Principles or pragmatism?

In life there is a natural continuum between principles and pragmatism. It runs throughout our work, our personal decisions, our politics and our businesses. Running the gauntlet between the two polar forces is a key tenet of successful leadership.

The allure of the principled leader is strong. We want people who stand for something, organisations with clear values and purpose. But the frustration is palpable when they stand in the way of  things just getting done.

People who make things happen, who are willing to compromise and change their position. We admire them with a distrust. What wouldn’t they forsake?

Knowing when to stand by your personal value set, your principles and knowing when to let go and move on for the sake of organisational/societal benefit is perhaps the biggest challenge for us all.

This easy answer is to say it’s neither one nor the other – it is a beautiful simple, yet totally impotent perspective. An anodyne position which adds little to any understanding of the complexity of values and decision-making.

Because the truth to leadership is not recognising when you need to compromise, or stick by your principles – but understanding why others need to do so. Giving forgiveness and tolerance to the value sets of others.

It doesn’t matter whether it is personal, business or political. Our difference is created by recognising the difference in others. That sometimes we all need to stand firm and sometimes we need to change, admit we were wrong and reconsider.

Failure is when we judge without seeking to understand.

 

What are your boundaries?

Look at any source of advice on relationships and you’ll see reference to standards and boundaries. Like romantic relationships, our expectations of others at work can help or hinder our progress to achieving harmony. We don’t always need to get on, we don’t always need to agree, but it sure as hell helps if we can understand what’s going on.

And being clear on the difference between our standards and boundaries, can only help.

Personally, I like to be early. No, let me be more precise. I HATE to be late. It is a standard that is important to me. If I’m supposed to be somewhere, I’ll try and make sure I’m there in advance and I can arrive at a time that I consider fashionably early.

That’s my standard. It’s something that is important to me, for me. But what’s my boundary?

I appreciate that people get held up, that things crop up and that external factors can impact on the plans of others. However, there are things that I won’t tolerate:

  • If you’re late to a meeting it is your responsibility to catch up, not everyone else’s to wait for you
  • If you’re repeatedly late and it becomes a norm
  • If you don’t acknowledge your lateness and offer apologies to others

So when a colleague turns up to the meeting at 9.59, bustles in to the room with a pile of papers spewing out of their hands and a coffee stain down their shirt, what criteria am I judging them by? My standards, or my boundaries?

Let’s look at something more emotive. Honesty and openness.

I believe in being open and honest. I try my best to express myself as openly and honestly as I can – recognising that I’m not a model of perfection. That’s the standard I hold myself to – to be honest. My boundaries are that I won’t accept being lied to and I reject the withholding of information for the sake of organisational politics, but I accept that I cannot know every detail of every situation.

What happens when I hear about a situation that has occurred in work that I have an opinion on, but haven’t been able to contribute to. It might also be one that personally impacts my work.

Do I hold judgment based on my personal standard, or assess against my boundaries? I know and recognise that I cannot be informed about everything, but surely this piece?

Understanding the difference between our personal standards, the things that we hold dear to ourselves, and the boundaries, the red lines that we cannot accept others to cross is critical to our ability to successfully navigate around our organisations and make things happen.

It is only natural to confuse the two at times, but understanding what we’re doing can only aid us in our contribution in both our personal and professional lives.

Fads, fashions and the self-confident leader

Hands up if you’ve never looked at a photo from your past and thought, “what was I doing wearing that?”, or looked in the dark recesses of your wardrobe and seen the unworn, unloved item that at the time of purchasing, you were convinced would make you look swathe, sophisticated and downright sexy.

My guess is there’s not many hands in the air (not least because that sort of thing gets you thrown off the train or bus).

The point is that we are all susceptible to following along with a trend, a fashion or fad that we later realise wasn’t perhaps in our best interest. We do this in work and in business all the time – it is no different to any other aspect of life.

The corporate corridors are littered with the failed and reversed decisions made by leaders at all levels, because they read, heard or were advised that “everyone else is doing x”. It happens in HR, it happens across business and it is entirely and completely natural.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Its not hard to understand why we make these decisions, we’re often proposed something that feels simple, easy to implement, is recommended by “experts”, has some sort of resonance with a broader meta-trend within the world and will lead to tangible, measurable improvement.

We’ve seen this with mass outsourcing, TQM, holacracy, management by consensus, management by objective, the Ulrich model. I could go on.

None of these practices are in themselves bad, what is questionable is the wholesale implementation of these across the corporate spectrum without consideration of the best way of implementing change for the specific organisational context.

And that’s where the self confident leader comes in. In the same way that the phrase goes, “no-one ever got fired for hiring Deloitte/McKinsey/IBM” (delete as appropriate to your age and era), there is often reassurance in moving with the homogenous mass. That is part of our psychological makeup.

The role of the leader is to have the confidence, the willingness and the space to be able to call out when this isn’t in the best interests of their organisation, function or team. It is  to push the thinking, the creation of ideas and the solutions beyond the realms of accepted wisdom, to test whether it is really the right way forward.

No-one ever said being a leader is easy, in fact the better you want to be, the harder it can feel. Standing up and not doing the things that others are, can be harder than following. But sometimes the most fertile soil is found in the least worked ground.

Is your organisation aligned?

How much of your work really makes a difference? How much is about achieving your organisation’s purpose and how much about organisational goals? And are they even the same?

One of the biggest drivers of organisational performance is alignment, an area less talked about than two other “A terms” – agility and adaptability. But I’d argue that in many ways, the key to being a truly agile organisation starts with alignment.

So what do we mean when we talk about organisational alignment? One of my favourite explanations is this one from Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe via Harvard Business Review.

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Ultimately it s the way in which we organise ourselves to fulfil our organisational purpose. Are the goals we are working to helping to deliver this, do we have the organisational capability and are our resources organised and supported to achieve these aims?

It also asks us to challenge ourselves about the things that we do that aren’t helpful to this aim. Every act that we do that isn’t aligned to our purpose takes resource and time away from activities that could be.

The meetings that we have that aren’t productive
The processes we create that take disproportionate time versus outcome
The activities that are only self-fulfilling
The vanity projects that we struggle to end

Alignment is a great way of thinking not only about the overall organisational context, but as an individual functional head, or department lead. We can easily look at the work of others and talk about the shortcomings and the lack of necessity, but how about we take the same time to really consider our own work and efforts. What could we stop, start, do better?

Finally, back to the other A word. Agility is best achieved through clear purpose. When we know what and why were trying to achieve something, it helps us to adapt quickly and realign in changing circumstances.

But ultimately, it is exactly that alignment that gets things delivered.