Balancing Two Extremes

“The line between firmness and harshness, between strong leadership and bullying, between discipline and [rigidity] – is a fine one.  It is difficult to define, but those of us who are professionals and also have accepted as a career the leadership of men, must find that line.”

General Melvin Zais, US Army

Much of the literature on change and transformation talks about maximizing employee and stakeholder participation through engagement. While this is true, it is necessary to bear in mind some important caveats. In certain circumstances or times – invariably in urgent or crisis situations – leaders have to lead, and people simply have to do what they are told and follow orders. The fundamental point is to know exactly when to direct, and when to dialogue. This calls for balancing the two extremes of leadership styles – the ‘telling’ versus the empowered approaches.

In a recent team engagement session I conducted for an oil and gas company, its CFO shared the following illuminating piece. It was an extract from an article by General Melvin Zais of the US army:

“The day I assumed command of this division I enjoined the leaders to take care of their men. I have reiterated this statement many times since then. Even so, I again find it necessary to call this matter to your attention. Taking care of your men includes food, shelter, pay, clothing, mail and recreation, but even more important is your attitude.

  • You cannot expect a soldier to be a proud soldier if you humiliate him.
  • You cannot expect him to be brave if you abuse him.
  • You cannot expect him to be strong if you break him.
  • You cannot ask for respect and obedience and willingness to assault hot landing zones, climb up back-breaking ridges or destroy dug-in emplacements if your soldier has not been treated with the respect and dignity which fosters unit spirit and personal pride.

The line between firmness and harshness, between strong leadership and bullying, between discipline and [rigidity] – is a fine one.  It is difficult to define, but those of us who are professionals and also have accepted as a career the leadership of men, must find that line.  It is because judgements and people and human relationships are involved in leadership that only men can lead men, and not computers.

I enjoin you to be ever alert to the pitfalls of too much authority.  For the very junior leader beware that you do not fall in the category of the little man with a little job and with a big head.  In essence, be considerate.  Treat your subordinates right and they will literally die for you”.

One thing is clear, that both the directive and empowering styles of leadership are appropriate in change management – but in different contexts, and for different reasons and purposes. It is accepted the world over that embracing change is absolutely vital for the success of all organizations. Yet, why is it that change programs often fail to meet desired goals? Need for research into the success factors and causes of failure in change programs has never been greater.

Happily, most new ideas and trends in change management are not rocket science. However, they merit serious consideration as we grapple with the demands posed by the 21st century. N. Machiavelli captures the essence of the challenge thus: “There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to be a leader in the introduction of changes. For he, who innovates, will have for enemies all those who are well off under the old order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

Nature abhors status quo. Change has been with us since the beginning of time and will endure. The least we can do is to keep ourselves abreast with the unfolding realities in our business and socio-economic environment and adapt accordingly, or simply perish. Ideally, we should be able to read the trends in our respective industries and markets and try to stay ahead of the game.

How individuals and organizations respond to the challenges of sustaining growth will vary significantly. For example, a small organization may want to expand into new markets by opening a local sales office overseas as part of its strategy. On the other hand, a large multinational may decide to centralize or consolidate certain operations into a single location. Some may want to switch from a national brand and attempt to create a single global brand, while others may favor creation of global business units with regional operations. Such strategic considerations will involve plenty of management time gathering and analyzing relevant data; considering the pros and cons of each alternative; and working out ways that will make the needed organization-wide changes effective.

Competitive pressures, organizational life-cycle, internal succession, technology, geo-politics, regulation & deregulation, and market expectations continue to be dynamic, forcing organizations to continuously renew and revitalize themselves. This requires constant unlearning and re-learning – something most managers understand at an intellectual level, but have difficulty practicing in real life.

In one of your future meetings, ask your managers, “Do people need to change?” Invariably all hands will go up, signifying a resounding “Yes”! Then ask a follow-up question, “Do you need to change?” And notice the pause and silence, before hands go up slowly and reluctantly. It’s easy to point fingers at others. It’s high time we learned to look within ourselves.

“Things” change only if people change. And people only change if they see the world differently. This implies the need for continuous personal development. The essential truth is that you cannot force people to change; they have to want to change.

In light of the above, the challenge for leadership in organizations is to take their people through some form of an interactive process that enables them to understand what is happening within and around their organization. This helps them to draw their own conclusions about the implications and options in change. Such programs need to take place at all levels – those of the individual, team and the organization.

Everyone needs to get involved and engaged in the debate about future directions and change. Through such an approach we mobilize energy for change through joint diagnosis of business problems and collective search for possible solutions. Organizations like United Energy Pakistan, Engro Corp and Karachi Electric Supply Co (KESC), and many others, are successfully managing change by following such a participative strategy. The good news is that major local companies in Pakistan are also joining the foray.

We need to keep in mind a growing social trend worldwide, that of the increasing importance and power of the individuals. The implications for change are profound. In every area of change, there is an increasing awareness of the need to treat people as individuals – understanding, respecting, valuing and working within the sphere of the individual. This requires considerable amounts of time for understanding, planning, tolerance, and flexibility. We need to get wiser at change by understanding its complexities and subtleties, and adopt more practical and relevant approaches to it.

In other words, we need to consider an integrative approach. It makes sense, but produces some difficult choices for those charged with bringing change. There are strong, positive benefits for organizations that adopt a broader approach. However, the downside is the amount of discussion and debate that is required to consolidate differing views and perspectives on issues.

By the balancing the two extremes we can not only create a buy-in of all key stakeholders, but can also drastically reduce the time to implement agreed plans and strategies as there will be much less resistance and fewer surprises during execution.