Holistic Approach

by Krishna on April 13, 2006

Among my favorite TV programs are political debate shows. I enjoy watching arguments between heavyweights of opposing political parties and events like the Presidential elections are gold mines because you get to watch the top contenders in action. Long-time political leaders like George Bush and John Kerry make it look so effortless and natural, regardless of whether you agree with their political viewpoint or not.

The almost faultless performance under immense scrutiny and pressure before an audience of millions of fans and critics is the result of a lifetime of training and experience. In addition, each person has had the support of a huge network of associates who have fed the candidate hours upon hours of information, which the person is able to crystallize in the heat of the moment to lucid, moving sentences.

Any star-rated performance has similar characteristics – It looks so easy, yet there is a lot going on behind the scenes and over a lifetime that has resulted in that performance, whether it is in politics, sports, business or any area of life. There are obvious outward characteristics of leadership in any field, but there is a lot beneath.

My point is this: Leadership is never just about one thing. The temptation to use a checklist for management is huge, but the fact is that leadership is a sophisticated mix of qualities, experience, knowledge and strategies. And it is an ever-changing mix as leadership is also a never-ending quest for constant rediscovery and reinvention.

Why is this so? Why cannot leadership be distilled down into a few simple concepts that can be used to run corporations and other organizations successfully? Doesn’t evidence, particularly marketing anecdotes and rags-to-riches stories, point to “simple is better”?

The most important thing to realize about foundations in organizational leadership is to understand the complexity underneath the simplicity of the concept. For example, take a concept like “Continuous improvement” – seemingly so easy to understand, but when it comes to implementation, it actually requires tremendous effort and coordination.

The “simple is better” slogan in true life is actually very deceptive. To take an example, take some of the successful websites like Google, eBay and Amazon, which are known for their intuitiveness and ease-of-use. But this simplicity is brought by amazing sophistication in technology. Behind the simple Google search textbox is an array of hundreds of thousands of servers which are capable of the most complex number-crunching and data storage. Or take FedEx – the simple solution of “Absolutely, positively overnight” is achieved by an astonishing capital investment in transportation networks and advanced technology.

The operation of any organization is extremely complex and fraught with conflicts — even “ugly conflicts”. There are conflicts of time, conflicts in resource allocation and risk management, conflicts between personnel and with different customers and conflicting priorities. Each type of conflict demands a different set of qualities that can effectively manage it. For example,

  1. Resource Allocation Conflicts: (Requires) Knowledge of operations, the business, competitive environment, etc. Allocation of human resources requires ability to match up skills, talents and attitudes with needs of the project
  2. Contract Conflicts with Customers: Proper knowledge of product or service involved, including costs. Understanding of internal capability to deliver on promises. Negotiating skills
  3. Conflicts between personnel: Being patient to listen to all sides of the story. Being fair in one’s decision and avoid any bias or perception of bias. Communicating the decision properly to all affected personnel.

Each type of conflict requires a different set of knowledge and skills to resolve it. In each case, certain skills or knowledge may be useless to the task. For example, while openness is a great trait in resolving conflicts between employees, it is less useful in a resource allocation problem.

A typical CEO or any leader has to deal with hundreds and thousands of such problems every day. Every conflict is a constraint on doing business or the work of the organization. These constraints are not limited to one or two particular aspects of the business. While some problems and constraints may be more visible (such as union conflicts), others may be dormant (obsolete technology, untrained people) for a long time before they bloom into crises.

What this means is also that every part or function of the organization has its importance and stake in the success of the organization. By this, I don’t mean that they are equally important. For example, the marketing function may be more important than operations in one organization and less in another. Nevertheless, the importance of each function must be understood in relation to the organization and managed accordingly.

That is the “holistic” approach, or integrated approach. It requires a thorough understanding of the entire organization. Good leadership must have the ability to take in the whole picture and understand how everything falls into place. Leadership must also understand how to transform this complex organization by making necessary changes to different structures within the organization.

The danger in not following such an approach is to tinker with some part or process of the organization and expect everything else to fall into place. While there may be short-term results, typically problems fester under the radar screen and become visible when the priorities have to undergo a change and, lo and behold, the leadership finds that the supposed strength that would have made the change was starved and no longer available. Even worse, the newly built-up strength may have to be toned down to allow the other parts of the organization to catch up. For example, better production having to slow down for inventory management.

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