Like the mission statement published in the annual reports or guiding principles framed in the lobbies of organisations, a crafted vision by itself accomplishes nothing.
Leadership is that element that helps organizations to maximise efficiency and achieve organizational goals. As is well known, the maximization of efficiency and the achievement of organisational goals is at the top of the priorities of the Governor Akinwunmi Ambode administration for the Lagos State Civil Service. This explains why this training has been given primacy and also underlines the other numerous trainings tailored to inculcate, improve, and amplify the leadership abilities and skills of senior officers in the civil service.
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As I have previously noted, it is indisputable that organisations will make rapid progress and experience exponential growth only when its units and teams and departments are staffed by persons who understand what leadership means and who have developed their leadership potentials and have enhanced their performance skills. To such an organisation, no problem will be too complicated, no task too herculean, no challenge too huge, and no task too complicated for it to confront head-on. I am a huge fan of the sayings of Alexander the Great and I take to heart his profound observation to the effect that an army of sheep led by a lion is to be more feared than an army of lions led by a sheep.
I wish to draw your attention to a number of strategies that may serve as general guideposts for officers in senior management positions in Lagos State. These are not substitutes for the more-detailed and reasoned principles that will be taught and commended in this training. However, they represent a condensation of principles that have been widely taught and validated by the leading experts on this topic. From my extensive readings on this subject, I have distilled the following general principles from the thoughts of Mark Rhodes, a leading management consultant.
First and foremost, he opined that a leader should have a vision that is deeply understood and shared by the organization. Rhodes argued that the ancient Mongols defeated far larger armies because they were able to make adjustments on the battlefield despite ancient systems of communication that limited the way orders could be delivered to warriors already in action. He then stated that the secret was instilling battle strategy in the hearts and minds of all soldiers so that they could make correct tactical decisions without direct supervision or intervention.
Like the mission statement published in the annual reports or guiding principles framed in the lobbies of organisations, a crafted vision by itself accomplishes nothing. What matters is whether the people of your organization understand and internalize the vision you have articulated and can make aligned procedural choices on their own. A leader must ensure that the unit, departmental, and organisational vision is articulated in a manner such that operational and tactical decision-making can follow suit.
Furthermore, the effective leader must count on the employees or members of the organization to make sound tactical and operational decisions that are aligned with the desired vision. To ensure that these decisions are well made, the articulated vision must be applicable and clearly related to the core issues that the organisation is designed to solve.
It is always helpful to remember that an effective vision provides a picture of the desired long-term future. In order to make sound day-to-day decisions, all members of the organization must be able to begin with the end in mind. All steps must ultimately keep the company on course toward the long-term objective.
Second, Mark Rhodes contends that an effective leader allows flexibility so that the direction of the organization can be adapted to changing circumstances. Rhodes explained that, watching the rise of Napoleon’s French empire in the first decade of the 19th century, the Prussian generals were anxious to do battle with Napoleon’s army because their soldiers were highly trained and disciplined in battle tactics that had succeeded for Frederick the Great fifty years before.
It turned out, though, that the Prussian army was designed to fight “the last war” while Napoleon’s innovations, including soldiers carrying their own provisions instead of the supply train of impedimenta typical of the traditional European armies, allowed Napoleon’s troops to react and adapt to conditions far faster than could the Prussians. When the Battle of Jena occurred in 1806, Napoleon’s army outmaneuvered their slow and plodding enemy and destroyed the Prussians in that pivotal confrontation.
The lesson to learn from this, Rhodes argued, is that a rigid approach and direction seldom turns out to have been the best course of action. To assure that your organisation is nimble and able to react to changes, it is essential that your strategy is flexible and adaptable. As a strategic leader, you will count on timely and accurate information about prevailing relevant conditions. It is essential to build and employ effective mechanisms for observing and listening to what is going on in the environment. Real-time information, in turn, must feed ongoing strategic and operational shifts and deployments.
In the third place, Rhodes argues that an effective leader receives varied input from a diverse group of thinkers and participants and is unafraid to state contrary opinions. Rhodes referred to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, Team of Rivals, where the author explained how, instead of bringing in a cadre of leaders whose thinking closely matched his own, Lincoln made a point of surrounding himself with his political rivals, naming William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edwin M. Stanton, and Edward Bates – all of whom had opposed Lincoln in a bitterly fought presidential race – as members of his cabinet. Despite initial misgivings, this unlikely team learned that Lincoln valued their opinions, would consider and reflect on their disagreements and challenges, and would not stick unnecessarily to preconceived notions.
Though the mix of personalities and opinions inevitably led to debate and verbal conflict, Lincoln was able to facilitate and mediate, tapping into a rich variety of ideas in order to find the optimal solution to political and military issues. Goodwin attributes this ability to manage disagreement and lead an effective decision-making process as perhaps Lincoln’s greatest strength as he led a troubled nation.
The take home lesson for us as managers of men and resources is that in order to make effective leaders and ensure that the strategic team is ready to make effective decisions, look carefully in the mirror. Do you encourage debate, even argument, among your team about key decisions, or do you encourage blind alignment with the organisation’s positions? Remember that the well-documented occurrences of groupthink (as exemplified in President John Kennedy’s ill-fated bay of Pigs invasion) occur not because of oppressive or stifling leaders, but due to collegial and fond relationships, leaving deliberants unwilling to rock the boat, or to voice contrary opinions.
Dr. Benson Oke writes from Lagos