will approach the problem through collaborative multifaceted reasoning (enhanced by experience) and will rapidly propose progressive actions to minimise the problem, each solution requiring empirical validation. Or in simpler terms, they’ll come up with ideas and they won’t know whether they will work until they try. In this environment traditional management will be counter-productive. Steps to structure, predefine and compartmentalise the work will reduce the opportunity to collaborate, thereby reducing the potential of the team over a group of individuals.

The role of Management’s in our current world is to be the Servant Leader. The person who provides the best environment for others to be the best they can be. The Servant Leader removes problems and provides support. Support could be in the form of guidelines to bring consistency, in the form of training and coaching, or in the form of emotional support to help build the best relationships and forge the best teams.

To provide support, you need to build trust and respect. Trust is difficult to gain, and easy to lose.

So next time, when things are going awry, consider whether you have enabled everyone around you to be as good as they can be. Do you truly support them, and is there mutual trust and respect? If not then I think that is where the blamestorming should start.