When we are dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.
– Dale Carnegie, personal effectiveness pioneer and author

In many organizations (especially those with morale or motivation problems), management has created a sterile and passionless culture. Their strategies, budgets, and business plans are cold and lifeless. So teams and frontline performers go through the motions, put in their time, and go home. Technomanagers try to energize their people by using “leader speak” and imitating some of the things leaders do and say. They develop statements of vision, mission, values, “strategic purpose,” and the like. However, improvement programs such as reengineering, service/quality, empowerment, teams, or new technology have no spirit. These programs may build up some speed and even get off the ground. But they never soar.

Morale and satisfaction in those Technomanaged (focused on bureaucrat management and technology) organizations has been on a long slide. An increasing number of managers are expressing their frustration with this growing energy crisis. The problem stems from the expanding gulf between rising expectations and the reality of the organization’s traditional culture. People want meaningful work in an organization with an exciting purpose. What they get is a job. People hear senior management talk about empowerment, teamwork, and service. What they get are paternalistic pats on the head, motivation programs, and blame for not using the systems, processes, and technology dropped on them and their customers.

Too many managers are dispassionately trying to “do leadership” as if it were just another set of tools to be deployed (“I’ve done my vision thing”). We need to shift from doing leadership to being a leader. A team or organization’s Context and Focus (vision, values, and purpose) aren’t just techniques, statements, or approaches. They’re much deeper than that. Focus and Context is about feelings, causes, and convictions. They go to the very DNA of our being. You can’t be dispassionate about passionate issues. Otherwise, while you do your “leadership thing,” people on your team and in your organization will do their “commitment thing.” So nothing is energized.

Caring For the Context

Organizations exist to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
– Ted Levitt, Thinking About Management

During a strategy and culture development retreat to review progress and set new improvement plans, a CEO regretfully reflected on how he was asked by their chairman why he was always out of his office and no longer available to take calls. The CEO was feeling guilty about that. He was off giving another vision and values “stump speech” to a group going through a training program. He was getting increasingly frustrated that all those speeches and meetings with hospital staff weren’t allowing him “to get his job done.”

As we talked about culture change, people leadership, and vision and values, he had an “aha.” He came to realize “caring for the context” was his job. Since then, the board has been educated on what the senior team is trying to do and he’s talked to the chairman about how much more frequently he would now be out of his office. The CEO’s redefinition of his role from operational manager to context leader, has been one of the key factors in the strong success of this organization in dealing with change.

Senior managers in medium to large size organizations need to spend a great deal of their time “managing the context” of their culture. One of the time consuming aspects of cultural leadership is developing a shared vision, values, and purpose. Senior management can (and often should) start the process by taking their rough cut at establishing these. Some decisions, like what business you’re in, belong to senior management.

But if an organization’s Focus and Context or culture is to be widely owned by everyone who will draw from and give it meaning, they need to be involved in its development. That takes a lot of time and effort. It also redefines senior management’s role. They spend less time managing the day-to-day business (isn’t that what all our “empowered” people should be doing?) and more time caring for the organization’s culture.