Slash and Burn - Leadership in the Field

Image adapted from source: http://goo.gl/1uizf
Note: This is one in a series of blog entries exploring the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Director of Technology. Please be sure toread the whole series! 


Do you remember reading your grade school social studies textbook, looking at a picture a field with brown figures depicting Native Americans engaged in slash-n-burn on their fields? I do. The idea of slash-n-burn approach to getting a field ready for use has stayed with me and it pops into my head when I consider leadership approaches that many of us encounter in real life, even in K-12 education.
Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique which involves cutting and burning of forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology or other tools. It is typically part of shifting cultivation agriculture, and of transhumance livestock herding.[1] (Source: Wikipedia)
What I like about juxtaposing slash-and-bun with leadership styles is the concept of subsistence agriculture. That is, an approach to farming that results in only enough food for the family and themselves. It's an easy connection to make because leadership styles that are command-n-control are focused on getting the minimum out of workers. The organization subsists but it doesn't thrive...people don't give "their all" and instead, you have people throwing a party when it's time to leave at day's end. In these organizations, micro-management, distrust are systemic and decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few rather than delegated to trusted teams and/or individuals. Instead of resulting in high-performing people, slash-n-burn leadership degenerates an organization filled with people doing what they need to survive, the bare minimum to earn a paycheck.

We can be so much more.

This connection came to mind when I read Leadership vs Control. In that blog entry:
A new administrator takes over a department or division and immediately begins issuing edicts, disbanding committees, replacing people, and squelching the inevitable dissent–through fear and intimidation, if necessary. 
In another area, a new person comes in and right away starts working to build consensus, listening to those who have been there longer and seeking to understand the issues before making any drastic decisions. 
How can two people in such similar situations take such radically divergent approaches?
When you consider how essential it is to cultivate relationships of trust with the people you work with to get anything done, control leadership can easily be perceived as a slash-n-burn approach that destroys the environment, involves the use of "burning up" or consuming resources because a leader is unwilling to make a change in approach. In fact, fear of trust characterizes command and control leaders, as a comment on the blog entry cited above points out:
Control goes hand-in-hand with micro-managing...both of which tend to neglect the skills and expertise of those hired to do their jobs.
Yet, if we want people to bring everything to the table for the benefit of those whom the organization serves, neglecting and be dis-trustful of the people who serve causes fundamental problems (a neat follow-up question is, how do you address problems once you've established people were unworthy of trust you bestowed upon them?)

Some of the strategies that facilitate building relationships that diverge radically from slash-n-burn approach include the following:
  1. Listen fully
  2. Share differences openly
  3. Find truths that integrate opposing perspectives.  (Source: Nick Heap)
I really like the approach outlined in this blog entry--What Makes a Leader?--focusing about emotional intelligences:


In building relationships, I really see self-regulation as a key area - 1) ability to control or redirect one's own disruptive impulses and moods; and 2) the propensity to think before acting. In my own work as an administrator, it's easy to engage in slash-n-burn approaches to leadership. The default for folks is to exert top-down control, but you have to check that approach at the door. The reason is so easy to jump to conclusions--those disruptive impulses--is because they involve a story of some sort, a story that makes you look bad, and embarrasses stakeholders involved. 

How do you back out of that? In the blog entry, Leadership vs Control, it is suggested that consensus might be the approach to use. We get a false dichotomy, right? Consensus vs Command-n-Control. As one of the commenters on that blog entry points out:
if the leadership literature tells us anything, it is that no one leadership style is right for all situations.
Again, we don't have to choose between one or the other. Instead, we can agree that we must build relationships and then decide what is the best approach for making decisions in particular situations. For example, in Crucial Conversations, the authors suggest 4 methods of decision-making along with 4 questions to ask (hmm, I feel a diagram coming on):
  1. Command - Use this approach when it's a "low-stakes issue" or we have "complete trust in the ability of the delegate to make the right decision. More involvement adds nothing." In this approach, it's important to identify which elements are flexible and which are not, then allow others to provide feedback on flexible items. Also, explain the reason why.
  2. Consult - This approach is used when "the decision-maker invites others to influence them before they make their choice." Often people feel that they shouldn't be asked about something if you're just going to do something...and that makes sense, right? There's unclear expectations about the consultation process, especially if a leader has already made up their mind. If you let people know what to expect up front about the process, when you report your decision they won't be as surprised.
  3. Vote - This is best used when "efficiency is the highest value and there are a number of good options" but "should never be used when team members don't agree to support whatever decision is made." Use voting to eliminate many choices down to a few, then consider using consensus to make the final selection. Avoid using voting as a way to avoid dialogue.
  4. Consensus - This approach should only be used with high-stakes and complex issues OR issues where everyone absolutely must support the final choice. That said, the authors of encourage one to be aware that just because you engage in consensus doesn't mean the final choice will be exactly what they want. 
The 4 questions to ask include the following: 1) Who cares?; 2) Who knows? 3) Who must agree?; and 4) How many people it is worth involving?

We need to be able to work together...leaders have to find ways to unleash the power in those they work with, enable them to all do their best in their area of expertise to realize the benefits of the hard work:
Source: http://goo.gl/N4DRo
If we had to compare it, we might look at it as slash-and-burn vs sustainable agriculture. The latter seeks to 1) Give back to to the environment; 2) Avoid using artifice (a.k.a. chemicals); 3) Treat everyone with trust and respect; 4) Hold yourself accountable.


Disclaimer: I'm playing with ideas in this blog post. I have never been a farmer in my life and pray that in the coming zombie apocalypse, I don't have to learn that skill that kept humans alive for thousands of years (and still does!).


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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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