Imagine a country like this:
- Run by a small group of powerful individuals (let’s call them oligarchs)
- Transitions of power only occur when those in power hand it hand down to chosen successors or as a result of bloody coups
- Status in the society is intensely hierarchical. Changes in status are managed carefully after interviews and testing by those responsible for correct human behaviour
- The rewards to oligarchs can far exceed those of others in the country
- Resources are subject to allocation and expropriation. Individuals engage in barter and black market activities to work around resource constraints
- There is a constant state of war with the country battling external threats and the daily activities and goals are often meaningless
- Decision making can be arbitrary and decisions are often made without consultation or explanation
- The oligarchy engages in continuous propaganda. There is a black market in real information
- Freedom of speech and action is tightly constrained by policies and process.
- Any form of rebellion against these stringent rules results in exile or a significant loss of status and livelihood.
Sadly, countries like this are all too common in human history. Most prompt a consistent flow of refugees fleeing an environment that stifles human potential and human relationships.
How many of these characteristics apply to your organisation?
If you company was the country above, would you choose to live there? Are some of these characteristics driving engagement in your organisation?
Today more talented individuals are choosing careers that avoid the kinds of experiences listed above. They are refugees who ‘voted with their feet’ to leave dysfunctional organisations.
In a country, arbitrary decision making power used without consultation is seen as bad thing, risking unrest, poor policy outcomes and corruption. In business, it is called ‘strong management’. Many organisations are beginning to see the limits of these traditional models.
Rethink Power, Purpose and Potential
The answer is not necessarily that we should make every organisation function like a country using a political system like democracy or an anarchy. We know from looking at our own countries that these systems have real issues too. For almost all organisations that transition is too great a leap to make in one step. Few organisations that have led working in new ways are copied. However we can learn by reflecting on what refugees are seeking.
There are three transitions most people would seek in fleeing the country above, if they could. Anyone who becomes a refugee knows that the life ahead is hard and that they must put up with many new challenges. People flee to escape oppression and experience better leadership, fulfil purpose and to realise their potential.
These are the key transitions that leaders of organisations can help create to avoid that exodus:
- From Power to Participation: A move from arbitrary hierarchical power to a situation where people, customers and community are respected and there is an opportunity for all to lead and contribute transparently to the discussion and the work.
- From Subsistence to Purpose: Giving people the opportunity to find intrinsic meaning and to work for a purpose, not just a pay check.
- From Subjugation to Potential: Recognising that everyone has the ability to contribute more if given information, flexibility, a chance to learn and the opportunity to grow.
Those three transitions don’t even require leaders to surrender final say in decisions, their hierarchies and their processes today. However, these transitions build trust and enable new conversations about how the organisation will work and the consequences of its actions. Those insights will form the basis of the next phase of transformation of the way the organisation works.
Leadership is the way to better realise human potential. Leveraging the innovation inherent in human potential is the way to improve our leadership and our organisations.