There is a frequently noted paradox in organisations: to change the culture you have work within the present culture. That culture might itself be the barrier to change. There are few ways round this other than sacking the whole board, which Lord King did in British Airways in July 1983, since he deemed the board the barrier to change. HR advisers and ‘change agents’ lack that luxury.
The same paradox arises with more specific leadership change interventions. When trying to move a business towards accepting a less individualistic and more organisational model of leadership, you have to work with and persuade a top leadership team that knows only a strongly individualistic model.
When faced with novel concepts and proposals – such as distributing leadership more widely – the traditional form of executive leadership typically displays high levels of scepticism, a fondness for personal advocacy (telling) rather than enquiry (questioning and listening), a competitive rather than collaborative streak in relation to colleague relationships, and a low interest in personal learning.
Who can blame them: the old ways have served their personal careers well? They know the individual model and how to use it to their advantage. They know all about deciding who to trust, who to favour, who to form alliances with, and who to gang up against. Politics wins at this level every time.
That is why two questions are so important – if you can get the questions accepted as valid and worth discussing. They are:
1. What is the leadership culture (‘how does leadership work round here?’), and how functional/dysfunctional is it?
2. Who is formally accepted as the responsible official in the company (who may not be a board member but may be accountable to a board member) whose job responsibilities include:
• monitoring and advising on the health, design, functioning and improvement of the organisation as a system? and
• advising on and ensuring that a proper accountability system is in place (i.e. one that is understood, practised and respected) in terms of how well leadership works?
And by what process is that official formally held to account for the discharge of these responsibilities?