In the depths of the organization

I’m reading some of the new books that I just got from Amazon, and one of them opens with this insight:

It’s impossible to manage or even know what’s going on in the depths of the organization. I mean, each of us can fool ourselves into thinking we’re smart and running a tight ship. But really the best we can do is create a context and hope that things emerge in a positive way, and this is tough because you can’t really see the impact your decisions have on people. So you just kind of hope what you want to happen is happening and the sound confident when telling others.
– Anonymous executive vice president quoted in The Hidden Power of Social Networks.

This is probably a widely shared sentiment, yet some people still think that leadership is just a matter of controlling an organization, setting goals and following up, knowing your metrics and following your strategy. I’m fairly certain that the VP quoted above knows all of these methods and uses them and he still feels in the dark about what really goes on “in the depths of the organization (a wonderful expression that – made me think of the dangerous depths of some wild jungle). The issue is not whether we can or cannot control the organization (though I reamin convinced that it is impossible). The issue is that we shouldn’t even try to. Any organization that is centrally controlled is bound to be highly ineffecient and (what’s worse) absolutely no fun to work in.

So leadership is not about control. Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, was asked how he controls his organization. His answer is classic:

Control: Never had it, don’t want it.

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