When it comes to discussions on leadership, there are certain constants or inevitable statements that you’re likely to come across. One of the most common of these stems from the ongoing debate over whether culture is more important than strategy in terms of the organization’s long-term success and viability.
Unfortunately, the popularity of debating the merits of one tactic over the other has recently given rise to a whole new set of either/or scenarios where leaders are encouraged to adopt one approach at the expense of the other. To date, some of the either/or scenarios I’ve seen debated include:
- vision vs. strategy
- knowledge vs. action
- people vs. results
- thinking vs. doing
- managing Millennials vs. every other workplace generation
Of course, it’s understandable why there’s a growing appeal for this approach – given the increasing complexity of leading organizations in today’s interconnected global economy, it’s only natural that we want to find quick answers to help us navigate these often choppy waters.
And yet, the problem with these zero-sum models is that they not only misdirect our focus from more urgent issues, but they also create more harm than good for the following reasons:
1. It overlooks the dualistic nature of these approaches
I’ve read recently a few articles where people have argued that the fast-pace of today’s market demands less focus on knowledge and thinking and more on action and doing. Of course, it’s easy to argue for a take-charge bravado when you’re not leading an organization still suffering from risk aversion thanks to the difficulties faced over the last few years.
That’s not to say that we need to do the inverse – of waiting until we have all our ducks in a row before we release our collective efforts out into the world. Rather, it means that we need to be more cognizant of the fact that these actions are not done in a vacuum and how we need to see how the collective efforts we make are connected and why they matter.
The simple truth is that we can’t put measures into action without thinking of outcomes, consequences, and alternate possibilities. We can’t achieve the results we’re after without considering the impact and influence our employees have on our collective ability to achieve those desired outcomes. And we can’t create effective strategies if we don’t have a clear and compelling vision for why this is worth doing and why others should care.
As much as we might like to favour one approach over the other – perhaps because one of them is easier for us to do or it’s what we’re used to doing in the past – the reality is that these various approaches are interdependent and mutually required for our collective success.
2. It encourages a scarcity-over-abundance mentality
There’s no question that today’s leaders face a growing demand for their time and attention, and that this demand will continue to increase in the years ahead.
However, that doesn’t mean that in order to address this growing need we have to construct either/or scenarios where we overlook one approach in favour of the other. That we have to sacrifice our collective vision in favour of strategy, or put results ahead of looking after what our employees need to thrive.
If anything, the challenges we face today require us to be more open to different approaches – to finding ways to take care of our employees so that we can get the results we need. Or to finding ways to create time in our day to reflect and review where we are and where we need to be to ensure we are in fact taking the best course of action to achieve our shared purpose.
In other words, our ability to succeed stems not from a perspective of scarcity, but from an abundance of possibilities.
3. It creates counterproductive limits on our ability to adapt and innovate
Those familiar with innovation understand that our sense of creativity rises not in the absence of limitations, but in the presence of them. Of course, the corollary to this statement is that not all limitations are created equal.
Indeed, we have to recognize that while some constraints can challenge our assumptions of what’s possible, others only serve to restrict our movements and capacity to envision alternatives that can help us to achieve our goals.
When we argue that we have to choose between culture and strategy, or people and results, or thinking over doing, what we’re basically creating are counterproductive limitations that constrain our perception of what our employees can and should be doing to help our organization move forward.
Either/or scenarios don’t create game-changers because all they do is restrict instead of liberate what information, ideas, and insights we’re able to employ in our decision-making processes.
4. It assumes that we operate in a static environment
Finally, the last issue with these either-or scenarios is that they assume a static model or environment; that what’s needed or required today will still hold true months or years from now.
There’s little doubt that leaders now have to operate in a faster-paced, ever-changing environment where agility and innovation are no longer competitive advantages but requirements to doing business in today’s inner-connected global economy.
But if we are willing to accept this reality, how can we at the same time assume that simply focusing on one side of these equations will help us to succeed and thrive beyond a given quarter? How can we become more agile and responsive if we assume we only need to operate from one vantage point or perspective?
There’s no question that culture is important, but so is our ability to develop new strategies in response to changing conditions and new information. Similarly, our ability to hit the pause button to assess what’s working and what’s not makes it easier for us to ensure that we’re not doing things simply because that’s the way things are done around here, but because it’s the best approach to ensuring we reach our shared purpose.
What all these points demonstrate is that it’s easy for us to argue in favour of one approach over the other – to say that culture is more important than strategy; that doing is more important than thinking and so forth. But the reality is that – more than ever before – organizations can’t succeed if leaders stick to doing what’s easy or familiar.
Rather, what’s required are leaders who are capable of adapting to the needs of their employees and to the needs of those their organization serves. Leaders who understand that either/or scenarios are no longer enough, and recognize the necessity of enabling their organization to tap into the power of “and”. That they understand that what their employees need to succeed is culture and strategy, knowledge and action, thinking and doing, and a focus on people and results.
Of course, in light of the limited resources we have at our disposal – not to mention the increasing demands for our time and attention – applying the power of “and” doesn’t mean that we have to employ them at the same time or to the same degree.
Indeed, this is the very art and science of leadership today – knowing when your employees need more of one or the other or both. Of being able to adapt how you lead to provide your employees with the resources, tools, insights, and inspiration they require to push ahead and apply their discretionary effort to your shared purpose.
The reality is that these either/or delineations are artificial and unrealistic in terms of effective leadership because on some days, we will have to focus more on devising and evaluating strategies instead of cultivating or developing our organizational culture. And on other days, we will need to take a step back and reflect on what it is we want to accomplish; of why it matters not just to our organization, but to our employees – even if that means standing still in the middle of a rushing river.
The fact is that leadership is not a simple, solo endeavour. It not only involves many moving parts, but it also requires constant review and adjustments to ensure that what we want to accomplish through our leadership mirrors what our employees are capable and willing to do.
If we are to move our organizations forward, we need to move beyond attempting to fit things into these either/or equations and instead look for how use the power of “and” in our leadership – a key characteristic of those organizations that are thriving today despite the growing challenges that leave so many others struggling to find fast solutions.
Indeed, a recent study by Hay Group demonstrated that those companies that are succeeding in today’s business environment are able to do so because they are lead by “ambidextrous” leaders – leaders who are able to balance both today’s needs and tomorrow’s opportunities.
Is this as easy as sticking to one side of those either/or equations mentioned above? No, but it is the critical factor to your ability to build the foundation for your organization’s present and future successes.