Thursday, 19 November 2009

How does Leadership impact Organisational Challenges?

In his book "The Search for Leadership – An Organisational Perspective", William Tate contrasts and explains the Business and the Organisation. He succinctly describes the business as having an external ‘what’ focus while the organisation has an internal ‘how’ focus. It’s a simple yet thought-provoking distinction but in our experience with clients we regularly see a disconnection between the two and the inevitable resulting pain.

In essence the organisation exists to support the business on its journey of growth and development, and the organisation establishes systems and processes in order to do that. When things are static those processes serve a company well but business is not static. When business shifts and morphs in response to external factors, it exposes the systemic inefficiencies and limitations in the organisations.

When business changes so too must the organisation. For those who are asked or expected to provide leadership any mismatch between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ can result in unnecessary challenges particularly when the organisation has entrenched behaviours and is hesitant or unwilling to change in response to the business needs. In these situations leaders, regardless of their level in the hierarchy, individual competence or combined effectiveness, quickly begin to resemble salmon; full of hope yet swimming against the tide. In order to reduce the pain decisions must be made and actions taken; where is effort best expended and time invested so the organisation and business are aligned?

Changing leader may be an easy option but in itself is not the answer. As Francesco Guicciardini once said “Waste no time with revolutions that do not remove the causes of your complaints but simply change the faces of those in charge.”

First it is critical to recognise and accept that change must occur to the way the organisation functions. It might seem common sense but sense isn’t always that common. Second is the willingness to change and finally there must be commitment to take action. If no one can be bothered then no one is committed and the organisation will continue with its ingrained behaviours and repetitive complaints.

In a typical example, company ‘A’ responded to customer retention and market share challenges through a strategic decision to enhance their product offering with new technology and services encompassing the entire supply chain. While this was part of a wider global strategy the external business focus had to move from a traditional product sales approach to a full solution offering that included technology. In order to support this, the organisation not only needed to radically change the technology it used, but to re-think its sales approach, re-engineer its supporting systems and processes and re-train its own people and those throughout its supply chain and customer base. All of this took place in parallel with the technology project. To put this in perspective the technology change, while significant in its own right, was a small part of an overall organisational and systemic shift.

Company ‘A’ experienced the true impact of leadership when the amount of change necessary was finally recognised and owned. This was no longer just another IT Project; it was now recognised as full-blown organisational change. Challenges and decisions previously bogged down in discussion and disagreement were now being understood in relation to the business needs and acted upon more quickly. The organisation became revitalised through this alignment and momentum accelerated. Everyone had finally got it and the challenges morphed from destructive and painful into empowering and stimulating.

Leadership made the difference. Leadership by everyone at all levels of the organisation because leadership is not one person’s responsibility. Systems and processes can exacerbate the challenges a company faces and constrain those whose job it is to create and lead the way forward. But we know there is hope, that leadership will flourish and the rewards will be great if you invest time and effort exploring and strengthening the space between the business and organisation. Always keep in mind that “The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual” (Vincent T Lombardi).

You can purchase William Tate’s excellent and highly recommended book from Triarchy Press.


  1. Deanne,

    Very nice article, this gives me some interesting ideas on how to frame project perspectives.


  2. Hi Todd
    That's great! I'm glad it was useful. There is so much more to delivering a quality project than just the project itself. Perspectives and perceptions are equally influencing and constraining. Would love to hear the differences you experience going forward.