Tops, middles, and bottoms

Wednesday (yesterday) seems to have been my day for thinking about leadership. I had brushes with ideas on leadership during the day. The first was with someone with whom I was discussing possible reasons for organizational inertia. The second was with someone who was perplexed that people in the organization kept saying that they couldn't act because they didn't have the right level of leadership support. The third was an email that invited me to a lunchtime discussion on "Courage – The Essential Leadership Competency". The fourth was a piece of writing the author had sent me titled "Leadership in the Petaclasm" with his response to my response on that piece. So I'll take a brief look at each of the four pieces in turn.

Possible reasons for organizational inertia are, in the view of the person I was talking with, due to difficulties in communication between the top, middle, and bottom layers of an organization. She mentioned Barry Oshry's work on "Tops, Middles, and Bottoms", a notion that is developed in his article Total System Power and in an article on his website, Silo Breakthroughs: Creating a Powerful Middle Team, written by Marcia Hyatt, and Ginny Belden-Charles. In this article the authors:

"Examine the "middle space" in organizations. "Middles" in a system are those who are in the middle of the hierarchy or those caught between conflicting demands. The ones in an organization who experience this the most are the management layers between top executives and front line workers. In some systems this could mean 4-8 layers of management. They look at the conditions that exist in the middle and the common systemic patterns that these conditions create.

Failing to act without the 'right level of leadership support' seems to me to be a symptom of fear of failure in a punitive hierarchy typical of government bureaucracies. In a refreshing article in Government Executive, Martha Johnson, Administrator, GSA, rejects

'the "great man on top" theory, in which an omniscient leader issues directives from on high. In the age of social media, Johnson says that strategy "just doesn't work anymore." "People can be in connection with each other now in a way that we always used to control in our silos," she says. "With information technology, everyone shares everyone's ideas. Leading as if you're controlling doesn't work; it's just sheer arrogance to think you can." Her view is that "We have to learn to take risks, and perhaps fail, but fail fast, fail forward and fail fruitfully."

Given that taking risks requires courage it was timely that I learned from the flyer on the lunchtime seminar "Courage – The Essential Leadership Competency" that there are six types of courage. The seminar is led by Paul Deeprose who wrote an article on these. He talks about:

The Courage to Believe: Have the courage to aim high and embrace the positive challenges you will undoubtedly face.

The Courage to Innovate: "Courage disposes people not to just think outside the box, but to live outside the box." Try new things!

The Courage to Speak Up: Express opinions, give feedback and trust your judgement. You have unique talents; share them.

The Courage to Trust: Be trusting first, don't force people to earn your trust. Relax your control; trust that others are capable and want to do a good job. Work with integrity, humility, openness and honesty.

The Courage to Make Mistakes: Too few mistakes highlights complacency. Try things, make mistakes and learn from them.

The Courage to Take Action: Step over the line, build safety nets and the joy of success will far outweigh the fear of failure.

Once we have courageous leaders at the top, middle, and bottom will they be capable of Leadership in the Petaclasm? Only, if I'm reading Nigel Cameron correctly, if they have the additional characteristic of being a bridge builder and importantly:

First, a bridge to the future. And the faster change takes place, the more central this becomes. That is to say, leadership that is both innovative and constantly embracing of innovation.

Second, a bridge across the silos, disciplines, communities; a networking that draws on ever more diverse sources in the midst of the data deluge and the growing inter-connectedness. Leadership through innovation through networks of knowledge.

So yesterday brought lots of leadership stuff to think about and I'm now working through the patterns that are beginning to emerge. A project that came my way later in the day was one where the department was described as having been leaderless for years, and the task of the newly appointed leader was to fix what was broken and get the department to high performance and high customer satisfaction as quickly as possible. Paying attention to the middles, enabling them to act without deferring to him, showing courage, recognizing the value of knowledge networks and developing capability to work with a mindset that is future looking not hindsight looking could be a sensible way forward.