The New Gordian Leadership Perspective, part 1: Lessons on leadership from 21 Jump Street

Thought Leadership on Execution Strategies presented by Simple Solutions.

Today’s CEOs who climbed the ranks of organizations that are quite different than those that exist today, can learn about the benefits of modernizing their leadership skills from the movie 21 Jump Street, starring Channing Tatum and Jonas Hill.

The 2012 movie is a remake of the 1987-1991 TV series 21 Jump Street, about youthful-looking cops who pose as students to foil teenage crime. What made the movie successful so many years later is that the makers effectively accounted for the significant changes in teen culture that had taken place over the two decades since the TV series aired.

For example, in the movie the formerly cool jocks are not only considered uncool in the movie, they have lost their status at the top of the social order to students who care about current issues like the environment and inclusion. Channing Tatum’s character, who represents the jock of “old guard” high school values, was forced to adapt to the new environment to accomplish his police mission. As a result, after some adjustment difficulty, he found new ways to interface with students that took him into unfamiliar places, but that enabled him to be effective at his job.

In the exact same way, CEOs are well advised to add new, updated skills to their leadership toolbox to maintain relevance and accelerate effectiveness in the modern era, because people and organizations have changed.

Consider this: According to a Harvard Business Press study, “many CEOs misunderstand their role and how to perform it effectively.”[1]  This is especially true in large, complex organizations.

  • “Misunderstanding” means believing the CEO role requires one set of behaviors and skills to be effective, when it actually requires a different set of behaviors and skills.
  • This misunderstanding may prompt a CEO to do things that consume, rather than exploit, an organization’s energy and productivity to achieve goals.

Misguided or outdated leadership practices can be counterproductive to an organization’s success.

Any misunderstanding of the CEO role is reasonable for four very clear reasons:

  1. The labor force has changed. Workers are primarily younger and have grown up using technology in their daily lives that many leaders have never heard of, and that many organizations do not possess. Key workforce approaches to problem solving and time allocation have a new normal. What is required to successfully train, develop, motivate and retain a productive workforce is different, and may have little resemblance to the CEO’s developmental years. References to “how things have always been done” can have little or no meaning.
  1. Social interaction has changed. Social media has completely transformed the manner in which people work together in groups, communicate, and even hear and understand others. This fact significantly impacts an organization’s internal work dynamic, and its external communication with its customers.
  1. Customers have changed. Customers have more information and purchasing options, higher expectations for product and service quality, less patience for inefficiency, and more outlets to share comments and criticisms than ever before. Customers expect to be asked for their feedback and have very high expectations for the speed of implementing “fixes” to any product or service problems.

And the biggest reason of all:  Our understanding of organizations and the purpose of the CEO position have not kept pace with modern day changes. 

  1. The majority of the organizational thinking and practices in effect today continue to reflect Machine Theory that originated during the Industrial Revolution. [2] Many of Machine Theory’s premises stem from the assumptions that an organization is like a machine: a collection of parts that need to be standardized and centrally controlled.  The assembly line, and the bureaucracies formed to run them, were born out of Machine Theory.[3]

  Machine Theory Principles Misapplication in Modern Times
Task Specialization
  • Tasks should be specialized and reduced to the smallest possible work cycle.
  • Work reduced to its smallest, most efficient cycle can become monotonous and degrading.
Standardization of Performance
  • Work should be performed the same way every time.
  • The best way for work to be done by one person may not be the best way for others.
Centralized Decisions
  • Decision-making should be exclusive to those in authority.
  • Centralized authority can take decision-making away from those who are most knowledgeable, create apathy in the workforce, and cause delays while waiting for the bureaucracy to take action.
Uniform Policies
  • Uniform policies are needed to provide consistency.
  • Adherence to uniformity can create insensitivity to the individual needs of employees and customers, and render the organization unable to effectively address ad hoc or unique circumstances.
No Duplication of Functions
  • There should be no duplication of functions – tasks should be handled exclusively by those assigned to them.
  • Specialization can create specialists more devoted to their skill areas that to the success of the enterprise.

Despite these flaws, the majority of today’s organizational charts, methods to distribute tasks and authority, and leadership practices continue to reflect remnants of Machine Theory.

Machine Theory principles continued to provide the most widely accepted organizational practices until post-World War II.  Since then, various other approaches to organizations have attempted to correct the faults of Machine Theory. For example, the human relations movement began in the late 1940s as a counterbalance to call attention to the forgotten needs of the people in organizations. More recently, there has been a flood of techniques that attempt to teach leaders how to fix to their organizational problems.

But no single approach has proven comprehensive enough to guide leaders towards answers to all of the questions and situations they regularly face. For one model to fit all, it must account for the true common denominators for all situations.

In Part 2 of the series on The New Gordian Leadership Perspective, one such a model will be described.

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[1] What is Leadership? The CEO’s Role in Large, Complex Organizations, Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria, Harvard Business Press, 2010

[2] Designing Organizations for High Performance, David P. Hannah

[3] The leading spokesmen for Machine Theory were an American, Frederick W. Taylor (the father of Scientific Management), and a German, Max Weber (creator of the Bureaucratic Model)