The Perpetual Pendulum in Leadership Thinking

I was speaking with the vice president of training and development at a medical device company the other day about our integrative approach for professional develop.  She is an avid horse fan, and expressed the value she sees in the linking of our experiential learning workshops with horses to our Accretive Coaching Process™ to spark a shift in perspective, explore adaptive solutions, and engrain sustained, creative thinking.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been directed that all of our training and development programs be migrated to computer based training,” she commented.  “But stay in touch, everything changes every 18 to 24 months.”

Her comments brought me back to my days in corporate when I had witnesses this seemingly perpetual swinging of the pendulum of leadership’s thinking towards innovation, structure, strategy, well, in fact, pretty much everything.  It was almost binary in nature; if not this, then that.  When that would fall short, a new group would come in, and immediately begin to move the organization back in the other direction.  Sound familiar?

I’ve come to realize that this cyclical thinking, that never breaks us out of our well worn path, is rooted in our tendency, as Westerners, to continuously look out there for solutions that are in fact waiting to be discovered, quietly beneath the surface within ourselves.  If only we’d find the courage to take a hard look in the mirror of self-awareness.  This is why we built our process on the emerging research from the neurosciences, performance psychology, emotional intelligence, core emotional systems, quantum physics, and individual learning styles.  More and more, the research from these fields, especially from the neurosciences, and yes, quantum physics, supports our approach.

The latest pendulum swing is pointing its nebulous finger at stretch goals.  That’s where the fault lies, in our corporate obsession with establishing, and most often missing, organizational (and personal for that matter) goals.  The research coming out of our leading business schools, is attempting to make their case that obsessive goal setting damages organizational culture, erodes intrinsic motivation, distorts risk evaluation, drives unethical behavior, and is one of the primary reasons for the endemic associate disengagement crisis.1 Another earlier report from the American Psychology Association states  “The optimally striving individual ought to endeavor to achieve and approach goals that only slightly implicate the self; that are only moderately important, fairly easy, and moderately abstract; that do not conflict with each other, and that concern the accomplishment of something other than financial gain.”I can’t help but come away with the impression that what this study is suggesting is less accountability and lowering the bar is the key to performance.  I do agree with the fact that goals should be in alignment and should reflect positive intention that expands beyond simple financial gain.

The pop psychologists, books like “The Secret” and the self help gurus have helped push goal setting and vacuous visualization to the point of foolishness, so I can see what prompted the good intentions that I’m sure prompted much of this research into goal setting.  Please remember, research begins with a hypothesis, in this case, that goal setting in and of itself results in missed targets, bad behavior and poor performance, and then sets out to prove the theory.  This can lead to myopic perspectives that lose focus on other variables that may also be in play.

Here’s where I think this research misses the target.  Goal setting, in and of itself is essential in aligning and moving an organization forward.  Especially in these times of unprecedented volatility and the acceleration of adaptive challenges organizations will continue to face in the 21st century.  What the research didn’t take into consideration is the prevalent, transactional leadership mindset that is setting the goals.  Transactional leadership is dominant, and operates on the 20th century premise of reward and punishment.  It’s almost Pavlovian.  Hit the goal, and you’re rewarded, miss the goal and you’ll be punished.  This, and the culture of fear it cultivates, is what drives the negative outcomes, not the goal setting.

Now, what if we were to actually rethink our fundamental approach to leadership, and migrate to a transformational leadership style?  An approach that leads from a perspective of serving those we lead.  A mindset of developing and supporting the professional and personal growth of those we are charged to lead.  An inclusive, transparent, and congruent approach that is inspirational and is the key to cultivating creative thinking, discerned risk taking, and adaptability.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand while in corporate.  In the 1990s, I had P&L responsibility for a global service unit operating in the pharmaceutical manufacturing equipment market that I had been charged to launch.  I was able to start from scratch, hire my leaders, and recruit our own technicians, and create our strategy.  Even then, I was a transformational leader, doing so more out of instinct than anything else.  It just felt right, and had always served me, my associates, and the company I was working for at the time quite well.  Our entire company had a stretch goal of growing revenue by 25% that year.  Now that’s a s-t-r-e-t-c-h goal!  Ours was the only unit that hit the target.  The rest of the company did not do as well, but none of us received our bonuses, even the ones that had performed, because the entire company missed the goal.  What do you think that did to the morale of the truly engaged associates in our business unit?  This also points to the inevitable problems transformational leaders will have operating under transactional leadership paradigms.  Eventually, you’ll be undermined.

In my real-world experienced opinion, the research on goal setting is flawed because it is assuming other factors are not in play, and the fundamental environment is functional.  But nevertheless, they found the statistical information to support their hypothesis.

Here are my five key tips for setting and achieving performance goals:

1.) Before you do anything, re-evaluate your leadership philosophy.  Transformational leadership is critical to success in the 21st century.  Creativity is key, at every touch point in an organization.  Creativity cannot emerge in a transactional leadership environment.  Transaction leadership leverages our core emotion of fear rather than encouraging our core emotional desire for seeking.

2.)  Don’t start with the goal, this is metaphorically putting the cart before the horse.  Start by exploring your firm’s vision and intention.  Are they in alignment?  Is it a shared vision and do your associates feel the positive intention of that vision?  Does it resonate congruently throughout your organization and your marketplace?  Now co-create the goal with inclusive, associate participation and use these parameters as a guiding factor.

3.) Once you’ve embraced the goal, which is truly only a projection of your vision lying somewhere over the horizon, create a detailed approach to bring the steps necessary to achieve the goal into the present day.  This isn’t radical in thought, it is classic GOST planning.  Goal ~ 3 to 5 years out; Objectives ~ measurable performance gates, in terms of time and other tangible criteria, to be achieved in the current fiscal year that move you towards your Goal; Strategies ~ initiatives that will move your people towards the achievement of the Objectives; and Tactics ~ the day-to-day, week-to-week action items that will implement your Strategies.  This builds presence, focus, and engagement in the moment, the only place we can ever influence anything.

4.) Take a hard look at your organizational culture.  Is it still in its transactional state or is it pulsating with possibilities.  This is why our firm focuses on aligning and optimizing Authentic, Transformational Leadership, Mindful Strategy, and an Engaging, Creative Organizational Culture.  Miss one element and high performance is extinguished.  The best visionary seeds will fail to germinate in depleted soil.

5.) Educate, coach and empower associates to grow as they move forward.  A study published in the Harvard Business Review® cited research that indicates a dollar spent on advertising created two dollars in revenue but each dollar invested in education resulted in forty dollars in increased revenue.  In addition, a research study published in the Journal of Public Personnel Management found that training improves the productivity of management a little over 22%. The integration of training with professional coaching improves productivity 88%.

If you embrace these five elements, goals will be met and the creativity CEOs so desperately desire will emerge.  The key is to leave transactional leadership behind and embrace the new mindset of transformational leadership.  If you don’t, the next generation, the Gen X and Gen Y’s will, and you’ll find your firm falling further and further behind as we continue to emerge from the Great Recession.

1.) “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting”, Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman, Harvard Business Review, February, 2009.

2.) “The hazards of goal pursuit. Virtue, vice, and personality: The complexity of behavior.”, L.A. King, C.M. Burton. Edward C.Chang (Ed),. xxvi, 189 pp. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, 2003.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

1 Comment

Filed under Experiential Learning, Leadership Development, Organizational Culture, Strategic Planning, Team Building

One response to “The Perpetual Pendulum in Leadership Thinking

  1. Thanks for giving that type information.That information is so helpful to us.Will be visit again on your website

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