Just because we're cracked doesn't mean we can't push forward. Illustration: Shutterstock

Thursday 15th January 2015

Future imperfect

Why, in this new age, leaders must recognise their flaws to survive

Think of the perfect ‘Industrial Age’ CEO. (We’ll assume he’s male, simply because most of them were.) He sits behind a big high desk, his perfectly grey eyes gazing down on the subordinates who await the next tablet of wisdom to be dispensed, Pez-like, from his perfectly omniscient brain.

In one hand, he holds a market analysis; in the other, a strategy document outlining precisely how that market will be controlled over the next five years. His vision for the organisation is perfectly clear, and he expects his commands to be obeyed perfectly. To save time and to present an aura of perfect strength, everything in his space is a perfect emotional void.

Well, it’s time to forget him. All that supposedly perfect stuff is changing.

Leadership isn’t about that anymore, according to consultant Khurshed Dehnugara’s hugely appealing book, Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organizations in the Age of Connection. ‘The old industrial constructs of detailed planning, perfection and process are no longer working as effectively as we might wish’ writes Dehnugara, and thankfully he has some pretty good ideas regarding which new mindsets make pretty good replacements.

Only connect

The narrative through-line of the book is simple, timely and cogent. Essentially, it argues that the leadership style of the Industrial Age is passé and needs to be replaced by a new paradigm which is characterised by negative capability, anxiety and (the big asset) connectedness.

‘Power is no longer a function of dominating the thinking and directing the work of others,’ Dehnugara continues. ‘It arises from being connected more than it does from being in charge.’

Dehnugara: Connectedness is power

The second half of the book looks at the four practices Dehnugara believes are fundamental to a successful leadership journey from the industrial age to the age of connection. This is where he explores the big idea of being ‘flawed but willing’: that is, never expecting to be in total control, but to drive growth nevertheless, essentially through optimising one’s connections within the organisation and beyond.

Throughout, the book is, for a business title, surprisingly storied. Dehnugara generally avoids the traditional, dry tone of business writing, and favours a voice more obviously aligned with contemporary fiction. One peer-reviewer called it ‘playful, at times artistic.’ And as the stories are often quite personal – Dehnugara is happy to discuss his failings as well as his successes – the voice is often touchingly uncertain, even vulnerable. Tom Peters this is not.

Empathy deficit

‘I had the text peer-reviewed, chapter by chapter’, smiles Dehnugara, leaning across a table in a central private members club. ‘Half the reviewers said, ‘Please stop interrupting the stories with the business exposition.’’

Did he feel nervous about exposing so much of himself? ‘No, I didn’t hesitate. Probably because the work I do with my clients requires them to commit in an open way. If I hadn’t been open myself, it would have felt like dishonouring their trust.’

Many of the stories are about people (including the author) suffering because of disconnectedness: a malign separation from their families, their bodies, their wider social environments, and themselves. ‘There’s an empathy deficit with well-paid people,’ says Dehnugara. ‘None of them wants to look at the damage they’re doing to themselves, or having done to them.’

The book, he says, is largely written for leaders who are ‘twenty years in, twenty years to go’ – the forty-somethings who are probably somewhere between being digital native and digital immigrants, and are most likely to be captaining organisations over the coming years. So it’s clearly a useful read for HR people working in leadership positions. But how might we extrapolate the basic ideas into more widely applicable HR interventions?

Breathing life

‘For a start, HR people can look at themselves,’ Dehnugara says, ‘and ask, ‘What am I doing to model a new way of leading?’ From a recruitment point of view, they can ask what type of leaders they’re bringing into the organisation. And they can consider how they can create an environment conducive to good leadership.’

Concentrating on relations and communication between your organisation’s top 100 employees is, he suggests, a very good place to start.

Dehnugara also suggests that some current HR mindsets are over-rated. ‘It’s a generalisation, but most senior leaders are so focused on mechanics –recruitment, comp and ben, so on – that they’re not ready for the new age.’ These focuses are understandable, but are less important than, say, spending time getting the organisation’s leadership into a healthier state.

HR’s position is hard, he adds, and usually based around two contradictory objectives. ‘Employees are told to change the world, but also to take no risk. Unravelling this contradiction is often the job of HRDs as most organisations are currently defaulting to safe efficiency.’

This way of working can lead to organisations with ‘no spirit’. ‘There’s often a lot of slash and burn,’ Dehnugara says. ‘Efficiencies are important, but so is life. We need to find a way to breathe life into our organisations.’

So maybe that’s what HR and the leaders outside of the function do together: breathe life. Dehnugara’s writing suggests a new image, that of a perfect CEO in the connected age. A woman or man around a table with others from inside the organisation and beyond, listening to, rather than dictating, ideas, and recognising that even if someone does know the right answer, it might be the wrong one tomorrow. In one hand she holds an annotated employee welfare investment plan; in the other, a tablet with hundreds of qualified contacts.

Flawed, willing – and exceptionally well connected.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.