Play Nice Share with Others

I was first exposed to the impact of Stephen Harper’s leadership style shortly after he became Prime Minister when his party won a minority government in the January 2006 federal election.

At the time I was a member of the Canadian Federation of Voluntary Sector Coalitions. As such, we had been working with a number of federal bureaucrats to determine how we could collaborate to strengthen the capacity of nonprofit and voluntary sector organizations.

After six months of meetings and conference calls, trusted relationships were emerging and progress was being made. It was an exciting time.

Imagine our surprise when, rather than the typical friendly exchanges, our first post election conference call began with one of the more senior bureaucrats saying, “If you find the tone of our conversations changing and hear us being less transparent and forthcoming about what we can and can’t do, we want you to know that it’s because we have received new direction from the top.”

At first, those on the call didn’t take the speaker seriously, and joked, “Do you mean to say you’ve been muzzled?”

To which the senior bureaucrat replied dejectedly, “That’s exactly what I’m saying”.

Needless to say what had begun with such promise as an honest and spirited desire to strengthen community organizations dealing with funding cutbacks and new demands, struggled to exist within the new micromanaged environment, sputtered, and died.

Contrast Harper’s leadership style with that of John Chamber, featured in this month’s issue of Fast Company magazine as the legendary CEO of Cisco Systems, a multinational corporation with more than 66,000 employees and annual revenue of $39 billion.

Chamber, a hard core republican, unlike Harper, has acknowledged that today’s challenges are far too complicated for traditional, centralized, command and control leadership and Cisco’s previous cowboy-culture that rewarded strong personalities for stepping over and around their colleagues to gain the approval of the boss. 

Instead, Chamber is modelling a much more open-source culture where leadership is distributed and allowed to emerge organically in a trusted and more transparent environment. The Cisco workforce is empowered to generate ideas and solve problems with very little micromanagement. Additionally, his leadership team is rewarded for how well they are collaborating and achieving long term results.

Not surprisingly, despite economic turmoil, Cisco is sitting pretty on a cushion of $26 billion in cash and over twenty emerging promising products. Perhaps even more important, Cisco has self-organized working groups that involve over 500 executives, and networks of councils and boards that are empowered to launch new products and businesses. Behind the scenes, this means Cisco staff are blogging, vlogging, and using their own social networking tools to connect, learn, grow and evolve.

The point of comparing Harper with Chamber is that while Chamber is being touted as the leader of tomorrow, Harper is not. 

Leaders at all levels have recognized that today’s challenges, for businesses, organizations or entire countries, are far too complicated for any one person to solve. Today’s leaders, with the exception of our own top gun in Ottawa, seem to understand that partnerships and collaborations are essential.

I like to believe that last week’s political maneuverings were a reflection of a growing belief that our elected officials need to work together. My guess is that the vast majority of Canadians believe politicians need to stop competing for power and control, and instead share responsibility for one another’s success and ultimately that of our country.

If I were to give Mr. Harper any advice these days – not that I have any assurance he’d want any or even listen to any - I’d say, grow up. Grow as a leader, play nice, and share with others.

Distributed leadership is an attitude rather than a management technique. It means you see that you don’t have all the answers and that others are experts in their own right – a unique and important source of knowledge and wisdom that you need to tap.

With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, if Canada is going to be the great country it has the potential to be, “me” needs to become “we”.

Posted on 12-06-08

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