“If you’re a leader in a top down organization the natural tendency for followers to tell you what you want to hear is nearly insurmountable.”According to a new article by Bill George, during the last half of the 20th century, business leadership became an elite profession, dominated by managers who ruled their enterprises from the top down. In today’s business world that hierarchical model doesn't work anymore. Learning organizations have replaced the craftsman-apprentice style relationship. Apart from my school boy experiences, I got my first lessons in leadership when I joined the Legionaries of Christ. The following comments draw heavily on George's analysis of "authentic" leaders.
Rockwell goes on to suggest three challenges for top down organizations:
- Leaders in top down organizations create and affirm people that comfort each other by clinging to the status quo.
- Leaders in top down organizations never get the real picture because people tell them what they want to hear.
- Followers in top down organizations live in bondage to bureaucratic hierarchy.
Knowledge workers do not respond well to "top down" leadership. The short-term outlook demanded by excessive focus on stock markets led many leaders to forget about long-term growth. In the past decade the old model blew up, from the ethical scandals exposed by Enron and WorldCom to the Wall Street meltdown.
Because people believe the leaders are serving only themselves and short-term shareholders, the result is people no longer trust business leaders to build sustainable institutions.
The 21st century requires leaders who focus on aligning people around mission and values and empowering emerging leaders at all levels. The fundamental goal is go concentrate on serving customers and developing collaboration throughout the organization. Traditional leaders thought they could solve this problem with rulebooks, training programs and compliance systems, and were shocked when people deviated.
When I look back, with the benefit of hindsight, on my experiences with Marcial Maciel the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, I recall being concerned with our organization’s increasing focus on “methodology.” We had a rule, a process, a method for everything. It took me until the late 1970s to realize that the focus on methodology, combined with a deficient understanding of the concept of religious “obedience” was not boding well for my future in the organization.
George points out that hierarchical leaders delegate limited amounts of power in order to retain control. Based on my early experiences with Fr. Maciel, I would have to say he totally conformed to the model of a hierarchical leader. This didn’t bother me, at the time, because “hierarchical” was about the only flavor of leadership practiced in the 1960s. I have long since learned – and the experience of working with Fr. Maciel brought this home to me – that our times require a different style of leadership. I confess that I do not know if or how Maciel’s leadership style evolved since I did not work for him after 1982. Maybe he did begin to empower new leaders in the Legion. In fact I suspect he did. But I wonder if the new leadership set up the necessary systems of accountability to ensure leadership commitments were met?
CEOs who spend too much time listening to Wall Street risk ignoring their most important stakeholder — their customers. Maciel certainly kept a weather eye open to "Wall Street" and the successful corporate impresarios who could help support his mission. And he never lost sight of the importance of managing Vatican relationships. However, in my personal experience, he well understood that the organization – in his case a religious congregation – that does not offer better value to its customers than its competitors, will eventually go out of business. Hence, his organization, the Legionaries of Christ, developed an astounding network of colleges, charitable works, and missions in a very short time frame. All of them were carefully designed to offer "added value" for the "customers" - the good people who bought into what seemed to be a transformational vision of lay engagement with the Church. All the while, the Legionaries understood the organizational value of collaboration and, I think, they managed to avoid creating the organizational silos that hindered other contemporary organizations.
Maciel certainly started out as a top-down leader. And like so many other top-down leaders he achieved impressive short-term results. Apart from bequeathing his successors the daunting task of cleaning up the mess caused by his deformed personality and the criminal methods he used to achieve his ends, he left the Legionaries the task of develop a whole new style of leadership that cannot be based on the model inherited from the founder.
I believe that with external help, combined with a great deal of humility, the Legionaries have the resources to produce a new generation of collaborative leaders who can transform the organization and lead it to long-term sustainable performance.
These new leaders, if they emerge, will do well to remember that contemporary leaders need to demonstrate passion. The sub-title of my memoir “Driving Straight on Crooked Lines” is “How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind.” The Legion needs leaders who are in touch with their hearts (and the hearts of their “customers,) as well as their heads. To be successful they need to abandon the founder’s top down approach to leadership. They will need to clearly articulate their values, establish genuine and meaningful interpersonal relationships, and understand the potential “dark side” of their personalities. In my estimation, Maciel never seemed to be aware of the "shadow" side of his makeup. It is this dark "shadow", which for most of us emerges in times of frustration and stress, that sabotages our best intentions. The new leaders must "know who they are" and have the self-discipline to hold on to a new and very challenging course towards rebirth and renewal.