What the Hedgehog Knows About Leadership

Please pardon my inattention to my blog. I have been writing elsewhere: a book of 34 short personal meditations side by side with photograpshs. It will be available as a free download here within a couple of weeks.

If you like, you can listen to me read the following post.

This morning I am thinking about leading work. As in, getting things done, delivering products, attending to the organization of tasks, their assignment, prioritization, scheduling, and delegation — and how this often is such a major contrast to “process work,” which is about how this work is personally led, others’ engagement and their own leadership, the capacities of people in groups to collaborate.

It is true that process-oriented folks, who naturally want to create a sense of shared ownership for the work, may sometimes have a very hard time understanding the outcome-based urgency of enterprise leaders who personally feel the responsibility and the pressure for deliverables. But surely there is a balance, and this thought can refine our understanding: there are the tasks, and there is the work that enables effective completion of the tasks. Outcomes and process are complementary by nature, but sometimes fight with one another — at least they fight in peoples’ minds. For example, there are plenty of organizations (in some of which I’ve tried to consult) where managers set absurd deadlines, literally pitting teams against one another and essentially trying to work people to death. Turnover may be high, but if enough money is there in the short-term enough people will stay long enough to be useful. On the other side are organizations that could definitely get more done if they were clearer and more communicative about expectations and consequences. In these organizations there is often a sense of entitlement and maybe nostalgia for “the way things used to be, when we were a family.” The choice of which way to go is a leadership choice that inevitably influences enterprise culture. And the point is that in both cases the process side is very weak. Killing people with unrealistic demands or creating a “soft” environment with no defined expectations are generally evidence that leadership is frightened of process, because process demands reflection, and reflection requires insight into one’s personal role in organizational effectiveness. There are a million variations on this theme, from the leader who seems to be friendly but is actually angry about others’ lack of performance, to the leader who abdicates all responsibility in favor of turning over the work to a team that now has the responsibility but, frustratingly, none of the authority. We create mazes for people and wonder why they aren’t performing as we would like. Out come carrots, sticks, and many forms of indirection, all tools that separate us from one another, and therefore deplete true effectiveness.


The antidote, it seems to me is in being realistic and clear about expectations but also being deeply supportive in terms of development. There can be goals for the work (e.g., executing such-and-such strategic initiative by year end), and there also can be goals for individual and team development (e.g., developing better interpersonal skills; improving team decision-making). But to get to the development objectives requires also that we overcome the sense of threat from leaving the comfort of immediate task orientation. You know you are in the midst of that threat when there is never time for the process of leader development or leaders complain they don’t have the skills to do it.

The mode I prefer in working with teams is this: we are not doing “team-building.” What we are doing is linking personal and team development to the accomplishment of specific objectives. If, for example, you have a team of people who want to save the world, then each of those folks will play a certain role in doing so — these are the tasks — but each also carries around personal “stuff” that stands to undermine the person’s capacity to accomplish their tasks. It’s possible to go very deep when working on this stuff for each person, and generally speaking, the deeper, the better. Not long ago, for instance, I was co-leading a workshop in which one of the people talked about her hesitancy to intervene in tough performance situations. As she unraveled the meaning of her hesitancy she related how at a former workplace she had been assaulted during an overnight retreat by a drunken male co-worker. This had been an incredibly traumatic experience for her, since she knew the man and had valued him as a colleague. Of course, there was an investigation and punitive action was taken against the offender, but later she became the target of ongoing blame from co-workers, as if the assault had been her fault. Blaming the victim is nothing new in sexual harassment situations, and for her the high-integrity response was simply to leave a job and a work environment she had loved. Her honest disclosure of the past at the workshop and new understanding of why she might be hesitant to take on conflict situations where blaming could occur was liberating both for her and the other workshop participants. They, of course, were completely supportive of her growth. She began to think about how to separate the realities of managing others from the realities of her own experiences.

It is true that without the right preparation and environment, expressions of this kind can be threatening. One person’s stuff calls up another person’s stuff, and for leaders who have not done their reflective work, or simply are very private about it, such encounters can be a little destabilizing. That’s a safety issue, and requires facilitation and positive leadership to create the best context. However, when the safety is present, wonderful learning can happen. I recall another group learning situation in which one of the members, a high-ranking person in the organization, shared that he had trouble dealing with employees who were “verbally faster than I am.” Once he expressed this, others in the group, his peers, shared their own fears about these situations, and together they were able to brainstorm some possible approaches. What a delight it was to watch this learning process unfold, based on the willingness to disclose and to be temporarily vulnerable. Such processes bring people together in community without focusing on building community itself. They free people from the stuff that is hanging them up so that they take on tasks with a sense that they are not alone and isolated, that help is always available. They own themselves and their work in new ways and increase their sense of personal power. They stop competing for credibility and stop worrying about being embarrassed or humiliated. They begin to see one another as fundamentally trust-worthy. And trust, because it is essential to liberation, leads to higher levels of performance. The whole process, it seems to me, overcomes a dominant theme in our American organizations, which is leader as “outcast.” The antidote for all of us is understanding that our self-proclaimed wounds and insecurities at bottom are our critical fictions, are stories we have created for ourselves about ourselves. Discovering their fundamental untruth, like being to blame for harassment, or having to be faster than one’s employees verbally, returns us through freedom to our own wholeness, and wholeness ultimately is what gets the job done.

And, yes, this does take time. Just as it takes money to make money, it takes time in process to create “the time” for completing the tasks. The reason this is so is that there is often plenty of time, but none of it devoted to the right tasks because these tasks call up the inner work that is being avoided.

This, to me, is fundamentally the leadership vocation called driving fear out of the workplace, this willingness to reach into ourselves for leadership growth in community with others. It is not a simple equation, but it’s a pretty darned good one. There’s a Greek aphorism that goes like this: “The fox has many tricks. The hedgehog has just one — one good one.” Well, I’m with the hedgehog.

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  • Welcome back to the blogosphere!

    As usual, you have posted something that has taken me deep, and has required some processing time.

    I have a strong aversion to “process”, as many of my experiences of “process”, especially in large organizations, have been a trumping of ends by means. I believe processes can be useful, but if, and only if, mindfully applied (and regularly re-evaluated).

    You note that “process demands reflection, and reflection requires insight into one’s personal role in organizational effectiveness” … perhaps this points out the key distinction — many of my experiences with processes (imposed by others) have not appeared to be corelated with reflection or a real concern with effectiveness.

    You referred to an example involving “a team of people who want to save the world”, and I’m reminded of David Whyte’s audiobook, Clear Mind, Wild Heart, in which he notes that many [non-profit] organizations exist to change the world … and that since you didn’t quite finish that at the last meeting, there’s always more to do. He goes on to offer “the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness”.

    Your story about the woman who was assaulted irked me in [at least] two ways. One, because I am always angered when I hear of such transgressions, but secondly because I don’t share your assumption of “Of course [emphasis mine], there was an investigation and punitive action was taken against the offender” … unfortunately, I believe that the willingness of a woman to even bring such matters to the attention of [anything resembling] authorities is more than the exception than the norm … and that investigations are even rarer … and punitive actions rarer still.

    On a more positive note, I totally agree with your observation that “the antidote for all of us is understanding that our self-proclaimed wounds and insecurities at bottom are our critical fictions, are stories we have created for ourselves about ourselves” … and I look forward to the publication of your book!

  • Joe

    There are many poor practitioners of “process,” consultants and formal leaders. If you have experienced some of the misuse of good concepts to simply enforce control, I am very sorry, because this can be absolutely destructive. I have heard enough stories to know that once burned, people don’t easily back up to try it again. This is one of the reasons there is reticence to do some the deeper work I believe is essential to organizations moving forward.

    Good process to me may have some tension attached because people may be initially concerned about openness and retaliation — that’s a common concern in our culture — but it also abrogates those fears pretty fast as people discover they share common observations and desires about what they might do in positive and collaborative ways to improve things for themselves and others. When trust is present (and often that’s a big “when”), I’ve found that people go deep and honest in their self-disclosures and assessments of where both personal and organizational change can be most meaningful. I have a lot of faith in this approach, and for sure it doesn’t work in organizations where fear and competition are the overwhelming norms.

    The trick is that in many organizations, and in many personal work histories, fear and competition HAVE been the norms. So there’s a spiral of people taking small risks, then larger ones, in their learning. I just don’t think it’s impossible, and this work, which is really a personal unfolding of potentials, is something we can all work toward. When the leader of a group, somebody like you, Joe, offers himself honestly and with sensitivity, this can have a very stirring effect on others — I’ve seen it in my career many times. No, it doesn’t work in some settings because of context or because the leader is politically naive, but in many circumstances it is an act of truth, care, and power of the best kind, helps renew energy, regenerates hope.

    Your comment about “of course there was investigation” has a lot of merit and it is clear to me I left a misimpression. You are right that all too often nothing is said, or if said, nothing is done. To me an additional great horror is when a victim of sexual harassment takes the risk to speak up, the organization does its legal duty, but does not deal effectively with the below-the-water-line reactions of others. The organization has covered its butt yet doesn’t deal with the real-time culture — this is a perfect example of how the laws against discrimination can have the sad effect of driving it deeper and more into the background where it is even more penetrating and destructive to peoples’ lives.

  • Jerome Alexander wrote:

    Employees come to work with an implicit trust that their managers are always working for the best interest of the company and its employees. That trust should not and cannot ever be taken for granted. Look what is happening today. It is no longer “What’s good for the company is good for the manager.” It has become “What’s good for the manager is good for the company.” Top executives have totally lost sight of this phenomenon and are allowing managers to run amok for their own personal agendas.
    Several years ago I wrote a book on the subject of workplace culture and employee morale. It is as relevant today as it was then. Employee morale is directly linked to the interaction of employees with line managers who are charged with executing the policies and strategies of companies. Unfortunately, many of these managers subvert the good intentions of the organization to meet their own personal goals and agendas at the expense of their peers and subordinates. This management subculture is the result of a corporate culture of ignorance, indifference and excuse. Better corporate level leadership is the key. Read more in “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic.”

    Jerome Alexander

  • Jerome

    Thank you for your thoughtful observations. I believe it is so important for us to acknowledge both the dark and the light sides of organizations — of top leaders, managers, and employees alike. It is often hard for top leaders to accept the reality that we all hold these dark and light sides and that it is easy to provoke into behavior these aspects in others — depending on how the top leaders themselves operate. I have usually found that this is not a question of intention by top leaders but of their invisible shadow side conduct, the stuff that “leaks.” As a consequence, my work is dedicated to self-knowledge, so that those in positions of formal power (and those who aren’t) begin to understand their collusion in the very problems they often say they want to solve.

    While I haven’t read your book, I am a deep believer to giving voice to the cynicism in organizations. Behind the cynicism there is usually important stories to be heard — and even more important ideas and feedback for improvement. What’s missing is safety to bring these thoughts and feelings into the open, and although it is sometimes hard to work through the feedback that ensues when the safety is there, it can be an incredibly valuable opening to organizational and personal growth. For many workplaces, a missed opportunity. Thanks again for stopping by, Jerome…good wishes to you!

    For all my readers, here’s the link to Jerome’s book.

  • […] Recent Comments Dan on Going InMike-The Scribe on Going InDan on What the Hedgehog Knows About LeadershipJerome Alexander on What the Hedgehog Knows About LeadershipJoe McCarthy on Talking about Ourselves […]

  • Hi Dan,

    You might like to check my new blog “The Corporate Cynic.”
    I left the URL. It most definitely focuses on the dark side of modern corporate leadership but you may find it interesting.
    If anything, it provides an insight into why employees become cynical. Thanks.

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