Saturday, July 13, 2013

Situational Leadership vs. Modern American Conservatism

The other day at work, we had a team building session that involved what was basically Management Theory 101.  As I participated in this session I realized how this is applicable to many areas of life.  I'd like to share how I think it is applicable to America's political problems today.  Because let's face it - America is sick.  I don't think anyone would disagree on that point.

So here is a diagram that was part of our presentation:

This is called the Situational Leadership Model.  If you look at the long, rectangular arrow at the top of this diagram, what it is illustrating is that every person is in one of 4 natural development stages.  The bottom half of the diagram is illustrating that there are 4 different directional styles which should be matched to the 4 development stages in order to have healthy development. 

In the first stage of development, called D1, a person in this stage has low competence but high commitment.  They're excited about their new job/project/team/task/goal/etc.  They have high expectations.  But they don't know what they don't know.  They have a lot of exploring to do, and they can't get much done in this stage because all their time is spent learning and exploring.  In this stage, the appropriate mode of management is called Directing.  The leader should give a lot of attention to the employes, but communication is mostly one way, because the leader is telling the others what to do - otherwise, there will be confusion as to what peoples' roles are and what the standards for achieving the goal are.  The leader should define roles and tasks clearly in this stage, and offer a lot of time for transferring knowledge.

In the second stage of development, called D2, a person in this stage is often becoming discouraged.  In the first stage, they didn't know what they didn't know.  Now they know.  Reality has clashed with their expectations, and they've realized just how hard this is going to be.  They've probably also realized how much they don't know, and that's frightening.  In this stage, the appropriate mode of management is called Coaching.  It is still appropriate for the leader to define roles and tasks clearly, but the communication has now become two-way.  Now it is appropriate for the leader to seek ideas and suggestions.  Followers in stage D2 still need direction because they are still inexperienced, but they also need support and praise to build their self-esteem, and involvement in decision-making to restore their commitment.

In the third stage of development, called D3, a person in this stage has moderate to high competence, but still experiences doubts and may still have a low commitment.  The appropriate mode of management in this stage is called Supporting.  It is not appropriate for the manager to tell people in this stage what to do - they already know.  Rather, the leader should be encouraging and ask questions.  The trick to this stage is to show the person that they already know what to do - they're already capable!  This stage is more about motivation than anything else.

In the last stage of development, called D4, a person in this stage has high competence and high commitment.  They know what they're doing, and can even offer better ways of doing things if the structure they've been part of has weaknesses.  The appropriate mode of management in this stage is called Delegating.  There should be a high level of trust between the leader and his followers who are in this stage, and the leader should not tell his followers in this stage what to do, but rather ask them how he can support them.  

Now, why did this make me think of politics?  Well, as I said, I think America's political system is sick.  There's two things I want to pick out about the Situational model:
1) The Situational Model shows us that not everyone ought to be treated the same way.  Some people get more attention than others, and that is appropriate and healthy.
2) The Situational Model does not abolish structure, but rather affirms it.  A person in stage D4 does not live outside of structure - rather, they know the structure so well that they don't have to think about it any more, and can even pick out a structure's weaknesses and offer suggestions for improving it.  Along with structure, the Situational Model does not abolish leadership, but shows that people in different stages need to be led in different ways.

See, I think there are a few common problems we see with America's politics today - and I'm looking specifically at people who call themselves "Conservative" in America today.  Sorry to pick on you, but you need to hear this.  

The first problem goes along with the first point I made above, and it is that people are angry that other people are being given special attention.  We're pointing at the D1's and D2's and yelling angrily about how they're being given extra time and attention by the leaders.  This is completely immoral and unjust, is what Conservatives are saying.  So basically, they have a problem with the fact that Situational Leadership is being used at all - they think everyone should be treated equally.  There are no situations.  Everyone is a factory model.  

The second problem goes along with the second point I made above, and is best summarized by Conservative leader Grover Norquist:
My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.
Basically, many modern conservatives, influenced by the Reagan anti-government era, believe that there should be no structure.  There should be no leadership.  Leadership and structure are immoral in and of themselves.  It is virtuous to try to destroy leadership and/or structure.

If either of these viewpoints models what you think about government, I have someone who has something to say to you:

What the situational model teaches us is that ideology doesn't work.  We can't deal with absolutes and be healthy, when it comes to people.  Some people need more attention and direction, and for some people, lots of attention and direction would be inappropriate and would hold them back.  A pure structure of micro-management and rigid control will stifle D3's and D4's, but a completely hands off approach will leave D1's and D2's to flounder and drown.

See, we've bought into a lie.  We've bought into this lie of individualism that says "I can make it all by myself - I don't need anyone else!"  Which would be ok if that weren't followed up with "and nobody else should have help either!"  I mean, it's one thing to think that you don't need any help, and then to struggle and come to a point where you realize that's not how life works.  But it's another to force others to go through that.  We think that we don't need government, and it doesn't do us any good.  But the problems with this view can be illustrated in this picture:

Mr. Gaster thinks he got where he is without any help.  But he has been cared for.  He was swaddled, bathed, had his poopy diapers changed, and was regularly fed as a child.  And all through his life he's had helping hands.  He enjoys many benefits of government daily, such as access to electricity, telephone, the protection of a Police and Fire Department, clean water, and many other things.  But he thinks he has made it without any help.  Therefore, we should abolish government.  We should get out from under them.

The Situational Leadership model doesn't say that structure and leadership should be abolished.  In my job as a computer programmer, it is very valuable to have a set of code standards and to abide by them.  Once I've reached the D4 stage of development, it doesn't mean I don't follow those code standards any more.  Now, if I've reached this stage, my manager would do well to listen to my advice if I were to tell him there were problems with the code standards we're abiding by, and to try to adjust those standards using the advice of the D4's.  But the idea is not to abolish structure.  It's to improve structure.

So let's drop the anti-government talk.  Let's focus on making it better, rather than destroying it.

Now, some of you may say I'm attacking your values.  I have something to say to that.  One of the problems of America's political culture today is that we've made religions out of our politics, and in doing so we are blind to reality.  One of the really interesting things about our politics today is that what we call "Conservative" and "Liberal" often do not even match the definitions of the words.  And what's really interesting is when you talk to a European about what they call conservative and liberal.  You see, a European will tell you that it's awfully liberal of us Americans to allow billions of dollars to be spent on elections, mostly coming from rich donors.  They'll tell you that the price tag for their most recent election was much smaller and most of the money came from...taxes.  That's right - in certain European countries such as Spain, the money for elections comes from taxes and donors are not allowed to give a very high amount.  This makes for a more honest election where it's not always those who are popular with the richest people who win.  This makes it so that the interests of the poor are not forgotten.  And in these countries, they consider that a conservative value.  American "Conservatives" would call that tyranny, because they've made a religion of their political party.  Another area where we have a huge difference is in healthcare.  Many European countries have Universal Healthcare systems that are quite successful.  They consider this a conservative value, because it would be awfully liberal to let the "free market" decide the costs of healthcare.  The problem with allowing the "free market" to decide the costs of healthcare is that this is people's lives we're dealing with, and they are willing to go broke when it comes to their lives.  The whole idea of the "free market" is that if prices get too high, people will stop buying and then the prices will be forced to go down.  But when you're dealing with people's health, there is no "too high".  People are willing to go bankrupt when it comes to their (or their family members') health.  

Another principle people should keep in mind when dealing with words like "liberal" and "conservative" - you may say that a progressive tax system combined with government run social welfare programs is liberal.  Is it really?  I'd say that a progressive tax system takes a conservative approach to dealing with the problem of greed and low empathy.  Modern American "Conservatives" seem to want a system where there are no rules for the rich and no help for the poor.  I'd say that's taking a very liberal approach to dealing with the problem of greed.

Neither "conservatism" nor "liberalism" is wrong.  But each approach is appropriate in some situations and inappropriate in others.  That's another lesson that the Situational Leadership model teaches us.  We need to learn to stop vilifying vocabulary and take a non-judgmental look at situations, realizing that every situation is different.  There's another diagram that illustrates the problem I'm trying to communicate here:

Another problem with modern American politics is that we've vilified "the other side" and refuse to accept any evidence that they might present to support their theories.  We take a very selective approach to how we observe data - if data seems to contradict my views, it simply must be a lie.  In "The Death of Adam", Marilynne Robinson said:
We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means.
If we want to fix America's political problems, we've got to learn how to view data without pre-judging it.  We've got to listen to all sides of a story in order to gain perspective.  Coming from a "Conservative" background, I can say with confidence that most of the fault in this area lies with that side.  For the last few decades, the word "liberal" has been used as if it were synonymous with "evil".  Now we hear talk of what is being termed "the Conservative Echo Chamber."  Coming from the perspective of a former "Conservative", I can testify to the truth in that terminology.  If we want to heal our land, we've got to start listening to each other.  We need to find out why people believe what they believe - asking them in a non-judgmental way and carefully weighing the data they present to support their beliefs.  This doesn't mean we'll always agree with each other in the end, but we've got to learn to present each other with the data we're seeing and then figuring out what conclusions to make together.  Too many times since changing my mind on political topics, I've presented stories, statistical studies, and the like to "Conservative" friends of mine and they've said something like "well, you can't trust that study - it came from a Liberal source."  What you start to realize, after a few such discussions, is that there are very few sources these people will accept, and if any one of these sources ever contradicts what is believed to be a "conservative value", they are immediately labelled "Liberal" and thrown under the bus as being an untrustworthy source forever more.  But truth should be able to stand up to scrutiny and challenge.  If you want to find truth, you should be able to look at all perspectives without feeling threatened by the challenges you face to your preconceived notions.  Seeking truth is worth such a struggle.