Executives in forest looking at flipchart

The quest for clarity

Clear leadership is a management ideal that's much sought after but seldom achieved. E&T reviews a new book that proposes a model on which to base clarity of leadership.

The industrial revolution created its own new type of organisation - bureaucracy. Now we have the information revolution. Is this leading to another sort of organisation? Are we moving from 'command and control' to collaboration? There are other ideas being tried, but most of them revert back to their old form within a few years, according to Gervase Bushe, author of 'Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work'.

Bushe is a professor of leadership and organisation change at Segal Graduate School of Business in Vancouver and he says even partnerships - the holy grail of organisation design this century - are breaking down in acrimony. Why? Work systems that are efficient and innovative at the same time can stimulate learning and productivity simultaneously.

'Command and control' structures are still reckoned to be the most profitable way to organise - are they? - but they're not right for the speed of technological innovation. Must learning and performance then work against each other, even in the short run?

Virtually all the books written on leadership in the past hundred years are about how to lead performance. The new mantra postulates that clear leadership is about how to lead learning in the midst of performing.

'When I teach clear leadership to managers,' Professor Bushe writes, 'we always reach a point at which we have to get clear about the distinction between a learning conversation and a performance management conversation. A learning conversation is not about me helping you to learn what you are doing wrong or need to do better. That's a performance management conversation, and it is important to have those with people who work for you and are not meeting your performance expectations.'

That's clear leadership and look how it differs from the leadership we're more accustomed to. How do you create this culture of clarity? The skills of clear leadership according to the Bushe are: self-awareness; descriptiveness; curiosity; and appreciation. These are the bedrocks of his so-called 'experience cube'. In his new book his aim is to show us how managers and professionals use these skills 'to gain clarity and build partnerships among people who work together'.

Clear leadership is about how to lead learning in the midst of performing. The book tells us a lot about the thousands of managers who have come through his clear leadership course, but not what proportion may have come away disappointed or failed.

Post-industrial business

In the post industrial world, the professor writes, businesses are increasingly based on knowledge work, corporate valuations are based on human capital, and we are entering a period of extreme competition for talent as companies jostle over a limited pool of the people needed to support the growth of successful businesses.

Less clear is the need for leaders to create organisations that utilise the diverse talents of their people and sustain their willingness to commit energy to the organisation's success: in other words, to create work structures that can learn and perform simultaneously. What we've got is a vast array of experiments in flattening hierarchies, empowered workforces and cross-functional and geographically dispersed teams.

In the past 30 years, there has also been an explosion in technologies for creating partnerships, ranging from the hard information-technology processes and knowledge management to the soft organisation development processes like future search. 'We are getting better at initiating collaboration within and between groups, but we have had much less luck with sustaining it'.

Statistics on any type of partnership, from marriage to team-based organisations reveal a pretty poor record, according to the author. The fundamental premise of clear leadership is that 'interpersonal mush' causes many of these failures, especially between people who want to be in partnership.

Real partnership, he argues, means giving everyone an equal voice - and that means everyone needs to have access to the same information and the same choices. One partner can't decide what another needs to know and what's best left unsaid. 'Conflicts cannot simply be ignored and repressed by the force of authority. Instead, what's required is an ability to get things out in the open and clear the air, to build real commitment to decisions, to develop synergistic teams and to openly discuss failures and successes and learn from everyone's experience. Is that really all there is to building successful partnerships? Where is the evidence of 'a pretty poor record and proof of real partnership'?

What changes have been evident in managers trained in clear leadership? What can be learned from experience about this culture of clarity? Researchers, we are told, are studying why people take - and leave - jobs. Are people more influenced by their immediate bosses or by the company? In another study involving 20 managers who had been through a Clear Leadership course, 90 per cent said they had changed their behaviour at work as a result of the course, but we are not told how their behaviour had changed.

Bushe obviously has a point about unspoken assumptions and buried resentments, or 'interpersonal mush' prevalent in, but hardly dominating, today's workplace, creating misunderstanding and preventing organisations achieving sustained collaboration. His tools and techniques underpinning clear leadership may not be too easy to follow, which is why his courses run on license worldwide. The problem he wishes to solve is 'that organisations face a paradox because the things that support learning and innovation seem to do so at the expense of efficiency and performance. In the short run learning and performance seem to work against each other.'

His point is that interpersonal mush is endemic in many organisations, large and small, preventing collaboration from taking root. But where's the proof?

When he teaches clear leadership to managers, he writes: 'we always reach a point at which we have to get clear about the distinction between a learning conversation and a performance management conversation. As a manager, the first thing you need to learn during a performance management conversation is the basis of the person's lack of performance - almost always one of four situations:

  1. The person doesn't know what's expected of him or her: a goal or role clarity problem
  2. They don't know how to do what's expected of them: a competency or knowledge problem
  3. People don't want to do what's expected of them: a motivation problem
  4. They don't have the information or tools to do what's expected: an infrastructure problem.'

How do you build a culture of clarity in an organisation? Start with the senior team, 'working on their clear leadership skills, and then waterfall through the organisation, teaching the skills and doing clean-up in each successive manager's team.' Sounds much like Dick Evans revitalisation programme years ago at British Aerospace... 

'Clear leadership: sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work', by Gervase R Bushe is published by Davies-Black, an imprint of Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £14.99

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