"I wish I was managing robots."

Posted by jlubans on September 21, 2015

Caption: The worms turn.

In Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
there’s an exchange between two of the players:
Domin (the boss): “Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?”
Helena: “The best? Probably the one who– who– who is honest– and dedicated.”
Domin: “No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs….”
Ms. Vailey Oehlke, the Director of the Multnomah County Library, gave me the title quote, "I wish I was (sic) managing robots". She heard it from a frustrated participant at a national conference of directors of large public libraries. Likely, the speaker was wishfully thinking along the lines of cheap and least needy. Instead, leaders have to deal with humans and all their issues. Few of us are ever happy to do just what we are told, to keep our mouths shut and to get on with it.
Alas, hand in hand with human creativity and achievement come human idiosyncrasies, which may stymie any leader’s moving an organization from point A to point B. For that matter, even Rossum’s Robots have their day, and then some!
Which brings me to Adaptive Leadership (AL).*
Oehlke - who oversees 600 staff and 19 branches serving Portland, OR and beyond – understands she in not managing robots. She told me about adaptive leadership, an idea developed at Harvard by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky that she is introducing to her organization. Her hope is that her organization’s leadership, including her dozen direct reports, will become, through AL, more amenable to change and adaptable to challenges. AL, as a concept, is meant to move an organization’s culture to one that is spontaneously more flexible and more innovative.
AL holds that ideas can and should come from all over the organization, not just from the administrative group. Heifetz, while responding to an interview question, “Can you point to any specific businesses that excel at adaptive leadership?” stated: “Many people are doing a good job at adaptive leadership, but they’re not always in the highest positions of authority. There are countless people scattered throughout organizations, including people at the periphery, who raise the tough questions without knowing the answers, and then mobilize people to tackle those tough questions and generate innovations.”
So, AL recognizes that leaders have to take their collective foot off the control pedal so that those good ideas on the periphery can be heard, applied and integrated into the organization. That cannot happen unless leaders let go of what some regard as their sovereign role in idea generation and exploration. In other words, leadership has to cultivate a culture that recognizes and rewards critical thinking, innovation and action taking among its workers, its effective followers, a culture that permits leading from the middle.
A friend and colleague, Russ Besancon, sent me a note about another leadership theory, Kouzes and Posner's** “exemplary” or “transformational” variety, one not dissimilar from AL.
"The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership”:
"...leaders...were at their best when they [1] modeled the way, [2] inspired a shared vision, [3] challenged the process, [4] enabled others to act, and [5] encouraged the hearts of followers."
How many transformational leaders do you know? I know a few, even a couple with whom I worked. Many with whom I never worked but did have occasion to talk with directly or to hear from his/her staff did well at two or three of the “five practices”, but had a most difficult time with enabling others to act and encouraging the hearts of followers. Perhaps AL – once ingrained in an organization’s culture - can help effective leaders achieve all five of these practices. Absent those practices any attempt to move an organization away from the traditional top down model (and its many variations) will languish and eventually be seen as yet another passing fad.

*A useful primer on AL and how it differs from other leadership theories can be found here.

**The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations", 2012.

Copyright © John Lubans 2015

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