Our understanding of leadership is changing. The big trend is from command and control to collaborate and self-organise. And on that journey, there are challenges, questions, differentiations. Here some reflections on the way.
“Designed in California. Assembled in China.”
There it is again in small print on the back of my shiny iPhone:
Designed by Apple in California
Assembled in China.
Here I don’t want to address global supply chains or Apples image marketing, but rather all the different styles of leadership and working together that go into a familiar product.
Let’s assume the leadership style in California for a group of software engineers, and the leadership style for a group on the assembly line at Foxconn are pretty different. How are they different? And why?
I’ll assume that the California version is a collaborative leadership style, encourages the free exchange of ideas within the team and between teams, gives a relatively high level of autonomy to the individuals, encourages creativity, allows mistakes in the service of learning, tries to create a workplace that is enjoyable, grants a lot of trust and assumes employees are emotionally identified with a larger vision.
And that in the Chinese factory the leadership style is authoritarian, gives clear instructions which should be obeyed, punishes mistakes, creates a workplace that is efficient, is low trust and assumes employees are principally identified with their wage.
What are the drivers for this difference?
Cultural differences in social expectations between California and China.
A small pool of highly educated and qualified experts who can choose who is lucky enough to employ them, vs a large group of low qualified workers where the lucky ones are those with a decent job.
A process of creation where nobody can know the answers in advance and at most give direction and set parameters vs a predictable process where the rules must be exactly followed to have quality output.
The implication, of course, is that the appropriate style of leadership and set of beliefs about organisational form and culture depends on many situative factors. And what makes the discourse about these factors and their implications for leadership and organisations so important is that they are in a state of continual flux. The assumptions that helped us yesterday, may be the ones that hinder us tomorrow.
Back to the factory. What could change the parameters there? Cultural change in China with less acceptance (or even expectation) of strong hierarchy. A shortage of factory workers and increased financial security meaning that other approaches are needed to ensure workers join and stay. Robots doing most of the simple work so that the people required are highly qualified and in short supply. An increase in the manufacturing complexity (eg Toyota, cars) so that the workers continuous involvement in improvement is needed to achieve desired quality.
And in California? What could change things there? Perhaps in the future smart phones become a standard product. It becomes a stable commodity living from cost reduction not innovative design flair. Consumers expect smart phones to perform a defined range of functions reliably and cheaply and are not attracted to visual design or new features.
Then, less qualified technical experts can simply make incremental design improvements. There might be a flood of people qualified in the design of smart phones. Or possibly AI assumes the most important parts of design, and humans support and service these processes in fairly predictable ways. Maybe, social assumptions in the USA change, authoritarian leadership becomes more accepted and even desired. Then the way to organise and to lead will need to change also in California.
If these assumptions are true, then organisational culture and leadership styles can evolve in different directions including towards less complex models. And lower paid jobs. And more authoritarian leadership.
My basic assumption is that an increasing share of value production will be in complex, knowledge intensive areas requiring the open participation of skilled specialists. However, there can be trends in the other direction exactly through our ability to manage complexity at scale.
Let’s take Amazon as an example. Designing and running its data-based systems does require a large number of highly skilled participants. But it is also based on a much larger numbers of delivery drivers and fulfilment centre workers where much of the thinking is automated, the pay is poor and the autonomy low. A good classical shop had people with a higher level of knowledge to advise and interact personally with the customer. This has been largely replaced with algorithmic systems.
This is an extension of the results of industrialisation which created a new middle class of administrators, managers and engineers, but also a new working class whose activity was less skilled and more replaceable than the skilled craftsmen who previously manufactured.
What does this imply for leading in our rapidly changing world? Certainly, a general move towards collaboration and self-organisation. At the same time a discourse and reflection of where and when which styles of leadership fit to the context and aims, with the awareness that the context (and with it the way of leading) are always on the move.