Leadership and Alignment

By Chris Chittenden

"If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do and in my art or my music, then in that respect you can call me that. . . . I believe in what I do, and I'll say it.”

… John Lennon, (1940 - 1980) English singer, songwriter and musician

I am person who sees patterns. Indeed, I would say it is my great strength and what has allowed me to most effective as a coach. Having been on this planet for some time, I have had the opportunity to observe many groups of people and those who lead them. As I have observed what has gone on and continues to go on in organisations and our societies in general, one thing seems glaringly obvious about most of the leaders of those groups - a lack of alignment. In other words, there is incoherence in the pattern of their actions.

Human beings seemed to be primed to notice misalignment. We continuously observe the world, interpret what it means to us and seek to fit those observations and interpretations into our own story of the world. When something does not fit, we notice. Although we may notice the misalignment, this does not necessarily mean we understand it or feel we can do something about it. The key to this lack of understanding can be found in a simple idea. If something is to be aligned then it must be aligned to something else. If we cannot distinguish the foundation of alignment (the “something else”) then we will certainly struggle to understand the basis for our sense of misalignment.

How does this apply to leadership? Let’s look at organisational leaders as an example. The leaders of larger organisations tend to go through some standard actions to define a mission, a vision and some values. They may use different approaches to come up with these, however most will have them. The mission can be seen as the organisation’s reason for existence, the vision as the organisation’s direction and the values as the basis on which the organisation will achieve its direction and nurture its reason for existence. There is nothing unusual in any of that. However it seems leaders then struggle to align their organisations to these foundations. This seems particularly valid in terms of an organisation’s espoused values.

The breakdown in alignment seems to stem from some background assumptions that are never challenged yet which undermine the organisation’s espoused foundations. One example of this lies in the conflict between trust and control. Most leaders will identify aspects of trust in values, such as integrity, honesty or cooperation. Yet there is a clearly a background story in organisations about control - the need to have control over budgets, key performance indicators, the team and so on. It is useful to recognise here that control is the antithesis of trust. The more a manager seeks to control their team, the less it appears that the manager trusts the team. Hence misalignment is created around the values associated with trust.

This seems to be the great challenge and also the great opportunity for leaders of the future. Great leaders act as they espouse. They practice what they preach. Organisation leaders would do well to get back to basics by better understanding the organisation’s foundations they have created and aligning their actions snd conversations to those foundations.

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© 2010 Chris Chittenden