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Leadership Q&A: Fleshing Out the 7 Virtues of the 21st Century Organization

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Last week I wrote about 7 Virtues that are characteristic of the kind of organizations that will succeed in the 21st century. I just listed them without any explanation of what they mean or look like.

Virtues are values that represent a certain quality about a person or organization. Saying a person has integrity is more than a statement of values. It also says that a person’s values provide strategic direction for their life and work.  An organizational virtue, therefore, is the recognition that the company’s values are consistent and aligned with their purpose, the functioning of their relationships and operating structures.

Each of these virtues is a statement about organizational values and how they are to function in an organization. They build and support one another. Put all of them into practice, and the functioning of the organization changes.  The question that this raises is whether our conception of leadership is sufficient to meet the demands and opportunities that come with the practice of these virtues. I’ll leave that to you, dear reader, to decide.

1. Collaboratively-led: Collaborative leaders recognize that no one has a total grasp on everything. As a result we need collaborative leadership that functions as a facilitator and coordinator of people’s knowledge, expertise and talent.  The best description of this kind of leadership is first among equals (Latin: primus inter pares). This is a collaborative approach that allows for a rotation of leadership within the group depending on circumstances. It doesn’t negate the role of senior executive. Rather it is how a leadership team can function more effectively. Collaboration understood from this perspective is the foundation of the other six virtues.

2. Decentralized, local control: Control as an effective 21st century leadership strategy is now an illusion. The complexity and ambiguity of leading organizations today does not allow for a leader to exercise control over their organization like they once did. Today, transferring responsibility for decision making to those who must also implement is the key. This requires a different leadership approach involving more coaching, guidance and direction than before. In addition, training directors and supervisors to know how to resolve complex issues and make strategic decisions based on the policy direction of the executive leadership is essential. This approach requires a higher level of communication and coordination between executive and supervisory level leaders than before. As a result, collaboration is more than what happens in the executive suite, but is how the whole of the organization functions.

3. Long tail internal operational structures: The industrial era was known for its standardization of processes and structures. It is a mechanistic approach that worked for producing Henry Ford’s Model T that came in any color “as long as it was black.” The era we are now in is much more relationally driven. As a result, instead of standardized operational structures, operating structures are custom designed to provide a higher level of freedom to people to organize their work to achieve performance goals.  Customization is an outcome of greater creativity and innovation that comes with a collaborate culture and higher levels of local autonomy.

4. Purpose-driven organic adaptability: For a hundred years, we assumed that the form of an object, like a building or an organization, followed its function. However,what is the form of an organization that is organized around its purpose and the values that unify people to fulfill that purpose? The function of an organization is to create an impact that matters. As the industrial model of form following function became more dominant, the structure of the organization, its form, came to dominate the interaction of people who work in the organization. A purpose-driven organic adaptability allows for form to follow purpose and relationships. The result is greater flexibility to create new organizational structures quickly to fulfill the purpose that guides the organization.  People adapt; structures don’t. And as people we adapt organically as we discover, learn, try, fail, grow and succeed together. The stronger our collective ability to adapt grows, the less inhibiting is the old industrial model of organization.

5. Relational-asset based: For more than a decade, emphasis upon networking has grown, and with the emergence of social media platforms, like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, accelerating at a phenomenal rate. However, it is also true is that as everyone jumps on the social media networking bandwagon, having a large, widely dispersed network of followers does not have the impact value that it once did. The key relational distinctive is the ability to move the people in your network into action. To do so is built on more that just being a well-known public figure. Influence, increasingly, comes from trust. And trust comes from engagement with people in the things that matter to them. Relational assets are not numbers of followers, but rather the ability to make a difference in those networks. The key is participation and contribution.  This also means that when you are creating a collaborative team, you look for people who are contributors, whose participation in various networks adds value to those relationships.  The trend, therefore, is not to have a large network of relationships, but an extensive and diverse network of networks where your contribution makes a difference that matters.

6. Values that are operational: In a world that is becoming more collaboratively led, rather than industrially managed, trust becomes a highly valued asset. Trust is earned by action that is congruent with our stated beliefs and through the contributions we make in life and work. Trust is hard to build and easy to lose. The values of an organization are the essential component for creating trust. Not the values statement, but the values system that is the design of the structure of the organization. Yes, the very design of your organization is a statement of what you believe in and value. If you say you value people, but the structure makes it difficult for people to make their very best contribution, then your values and organizational structure are out of alignment. For this reason, it is important that we operationalize the company’s values in order to create a structure of integrity and trust.

7. Ownership culture of giving: Collaborative leaders create a culture where people own the organization’s purpose and the impact that it creates. Creating a culture of ownership throughout the organization opens it up to being a culture of giving. To give is to recognize that what we have is a gift. Even the organizational structures, the relationships, the values and sense of purpose that we have in our organizations are gifts to give away, not to hold and cling to as a personal possession. This is the perspective that led to the creation of the Say Thanks Every Day network.  An ownership culture of giving is a culture where gratitude is expressed freely and becomes a strategic asset that guides the decisions and actions of the organization. Of all the virtues that I’ve described here, it is this one that is the least recognized as a function of an organization. Yet, when a culture of giving grows, the people of that organization find their capacity for collaboration, for adaptability, for creativity, for innovation and for discovery grows.

These virtues apply to all organizations regardless of size or purpose. They are strategies that bring new strength and sustainability to the old forms that are no longer function well. What I’ve described here is a picture of how the structure of an organization can function in a very different manner than in the past. What is not said here is whether this leads to business success. I believe it does. We’ll address that in next week’s column.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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