How can I increase my own sense of meaning and task alignment?
At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I am always acutely aware of the fact that the decisions leaders make will have a material impact upon ordinary people's lives. However, it is very easy to let bureaucracy stymie even the best of intentions. When frustrated, leaders must remember the long and short-term goals of the Department: to improve the lives of individuals and communities through the provision of safe and affordable housing and other forms of development. Every task must be connected to the higher mission and purpose of the Department. Intensive soul-searching is required, given the vital role of HUD. As said by leadership guru David Quinn in his book Deep Change, "figuring out where you are and where you need to go and then launching an effort to get there" is required for an organization to move forward with mindfulness and purpose (Quinn 1996: 166). This requires continual reevaluation of HUD's core processes, since the housing needs of the population served are likewise always changing.
A strong sense of meaning and task alignment required to summon up the powerful motivation demanded to fight against the natural, unfortunate tendencies to resist change. Both organizations and human beings have an innate desire to 'not rock the boat.' Change is scary. However, change is also fundamentally necessary for improvement. When approaching the leadership of a new project, I must remember this: it will require change (on my part and the part of others) and it may make me uncomfortable. But a clear sense of how the project should finish and its intended purpose will enable me to weather the change and also to alter the tasks needed to reach my final goal without fundamentally losing sight of the endpoint.
In general, there are two approaches to creating meaning and task alignment by management: to give clear top-down directives to employees to inspire workers to meet goals or to inspire employees to set their own goals and to have personal, creative responses to organizational needs (Quinn 19996: 222). I do believe that there needs to be a holistic vision for an organization, particularly one as large and sprawling as a government agency. But having employees provide input about how to meet those goals can be an important source of creative ferment. Employees often have more knowledge of the real needs of the population the organization is serving. Excessive rigidity on the part of a leader can cause task misalignment. A good leader listens to others and engages in constant environmental scanning to be able to change when needed.
As a leader, I believe I have a responsibility to listen to my fellow workers -- subordinates included -- and use their ideas and experiences to shape how I delegate my authority. Task alignment also requires knowledge of the human dimension of how the organization functions, not just its physical demands. Simply being right is not enough. A leader must motivate others to believe he or she is right and make them want to do what they need to do.
For an organization to fulfill critical tasks it must be able to engage in effective planning and have a clear timetable about how to meet its goals. Time is money and unexpected delays and a poor understanding of how the different components of the projects fit together increase the chance a project will go over-budget and over-time. However, within a structured environment of clearly-delineated tasks there must also be freedom to change with circumstances, particularly when a shift in plans can lead to better value and improved service. Thus, fundamentally I believe self-scrutiny and scrutiny of others are both necessary to achieve desired objectives and achieve the goal of task alignment. The leader must be critical of him or herself as well as critical of others to make this happen.
Q2. How can I increase my own sense of impact, influence, and power?
The greatest danger in any organization is a sense of powerlessness: the feeling that an employee is powerless to generate change for him or herself and others. Rather than feeling buffeted by events, a good leader views him or herself as capable of enacting change. This does not mean that the leader ignores external circumstances -- far from it, a good leader is acutely aware of the fact that 'no man is an island' and that he or she does not have autocratic sway over the views of others and externalities. But through constant environmental scanning and an openness to seeing different possibilities within existing constraints, a leader may gain a sense of mastery and view his or her position of power in a more positive light.
One example cited by Quinn of an executive who initially did not have a sense of his ability to have a personal impact was a man who was ordered to lay off a number of workers as a requirement of his position. The man was not given the discretion to decide whether to fire or to retain the workers: he was forced to act in what he considered an unfair and arbitrary manner, causing him internal tremendous stress, even more so than the political pressures he may have felt by other employees in the organization (Quinn 1996: 7). This action threatened his own sense of self and his own view of his marketability as a worker. In from my perspective of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, I have witnessed similar stresses amongst workers. HUD experienced tremendous turmoil during the housing boom and the 'burst' of the bubble. The hard work of many employees to help find homes for people in need seemed circumvented by external political and financial events beyond the agency's control yet HUD was still blamed for not being able to meet all of these challenges or to have anticipated the crisis.
Retaining a sense of one's ability to impact events requires an awareness of what one can and cannot change. It is impossible for a single leader to completely change the housing market, for example, but a leader within HUD can do all he or she can to offer alternative solutions to the ones being proposed. For the highly stressed executive in the example, the solution came from working better with the workers whom the company had retained: asking his employees questions about improvement and creating a vital partnership between upper and lower-level echelons of the company that boosted morale and increased the man's perceived personal impact as a leader. Through a willingness to share power with others he was able to make a greater impact upon the company and gain a sense of power and competence.
Similarly, HUD's response to the housing crisis demanded a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of the environment: instead of feeling powerless about the inability to impact the wider external environment, developing proactive solutions regarding affordable housing and keeping people in their homes was promoted to the forefront of its agenda. Being able to exert influence requires dwelling in what is realistically possible, versus what one would like to be possible. It also means reaching out, both to colleagues and also for additional information that can help the leader make better decisions. With confidence borne of knowledge comes a more secure sense of power. Being able to justify one's decisions, having a pragmatic attitude, yet showing a willingness to take risks even when the outcome is uncertain, all make subordinates more willing to trust their leaders.
Q3. How can I increase my own sense of competence and confidence?
When a leader makes a positive change based upon intense self-examination, "because it is in touch with the core of the system the organization embraces the vision" (Quinn 1996: 210). A leader must be constantly re-educating him or herself about the different dimensions of leadership and staying current regarding the professional knowledge available to persons in his or her field. This might include going to classes to earn one's MBA, reading trade publications, keeping abreast of the most newsworthy events likely to impact the leader's organization. By improving him or herself and his or her own skill set, the leader can gain in confidence. Learning is a continual process and there is no endpoint.
As noted by Quinn, there is an essential paradox to leadership: organizations must be systematized to some extent to be functional, yet formalization is the enemy of positive dynamic change. Leaders with true confidence are able to shift their paradigms and expectations when needed. To be truly competent as an individual is to be adaptable, otherwise it is very easy to have an obsolete point-of-view when faced with a major shift. "Usually, the organization can only be renewed, energized, or made effective only if some leader is willing to take big risks by stepping aside the well-defined boundaries" (Quinn 1996: 5). To be able to 'color outside of the lines'…