Leaders within complex organizations

Complex organizations depend on an extended group of leaders who have the responsibility of articulating and carrying out the missions of the organization. Leadership groups within complex organizations should be expected to be a factor that influences the performance of the organization, for better or worse. Here I am thinking of medium-sized organizations — 500-2500 employees — with some degree of functional specialization — for example, a manufacturing company with divisions of manufacturing, marketing and sales, product design, finance and accounting, human resources, and government relations or a university with divisions of academic affairs, student recruitment, business and finance, student affairs, and external relations.

The complexity of an organization stems from the fact that a number of different kinds of activities are being carried out simultaneously by different groups of people, and there is no authoritative single “master bureaucrat” who sets tasks and oversees results for all agents of the organization. Inevitably there is some degree of decentralization of activity, with decision-makers at a variety of levels who are empowered to set the agendas of their units in such a way as to best achieve the overall goals of the organization. And higher-level leaders have a responsibility for attempting to achieve a suitable degree of collaboration and communication among lower-level leaders to make it likely that the activities of the units will contribute to a coherent and effective effort to achieve the organization’s goals. And complex organizations that fail to achieve a sufficient degree of coordination of effort internally wind up being pretty unsuccessful; their product is often one that reflects the specific needs of each of the units, but fails to satisfy the overall goals of the organization. (This is the point of the joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Here are some of the central tasks of an organization’s leaders. Leaders help set the strategic direction for the organization; they implement actions and processes at unit-levels within the organization; they collaborate with each other in efforts to achieve higher effectiveness within and across units; they seek out opportunities for new activities or initiatives that will further one or more priorities for the organization. And, as anyone knows who has worked within a variety of organizations — both organizations and leadership groups function at a very wide range of effectiveness, from the dysfunctional to the superb.

Why are leaders important to the effectiveness of the organization? Because they serve to articulate the goals of the organization and the sub-units; they work with others to articulate strategies and activities for achieving these goals; they motivate staff within their units to carry out strategies; and they have the organizational resources needed to arrive at collaborative efforts across units. Persons who are good at these various activities will make the organization more effective; and persons who are less good at them will pull the organization down. The leader who tends to demoralize his/her staff is unlikely to be able to stimulate high-quality work within the unit; persons who defend their turf rather than looking for opportunities for cross-unit collaboration will interfere with the organization’s ability to achieve coherence of effort and synergies of collaboration.

So what are some of the features of good leadership skills and a good leadership team? Here is the list I would offer as an observer of several organizations. Good leaders are cognitively and emotionally ready for collaboration; they are ready to see the gains that can come from honest and sustained efforts at solving problems that cut across the scope of several units. Second, good leaders are attuned to the shared mission and values that the organization has adopted. They don’t excessively favor the particular interests of their unit over the larger priorities of the organization; instead, they attempt to align the activities of the unit with the priorities of the organization. Third, good leaders are committed to effective management of their own areas. They attempt to bring best practices into all the activities for which they are responsible. Fourth, they have the ability to motivate the members of their teams, building trust among team members and a degree of unity about the goals to which the unit is oriented. Fifth, they possess a willingness to innovate. They are problem-solvers who are actively seeking out new solutions to the problems their units face and the problems faced by the organization more generally. Finally, they have a fundamental willingness to think broadly about the organization’s needs and priorities beyond their own specific areas of responsibility.

The defects that a leader or team can demonstrate are also fairly obvious. Lack of communication is a common fault within organizations, leading to circumstances in which other leaders and team members are in the dark about current plans and strategies. When Larry Bird stole the inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas in Game Six of the NBA Eastern finals in 1987, it was crucial that Dennis Johnson was already streaking to the basket. Second, bad leaders engage in gamesmanship and bureaucratic rivalries, aiming to achieve their ends in opposition to their peers. This obviously undermines trust, and it makes collaboration all but impossible. Third, bad leaders are largely driven by narrow unit-based interests, or even their own personal interests, rather than the organizations priorities and goals. And finally, bad leaders may display poor skills in motivating and managing the staff of the unit.

These are a few speculative hypotheses about what makes one leadership group more effective than another. But the hard question is this: what empirical methods exist for evaluating these hypotheses about effective leadership and management? Are there credible methods of investigation that would permit organizational researchers to evaluate the causal importance of some of these features of leadership? Or is “leadership” just one of those topics that has to be left to the “management theory” books that one finds in airport bookshops?

This topic is relevant for understanding society, because much of the action in contemporary society is carried out by the complex organizations described here. So having a better idea of how priorities and goals are linked up with concrete activities within an organization is a very important part of understanding the large social processes that jointly determine social change in the twenty-first century: economic development, social movements, educational progress, health care systems, and the like.


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