THE current school of thought is focused on creating strong leadership cultures in organisations rather than focusing on just a strong individual leader in an organisation. The demand for leadership, and the successful act of leadership requiring people to become more open to their whole work experience of interpersonal interaction in the workplace has led to the idea of viewing organisations as cultures — where there is a system of shared meaning among individuals.
Until the mid 1980s, organisations where regarded as just rational means by which to co-ordinate and control a group of people. They assumed vertical structures, departments, authority relationships, and so on. But recently it has emerged that organisations are more than that. They have personalities too just like individuals; they can be rigid or flexible, unfriendly or supportive, innovative or conservative. Each organisation can assume a unique feeling and character beyond its structural characteristics.
Need to institutionalise organisations
When an organisation becomes institutionalised, it is valued for itself and not only for the goods or services it produces. It acquires immortality. Even if its original goals are no longer relevant, it continues to operate as a business, redefining itself as it evolves.
At times there is a tendency in most organisations to focus on the leader at the expense of the entire organisation. This way the organisation becomes more dependent and subservient to the leader or founder rather than vice-versa. This scenario is catastrophic to the survival of any business as it fails to adapt and evolve beyond the celebrated heroic leader.
There are organisations (which I cannot mention for professional reasons) which have struggled or even failed to survive beyond their heroic leaders or founders. In Shona they say kufa kwangu zvarowa kind of mentality.
To avoid the consequence of becoming overly dependent on a heroic leader, some organisations are striving to institutionalise leadership.
Merits of institutionalising leadership
Institutionalising leadership provides members with common understanding of what is appropriate and, fundamentally, meaningful behaviour. Therefore, when an organisation takes an institution permanence, acceptable modes of behavior become largely self evident to its members. This is akin to creating organisational culture.
Defining organisational culture
It refers to a system of shared meaning held by members, which distinguishes the organisation from other organisations. This system of shared meaning is, upon closer examination, a set of key characteristics that the organisation values.
I will list here seven primary characteristics that, in aggregate, capture the essence of an organisation’s culture:
Innovation and risk taking: The degree to which employees are encouraged to be innovative and take risks.
Attention to detail: The degree to which employees are expected to exhibit precision, analysis and attention to detail.
Outcome orientation: The degree to which management focuses on results or outcomes rather than on techniques and processes used to achieve these outcomes.
People orientation: The degree to which management decisions take into consideration the effect of outcomes on people within the organisation.
Team orientation: The degree to which work activities are organised around teams rather than individuals.
Aggressiveness: The degree to which people are aggressive and competitive rather than easy going.
Stability: The degree to which organisational activities emphasise maintaining the status quo in contrast to growth.
Each of these characteristics exists on a continuum from low to high. Appraising the organisation on these seven characteristics gives a composite picture of its culture. This becomes the basis for feelings of shared understanding that members have about the organisation and as such it informs how things are done, and the way members are supposed to behave.
Job activities are thus designed around work teams and team members are encouraged to interact with people across functions and authority levels.
Further employees speak positively of the competition between teams. Individuals and teams have goals, and bonuses are based on achievement of these outcomes. Finally, employees are given considerable autonomy in choosing the means by which the goals are attained.
Mandeya is a senior executive training consultant and communication in management advisor, a personal coach in leadership and professional development with the Institute of Leadership Research and Development. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com.