Are you a-buck-stops-here leader? Do you secretly look forward to making the call when a crisis has stakeholders demanding action? If so, then please be advised that some of the world’s toughest leaders are not at all impressed. In fact, as far as Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré (Ret.) is concerned, you don’t have the right stuff to lead any organization in today’s complex world.
Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré (Ret.)
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
“Command and control will not serve the future,” warns the former commander of the U.S. First Army.
Over a distinguished 37-year career, Honoré led the U.S. military’s response to numerous crisis situations, ranging from the sniper shooting spree that terrorized Washington D.C. in 2002, to the devastation and civil unrest unleashed on the American South by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, when he famously told a reporter not to get “stuck on stupid” during a press conference. A different kind of mission recently sent the outspoken general to Canada. In May, he kicked off a conference on collaboration hosted by Western University in London, Ontario, where the Richard Ivey School of Business and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, along with Central Michigan University, set their collective guns on the transfer of military best practices to the private and public sectors.
Honoré has lots of advice for global leaders of all stripes. He thinks, for example, that most organizations need to tear up their crisis plans. Simply put, if you are not prepared for a total loss of power and communications, not to mention a scenario that involves body bags and the need to break a few laws, then you are not thinking bad enough. To really prepare for a crisis, Honoré, who recalls having to order airline authorities to forget about screening procedures while evacuating New Orleans, insists you must seriously imagine your worst nightmare. And then you must prepare for your plan to fail, “because the first casualty in any emergency is the disaster plan.”
Share control over decision-making
But that wasn’t the advice the general was delivering. Honoré isn’t the kind of officer who would willingly lay down arms in an against-all-odds battle, at least not while a chance to win still exists. Nevertheless, he advises CEOs and other leaders to put egos aside and learn to share control over decision-making because that is what it takes “to get things done in the new normal,” where hierarchical thinking is a barrier to achieving results. An effective response to most modern challenges requires multiple groups to act together.
According to Gerard Seijts, executive director of Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, the general’s message is simple. “The U.S. Army revolutionized how it makes decisions because technology-enabled collaboration is superior to centralized decision making in today’s complex world of interconnected risks, opportunities and challenges. And other organizations, including corporations, should do the same because collaboration across boundaries leads to bottom-up information flow, which may have saved a few U.S. banks during the financial crisis.”
Seijts notes that Internet access and social media tools have improved how average people make decisions. But many organizations remain stubbornly stuck in the past. “It’s ironic,” he says, noting Facebook offers a great collaboration tool, but even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known as a collaborator. Facebook went public with a controversial governance structure that allows Zuckerberg to remain in command and control no matter what transpires. Prior to the IPO, he raised eyebrows by agreeing to spend about US$1 billion on an acquisition that he didn’t discuss with his directors. “Leaders who wield absolute power are good for media coverage,” Seijts says. “But there is nothing stopping collaborative managers from taking the market by storm.”
VISA, for example, still holds the U.S. IPO record and it was founded with a distributed power structure by Dee Hock, a banker and organizational theorist who coined the term “chaordic organization” to describe organized chaos.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that not all available resources are deployed whenever a leader of any organization makes a standalone decision. After all, networked teams of individuals can obviously bring to the table more talent, experience, resources and operating flexibility. And yet, team results are often underwhelming. Pretty much every professional has wasted considerable time on a bad committee of some sort.
Furthermore, critics of group-based decision-making have long pointed to the problem of groupthink, famously described by Yale research psychologist Irving Janis in 1971 as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”
Nevertheless, as Honoré points out, many issues and crisis situations faced by organizations today are supranational in nature, involving multiple stakeholders, borders and cultures. And according to Lt. Gen. Frederic Brown (Ret.), who led efforts to modernize the U.S. Army’s knowledge management and leadership training capabilities during his 37-year career, groupthink and other barriers to effective teamwork can be neutralized using a combination of best-practices in knowledge management, information technology and organizational collaboration.
To improve the effectiveness of military JIIM (Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational) teams in Europe, Brown developed a framework for rapidly building and employing cross-boundary teams called Teams of Leaders, or ToL, which management consultants say has proved helpful at fighting team dysfunction in non-military organizations. “The key [to developing effective cross-boundary teams] is using facilitators,” says Mike Prevou, a ToL coach who co-founded the U.S. Army’s Battle Command Knowledge System Program. “Without trained facilitators, egos and mistrust get in the way.”
To get the picture, the next time you are frustrated in a bad team meeting, try imagining how things might be different if everybody in the room had been scouted for talent and compatibility and then trained to perform together. Then ask yourself how well your favorite sports team would perform if it was never managed, coached or held practices.
Bruce Piasecki, bestselling author of Doing More with Less, thinks many companies will eventually be forced to adopt ToL or some other system for effective cross-boundary teaming. Pointing to the Oil Sands Tailing Consortium (OSTC), a unified effort of energy companies that is advancing tailings management by sharing research and technology, the New York-based management consultant argues collaboration amongst industry competitors will spread as sustainability and social responsibility issues force companies to face problems that can’t be solved by any single market participant, at least not affordably.
Leader teaming, of course, can’t work unless leaders are willing to give it a shot. And unfortunately, the folks with the most to gain are the ones who think they are born to command, not collaborate. To open the mind of a CEO who is stuck on stupid, the conference organizers suggested pointing to a worm, noting researchers have demonstrated that worms can learn faster after being partially sliced in two and forced to grow a second head. “Try telling that story to a stubborn group manager who refuses to collaborate,” one conference attendee joked, “but do it with a cleaver in hand to make the point.”