Big results require big ambitions.
Michael Hammer and James Champy7
As aspiring leaders, these students are motivated and ambitious but not yet fully competent. They cannot yet answer the how and what questions of leadership. The aspiring leaders' ambition and competence are important interdependent concepts when a company is seeking to get great results from leadership activities. One learning framework that can help with that understanding is a simple 2x2 matrix, relecting the high and low scales of competence and ambition.
When I irst became a supervisor in a technical organization many years ago, I had a conversation with a capable engineering technician – one of the people in the group I was managing. We were talking about career aspirations. He told me that his ambition was to be the technical manager of the R&D organization. This surprised me – this man was good but not excellent at his job. He was certainly experienced, but he was aspiring to a role that was many, many competency levels above his current level. We explored together the questions Why? How? and What? relative to this idea, this ambition he had to get the result he wanted, which was to get a promotion to this distant hierarchical level. We agreed it was a superordinate target, but he insisted it was doable. He was unable or unwilling to engage in a realistic discussion centring on How? or What? – especially on the notions of hard, demanding, results-oriented work. Especially instructive to me was our discussion of Why? Why, I asked him, do you want to
7 Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (New York: HarperBusiness, 1993), 226. become the technical manager? The answers he gave centred not on service to others or on improving the lives of others or on meeting the needs of the organization. All of his motivation centred on personal ambition. This is when the words “blind ambition” irst occurred to me.
Blind ambition is ambition without competence; it is based on ego rather than a purpose and service beyond self.
At the other extreme in the 2x2 matrix is a competent role model leader without ambition: a bird without wings. At the same time, an incompetent aspiring leader with ego-driven ambition is destined to be disappointed and may well damage the other people in the organization. Neither one of these examples is headed for role model leading and leadership.
“Noble ambition” is, I believe, an appropriate term for competent, highperformance role model leaders who are passionate about meaningful change and positive results that serve the needs of others.
Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one inishes nothing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson elegantly makes another point: the very best role model leaders have “noble ambition” and work very hard to get the best possible results from the direction they have given others. While implementing the direction, they do different work than those managing and those following; but they work as hard and in some cases harder than others.
A certain manufacturing manager, a good engineer and my colleague for many years, is the best example of noble ambition in my experience. He was determined to serve others and teach them the developmental way to create sustainable, positive results. He made himself available to share his competence as a leader and an engineer. He designed learning frameworks as his instrument of choice when working with people who, like him, were ambitious to get superior results. He was an authentic person whose quiet conidence, competence, and ambition inspired people to do more.
Noble ambition is a determination to learn to be a high-performance leader or to go beyond and to have a work ethic that says to those following, “I want you to follow my direction and I will work hard to inluence you to follow, and I believe so strongly in you and in the direction that I will work very hard with you to accomplish it.”
There is an important reality about the interaction of leaders and followers when change is being implemented: it is never a linear process. It is not step by step, as in, “The leader has an idea … The leader inluences people to accept the idea … The leader and followers do the hard work … The change happens …”
The interactions of people making change constitute a non-linear process that requires constant reinforcement. The level of leading and leadership competence must be very high to withstand the various countervailing energies at play in a change process.
In all organizations, when engineers or leaders set out to change things, the morale of those following shows a consistent pattern, as illustrated in Figure 1.1. Morale is a measure of the logical and / or emotional acceptance of the direction the leader is giving his or her followers. When acceptance is high, so is morale; when acceptance is low, morale sinks. Morale is a measure of “buy-in” or willingness to change. To grasp the meaning of leading and leadership, it is important to understand this pattern.
People often start out wanting to accept the leader's view that change is good for us. In these early stages of the inluencing process, morale often rises. People are enthusiastic; they accept the leader's positive message. This is very similar to what happens when army recruiters ask young adults to sign up for military service during wartime. The message is accepted because the leader and the message are trusted and because people have no experience to draw on. The recruiter is signalling change, but the people he is recruiting are unable to take the long view – that is, to see what the change will actually mean to them. Obviously, the leader accentuates the mystery at these early stages by expressing a personal commitment to the change.
This early enthusiasm typically does not last. Reality sets in – people begin to see, listen, and feel as the leaders describe honestly the path forward and the work to be done. This requires followers to move from the comfort of the current state towards an uncertain future state. And this is where the questions usually start, beginning with “What's in it for me?” “Why is the current state so bad?” “How can he do that?” “How do we acquire the skills to do this?” The leader will have to answer a host of questions of this sort.
The initial burst of enthusiasm at the early stages is the result of the leader's competence. But even the best leader's skills begin to lose their impact as the organization relects on the Why? What? and How? questions. Less capable leaders, after they have told the organization that change is coming, quickly begin to lose their followers' morale. The followers' initial euphoria can have a very short half-life.
Unfortunately, acceptance of change often turns quickly into resistance. Most people do not accept change easily. The notion of “tuning out” comes into play here – that is, people may say they understand and support the new direction in order to avoid controversy, when in fact they are “closet resistors.” This is the worst possible state. It is much better to have people engaged with the leader to answer the Why? What? and How? questions. Even the best leaders' capabilities are tested in these situations. Figure 1.1 People and Change
Gradually, however, the leader begins to gain the trust and credibility required to persuade people that the transformation is necessary and that it will make for a better future. The resistance yields to “getting it” – to understanding why that transformation is important for the organization and its people, who begin to better and truly understand the beneits that change will bring as a result of their participation.
The length of time it takes to move from “resistance” to “getting it” is a direct function of the leader's skills, character attributes, and behaviours, which together deine the competence of a leader.
Simple logic and experience has revealed to me the catalytic effect of Everyone a Leader. In a given group, if there are many among the “followers” who have developed their own competence as leaders, the time and energy required to move from point 4 to point 5 in the igure will be markedly less.
Values: The Foundation for Positive Change
If we are to understand the word “positive” as a descriptor for the change that leaders work to achieve, then we need to understand “values.” Here, values refer to those things that are valuable or positive for people. A new car is valuable because it is worth something in terms of cash, but it is also valuable in terms of personal beliefs – that is why so many people nowadays are opting for an electric car or a hybrid, or why they are moving into an inner city where they can travel by public transit. Leaders are dedicated to creating positive change – indeed, they are deined by that effort – and the outcome of their efforts is improvement in the lives of people. “People” is arguably the most important word in the deinition of leadership that I am using. By that word, I am referring mainly to those within the organization who are following at any point in time; but here are other important stakeholders in the leadership equation. For example, individual customers often participate in the creation of positive change, typically by encouraging companies to change their product speciications. These customers then evaluate whether the changes meet their speciic needs for value-add. What I've just noted about customers can also be said of society as a whole.
So, leadership has an impact on people within the organization, on customers, and on society as a whole, and each of these in a given situation will have different needs and priorities. Generally speaking, customers need their business to be strengthened by the changes the supplier organization's leader is making; society needs the well-being of its various communities to be enhanced by the change. At the same time, those in the organization who are following need to be inspired, or at a minimum see beneit for themselves in the change.
When poor leaders do harm, it is usually because they are focused on serving themselves or a handful of stakeholders. Examples are legion. This is not the deinition of positive change, nor does it relect developmental leadership.
A leader's values are, at root, personal ones. That is, the changes a leader works towards making are motivated by personal values. To be effective, leaders must be guided not by egocentric or reactive personal needs but by needs that are purposeful – that is, by needs that have a purpose beyond self-service and that involve service to others.
In the case of the leader-engineer, or leader-scientist, this is especially important. It is equally important for leader-artists, leader-teachers, leaderpoliticians, and so on; but engineers and scientists, being the stewards of the world's engineering and scientiic technologies, need to be especially conscious of their power to do the right things. And doing the right things means serving people's needs and improving their lives.