Integrating Front-Line Team Members Makes for Better Decisions

There is an overriding concern from many leaders in today’s organizations who are trying to lead in a time of tumultuous chaos: traditional organizational structures no longer seem sufficient. There’s a simple reason:

The world in which many of today’s leaders were raised and trained no longer exists.

Fast Company Editor Robert Safian’s cover article in the November issue of the magazine is entitled The Secrets of Generation Flux: How to Lead in a Time of Chaos. In an earlier post I took a look at one section; now it’s time for another section – one that hits close to home for me.

Where hierarchy clearly fails the modern organization is in fostering and encouraging the creative ideas needed to stay agile in today’s networked world. The challenge for the Generation Flux leader, then, is to encourage creativity and agility while retaining the advantages of hierarchy. One of the leaders who has done so most successfully is General Stanley McChrystal. An Army man, McChrystal ran Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly five years, and later commanded all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, before he resigned in 2010 after his staff was quoted saying critical things about the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone article.

McChrystal experienced a reinvention challenge of his own when the threat of Al Qaeda emerged and the U.S. military had to rethink its assumptions. “We thought we knew the rules, that we knew what it took to be successful,” he says. “But the sport we had been playing wasn’t good enough for the sport we were required to be effective at.” McChrystal, 58, speaks with the stentorian assurance of an old-school leader. But what he has to say doesn’t fit that profile.

We grew up in the military with this [classic hierarchy]: one person at the top, with two to seven subordinates below that, and two to seven below that, and so on. That’s what organizational theory says works,” he explains. Against Al Qaeda, however, “we had to change our structure, to become a network. We were required to react quickly. Instead of decisions being made by people who were more senior–the assumption that senior meant wiser–we found that the wisest decisions were usually made by those closest to the problem.”

In other words, leaders need to be open to letting others make decisions for them. In a fast-changing world, the boots on the ground–be they soldiers or salespeople, engineers or intelligence officers–often need to react without going up the chain of command for approval. What’s more, they need to be empowered to act, to solve problems they encounter unexpectedly. This kind of openness requires not just free-flowing information but a new kind of collaborative trust.

For McChrystal, creating an organization where the best ideas win starts with instilling what he calls a “shared consciousness.” Leaders want the best ideas, but they want to ensure that everyone across the organization understands its goals and strategies. How else can you ensure that your people will act as you would like, even when you are not there? “If I’d proposed this idea to the people I grew up with [in the military],” says McChrystal, “they would have beaten me up and taken my lunch money.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, local commanders relied on video surveillance from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which gave them unparalleled views of target zones. But there were few UAVs to share among many commanders. Divvying them up was operationally critical but also emotionally important; in a fluid, diffuse war zone, commanders could easily feel slighted if they weren’t informed and empowered. “We forced our task force to hold frequent video conferences,” says McChrystal. “It was tempting to centralize control of these assets, but neither I nor my top leaders did. The commanders made the decisions about how to disperse them.” McChrystal invested in technology to spur communication and decentralize decision-making; his organizational structure made sure that it was used by the troops in more efficient ways. “My command team and I guided our values, strategy, and priorities,” he explains. “The leaders lower in the organization made tactical and operational decisions in line with those principles.”

What makes McChrystal’s comments above very personal to me is that one of my sons is in the Air Force UAV program. He’s a sensor operator, providing the video surveillance described above that helps commanders make crucial, time-sensitive decisions. Serving under the same command structure described in the Fast Company article, he has guidelines to follow. But more than ever before, those guidelines allow the critical input of the front-line troops.

As the son of a WWII vet, the father of an active-duty airman, and an avid reader of military history, the movement toward this type of decision-making is unprecedented. That may be, but it’s being duplicated in all types of organizations – even in ChurchWorld.

As McChrystal says, “The wisest decisions are made by those closest to the problem – regardless of their seniority.”

At organizations big and small, the smartest leaders recognize that a new kind of openness to ideas is required. This is where hierarchy fails us completely. How can a leader make sure that all the options and ideas from the trenches make their way to the top? If you rely on a traditional suggestion-box approach–“Please send me your ideas”–you’re doomed to limit your inputs, even in a digital, social age. Self-censorship is endemic wherever there is a whiff of hierarchy. People assume that their opinions aren’t really valued.

It seems as if today’s leadership is about ambiguity. It’s time for both/and, not either/or. Leaders need a balance between top-down command and control and bottom-up, front-line leadership.

It’s time for GenFlux leaders.

Who’s the GenFlux leader in your organization?

My favorite post from October, 2012

Gen X – Young & Restless

Part 2 of a 4-part series on Generations in ChurchWorld

Last week this post introduced the generational lens for a lot of my views. Yesterday I began this four-part series by looking at the Millennials. Today I want to look at the second of four generations active in ChurchWorld leadership roles today, and the implications for you as a leader with your own team. The remaining two generations will be examined tomorrow and the next day.

Generation X – (Born 1965-1981)

Possibly the most misunderstood generation in a leadership role today, this small (approximately forty-six million) but influential population has worked to carve out its own identity from its parents and younger siblings.

As you noticed yesterday (and will again tomorrow), technology has had a big impact on the Xers. While it was a single device for the Boomers, Xers were swamped with the media choices that sprung up during their lifetimes: cable TV, digital TV, satellite TV, VCRs, video games, fax machines, microwaves, pagers, cell phones, PDAs, and of course, the most life-changing item of all: the personal computer.

Most of the inventions above were intended to simplify the American way of life, but ask any Gen X about their childhood and you fill find that it was pretty complex. Violence appeared not only on television but close to home in the form of AIDS, crack cocaine, child molesters, and drunk drivers. Taken together, the message came across to Gen X: the world wasn’t as safe as it used to be. The number of single-parent households skyrocketed, and Mom wasn’t home with milk and cookies at the end of school. Instead, it was off to afterschool care or home to an empty house to play video games till supper.

The insecurities that developed during their childhoods continued as they became adults. Lay-offs, downsizing, fierce competition were just a few of the hallmarks of the world that Gen Xers came into as they entered the work force. The rate of change they’ve seen during their lifetimes and the cynical sense that everything is temporary play into their distrust of career permanence. After all, if their computers can become obsolete in a matter of months, what does that say about their own shelf life at work?

– “When Generations Collide,” by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman

Generation X – the 30 to mid-40 year olds in your church – are an extremely resourceful and independent groupp.

As with any of the generations discussed in this series, it is hard to define Generation X. There are some dominant themes that characterize segments of the group, and will be beneficial for leaders with Gen Xers on their team:

  • Freedom – many Xers reject workaholics and expect personal satisfaction from their jobs; their other interests are just as important as work
  • Issues of survival – national and global issues such as world hunger, famine, poverty, AIDS, pollution, and so on are large and complex; Gen Xers don’t expect these issues to be solved and indeed, see their own quality of life declining in their lifetimes
  • Feeling neglected – more than 40 percent of Gen Xers are children of divorce; often from a single parent home. Isolated from family, they turned to technology to develop relationships

Where does that leave you as a leader in ChurchWorld with Gen Xers on your team?

For Gen Xers, it’s not about job security but career security; they will build a repertoire of skills and experiences they can take with them if need be

Many Gen Xers are looking through the world with a skeptical lens

Because of what they saw their parents and friends’ parents go through, they are often not willing to pay the same price for success

They are ambitious and hard-working, but focused on balance and freedom

Raised on sound bites and accustomed to instant information, Gen Xers like their information in a manageable format

One more thing to think about: because of the large number of Millennials compared to the number of Gen Xers, a big shift in leadership will be taking place in 2015 – the majority of the workforce will shift from Baby Boomers to Millennials – completely bypassing the Gen X leaders on your team.

How do you think they are going to react to that?

Generational Disclosure: I am the parent of one Generation Xer, a 31 year-old son who has a 3-year-old son. He is a chef, kitchen manager, and regional trainer for the restaurant chain he works for. In addition, I work with several Generation Xers in my company, I network with many Xers across the country in my consulting role, and the leadership team at my church is exclusively Gen X.