Kojo chats with two reporters who spent the past year following the launch of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, D.C.'s new school for boys of color. Their stories are now featured in "Raising Kings," a collaboration between NPR and Education Week.
They’re the power struggles that can erupt when the chain of command is unclear – often in places as seemingly benign as office party planning committees. We chat with business coach and diversity consultant Howard Ross about the potential pitfalls of “horizontal leadership,” where authority is supposed to be distributed evenly across individuals.
- Howard Ross Diversity consultant; Principal, Cook Ross
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Howard Ross is here. Later on the broadcast, when everyday citizens take it upon themselves to look out for each other. We explore whether neighborhood watch programs are effective at combating crime. But first, the potential pitfalls of horizontal leadership. Not every office is structured with a military-style chain of command. Many workplaces thrive because they distribute authority evenly among peers who may enjoy equal freedom to contribute to the team, but dangers often lurk behind this approach because when everybody is in charge, it can also mean that at the end of the day, nobody is in charge.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the power struggles that present themselves when there aren't necessarily any powers that be is Howard Ross, diversity consultant and business coach. Howard is a principal in the firm Cook Ross. Howard, always a pleasure.
MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo. Good to see you.
NNAMDIThe military-style chain of command doesn't make sense for a lot of workplaces. A lot of people don't like to feel they're working in a platoon. So before we pick apart the pitfalls of the horizontal leadership structure, let's examine what's good about it first. Why is it a good idea for an office or an office manager to sort out authority evenly among members of a team?
ROSSWell, I think if we look at where our standard models of leadership come from, Kojo, they are military models. I mean, even in our language, we talk about our line-level employees in the trenches. You know, it's built into our language. We go back to some of the early days of management theory, people like Frederick Taylor and others who designed some of the early models of management. They were designed that way because that was the best model we had of how to organize large numbers of people to work together. So when we came into factory environments, we couldn't really rely on the kinds of models that came out of agrarian roots and rural roots. We've looked at where were places where we marshaled large numbers of people, and that was very much a command and control environment.
ROSSAnd it actually worked relatively well in those early days to some degree because you could quickly get people up. You gave people defined tasks, limited tasks, and they did that task. And the management, the leadership was responsible for taking the big picture for seeing what was there. And in our mindset, the model became you learn to do a job well. You keep doing it well. If you do it well enough, you get raised to a level of managing other people who do that well. We didn't teach people management skills, but they knew how to do things. And so the way they did it was making sure people did it essentially the way they did it, and it cascaded downward.
ROSSNow, we're in a very different model, different time because we know that some of the people who are working for us know more than we do about certain things. They have the ability to organize themselves to gain information much more quickly, and the very tasks that we're doing are not as prone to using that kind of structure of leadership as the military model is.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Howard Ross but inviting your calls. Have you ever worked in an environment where there were so many people in charge that at the end of the day, no one was in charge? How did that affect your experience? 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join this conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Howard, what kind of leadership skills do you think it takes for a boss or a manager to put trust in a staff and make a horizontal chain of command work?
ROSSWell, I think that there -- first of all, even in the question, I think, we're in a way limiting the scope because I think that their skill is just one part of a triumvirate of things that are needed. I think we need awareness. We need knowledge, and we need skill. I think we need an awareness of ourselves as leaders because it's much easier for the ego to lead when I've been promoted to this position, and therefore, everybody defers to me, and what I say goes. I don't need to think a lot about that. I think about what's needed for the business, and I don't mean to diminish people who operate in that way because there are very smart people in leadership and some terrific leaders who I still see out there who operate with mostly hierarchical structures.
ROSSBut the notion that somebody else in my organization might know something more than me requires a certain humility, and that's something that I think is challenging for us as leaders. I know it's something I have to look at all the time for myself in my company when I've got people who are 23 and 24 years old who know a lot more than I do about certain things. Social media is a good example. I think I've mentioned in previous shows that we're asking one of our 23-year-olds to design our social media strategy because he lives in that world more than I do, right? So -- but it requires a certain humility to acknowledge that in ourselves, and let's face it, humility has not been the hallmark of American leadership. So there's that.
ROSSThen, there's the knowledge of a broad level of things that are happening in the workplace, in the business environment and in the social environment that changed the way we do work. So, for example, if I'm a leader who's, you know, in my case, I'm 60 years old, if I've grown up a particular environment thinking of things in certain ways, even having the knowledge that social media outlets are ways of marketing ourselves differently or communicating to our population, our target population differently, that may not even be something I'm aware of. I hear this all the time in conversations between baby boomers about -- in fact, just happened this week, I was at a conference in Atlanta, and it came up among these folks who are mostly in the, say, 45 to 65 age range talking about those millennials and how they use technology without having any real understanding. And I feel blessed because I have a 17-year-old at home.
ROSSSo I can see in Jake that there are good things and bad things about it, and that's not just bad. So the knowledge of those changing environments and what's really needed. And then, the third level are the skills that are needed, and the skills require a very different way of communicating. It's a much more of a two-way range of communication. It requires the ability to, as a leader, sit back and listen more and to get people more engaged around us and to develop a more adaptive style of leadership.
NNAMDIDoes this also now have to change our concept of what a leader is given the fact that the leader of the organization may have a great deal of experience but, as you keep pointing out, may not have a skill set that several of his or her employees may have, and therefore may not be able to directly indicate to that person exactly how to do what he or she does? Nevertheless, having the title of leader implies a certain authority over these individuals, do we also have now to change our definition in the -- in terms of the workplace of what exactly a leader is?
ROSSWell, I think so. I mean, I think we have a tendency to think of the term leader and supervisor synonymously, and they're not necessarily synonymously. I think leaders often are supervising behavior, and in a broad scale, they're doing that. But in the more adaptive kind of environments that we're talking about, I think what leaders do, they set a vision, and they get people aligned with a particular set of values and beliefs and ways of understanding what -- where we're going, and they give people space to either self-supervise or to supervise each other and to begin to see leadership as not always hierarchical but sometimes leadership from within.
ROSSSo if you've got somebody whose job it is to manage a particular part of the business or a particular task in the business, putting them in a leadership position of that where they're actually asking, you know, even, you know, for example, asking the CEO of the company in this particular project I'm leaving, and you're one of the people who I need to get certain things from in order to that -- for that to happen. That doesn't change fundamentally the respect that people give to people in leadership, and that's where I think often people's egos get triggered. You know, well, who is this young person, or who is this person over there, lower level than me in the organization to be holding me accountable?
ROSSWell, if that person is the best person to lead that project, they have the best insight into it, the best energy for it, the greatest passion for it, the most time, in some cases, to lead it. Then, as a servant leader, our jobs are to serve them in the project in whatever way we can, to be accountable to them for that project.
NNAMDINot every business environment clearly is the same. A trading floor is different from a newsroom, which is very different from an advertizing agency. What kinds of lines of work or business cultures, if you will, you think lend themselves well to this horizontal kind of leadership approach?
ROSSI think this is a very important point, and it's one of the reasons why when I'm coaching people and speaking about leadership, I say to people, you know, it bothers me when I see these books that are on the shelf to say this is the way to lead because I don't think there's the way to lead. I think that leadership style has to be a combination of situation, of industry, as you said, and the challenges there of a particular makeup of the personalities of the people involved. There are some people who simply won't do well in a matrix leadership or an involved leadership environment because it's not their nature. And if they try to -- it's -- you know, it's like getting a squirrel to fly. I mean, it's just not going to work out very well, and it will end up actually disrupting and creating cynicism.
ROSSI think that if we think of certain environments, where clearly old styles of leadership for the most part -- I'm not saying by the way that there's not some adaptation, but old styles of leadership still make a lot of sense. You know, think of it going through the military is a classic example. I mean, you know, when you're taking on a battle in Afghanistan or in Iraq or anywhere else...
NNAMDIWe're not voting about who's taking that hill.
ROSSI was going to say -- we don't say what do you all think we should do, or the classic example is the sailboat in the storm. You know, you don't get -- let's get everybody get together and decide what we should do then. You know, in a moment like that, you get on that sail. You get on that jib and whatever else. I think that the kinds of -- what we're finding is -- and I think we talk a little bit last time. I know you had Dan Pink on the show...
ROSS...and what Pink talks about in terms of motivation. What we're finding is in that more left-brain kinds of tasks, tasks that are very mechanical, tasks that are very, you know, reproducible, people need to do this to get that, you know, picking up the number of bags of trash, you're picking up on the street or production kinds of environments, those tend to be more well suited to hierarchy, not exclusively, but they tend to be. And more creative innovative tasks, more right-brain kind of tasks tend to be the ones where more involved, enabled leadership tends to be more valuable.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and business coach, principal at the firm Cook Ross. We're talking about the concept of horizontal leadership and how it works or does not in reality, in what situations. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What lines of work do you think lend themselves well to a more horizontal style chain of command? And I was just about to ask Howard about how it works in different cultures, but I'll allow Roxanne in Martinsburg, W.Va., to raise that issue. Roxanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROXANNEYes. Hello. I'm living in West Virginia, but I'm actually Australian. And I was just interested in the verbiage that you were using in terms of saying in the troops and in the trenches, and we do have that kind of language at home in Australia. But more often you would hear people talk about going to work, and they would say at the coal face, which to me speaks more towards a history of the nation and its kinds of workers that we're used to. And as a teacher, we would often say we would modify that and say see you at the chalk face. And the principal was always just known as the boss, hey, boss, how are you going? And I just wanted to make a comment that the use of verbiage was very interesting, and I'd be interested to know what kind of verbiage is used in other cultures as well when talking about work and using just common talent.
NNAMDIThere's only one of producers that refers to me as boss. He shall remain nameless.
ROSSWell, I think that the -- I think that your -- Roxanne, your point is very well taken. The culture shows up in lots of different ways. Language, first of all, language is important. What we say to people, the words we choose often are seen as, oh, whatever, but the truth is that language does communicate something. And when we use terms like coal face or things like that, it does communicate something. It's part of our history, and it's in the background. I was just talking to somebody just these last few days who works in an organization. She was working -- she's an African-American woman who was working for a white human resources director who used the terminology at some point, we don't want people to feel like they're toiling in the fields here and was completely oblivious to the reference there.
ROSSAnd when she called him and said, well, why are you -- wait a second now. I'm not comfortable with that language, and he said, well, I wasn't even thinking about slavery. And then she said, well, I didn't say slavery. If you weren't thinking about it, why did you just respond that way? So there is language that has a cultural reference. But there are also, at the same time, and even -- maybe even as or more importantly, are cultural styles that are different. I think if you watch what's been going in Japan the last few weeks, that if you'll look at the Japanese response to the tsunami and the earthquake and obviously everything that's been going on since then, a lot of people had been saying, this is amazing. There's no looting.
ROSSYou know, people wait patiently in line for telephones or for the gas. And I was with one of my clients who has a Japanese man on his -- the leadership team and we were talking -- happen to be talking about this the week that was happening, and he laughed. He said, I laugh when I hear -- when I see people doing this because the truth is, the only way the Japanese would loot is if somebody said it's time for you to loot now. (laugh) You know, it's just not part of the culture for people to look individualistically in the same way that we do in our culture. So, all of those things are factors as well.
ROSSAnd when we look at global business, we can see that this puts a particularly complex set of nuances into how do we manage people who come from all of those different cultural backgrounds.
NNAMDIThat's fascinating. And we'll pursue that discussion after we take a short break. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. We're talking with Howard Ross about horizontal leadership. The number is 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Howard Ross, he's a diversity consultant and business coach who visits with us regularly. He's a principal at the firm, Cook Ross. Today, we're talking about the concept of horizontal leadership. Howard, I was fascinating about the reporting over the nuclear crisis they were having in Japan because one of the reports in -- about a particular plant said it remains unclear whether there was an incident commander managing the day-to-day crisis and who holds the authority for the plants operations. It goes on to quote TEPCO officials, TEPCO being, of course, the...
ROSSTokyo Power Company.
NNAMDI...Tokyo Power Company. But I was fascinated to read that specific part of it because, in our culture, we wouldn't understand that at all.
ROSSRight. Well, I think what you're looking at is a real -- a fundamental cultural difference. It's one of the differences that we look at in cross cultural, you know, communications and teaching very -- this very significant, which is the difference between an individualistic culture mindset and a collectivist culture mindset. You know, we know that Asian cultures tend to come more from collectivist mindsets. And I wanna preface this by saying I'm speaking archetypically now, not necessarily -- not stereotypically. It doesn't mean every single person. But as a rule, we see this. Whereas, for example, in our culture, we have, say, maxims like the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
ROSSIn Japanese culture, the similar maxim would be, the nail that protrudes gets hammered down or, in Chinese Culture, the duck that quacks get shot. So, you know, the notion that somebody has to stand up individualistically in leadership is not part of the culture. In that kind of a more collectivist mindset, the notion that the team of people is working together to play that role, to figure out what's needed and to work on it doesn't show up as something is missing. But, of course, we sit in our cultural mental model and we evaluate that what's going on over there so it looks to us like something is missing that may or may not be missing.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Bruce in Gaithersburg, Md. Bruce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRUCEYes, I got -- came into your program a little late and heard you talking about horizontal management. Fifty years ago, I was working in the manned spaceflight program, and we called it matrix management then. Obviously, the young guys like me knew much more about what was going on than the older men who were the managers of the space program. And matrix management is a concept which is old as the hills, that you're in charge of a project and that you may be working for me on this, I may be working for you on that. And that term fell out of use somehow.
BRUCEBut the early successes of the space program would never have been possible without matrix management. Hierarchical approach simply wouldn't have worked given the way the experience and knowledge were distributed.
NNAMDIAnd that compares, I guess, Howard, to the point you were making earlier about firms like yours, which now have to do social networking.
ROSSMm-hmm. Absolutely. And Bruce's point is important too because why do things we know that are valuable. I mean, certainly, when -- back when Peters and Waterman wrote their book -- shoot, the name of it strikes me now but it's been pretty (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIDon't look at me. (laugh)
ROSS"The Search of Excellence" -- when they were identifying some -- that was one of the places where that stuff really showed up. But as Bruce was saying, in a lot of places, that was happening anyway. But one of the things that's happened with some our terminology is we like an idea, we put an idea in place, but then the people who try to enact that idea, put it in to actually operation, weren't trained in a new way of thinking. And so, a classic example back in -- I remember back in the late '60s when open school environments were the -- all the rage, and they were building these schools without walls. And then what would happen is they put teachers in who were teachers who've been trained in the old model.
ROSSAnd immediately, the teachers started to drag bookshelves over and build walls for themselves, because we have the physical environment, we had the language for it, but we didn't have a mindset that went with it. And I think that's what we need to understand is that if we really are going to develop the kind of management that we're talking about, which is really shared leadership more than management, then we have to do our work internally on -- both internally ourselves and internally in our organizations to understand what that means and how to make that happen.
NNAMDIBruce, thank you very much for your call. Talk a little bit about the, I guess, psychological aspects of this. Horizontal power structures don't always guard workplaces from power grabs. They can create opportunities for employees to create fiefdoms and make power plays, even in situations as seemingly benign as party planning committees. The character Angela Martin on the television show "The Office" famously took tyrannical control of the party planning committee of the fictional company Dunder Mifflin. Let's take a listen to how she tried to run things.
NNAMDIHoward Ross, what advice do you give to office managers and leaders about the hazards that lurk behind what one might think should be harmless interactions and activities that give people the opportunity to conduct power plays?
ROSSWell, I think that, first of all, we need to understand that jerks will be jerks in whatever structure you put them in.
ROSSAnd so, when you've got somebody who is egocentric, who has that kind of a need for control -- and that happens in life on a daily basis. We all know people, including those who are sitting in some of our chairs. We all have a certain element of ourselves that wants to have control over aspects of our life. And when we're particularly stressed or things are particularly important to us, that's when that aspect tends to exert itself even more. And that's why one important piece is to recognize that if you expect people to really work in the kind of more collective mindset we're talking about in a more adaptive leadership style, then it begins by helping people learn to live from within, from understanding ourselves. What is our tendency?
ROSSDo I feel nervous if I'm not in control? And if so, not necessarily -- rather than reacting to that by saying, how do I gain control, to react to that by saying how do I learn to live with my nervousness, how do I learn to be comfortable with that nervousness rather than to react to it. The same is true for the other side. People who have a tendency to always defer and who may be nervous about speaking out is how do we learn to -- rather than have them be quite so that they can feel safe, how do we learn to have them speak out and be present to the fear that that brings up so that they can still contribute more at the same time as feeling those. And that works in many, many different ways.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Sandra in Washington, D.C. Sandra, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANDRAGood afternoon. I'm an -- a public educator. And I'm very fortunate because I teach art, and I have tons of creativity and flexibility. But to go off a tangent I have a very good friend who is a creativity and innovation leadership consultant. He's done everyone from food -- fast food chains to Fortune 500 companies. And he has found his worst whiners happened to be teachers and nurses...
SANDRA...who seem to feel they have the most responsibility with the least authority. If you just -- and -- if you could just comment on that, thanks.
NNAMDITeachers and nurses, least authority, most responsibility? She's not on the line any longer. What do you say to that, Howard?
ROSSWell, I think there are a couple of things here. I mean, I think, just to speak to the immediate point, then I wanna go back to what she said about teaching. First of all, this notion, what's called caregiver syndrome sometimes, does show up for people in the kind of service roles -- serving roles that we're talking about with teachers' job or nurses' jobs. And what happens is you've got people who are generally asked to take on things that are incredibly important societally and to the people they're dealing with. They're underpaid and undervalued for what they do. And they're asked to do a lot with too little, so they don't have the resources to really do it. And they get exhausted and there's no real support network.
ROSSOne of the things that we've done with a lot of our health care clients is to encourage them to create the kinds of environments where nurses, for example, can have a chance to deal with the constant stress of their job and the trauma of their job. You know, there are nurses who work in -- you know, for example, I work with a neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital. And, you know, these nurses deal with dying children every single day or children who potentially die. They watched their parents come in and sit by the bedside grieving the whole time. And they have nowhere to go with that emotion. And then we wonder why they feel the way they feel. Of course, they're gonna feel that way.
ROSSBut the other point I wanted to touch on quickly was when Sandra talked about art. One of the challenges we have now and what's going on in the public school system, because of a combination of a, sort of, political, social philosophy and because of budgeting, is that we're cutting out programs like art, like music, like talent-related programs. We're cutting out the right-brain programs. And what we're leaving in is reading, writing and arithmetic, which are the more left-brain teaching styles.
ROSSAnd so at the time when we know that to be successful in this increasing knowledge management society, we have to develop people to understand how to be in right-brain kinds of environments, our students are getting less opportunity to do that. And that's potentially a real problem as we look forward into the future.
NNAMDINew York Times has a front-page story today about the leadership of President Obama's defense team. David Sanger and Thom Shanker write that the president's original team was dubbed, not always accurately, the team of rivals. And quoting here, "The question is whether his reconfigured team could be named the corps of consensus." What sort of power-center issues do you suspect the president is confronting in making these personal decisions?
ROSSWell, first of all, we don't know what he's confronting. We only know what people say he's confronting. Let's be very clear about that.
NNAMDIThis is true, thank you.
ROSSBut I think that this, you know, that whole team of rivals thing, of course, was built on Doris Kearns Goodwin's model that Lincoln, again, supposedly did. No, I love Doris Kearns Goodwin. I love the book. And I think it's probably accurate, I'm not saying it's not. But my point is we're interpreting a hundred years later through -- or more through history. Nonetheless, I do think that what we know is that when we get diverse mindsets together, one of two things can happen. If you can think of it as of huge bell curve that if you have homogenous thinking, it's in the center of the curve. Heterogeneous thinking goes on one end of the curve or the other.
ROSSIf you bring people together with the different mindset without any structure for knowing how to engage in dialogue together, you just throw them in a room and say, figure it out, it's likely to take longer. There's likely to be a lot of tension. Egos will flare up, et cetera. You probably get lower productivity over time. If you bring people together with different mindsets with a fundamental structure of how we're going to operate collectively in this environment, what we see is, over time, people produce far more and much more creative environment. So the issue is not the people you bring together. The issue is how we structure the way we're gonna work together in those heterogeneous environments.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Steve in Round Hill, Va. Hi, Steve.
STEVEHi, Kojo. Enjoy your show.
STEVEI have just kind of a leadership paradox to throw out. You know, I find it kind of interesting. I need to throw it out for comment. I went to high school in the Panama Canal Zone. And at that time, by law, the canal is under the operation of a general and a corps of engineers. And that general had control over every aspect of the canal. And as most people know, the canal is a highly technical operation. It's very complex. A lot of things have to happen precisely for a ship to go through the canal. And what some people don't know, but the canal is -- there's more demand for ships to go through the canal than ship -- than there is capacity.
STEVESo therefore, ever since the canal has been operating, there's been a demand for ships to go through. And since the canal is now gone over to civilian control, a kind of authority operated up, I guess, under the auspices of the country of Panama, it appears that the canal is actually become more efficient. They've reduced the amount of time it takes to -- for ships to go through...
NNAMDISo your point...
STEVE...and everything is running nicely. So, to me, it's kind of a paradox. I mean, you would think that the best way to operate something so complex is with a general, a general with absolute, total control over everything.
NNAMDIBut it shows the different of leadership seems to be working more efficiently, Howard?
ROSSYeah, I think, once again, this is an example where matching the right kind of leadership to the situation and that includes the right style of leadership and the right personality of leadership. And generally speaking, high-control environments are environments where there's a lot of risks and potentially a lot of danger. I was with somebody, for example, just the day before yesterday from United States Steel. We're talking about the fact, when people make mistakes in the steel mill, people die.
ROSSThat's not an environment where you use a loose structure of leadership or you -- so it's like when we have our children, you know, when we're teaching them to cross the street, we don't start by going across the beltway. We go to a narrow street and a local -- and there, we give them an opportunity to do that. So I think we need to use -- we need to recognize what's at risk, the environment we're in. And similarly now in different environments where the economic environment creates certain stresses and dangers for organizations, we sometimes have to put more control in those environments.
NNAMDISteve, thank you for your call and for bringing up the Panama Canal, because I remember during the 1980s, when there was a debate in the Senate over whether the canal should be turned over to the government of Panama, the former Senator S.I. Hayakawa said the Panama Canal is ours. We stole it fair and square. (laugh) We’ve got to take a short break. Howard Ross, always a pleasure.
ROSSGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIHoward Ross is a diversity consultant in business school. He's a principal at the firm, Cook Ross. When we come back, neighborhood watchers, are they effective in reducing crime or not? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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