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The New Leadership: Fear, Control, Manipulation

February 5, 2012

Updated February 27, 2013

One of my favorite e-newsletters is Strategy+Business (produced by Booz&Company). You can depend on receiving insightful viewpoints and interviews with leading thinkers. A recent issue contained a thought-provoking interview with Margaret (Meg) Wheatley, author of several books, including Leadership and the New Science, which earned rave reviews when it was published in 1992.

You can read the interview here. In this post I’ll highlight some of Wheatley’s key messages, interjected with some of my observations and experiences.

In her interview with S&B’s Art Kleiner, Wheatley says that she noticed “new levels of anxiety” among her colleagues, friends and clients during the onset of the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession. The consequence in a period of increased global competitiveness, combined with financial pressures on business and governments, has been a pullback in participative management practices.

In response to the question on why perseverance is so important now, she explains:
“Because so many innovative leaders are struggling to do good, meaningful work in a time of overbearing bureaucracy and failing solutions. Everyone is working harder, and in most cases, in greater isolation. The current pace of work and life, along with increasing fear and anxiety, make it more difficult to have the energy and enthusiasm to keep going. Years of effort have been swept away by events beyond anyone’s control, such as the economic crisis or the natural disasters of the past decade….decisions made by politicians and senior executives have been very damaging to those long-term efforts….It is a very difficult time for innovative leaders.”

How true.

Wheatley continues by noting how little time people now give to taking time to reflect on what they’ve learned from their efforts. As a society we’re frantically racing faster and faster, with the big consequence being the loss of community, where people have traditionally come together to share and learn. And as she bluntly states, community is getting harder to find in organizations.

I have a special interest in working at the interface between globalization and its effects on organizations in how leadership is perceived and practiced. One of Canada’s and America’s principal competitive strengths has been well educated populations with strong capacities for creative thinking and innovation. However, this capacity has been shriveling up in recent years due to repressive management practices in both business and government.

Canada’s federal public service (where I worked for three decades) has witnessed over the past five-plus years a stern crackdown by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling government. Creative thinking, risk-taking and speaking truth to power have but all dried up as public servants keep their heads down for fear of being punished. This is a travesty, considering that Canada was once viewed as having one of the most effective and non-partisan civil services in the world.

In a time like this, of economic and emotional distress, every organization needs leaders who can help people regain their capacity, energy, and desire to contribute. And this is only accomplished when people work together in community, not in isolation. But community is hard to find in most organizations.
– M. Wheatley

Any taxpayer, regardless of country, who scoffs at the idea of civil servants being squeezed under a prime minister’s or president’s thumb, with the idea of who cares, should give his or her head a firm shake. The enormous pressures facing national and local governments worldwide, where they compete with one another to attract businesses and jobs, demand public sector organizations whose employees are not cowering in fear.

Wheatley states that when leaders resort to fear to motivate employees, the result is people shutting down their brains. This in turn creates the conditions for failure.

Managing and leading in a turbulent, volatile and unpredictable environment produces a crisis mentality. However, crisis leadership brings out the worst in human beings, spawning fear, control and the manipulation of people. In turn people retrench, looking out just for themselves, abandoning collaboration and becoming exclusively task-focused. This has huge implications for creativity and innovation in business and government, with the long-term outcome being weakened industrial competitiveness and inefficient public services.

We do have a choice when it comes to how people are led. Unfortunately, as a human species we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. There’s a lot at stake. Meg Wheatley talks about people stepping up to today’s challenges, provided “…they are led with encouragement and support, and trusted to contribute.”

What’s your solution?

We are at a turning point. Either we continue to descend into incompetence or we see new ways of thinking and acting. – M. Wheatley

Photo by J. Taggart

Intergen ebook cover with TextClick here to download my new complimentary e-book Leadership and the Inter-Generational Divide, 2nd Edition.

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