Simon Terry

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The Emperor’s New Clothes

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“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co- exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.” – Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless

What exactly is the power in your company’s hierarchy?

A Culture of Consent

Debates over structure, governance and power dominate management. We want to get the right balance between command and autonomy as if this is a formula that can be designed externally and imposed. The realities of power in organisations are simpler than we perceive.  

An organisation is not a state. Despite their orders, minions, wealth and luxurious surrounds, senior managers are not rulers. There is no army, no police force and no jail. Shareholders are not voters to provide legitimacy to coercion. Security guards have limits on their ability to apply force and is rarely constructive. Coercive power is in organisations is rather like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Senior managers know this well because daily they experience the limits of their ability to order.

Organisations have one form of power – exclusion through exile or ostracism. Senior management have security guards to escort you from the building.  Management can encourage others to turn on you. They can deprive you of this source of income and relationships in a community of peers, but have no other power. Look closely, they probably can’t even deprive you of resources, as these are usually under the day-to-day management of your peers. You already work around that issue daily as you make your organisation’s budgeting work.

All the power of the hierarchical leaders of organisations is given to them by the culture within the organisation. It is social influence, not power backed by force. Like the greengrocer in Vaclav Havel’s example above, you either live within that culture (and sustain its power) or you don’t (and become a dissident or rebel).

If the Emperor of Management has no clothes..

  • Change is closer than you think. Start to create new influence or question the sources and approaches of power and you are already leading change, potentially far more quickly than you realise.
  • Management are not a blocker outside the system preventing change. They are a part of the same system and equally aware of its issues. Encourage them to adapt management practice through conversations about influence, culture and the practices of power.
  • Network with like minded peers discuss and debate what needs to change. How should influence be structured in your organisation?
  • Culture is not a project just for the HR team. The consequences of the real cultural norms are far wider and far more important than a poster of values. Culture will shape what the organisation perceives and how it is able to respond.
  • Living in reality and being more human is harder than you think. First, you must separate reality from the views that you have chosen to believe. Second, you must continue to engage with the reality of the situation without the warm support of culture.
  • The future models of power in your organisation are a discussion for the community. Adopting elaborate models of autonomy and decision making without this discussion is swapping one naked emperor for another. If you adopting a new model, what is it about this model that makes it closer to the reality of influence in your organisation?
  • The ability to survive and restart reduces the threat of management power. That means a sense of personal purpose, savings of six to twelve months of living expenses, marketable capabilities and good external networks. Removing the danger from exile and strengthening purpose against ostracism frees the rebel to lead change.

“For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if it has been here for a long time already and only our own blindness and weakness and has prevented us from seeing it around and within us and prevented us from developing it?” – Vaclav Havel


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