Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.
― Peter F. Drucker
It’s a really incredible time to be alive. The world is going through tremendous changes in many respects. Much of the change is driven by technology and scientific breakthroughs of the past century. One might reasonably argue that the upheavals we are witnessing today are the most important since the Renaissance and the Reformation. We are seeing cultural, economic, and political changes of epic proportions across the human world. With the Internet forming a backbone of immense interconnection, and globalization, the transformations to our society are stressing people resulting in fearful reactions. These are combining with genuine threats to humanity in the form of weapons of mass destruction, environmental damage, mass extinctions and climate change to form the basis of existential danger. We are not living on the cusp of history; we are living through the tidal wave of change. There are massive opportunities available, but the path is never clear or safe. As the news every day testifies, the present mostly kind of sucks. While I’d like to focus on the possibilities of making things better, the scales are tipped toward the negative backlash to all this change. The forces trying to stop the change in its tracks are strong and appear to be growing stronger.
People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.
― Peter F. Drucker
Many of our institutions are under continual assault by the realities of today. The changes we are experiencing are incompatible with many of our institutional structures such as the places I work. Increasingly this assault is met with fear. The evidence of the overwhelming fear is all around us. It finds its clearest articulation within the political world where fear-based policies abound with the rise of Nationalist anti-Globalization candidates everywhere. We see the rise of racism, religious tensions and protectionist attitudes all over the World. The religious tensions arise from an increased tendency to embrace traditional values as a hedge against change and the avalanche of social change accompanying technology, globalization and openness. Many embrace restrictions and prejudice as a solution to changes that make them fundamentally uncomfortable. This produces a backlash of racist, sexist, homophobic hatred that counters everything about modernity. In the workplace this mostly translates to a genuinely awful situation of virtual paralysis and creeping bureaucratic over-reach resulting in a workplace that is basically going no where fast. For someone like me who prizes true progress above all else, the workplace has become a continually disappointing experience.
All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting. If we want different results, we must change the way we do things.
― Tom Northup
One of the most prevalent aspects of today’s world is the focus on appearances as opposed to substance. As we embrace online life and social media, we have gotten supremely fixated on superficial appearances and lost the ability to focus on substance. The way things look has become far more important than the actuality of anything. Having a reality show celebrity as the President seems like a rather emphatic exemplar of this trend. Someone who looks like a leader, but lacks most of the basic qualifications is acceptable to many people. People with actual qualifications are viewed as suspicious. The elite are rejected because they don’t relate to the common man. While this is obvious on a global scale through political upheaval, the same trends are impacting work. The superficial has become a dominant element in managing because the system demands lots of superficial input while losing any taste for anything of enduring depth. Basically, the system as a whole is mirroring society at large.
Management cares about only one thing. Paperwork. They will forgive almost anything else – cost overruns, gross incompetence, criminal indictments – as long as the paperwork’s filled out properly. And in on time.
― Connie Willis
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
― Peter F. Drucker
Working within one of our “prized” National institutions has been an interesting, magical and initially empowering experience. Over the past decade or two, these institutions have been dragged down by the broader societal trends into the muck. It is no exaggeration to say that we are being slowly and surely strangled by overwhelming management oversight. The basic recipe for management of the Labs I’ve worked at is making lots and lots of rules to keep people from “fucking up”. The bottom line is that it’s fine if we really don’t accomplish anything as long as people just don’t ever fuck up. The maxim at work is don’t ever fuck up, which is the result of fear being the core motivation for everything. All of our most important institutions are withering under society-wide loss of faith and mistrust. This creates an environment where any scandal can be a direct threat to the future of the institution. This direct threat means that achievement and the very reason for the institution’s existence are lost.
The goal of management is to remove obstacles.
― Paul Orfalea
The prime institutional directive is survival and survival means no fuck ups, ever. We don’t have to do anything as long as no fuck ups happen. We are ruled completely by fear. There is no balance at all between fear-based motivations and the needs for innovation and progress. As a result our core operational principle for is compliance above all else. Productivity, innovation, progress and quality all fall by the wayside to empower compliance. Time and time again decisions are made to prize compliance over productivity, innovation, progress, quality, or efficiency. Basically the fear of fuck ups will engender a management action to remove that possibility. No risk is ever allowed. Without risk there can be no reward. Today no reward is sufficient to blunt the destructive power of fear.
Our management has become all about no fuck ups, and appearances. The actual, good, productive management work that should be done is virtually entirely absent. We don’t see managers trying to figure out how to clear barriers or enable people to get work done. We see enforced compliance. We hear lots of things about formality of operations and assurance of results. This all comes down to pervasive lack of trust and fear of failure. Increasingly we can fake progress and results. Increasingly bullshit has taken the place of actual results. Even better, bullshit results are safe and entail far less risk of fuck ups. They are mostly upside without the downside, plus bullshit is in vogue! It has the benefit of sounding better than anything we are likely to achieve, and doesn’t carry the risks of real work. The end result is deep-seated corrosive forces unleashed within our institutions that are eating away at them from the inside.
The over-management is joined at the hip with a lack of leadership and direction. It is the twin force for professional drift and institutional destruction. Working at an under-led institution is like sleepwalking. Every day you go to work basically making great progress at accomplishing absolutely nothing of substance. Everything is make-work and nothing is really substantive you have lots to do because of management oversight and the no fuck up rules. You make up results and produce lots of spin to market the illusion of success, but there is damn little actual success or progress. The utter and complete lack of leadership and vision is understandable if you recognize the prime motivation of fear. To show leadership and vision requires risk, and risk cannot take place without failure and failure courts scandal. Risk requires trust and trust is one of the things in shortest supply today. Without the trust that allows a fuck up without dire consequences, risks are not taken. Management is now set up to completely control and remove the possibility of failure from the system.
Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.
― John F. Kennedy
The capacity to achieve rewards and achievement without risk is incompatible with experience. Everyday I go to work with the very explicit mandate to do what I’m told. The clear message every day is never ever fuck up. Any fuck ups are punished. The real key is don’t fuck up, don’t point out fuckups and help produce lots of “alternative results” or “fake breakthroughs” to help sell our success. We all have lots of training to do so that we make sure that everyone thinks we are serious about all this shit. The one thing that is absolutely crystal clear is that getting our management stuff correct is far more important than every doing any real work. As long as this climate of fear and oversight is in place, the achievements and breakthroughs that made our institutions famous (or great) will be a thing of the past. Our institutions are all about survival and not about achievement. This trend is replicated across society as a whole; progress is something to be feared because it unleashes unknown forces potentially scaring everyone. The fear resulting in being scared undermines trust and without trust the whole cycle re-enforces itself.
Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.
― John C. Maxwell
Along with progress, leadership is also sacrificed at the altar of fear. Anything out of the ordinary is completely suppressed in the current environment. The ordinary can be managed and controlled; it is a known quantity. Progress and innovation produces unusual things that might have unintended consequences making its management difficult. Something unusual is more likely to produce a fuck up and therefore it must be stopped to assure the survival imperative. Of course, innovation, progress, and the unusual can also be wonderful and produce the breakthroughs all of us celebrate. The problem is that this cannot take place without risk and the potential for things to get fucked up. This also holds for people, who also must be ordinary, the unusual that might lead us in new directions are to be feared and controlled. The unusual is dangerous and feared. Leaders are unusual, so they too are reviled.
Start with the end in mind.
― Stephen R. Covey
A big piece of the puzzle is the role of money in perceived success. Instead of other measures of success, quality and achievement, money has become the one-size fits all measure of the goodness of everything. Money serves to provide the driving tool for management to execute its control and achieve broad-based compliance. You only work on exactly what you are supposed to be working on. There is no time to think or act on ideas, learn, or produce anything outside the contract you’ve made with you customers. Money acts like a straightjacket for everyone and serves to constrict any freedom of action. The money serves to control and constrain all efforts. A core truth of the modern environment is that all other principles are ruled by money. Duty to money subjugates all other responsibilities. No amount of commitment to professional duties, excellence, learning, and your fellow man can withstand the pull of money. If push comes to shove, money wins. The peer review issues I’ve written about are testimony to this problem; excellence is always trumped by money.
One of the things that are mostly acutely impacted by all of this is the ability for strategic thought, work or action. In the wake of the lack of trust and degree of control, the ability to do big things is almost completely lost. All work becomes unremittingly tactical in nature. Big ideas are lost and people can only envision committing to small things. Big ideas require a level of trust that cannot be summoned or supported. An element in this lack of trust is an obsession with reporting and careful attention to progress by the management. We see rather extensive draws of information from the depths of organizations to check on whether money is being spent properly. The entire management apparatus is engaged in getting information, but nothing is done with it. It is only used to check up on things, the whole of the management is devoted to attending to the trustworthiness of those working. The good that management might do is scarified, and leadership is completely absent. Without some symmetry of trust, the whole idea of leadership is vacant.
What the hell is to be done about all of this? How do we recapture progress and reject fear? How do we embrace leadership and harness management as a force for good rather than decline and decay?
I really don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I can propose a few things that might resist these issues. Hopefully a large number of people will join together in prizing progress enough to reject fear as a prime societal motivator. The desire to live and grow will overthrow the fear of change. The forces of fear have the potential to undo so much of the good of the modern World. Those who prize modernity and the benefits of freedom and progress will reject fear as a motivator. Realizing that fear emboldens hatred and reduces the potential for good is a first step. We must recognize and reject our so-called leaders who utilize fear as a prime motivation. Every time a leader uses fear to further their agenda, we take a step backward. One the biggest elements in this backwards march is thinking that fear and danger can be managed. Danger can only be pushed back, but never defeated. By controlling it in the explicit manner we attempt today, we only create a darker more fearsome danger in the future that will eventually overwhelm us. Instead we should face our normal fears as a requirement of the risk progress brings. If we want the benefits of modern life, we must accept risk and reject fear. We need actual leaders who encourage us to be bold and brave instead of using fear to control the masses. We need to quit falling for fear-based pitches and hold to our principles. Ultimately our principles need to act as a barrier to fear becoming the prevalent force in our decision-making.
People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.
― Peter F. Drucker