The Next Normal

Book Excerpt: Leaders should respect people who treat them as equals

Stephen Tang

Here’s an excerpt from my new book (working title), A Test for Our Time: Crisis Leadership in the Next Normal. It echoes this week’s theme about True North leadership:

Leaders should respect people who treat them as equals and rely on relationships for their source of power, rather than hierarchy. According to research, companies and managers must shift their thinking when it comes to how power is distributed within the organization to succeed in increasingly remote and hybrid work settings. General Stanley McChrystal led the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) using a model of “radical transparency” which democratized information sharing by quickly disseminating information not just up the chain of command but across it. By empowering those forces to make decisions on their own, they gain momentum and build their leadership skills.

Organizations that rely on hierarchy rather than relationships for their source of power tend to make slower and lower-quality decisions. Relational power enables mixed-level meetings where people with vital contributions to projects or discussions are at the table or on the Zoom screen because their contribution is valued, not because of their title or reporting relationship. Relational power is also vital to enable empowerment and accountability together, especially if high-quality and high-velocity decisions are vital to progress. With radical transparency, information is quickly disseminated not just up the chain of command, but across it, so that everyone had a “shared consciousness” of what was going on. This allowed decision-making authority to be pushed down to lower levels, where people who were well-informed and close to the problem could make decisions to solve it.

McChrystal calls this model “empowered execution.” Battles are not won by generals, he says, but by privates and sergeants on the frontlines. If decision-makers have to wait for information to travel up the chain of command, by the time it reaches the frontline force again, the decision could be wrong, outdated, or ill-informed. By empowering those forces to make decisions on their own, they gain momentum and build their leadership skills. The value of having a clear and concise mission cannot be overstated—something that OraSure understood well in our response to the pandemic. Having employees who are focused on the mission at hand is crucial for any organization, but it is especially important in times of crisis. As Gen. McCrystal says, “That’s where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where they need to be most reactive, most adaptable, most focused on the mission at hand.” Leaders need to be present and available to their teams to make this happen.

In that sense, a leader’s role is more like a gardener than an order-barker. “When we think about leaders creating an organization, what they’re doing is creating an environment or an ecosystem in which the people in the organization—the junior leaders and even the most junior people—can do that which only they can actually do, which accomplishes the mission,” McChrystal says. This analogy of leaders as gardeners cultivating future leaders who then help create success highlights how important it is for organizations to treat each other as equals and hold everyone accountable to achieve more than they could have imagined. By doing the right things for the right reasons with passion and engagement, organizations can create ecosystems as lush as rainforests ripe with ingenuity.

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