Fanax: the Mycenaean term for "king"; pronounced "wanax". The funny initial letter, "F", is called digamma and shows up in Archaic Greek epigraphy (papyrus and tablet writings). The sound, if not the letter form, and its linguistic equivalent initially show up in the heiroglyphic writings (Linear B) of Bronze Age Greece both at Pylos, in the far west of Greece (Peloponnese), and at Knossos in north central Crete, the funny "F". Specifically, digamma shows up in the Greek of Homer's Iliad with the word "F"anax, but there it's a "rough breathing" in the form "(h)anax", where the term is linked to an important individual at Pylos. In Classical and Hellenistic Greek, the F continues in this aspirant, or "h" sound, form at the beginning of many Greek words.

What Went Wrong?

January 26, 2017 ·

It's often a challenging proposition to review a major life change after the fact. A job change, for instance, can be one such event. Even if it is not emotionally difficult to relive all the factors that led to your decision to make the change, it is often simply difficult to reach that point of clarity: what went wrong? Occasionally, yes, there is that Great Opportunity, that less painful transition which was not based on something going wrong, and other times the primary factor is something obvious on the other end of the spectrum, an abusive boss or deplorable pay or the like. Barring one of those extremes, however, what led to your most recent transition? If you don't have an example ready to mind, think about a time you quit a job and your significant other asked, "Why are you leaving? You love that place." or your boss asked, "You've been great for us and we knew you were great, so what did we do wrong?"

The relationship between employee and employer, between team member and organization, is a relationship, with all the complexities inherent in any human interaction. By the time a relationship has broken down to collapse, the waters of cause and circumstance tend to be quite muddy and murky. A bit of time, along with some introspection and time to think, though, can result in insights. Memories, maybe, of what originally caused things to slip into murkiness. My father, who was involved in numerous Silicon Valley startups over the years, recently remarked on a common theme in all the shops he left. "Management," he said, "It's always an issue with management."

There are certainly many ways to disagree with both managers and management styles, but in our modern age, I increasingly suspect that many of these failures could be viewed in terms of servant leaders coming up against the cold realities of organizations unwilling or unable to move beyond command-and-control, even while the same organizations lament their inability to attract or retain high quality knowledge workers. This, this is what went wrong. Everyone wants to hire the "best people" and everyone thinks they understand that the best people should set the organization apart in terms of producing the "best company" or something. Everything about hiring great people and helping people reach their best potential, however, relies on leadership, not on management. There have been several posts lately on the internet and making the rounds on newsletters about just how recent in human history the concept of 'management' is. (Social history tells us it won't last much longer, but that's a post for another time.) Leadership, on the other hand, involves genuinely modelling appropriate behaviors. "Do as I say, not as I do," works no better in the workplace than it does when the pack-a-day father tells his teenage kids not to smoke.

Each organization has a direction, but does it know what it is? Maybe it does know where it's going and why, but can it articulate those things? Even if it can articulate its direction, are there people in place who can and will elucidate the story effectively to everyone else in the organization? Even the most restrictive, task-based management structure can benefit from letting employees in on The Secret. Tell people what their contribution really is and why their work matters, and you will nearly always see increased engagement (and therefore improved productivity). At least for a while. Genuinely engage them in the grand vision, though, and then lead and allow them to contribute on their own, leveraging their own experience and knowledge, and you will see true transformation.

Unfortunately for many organizations, servant leadership ultimately requires that all teams, departments, and levels of an organization function interactively. Wondrous improvements can come in the lives of individual employees with a true leader in their group, but without consistency across the other groups or levels, eventual frustration and pain are simply inescapable. There are plenty of organizations still which brook little independent thought, so let me present a few example scenarios of what I mean here.

An organization may have several, natural, servant leaders who fell into what would be traditionally considered middle management roles, based entirely on the strength of their obvious leadership ability. These individuals likely have high functioning teams, but without C-level understanding of and commitment to leadership by example, a good team can still easily fall into distrust and in-fighting with other teams. In essence, the typical problem of individuals on a team undercutting each other for recognition or for a slice of a limited bonus pool simply got bumped up a level. The high functioning programming team that can't get support from the UX group or from the infrastructure department will soon resent that other group for "not pulling its own weight". Even worse, the programming team may see the other teams as undermining the larger group goals and hurting themselves as well as everyone else. Adding insult to injury, with leaderless managements, people on other teams may not even realize their own potential because they've only ever been 'tasked'. If they do get a chance to grow personally and professionally, they often get quickly frustrated with the lack of support.

An alternative scenario is the organization which, whether accidentally or intentionally, does encourage the servant leadership model to move through its teams and departments, even including all or at least some of the C-level management, but where ownership itself is the challenge. Owners, particularly of long established companies, are generally used to having their own way. Unless "their own way" happens to already be servant leadership, there is bound to be a clash between them and their own organization at some point. This scenario may manifest in the following way, for example.

  • Strategic planning: This starts from the premise that "we want employees to all know what we're doing and why"
    • Assumption: All employees will be great and do good work because they will know why
  • Management: Upper management decides that middle management should tell all employees what we are doing and why
    • Assumption: Managers who do great work but don't lead are OK because they are great
    • Assumption: Managers who micromanage by detailing every task must be great because they know why they're doing it
  • Employees: In theory, the employees should all know what we're doing and why because they heard it from their managers
    • Assumption: Employees who are great must have gotten there because of good managers
    • Assumption: Employees who are not great should know why, because their managers know why
    • Assumption: Employees who have poor managers are literally not on the radar, because that doesn't exist

In short, endemic command-and-control management remains firmly in place, but it is hidden temporarily while some of the managers do push the strategic plan down the line. Several teams, maybe even most of the teams, pivot towards a leadership-not-management perspective and begin performing well. Then the ownership questions start arising. What is the status of every project, how exactly is every person utilized, how much time is being spent on each project or each activity across the company or across a department? Without proper levels of micro-management, how can these questions be answered in a timely or (worse) a predictable manner?

While these scenarios often come to the fore very rapidly by teams or organizations adopting Agile methodologies for the first time, management devoid of leadership will result in friction eventually. The avalanche effect is sometimes the first sign, depending on how well and how long the organization has hidden its internal problems. By avalanche, I refer to the phenomenon wherein managerial friction starts to mount and employees begin to feel the change even before specific decisions or rumors come down to them. The stress among employees then begins to snowball, building and spreading like a cascade throughout the organization. When that stress-storm becomes apparent, you can be sure there is a breakdown of leadership across at least part of the organization.

What does it all mean? Why bother examining the clash between management and leadership? Don't we all know that it's always management's fault? So what? What can we learn from these general observations? If you find yourself in a servant leadership position and/or if you are lucky enough to be working for a servant leader, it is important to understand that support is critical. Support your boss, look for co-workers and team members to support you, push on your organization in whatever ways you can to improve or develop a holistic understanding of servant leadership's value. And if you step back to view your organization as a whole and you can clearly see the cracks where leadership and management clash, and if in that context there appears to be little hope of change, then perhaps it is time for a change of your own.

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