Organisation : Evolution of Organizational Leadership -The Vision-Values Approach


Dr J M Sampath, with over 500 workshops and 20,000 hours of consulting and training to his credit, helps business and government leaders across the globe understand vision and values through lecturing, consulting, and publishing books and articles.

He has presented several papers in international conferences in the areas of Leadership, Values and Business Ethics. He is also the author of ‘Discovery’ and ‘Inner Realities’, and has several Fortune 500 companies as clients.

Sampath has recently launched ‘Centre for Development of Sustainable Values’, a nonprofit initiative that will be instrumental in institutionalizing his pioneering work.

Organizational leadership, at the best of times, is a crown of thorns. In today’s competitive scenario, with boundaries of geography and culture ceasing to make sense, there is an increase in the levels of business consciousness across the industrial spectrum.  With redefined paradigms and revamped practices, it is no longer the survival of the fittest but the survival of the wisest. And, wisdom is a commodity that is seldom in adequate supply.

We live in a time when cynicism and doubt, especially in regard to leaders and their motives are rampant in every area of our culture, not only in government but also in just about every organization. Where are the right models these days? Calling today’s ‘leaders’ leaders is a misnomer. And for good reason we've become cynical about CEOs too. There seem to be no heroes left standing, no one to emulate or believe in. There's an increasingly gloomy sense that we should simply throw up our hands and give up on corporate leadership. Be it in India, the US or anywhere else in the world.

Though Enron and Tyco happened, it is not just Corporate America that has been a victim of such machinations, but the world over CEOs are under fire for various maladies that plague their organizations. Significantly, corporate leadership is fast discovering that the only way to survive in today’s global market place is to adroitly reshape to the demands of a rapidly transforming world. And, to do it in a way that is universally acceptable.

Welcome to the new era of leadership (r)evolution, an era characterized by discontinuous change, where business landscapes change dramatically, cutting across the industrial spectrum; where leadership is a prickly celebration of apparent capability, and leaders are a well-oiled piece in the organizational jigsaw. Or, so they are made to appear by circumstantial conspiracies.

Understanding the complex issue of leadership is somewhat like driving in peak hour traffic, where one always expects the worst, despite driving carefully. One never knows when someone else will be wrong, even if you are correct. And yes, sometimes one’s own navigation too does go awry, for reasons both simple and complex. Navigating an organization is a fine art that very few CEOs manage to master. Many a refrain, when CEOs demit office at the end of tenure, is: “Passing the crown of thorns…” Today, when enterprise strategies have assumed global overtones, competition has given rise to a sense of misplaced hurry. The days of unexciting routineness when one just ‘presided over’ a company’s normal activities is gone. These days, upon an apparent calm usually rests a troubled and stressed business leadership, which is fast discovering that the only way to survive the challenges is to adroitly maneuver the corporate minefield, where, often, values are threatened and vision becomes blurred.

Understanding Vision and Values

Which inadvertently brings us to the key question: “What are vision and values, the twin beams that claim to guide organizations?” Vision is the ability to think or plan the future powerfully, with great imagination or wisdom, while values are the beliefs we hold within ourselves that governs our behavior in any given context.

Centuries ago Socrates said wisely that the way to gain reputation is to endeavor to be what one desires to appear. True enough, as we are discovering in today’s organizational context, leadership is a function of persistence, knack and dedication. Remaining focused on a vision, and understanding the values that are used to achieve the vision, are key determinants of organizational success. We know some of these beliefs while others are not; yet they are governing us. The process of values clarification is to gain more clarity on the beliefs we are aware. While attempting to match individual values with broad organizational values, it is often forgotten that there exists a more fundamental mismatch between the individuals’ ‘cherished’ values and the individuals’ ‘lived’ values. The surprising part is that the individuals are not aware of this gap. Until we help the individuals recognize and bridge this gap, it would be difficult to expect their values with that of the organization.

Relationship between Vision and Values

Understandably, vision gives direction to values, and values are used to achieve a vision. It therefore follows that if we do not think beyond what has already been thought, there will be no progress. Because, vision without values is risky, values without vision would take us nowhere, and vision with values is evolution.

Let us illustrate this further. Vision without values is like an automobile without the steering wheel, with uncontrolled – and uncontrollable - motion possible only in one direction. The result is a wildly speeding automobile that is unable to navigate the obstacles and crashes. Values without vision are like a perfectly overhauled automobile that is directionless and hence goes nowhere. A combination of the two – vision and values – is like a well appointed driver who takes care of the automobile and also drives it to where he wants it to go. He is a navigator (a concept discussed later in the article).

Ultimately, all organizational decision-making comes down to clarity on vision and values… they are the compass that guides the organization to its ultimate destiny. And success becomes a defined parameter on the organizational radar. Any time a leader has difficulty making an important decision, the leader can be sure that it is the result of being unclear about vision or values, or both.

A comfortable convergence of values and vision is not always realistic. Every leader must instill the vision of where the organization is going and the values that are necessary to attain that vision. Without vision there can be no unity of purpose. Without values there can be no meaningful progress. In a referential sense, values gain meaning only in a given context. In an organization values sum up the raison d'être of the multiple choices that a leader constantly makes. Which is why one is constantly amazed at the number of organizations that continue to totter year after year in a near total absence of either vision or values, and many times, both? Like the Internet companies, popularly christened ‘dotcoms’, where vision was a blurred dream and values were an inconsequential aberration. Not surprisingly, many do not exist today. True leaders, however, recognize that for an organization to be successful, it is important that there should be a vision and a values process to achieve that vision. To reach the vision there must be total concentration on it [the vision] and everyone must know that deviation is never an option.

The Three Gaps

Undoubtedly, history tells us that there exists a need for integrating the ‘being’ and ‘knowing’ stages of individual (in organizations). Organizational evolution is a direct result of such integration. At the top leadership level, the larger the gap, the more blurred the leadership’s direction is. This ‘gap’ can exist at three different and critical levels. Every organization has these three gaps.

1 Between ‘Who I want to be’ and ‘Who I am’,
2 Between ‘Who I am’ and ‘How people around experience me’, and
3 Between ‘How I am experienced by people around’ and ‘What is expected out of me’.

Fundamentally, the difference between ‘What I see’ and ‘What is’ is the ‘gap’, which is the common denominator in all the levels. According to George Bernard Shaw, a reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him while an unreasonable man adapts the surrounding conditions to himself. A person’s success is thus a product of whether a he is Master of Circumstances (MC) or a Victim of Circumstances (VC). It therefore logically follows that no single value by itself is valuable. Values are interdependent and only when one understands this interdependence does one understand one’s behavior. These three gaps give rise to values conflicts, which are really the chasm between commitments that are known and mutually agreed upon and legitimate expectations generally culled from time-tested learning. But the chasm begins to close when it is understood that at the root of every conflict is a commitment not honored, an idea not realized and an opportunity misunderstood.

Corporate Leadership Experience and Conflicts

Every organization, whether for profit or not, has to wrestle with the vexed issue: ‘In the organization what should change and what should not.’ The heart of the matter is really to distinguish between the timeless core values and the contemporary ways of demonstrating them. And, what level of flexibility can be brought into the organization in demonstrating the values without losing the essence.

Even in organizations that tout themselves as ‘visionary’—like Enron was once classified, and which subsequently turned out to be a disastrous classification—all too often this vision extends to only some aspects and functions of the organization. Rarely does it permeate its essence and never fully to its core. A splintered vision, or one that is implemented in a fragmented manner, will always result in competing interests and elements within the organization, vying for resources, each thinking their particular function and sphere of effort is most important.

That apart, conflicts that seem so obvious later would have been totally unapparent to the top leadership earlier. So much so, in Enron’s case, Kenneth Lay had to bear the entire burden of the disgrace that tore the company apart. It was because, as management experts put it, ‘Enron failed to realize that its core values should never change while its operating practices should never cease to change.’ What they simply mean is Enron should not have compromised on values to achieve its vision. Obviously, the alignment was missing. What leaders can instill within their followers is the loyalty and commitment necessary for them to adopt the common vision as their own, and attempt to achieve it with efforts that are soaked in values. 

While this may or may not be the strictest case in every organizational failure, this misalignment is present at some level that either triggers the downfall, or aggravates a complication, or sows the seeds of conflict. It is at this juncture that the top leadership of Enron should have taken stock to bring back the issue of alignment into focus. An effective leadership would have ‘reassembled’ the vision and ‘reconstructed’ the values structure so that they were in agreement.
To stay focused on vision and define the values while constantly ensuring that all the actions are aligned to the vision and values is an onerous task for every leader.

Leadership is all about Alignment

Ultimately, the question that every leader should ask himself is not whether there is alignment between vision and values, but what is the extent of that alignment. When this question is addressed to the total satisfaction of the leadership, Enron will not be repeated. There would have also not been Arthur Andersen, WorldCom and Tyco, for that matter. In a recently published article in Fortune magazine, in the list of the 10 great CEOs of all time of Corporate America, the likes of Jack Welch did not figure, for the simple reason though they were institution builders, whether the institutions they built would survive their time is a question (with the exception of GE, of course) that remains unanswered. So what made these ten great leaders ‘great’? Simply, it was their deep sense of connectedness to the organizations they presided over. They were, to put it simply, focused on vision, without letting go of certain values they cherished.

Without a vision, one just has the trappings of leadership. A great vision in tandem with the core values shared by both the leadership and the organization is an unparalleled inspiration. Effective leadership is all about internal beliefs that translate into external values. Old, laudatory case studies on Enron and Tyco are being rewritten to show how bad their leaders were. The top ten has the unlikely CEOs of companies like Wal-Mart, Merck & Co, Washington Post and 3M, besides the expected ones like Johnson & Johnson, GE and Boeing.

Vision and Values: What People Think

Significantly, even faculty members of leading management schools like Harvard have begun asking themselves what more they must do to ‘groom’ better leaders. But they are missing the point. Business schools need not to a great deal more to help prevent future Enron-like situations; they need to stop doing a lot that they currently do. They need not create new courses; they need to stop teaching some old ones. While B-Schools do teach exceptionally good courses to train managers, they fail to recognize the dual role that managers in today’s organizations play, that of a leader. Gone are the days when they have to ‘manage’, today they have to ‘navigate’. The external and internal dynamics have altered considerably. Progressive corporate conglomerates have replaced isolated corporate giants.

Interestingly, irrespective of the history of their organizations, some leaders swear by a vision while others hate them. Many companies, argue the vision-haters, have done quite well without formalizing their vision. They are missing the wood for the trees. In trying to ‘seek’ a vision statement, they fail to understand the very purpose of the existence of their organization. They also fail to appreciate that vision statements can be effective or ineffective, depending upon the organization’s values that are used to achieve them and of course the motives of the leaders themselves. Effective ones, no doubt, will help employees get the ‘big picture’, create understanding and build commitment, while ineffective ones will simply remain as platitudes or statements of the obvious. A silent majority shares a yearning to be a part of something bigger than themselves; something they can be excited about, feel good about, which will challenge them to do something important and give performance that is “above and beyond.” A suitable vision fulfills that yearning.

Leaders often overlook the combined power of vision and values to motivate the organization’s employees. They remain content by merely recognizing vision as an ‘attainable altitude’, and values as an ‘appreciable quality’. The result: far too many employees just do their jobs, without the ‘spark’. That spark is having a deep understanding of the vision, possession of valuable insights about the purpose and nature of their work itself, which will make the difference between a good company and a great one.

The alienation between vision and values in an organization (assuming there exists one in the normal course of circumstances, and that the alienation is the fundamental cause of the derailment of organizations) is not only because the inability of the leadership to walk the talk but, more importantly, the lack of clarity in their own minds about the ‘why’ of the vision and values. This lack of clarity will show up every time there is conflict, and when the leadership has to make crucial decisions. Lack of clarity can lead to deviations of both, vision and values. Depending on the level of clarity in the vision and values in the given context four styles of leadership emerge (see figure below).

While it can be argued that these leadership styles are not absolute, they are in essence commonsensical and true. If a leader asks each individual to identify with any segment in the chart, then the emerging pattern will point to the extent of the values-vision alignment, or the lack of it. This seemingly simple tool helps in identifying the weakest links in the organization.

Characteristics of the four leadership styles

Low Vision-Low Values: These ‘followers’ are flexible out of ignorance, low on initiatives, averse to taking risks, reactive, neither task nor people focused, and are influenced easily. They also have no tradition, no ego, no clear principles, no conviction or values, zero self-option,
no qualities of introspection and learning, but want absolute certainty, and like to follow the herd.

Low Vision-High Values: These ‘idealists’ are rigid, imposing and almost insensitive to others, are also traditional and egoistic, have strong convictions, deal ambiguity with resistance, are reactive, have few options, more often than not live in the past, are overconfident and are arrogant out of a sense of righteousness. These people are externally driven, stagnate in the system, are task focused and have no exploratory qualities.

High Vision-Low Values: These ‘game players’ are also rigid, insensitive and have no standards in anything they do. Ambiguity bothers them the least, but they live under a constant threat perception with few options. They are externally driven, self-centered and cause degeneration in the system. They are arrogant, their arrogance stemming out of their power.

High Vision-High Values: These ‘leaders’ are open, proactive, sensitive, humble and flexible out of awareness and succeed in finding solutions to counter ambiguity. They are always confident, have unlimited options, live in the present and are process driven. They are highly progressive, context sensitive, and introspective and create their own systems.

Great Leadership Behavior

Incidentally, the celebrated CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, also spoke the same leadership mantra. To him these leadership styles conformed to Type I, II, III and IV managers. While Jack Welch ‘instinctively and intuitively’ classified them, the concept of vision-values alignment enumerates them logically and theoretically.

Needless to say, the movement from any other category to the high vision-high values space will be permanent if the change arises out of realization, and not merely out of knowledge. The change has to happen at the ‘causal level’ than at the ‘effect level’.

Success or failure of organizational leadership is not attributed to circumstances, but to choices. At every step there is a choice: to stay on course or to deviate. As Kenneth Lay would discover later… much later… that there were no short cuts to success. A vision-values aligned leadership is the foundation for all organizations, whether corporate, nonprofit or government, and is a high responsibility, upon which all else the organization is or does rests.

Leaders set high standards for themselves and those who follow, like, for instance, leaders like Washington, who began with a vision, not of what was, but of what could and should be. Or, the celebrated Martin Luther King. The essence of a great leader is a vision for a desirable future result using only defined values as weapons. The alignment is so powerful that people voluntarily follow it even when leadership has no formal authority. Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized an entire nation with his ‘I have a dream’ speech.

If Britain defeated Nazi Germany in the World War II, despite the terrified populace and the rapidly dwindling industrial base, it was because it had a leader called Winston Churchill, who never lost sight of his vision—‘Never, never, never give up,’ he exhorted his people—and had the strength of his values—‘I can offer you only blood, sweat, toil and tears’—and more importantly, communicated his vision ceaselessly during those dark days to a distraught nation that hung on a thin thread of hope.

Effective leaders—in companies or elsewhere—are driven by a singular vision, not of what is, but of what is to become and they make sure that everyone around them understands and buys into that vision, and navigate through the maze of chaos to achieve an alignment between their vision and values. Like Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King. They were not merely leaders but navigators, men who negotiated the nuances of life; pilots who pursued their goals to perfection. It is therefore imperative for managers to turn navigators and to create an environment, and a process, which enables people to identify misalignments and eliminate the causes.

The Navigator
When one steps into most of the organizations, one gets to see the vision and values of an organization defined well, and displayed at prominent locations for everyone to see. But it stops there. The reality is that these statements become ornamental displays soon, for members of the organization hardly integrate vision and values in their daily activities. With routineness replacing resourcefulness, leaders easily tend to lose sight of the vision and values, for there are bigger priorities (is there, really, something bigger and better than a vision-values alignment?) to be handled in a merciless corporate environment. Just like the captain of a ship in mid-sea cannot afford to not get to the compass after bad weather, organizational leadership cannot take the direction of the organization for granted. The role of the captain of the ship is that of a navigator.  His mandate is to take the ship where it needs to go than take it where he wants to take it. Apart from the various skills the organizational navigator is taught to ask the following three simple questions to himself during the course of the journey.

• Where am I?
• Why am I here?
• What do I do next?

Leaders have to constantly ask these questions with respect to the vision of the organization. Simple they may seem, these questions are profound in their content. In finding a response to these three questions one needs to further evaluate each of the responses with possibilities, probabilities and factual data. More importantly, in the context of the organization, leaders need to ask these simple questions to derive meaning to all the relationships that they enter into. An honest attempt to answer these questions for oneself could give one a lot of clarity in terms of the primary purpose in the organizational context. These also help in identifying one’s own potential and open the floodgates to growth and prosperity. In the long run, these simple questions reveal to us how far or near we are (or the organization is) to our stated goals, and the alignment between the individual’s and that of the organization’s. It is important to understand that in the process new alignments are not created, but simply existing alignments are exposed!

Universal Leadership Wisdom
The movement from any other category to the high vision-high values space will be permanent if the change arises out of realization, and not merely out of knowledge. The change has to happen at the ‘causal level’ than at the ‘effect level’.

This is what Robert Pirsig in his book, ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ states ‘To tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon on effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality, which produced it, is left standing, then the rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There is so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.’
Thus, it becomes essential to deal with the factors that lead to value conflicts than the effect.

Martin Luther King did not say, “I have a very good plan.” He shouted, "I have a dream!" Leaders must provide passion and a strong sense of purpose of the change. They must build the change so that others want to be part of it. The challenge in today’s corporate world is in identifying these styles in leadership and enabling the leaders from every other quadrant to move in to high vision-high values space. It is easier said than done but the truth is the thing that separates ordinary leadership from extraordinary leadership, is that ‘extra’ bit, as shown in the following grid.

Understanding leadership styles

High Vision – Low Values
- Survival of the fittest
- End Justifies Means
- Self centered
- Master Game Player

High Vision – High Values
- Change is a way of life
- Trendsetters
- Principle centered
- Leaders

Low Vision – Low Values
- While in Rome be a Roman
- Short sighted
- Comfortable following established paths

Low Vision – High Values
- Believes that his way of life is the only way
- Form centered
- Externally driven

There is a beginning and an end in every step a leader takes. There is a continuous movement in all the steps a leader takes. The beginnings and ends are a part of the larger beginning and end. Only a good leader realizes that he has just started, and he knows that one day he will reach. For, ultimately, and simply, effective leadership – in whatever context, organizational or otherwise - is an alignment of vision and values, and an effective leader has both high vision and high values.

Ó Copyright Dr J M Sampath, 2004

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