Warring factions and conflicted leadership

Leaders require supporters. This is especially true for executives managing large organisations, and is sometimes forgotten by people surrounded by the trappings of success.

Amongst any group of people, you should expect disagreement. The strength of relationships between group members will vary, and factions will inevitably form around issues – even if they are short lived.

Sun TzuThe traditional hierarchical command and control structures used by most business are designed to entrench executive power. This is usually achieved via restricting access to information and resources.

These control mechanisms are clothed in the guise of budgeting processes, chains of approval for supplier payments, and performance management KPIs. While they are certainly effective, there are downsides to relying entirely on rules and processes to enforce decision making. Unfortunately, these elaborate structures also encourage patronage and conflict, rather than cooperation and innovation.

While it feels like every tedious moment of the federal government leadership drama has already been rehashed by the media, I think the entire episode has ended up serving very little practical purpose – beyond generating some extra work for a few journalists.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Sun Tzu

As Australia’s most celebrated sinophile, I imagine Kevin Rudd is well aware of the teachings of Sun Tzu. It is also worth considering that amongst Rudd’s many critics, there are few people who seriously doubt his intelligence, or his  ability to count votes. Going through the motions of a hopeless leadership challenge was obviously useful for someone.

If there is any lesson for business leaders to learn from the incident, it is that appearances matter enormously when dealing with external stakeholders. Ostentatious displays of power are a proven tactic for leaders that need to distract and reassure stakeholders, and keep up appearances.

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