Leadership: Managing Diverse Agendas
Many people advocate what has become known as consensus management to take account of the diversity of views and expertise within organisations, and in this way to tap into the wisdom of crowds. On the other hand, others, looking at the success of leaders like Steve Jobs, argue the need for a clear personal vision of the future in the belief that followers will fall behind that vision. As we seek to manage diverse agendas, are these differing leadership approaches reconcilable?
The Steve Jobs myth
The reality of the Apple success story was that Jobs relied on the views of many people, not just his own, as effective leaders must always do. It is a myth that there is just one person sitting at the top of an organisation who can somehow galvanise everybody else towards one single way of thinking. It is an example of what psychologists call ‘the fundamental attribution error’ - common sense explanations of the world that are fundamentally wrong.
In practice leaders do not have any choice nowadays in the way they build organisations. The business world is too complex for literally one, or even just a few individuals, to deliver all of the required leadership. Furthermore, we put much effort into educating and developing people in organisations to think for themselves, to innovate, to take responsibility. So why wouldn’t we want to draw on their opinions about organisational direction? And how in any case, how would we stop them using those opinions when they don’t believe in the wisdom from top management? We can’t have it both ways.
Reconciling these two approaches
It is essential to find a way of reconciling the diversity of leadership views. Small organisations are able to operate under the guidance of just one leader at the top. But in more substantial organisations, those at executive level must content themselves with setting strategic objectives, and then allowing everyone else to work out how to realise them, provided ethical standards are adhered to and the law obeyed. However, it is crucial that they also do something else. Senior leaders have to recognise that sometimes people can see more from within the organisation than they at the top can see. It therefore follows that, having set strategic parameters, leaders should be open to those being challenged. Putting that another way, if you are at executive level you must at times be open to being led by those below.
Contemporary organisational leadership is best described as agenda management, a process of reconciling diverse agendas by giving enough time and airspace to others without losing sight of your own vision. So much depends on the quality of relationships around you, because it is relationships that represent the ‘social capital’ in a business. That capital is worth so much because it allows competing agendas with genuine validity for the business to make their mark. Without that possibility, worthy agendas remain unexpressed, or worse, repressed. Neither is good for the business. The key lies in being able to harness the diversity of strategic views that will inevitably be there.
Agenda management means developing the ability in leaders to resolve conflicts and get to grips with the sometimes difficult internal politics that go hand in hand with delivering productivity and profit. No leader will be able to do this without learning how to accept that challenge and a degree of conflict are essential for the health of any organisation. Thus leaders must discover how to challenge the status quo constructively, for sometimes those with influence may not want their thinking contested.
Final advice for leaders
Above all, it is key to recognise that leadership requires attention to three directions: the people who work for you within the structure, the people alongside you and those above you. Leadership is a negotiated process: you have to discover how to get results alongside other key people. The starting point is to encourage a thorough intellectual appraisal of the business and to build quality relationships which allow you to debate and resolve differences of strategic view.
Dr David Butcher is Director of Cranfield’s Centre for General Management Development