A second kind of evidence to suggest that the evolving success of the system has a powerful developmental effect on the leadership comes from the way members of high-performing systems talk about the early formative period of the system. There are consistent statements such as, “We had no idea things would turn out like this”; “In the early years, we hardly knew what we were doing”; “We were really groping”; “We just did what we thought we were supposed to do”; and so forth. I have never found a high-performing system member who claims that the high achievements of the system are merely the logical results of a preexisting plan, although the notion of “having a dream and seeking to realize it” is very common. Nor do I have data from members or leaders of high-performing systems to suggest that the leaders knew all along what they were doing. In a high-performing system, omniscient strategies are usually not attributed to leadership.
[Vaill, Peter B., “High-performing Systems”. In: Sergionvanni and Corbally (ed.) (1984).Leadership and Organizational Culture. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press), pp. 100.]
Vaill’s entire essay, first published over twenty years ago, still says something worth hearing. He looks at high-performing systems that he has examined and writes of what he saw in them.
The idea that there must be a Great Man in leadership, or that leadership must know How We Will Get There is quite common in the Leadership markets today. We forget what Vaill says so plainly: in the greatest organizations, they didn’t have a clue of where they were going at first. They had to figure that out. And then they had to figure out a variety of ways to get there.
Good to Great makes a similar point when Collins points out that companies like Nucor had to first go through a wrenching experience of determining what they might do better than anyone else. This search, quest even, is what we in our own organizations and lives most try to avoid. We would like the Grail but prefer that it already be found.
Vaill’s fuller article is worth looking at. He is, of course, well known in the organizational design arena. Since I don’t come from there, he’s all new.
It’s always refreshing to be reminded of my own limited knowledge.
Winter at Lofoten (2008). By Tackbert. Public Domain.