Don’t tell me, ask me: Leadership in 2007

16 02 2007

In the movie, Master and Commander Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, played by the master-and-commander.jpgaussie/kiwi Russell Crowe leads a group of sailors through incredible hardship after their boat, the H.M.S. Surprise, is suddenly attacked by a superior enemy. Captain Jack is a tough, no nonsense leader who demands loyalty and gives assurance and direction in return.

The rugged Captain Jack represents a style of leadership that dominated the organisational landscape for centuries: one strong leader who called the shots.

This hierarchical leadership style is totally irrelevant to today’s fast paced world.

The Captain Jack form of leadership is known as Command and Control in organisational speak. This style of leadership expects a clear delineation of authority; everyone knows who does what and no one assumes more authority than they have. They expect a separation between planning and operations which is why the command and control leader will tend to have an office well removed from the majority of the workers. This results in a sense of us and them. It is the leader’s job to plan the direction, the manager’s job to make it happen and the worker’s role to do it. Clear, distinct hierarchy and roles.

Control is maintained through numerous rules, guidelines and methodologies. Difference, surprises and deviations are discouraged in favour of the safe and the known.

This sort of leader discourages difference, surprise, and deviations in favour of the safe and the known. They view the perfect organisation as a well oiled machine that runs smoothly and efficiently with limited risk.


An insidious form of control is the employment of gamesmanship where information is withheld and shared in a way that either benefits the informer or damages the receiver. This creates an environment of competition amongst the staff. This competitiveness is reinforced by the hierarchical nature of command and control, with its clear lines of authority and accountability, and the expectation of respect for the chain of command.

The command and control leader was suited to a time when change was a series of steady increments over an extended period. The reality today is that organisations need to deal with rapid technological advancement, globalisation, and a dominant culture where reality is fluid and experimental. All of this demands that we see change as a normal part of everyday organisational life. Organisations need to be adaptable, flexible and responsive. Adhering to a command and control leadership model will greatly limit the ability of an organisation to keep pace with the rapid change.

So what does leadership look like for this new reality?

participation.JPGThe first significant difference is that it involves more than one person. The role of the leader is not to issue orders and maintain compliance but to encourage participation and enable others to develop and express their talents. The Web 2.0 phenomenon provides a good insight into how leadership needs to be practiced today. Leadership needs to be participatory. Members of an organisation have a considerable amount to contribute; customers, benefactors of the organisation’s service have much to offer. Wisdom does not reside with a select group of executives but with the surging crowds.

How then is this harnessed?

The leader needs to stop saying, “you shall do this” and start asking, “what do you think we need to do?” This simple change represents a profound shift in the underlying model of practice. The old style was about the leader knowing best and that rules and structures are important; the new approach is that the leader and many others know best and that people are important. The leader is a facilitator and coach, drawing out the talent and encouraging full expression of a person’s ability. One practical way of achieving this would be to offer staff time within their role to work on a pet project that has both relevance to the organisation and inspires them. It might well be that it doesn’t directly relate to their job, but time is given to foster their ideas.

The danger in encouraging others to contribute is that numerous agendas exist, pulling the organisation in different directions. To minimise this two key conditions need to exist:

The mission and purpose of the organisation need to be crystal clear to all those involved. Every member needs to know exactly what it is they are trying to achieve.

loud-speaker.JPGCommunication is open and free flowing. People need to be aware of what others are thinking and doing. So if someone was to steer off course or start to replicate someone else’s work, a conversation would ensue to resolve it. Communication can be aided by discussion boards, blogs, newsletters, regular face to face meetings, virtual meetings etc… One of the ways to facilitate this within an office is to lay the office out in such a way as to encourage informal communication. Incidental communication is as valuable as the more formal devices discussed above.

Another way to encourage a more participatory form of leadership is to encourage a spirit of trust within the organisation. When there is a high level of trust people will be more comfortable taking risks and getting involved. Trust can be built through staff working closely together on projects (within and across departments), recognising and respecting each others abilities and being open to sharing difficulties with each other. This last point is key, everyone from time to time struggles with life, to know that your work colleagues care for you and pray for you will assist the process of trusting them.

Personal Statement: I don’t know everything. In fact I know very little. But a key part of how I operate is that I am interested in what other people know. The problem is, the higher you move up an organisation the less people tell you. This is born out of fear of perceived repercussions and the assumption that the leader is way too busy to listen to anything you have to say. With this fresh model of leadership the inverse needs to apply: the more senior a leader you become the more you need the people around you to talk to you. Open and frank disclosure is required. Conversations that change your thinking, affirm your position or give you the opportunity to affirm and empower the person you are conversing with. And in this spirit of participation and conversation I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments below. Do you agree with my thoughts? Feel free to disagree. What other ways can organisational members be encouraged to participate?

I look forward to the conversation.





8 responses

19 02 2007
Travis Windsor

Yes, leadership does need to evolve, however being consultative and more widely informed can’t come at the price of providing and demonstrating leadership (the command aspect of command and control), otherwise what are you as a leader contributing?

Secondly, the challenge with this new style of leadership you discuss is to not get lost in all the opinions. Whilst making decision on your own is one extreme, getting lost in hundreds of opinions is also another extreme. The challenge is to not lose important pieces of information in the potential ‘information overload’ that can occur.

19 02 2007
Mark Brown

G’day Trav,

Thanks for your comment. You ask what it is the leader is contributing, as I see it the contribution is to be an enabler, an empowerer, an encourager. Someone needs to take this role within the organisation – to draw out the talents and abilities of the staff etc… I read somewhere recently that CEO should stand for ‘Chief Enabling Officer.’

Your comment about information overload is a very good point. It would be important to develop a way of managing this in a way that doesn’t either confuse the job at hand or miss out on the wisdom available.

What about a system similar to the participatory democracy we see with websites like youtube? You could post ideas on an intranet site (or in some cases open it up to customer input) and allow staff to make comments etc… Those ideas that attract the most positive attention would be progressed.

How would you go about it?


19 02 2007
Frederick Oxford

I have seen this style of leadership in action in the UK for several years but the underlying issue staff continue to have is the fear of repercussions from management if they speak out, participate or express an opinion that contradicts a decision previously made by management.

20 02 2007
Travis Windsor

Enabler, encourager and empowerer are great words for describing someone leading to a specific destination. At the end of the day, the leader has the command to take them there (figuratively speaking). Its not so much democratic as participatory, with a communal sense of ownership in getting there. Another question here is, though extreme, is “What if you are leading a bunch of idiots?” or “Should ownership be earnt or given?”

Participatory websites are great in theory for free form brainstorming, but aren’t helpful for more direct leadership. In IBM, we have this thing every few years called a Jam, where every employee (over 300,000) is invited to contribute. It occurs over a week and is a huge collection of wiki’s, calls, discussion boards etc. However, it is within defined paths and is moderated (to keep focussed). All the information is then distilled over a few months and then a followup Jam is held to clarify the distilled info. Its then collated, and passed up to our executive team for discussion. Nice in theory, but I sometimes feel that it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy sometimes (ie. If we focus our discussion on the areas we need, we should see the output we desire). But maybe that’s just over cynical of me! So, my question is here, does using participatory democracy actually work, or is it a nice inclusive way of doing what the leaders would like to do (minor details excluded) anyway?

20 02 2007
Mark Brown

G’day Frederick,

Thanks for your comment. Does the fear continue because the structure and process changes but the culture doesn’t? So in other words, what is coming out of the mouth of the managers and staff is different to what they are thinking?

It is widely accepted that changing the culture of an organisation is hugely difficult. Most fail. Good intentions swamped as the old ways linger. Is this your experience?


20 02 2007
Mark Brown

G’day Trav,

Reading your question, “What if you are leading a bunch of idiots?” reminds me of how much I miss your blunt opinions! (Seriously – I respect that part of you.)

If I found myself leading a sub-standard team where the talent pool was shallow then participation is the least of my worries. So the assumption with my participatory leadership thinking is that the team are capable. So definately earn’t rather than given.

Interesting to hear about the IBM Jam approach. Any good stuff come out of this?

Your cynicism is justified. Whenever something is changed my usual response is to search for the agenda. So shifting to more of a participation approach would definately require a huge change programme including displaying the genuiness of the venture.

The key for me is developing the team, growing the individuals. Once they are given space to grow and prosper, trusting the process is assisted. My experience is with small orgs, perhaps this is not so easy when you have 300,000 staff!


24 02 2007
Mark Brown

An interesting article from Newsweek titled, ‘The Power of We.’ It looks at how this participatory approach is being used by a number of big corporates (including IBM). Worth checking out:


28 03 2007
The poet who loves plumbing « brownblog

[…] will say I do write as a part of an organization that takes the concepts Mark has tossed up in the ‘Don’t tell me, ask me’ article as a […]

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