The New Gordian Leadership Perspective, part 2: Move over, Alexander the Great

Thought Leadership on Execution Strategies presented by Simple Solutions.

This article discusses how a misguided or outdated understanding of a CEO’s role and purpose within an organization can be counterproductive to an organization’s success.

When we think about the role and purpose of a CEO within an organization, the culture of the United States has always emphasized and valued individual action as a model for success. Individuals who take swift, decisive action are admired, respected and followed, even when they are too headstrong. Even those who take command through aggressive means are more likely to be perceived as leaders than those who advocate long-term thinking, collaboration, and thinking about what is best for the organization as a whole. Taking swift, decisive action not only describes the predominant role model for a successful American CEO, but it also defines the American mentality about what leadership is.

A model of action: Alexander the Great’s approach to the Gordian knot

This American archetype of a leader as a “doer” can be likened to the decisive action taken by the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great, to untie the famous Gordian knot in mythology.

The Gordian knot was an extremely complicated knot that could not be unfastened. According to the myth, many individuals came to Gordium to undo the knot, but they all failed. Until Alexander the Great visited the city and, after searching unsuccessfully for the hidden ends of the knot, became impatient, took out his sword, and in an unexpected move, cut through the knot.

The Gordian knot has come to symbolize a difficult problem that is almost impossible to solve. Alexander’s solution to the problem led to the saying, “cutting the Gordian knot,” which means solving a complicated problem through bold action.

In a similar manner, this action-orientation is what commonly defines the role of an American CEO in both theory and practice.

When action replaces thinking and patience

Unfortunately, in our action-oriented leadership culture, we frequently undervalue and neglect the skills, tools, techniques and people needed to address the complex problems that are common in our organizations.

There is evidence that an over-reliance on this leadership behavior, at the expense of other leadership styles, can produce unintended consequences that are counterproductive to an organization’s success.

Three examples of common, unintended consequences that result from an over-reliance on an individualistic, action-orientated leadership style include:

1. An inability to solve complex, yet common organizational problems. American leaders and their organizations can be at a disadvantage when it comes to solving complex problems. Complex problems are defined as those that can only be solved by a planned and disciplined approach that is maintained over time. Specifically:

  • Working effectively across silos
  • Succession planning
  • Balancing investments between core operations and short-term demands
  • Meaningfully utilizing productivity tools for onboarding, performance evaluations, coaching and training
  • Maintaining in-practice, relevant standard operating procedures
  • Successfully managing information sharing and coordination between centralized headquarters and decentralized field units
  • Successfully completing change management initiatives
  • Maintaining a productive culture

Symptoms of this disadvantage can be seen in the pervasiveness of these types of problems that commonly plague organizations.

2. The cultivation of a self-serving leadership disposition, which loses sight of the organization’s mission. Such a personality puts the interests of the CEO position above the interests of the organization and its customers. Losing sight of an organization’s mission results in making decisions based upon other considerations, such as politics, ambition and job security, and selecting the wrong things to do as a result. It is not uncommon that this type of personality is promoted within organizations to the detriment of its success. When hiring a leader, his or her ambitions and character alignment with the needs of an organization’s mission and customers, is often overlooked.

3. The unconscious promotion of a cultural bias towards action-orientation. Cultural imbalances can arise in an organization when action is unconsciously promoted for its own sake. For example:

  • Those who actively seek a leadership role because of the rewards and status it brings rely upon our action-oriented perception and take proactive, sometimes aggressive, measures to prove that they are “doers.”
  • The reward of leadership for assertiveness and individual effort are granted with the condition that doers “keep up the good work.”
  • The longer this strategy is pursued and the more rewards it brings, the less likely the leader is to focus on what is really best for the organization.
  • The leader can develop an inflated ego and perceive him/her self as infallible. They become impervious to feedback, and unwilling to learn and adapt.

This culture bias cycle is common, especially is some specific industries. If the goal is to do what is best for the organization, the ability to take action when needed is important, but is only one of many powerful and appropriate responses to addressing daily situations.

An overarching perspective for understanding organizations and the leader’s role within them

The New Gordian Leadership Perspective is a conceptual paradigm which, like the “Gordian knot” story of legend, is designed to address seemingly unsolvable problems.

As complex as the Gordian knot of legend was, it was incredibly simple compared to the range of decisions and challenges today’s CEOs face. The CEO who adopts The New Gordian Leadership Perspective acknowledges the value of the bold, action-oriented American leadership model, and expands upon it by adding to his or her toolkit discipline, self-awareness, practical analysis, informed patience and working through others.

According to The New Gordian Leadership Perspective, the primary role and purpose of a CEO is to create alignment and enable adaptation with an organization. Examples of these behaviors include:

  1. Connecting the dots for others to articulate how various aspects of the organization relate to one another.
  2. Following/gauging how well the organization is aligned internally and to its external environment (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967)
  3. Sensing and identifying potential problems and opportunities (March and Weil, 2005)
  4. Being conscious of changes taking place within the organization and its environment, and lead the organization to adapt to these changes (Kotter 1996)
  5. Ensuring the organization collectively makes the right choices and decisions
  6. Managing the tension between maintaining traditional visions/structures and modifying them so they’re responsive to member energy.
  7. Knowing when to hold when holding is required, and changing when change is required.
  8. Making what the CEO want to happen, happen AND what the organization needs to have happen.

Tools to solve complex organizational problems in the modern era

What makes this approach unique is its singular emphasis on the values and abilities of the leader to make adjustments and respond appropriately to any situation. Under The New Gordian model, the values and actions of a CEO and their ability to adapt leadership practices to the demands of the day are the determining factors for an organization’s success.

What makes this approach powerful is its focus on the one true common denominator for successfully leading in all organizational situations: the ability to respond to change.

A “perspective” is similar to a set of alternative lenses through which one can view organizational challenges and oneself as the leader appointed to solve them. A perspective is not a formula to be followed; there is no single set of rules. Perspectives are as fluid and varied as the organizational situations a Leader can encounter. The specific subtleties of each organizational situation within each environment, the timing, the competition will not be exactly the same for any two organizations or leaders.

To be useful, a perspective requires the proactive, ongoing and ad hoc application of thinking on the part of the leader. Therefore, what also makes The New Gordian Leadership Perspective “new” is the addition of engaged thought to any action a leader takes. The approach to problem-solving cannot be the same and the outcome may not be the same. Unlike static rules, Perspectives can provide flexible openings to an infinite array of views.

The New Gordian Leadership Perspective poses a significant challenge to conventional thinkers who, consciously or unconsciously, see themselves on top of the organization, making decisions based exclusively on one’s own knowledge, skills, experience and in some cases, ego. This “cult of personality” approach to governance sometimes leads to performance that is exceptional in the short-term, and almost always mediocre in the medium and long-term. When the head of an organization falls into the trap of egocentric thinking, his behavior borders on self-absorption; leaders think and behave as if they know that only their own minds exist and everything else around them exists only in so far as it can be utilized to satisfy their own needs and desires.

To the organizational head who sees himself and his role as a leader from The New Gordian Leadership Perspective the risks associated with the unforeseen can be minimized. A New Gordian Leader avoids the dangers of imperceivable blind spots and is less vulnerable to egocentricity because of his self-awareness and humility; he knows he can’t know everything. There are few unforeseeable situations and no more intractable problems, and so the organization and the leader can fulfill the organization’s goals and objectives regardless of the economic climate. The continued success of the organization — and its leader — is strengthened.

Part 3 of the series on The New Gordian Leadership Perspective will share the one practice needed to create successful and lasting leadership success.

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