A key skill any manager or head of a function or department would appear to  need to have is the ability to be able to negotiate and get their share – at least – of available resources for their area. Being able to fight your corner, make your case, convince, out-gun others, and get what you need for your function, for your objectives and for your success are seen as prized and essential skills.  In fact, accommodating, compromising, considering others, listening to others’ needs are not the qualities we want to see in strong leaders.  Nor do such people survive long in leadership positions. Too weak!

Good news… for US at least!

I thought of this recently when a gang of workers, with Portakabins, mechanical diggers and lots of trucks arrived to repair a 60 meter entrance to a  housing estate comprising seven houses where I live. The concrete roadway was cracked and in some places the concrete actually broken. Risk of any kind was non existent and inconvenience minimal. They have been working on it now for over two weeks and I reckon it will take three more weeks before it’s finished. I have no idea what it will actually cost but I could guess €60,000.

Getting things done and Getting your Way

I thought this was a success for whichever of my neighbours convinced the local council to do this work, but also  a success for whomever in the council decided this particular allocation or use of €60,000.  I can imagine why this decision made so much sense:

  • A concrete (sorry!) project completed and the completed item included in an annual report.
  • Budget allocation used up so that no reduction in budget will be considered for next year.
  • Commitment to loyal contractor honoured and other tenderers or contenders kept hungry for next time.
  • Local lobbying elected official satisfied and local lobbying neighbour equally so.
  • Employment for 10 people for one month et cetera et cetera.
  • Somebody, somewhere fought their corner very well, and convinced, outgunned, and did a great job achieving their objectives for their department.

Who Lost Out in All this?

The only trouble with this success, and with the other hundreds of similar successes in my local council, is whether this actually was the best way to spend €60,000 or whatever. Let’s say, for example, that 15,000 of the 550,000 on hospital waiting lists in the country overall belonged to my area.  Would we, my neighbours and I, insist on our 60 meters of road being repaired in preference to looking after, say, just 10 people who continue to suffer, and worry, day and night for two or three months more with heart, lung, stomach, hip problems that rob them of the chances to live active and full lives? I don’t believe we would and we would happily forgo our cruise over nice new concrete. In saying this, I’m not claiming the high moral ground nor laying any personal blame either at my neighbour’s door nor at the door of the local council official, but rather questioning approaches, systems, and structures that allow and allocate decision-making for the benefit of particular groups rather than for the benefit of the  overall.

Particular versus the Overall

This flawed and damaging dynamic happens at local council level, at national level and, as we can see very clearly, at international level, where powerful nations fight their corners, out-gun, out-manoeuvre and achieve great success at the expense of those who lose out and at the expense of the overall. At a far less dangerous and less impactful level, this same flawed and damaging thinking is rife in organisations where success is viewed, to a great extent, at the individual or functional level.  This is often seen as a healthy and robust approach to managing an organisation where departments and functions and their leaders do battle with each other, overtly or covertly, fighting their respective corners for their share of or more than their share of overall budgets.  So accustomed to this do we become that we simply take it for granted and see it as normal and even as healthy and good. But it is not. And it is not for several reasons.

The Industry of Management

The obvious one is that narrow and bad decisions get taken like in the case of my roadway. The overall real good suffers and ultimately people suffer. This is serious and is real and is commonplace.

The less obvious one is that a whole and completely unnecessary industry of management comes into existence where endless time, innumerable meetings, and needless discussions form the bulk of what managers do on a daily basis and where they spend their time. Yes, there are meetings and discussions that need to be held where different experiences and expertise do need to be involved. But this legitimate need and value gets confused with the need to have a representative there to “fight our corner” because otherwise someone might take advantage and we might lose out. It is here that the men get separated from the boys – and from the girls, unless the girls decide to be men. There may be, at best, a token acknowledgement of the overall good and the welfare of everybody, but this takes second place to one’s standing in the organisation, one’s career, and the profile and strength of one’s departmental tribe or kingdom.

Leadership for the Overall Good of Everyone

The answer to this is the same as always. Clarity that it is always the overall good, the good of the greater entity that matters and leadership and a leader who gets everybody clear on what the overall good is and then manages and leads the organisation to continuously and always focus on that.  Get this principle into our heads and into how we manage and lead our organizations and who knows what might happen at other levels and in other places.  Too much to ask for?  Surely not!