“Sync To Swim”: The Synchronized Leader Model

Twenty-first-century business requires agility–from teams, from institutions, and from leaders–and that agility comes from synchronized leadership. Despite the radical change in the environment, many institutions still cling to Twentieth-century management models. Those Industrial Age management models are ill-suited to guide leaders in the Information Age.

Perhaps the “king” of management models from the last century is the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid. The Blake-Mouton model (below) uses a 0-9 scale to quantify the “production vs people” tension, and is still in use in some circles, and is good for creating leader archetypes for discussion.

Blake Mouton Management_Grid

Fig 1. The Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid

However, the Blake-Mouton model has a couple of shortcomings. First of all, the leadership environment is much more complex than a simple linear graph can describe. A two-axis grid implies there are only two things leaders must hold in balance, and those are dependent on each other. Secondly, a graph with a 0 to 9 scale implies a limit. By virtue of looking at a chart, some of us will set limits for ourselves and hold in tension those things that should be harmonized.

The leadership dilemma is not whether to balance people and mission, rather it’s how to synchronize the various needs and priorities a of task, institution, and team members’ individual needs. At a basic level,leadership means working with people and managing things effectively. That means the most effective leaders find the best fit for people to task within an institution to get something done. So how do we visualize that?

The Synchronized Leader Model

Leaders have many considerations and priorities to balance, but we can group most of them into three major categories: Institution, Project, and People.

The Synchronized Leader Model (c) Mickey Addison

Fig 2. The Synchronized Leader Model

As you can see from the figure, the Synchronized Leader Model is not linear, nor is it binary. This model reflects the complex nature of integrating people, tasks, and institutions into a single mutually supporting system. Leaders who maximize the intersection of all three categories of needs will get very high performance from their team.

There’s clearly tension between competing priorities, to say otherwise is to be Pollyanna, but “competing” doesn’t need to be “opposing.” In the Synchronized Leader model, leaders have the ability to move the circles around based on resources, staffing, and the situation. It’s a dynamic model that reflects the complexity of the environment with the realities of constrained resources. In the end, leadership is about people—but people operating in a real environment rather than a binary world. That makes the three sets of needs–Institution, Project, and People–independent variables rather than dependent. Being independent variables is a key point. It means it’s possible for a leader to commit energy or resources to something without necessarily reducing the ability to do the same elsewhere.

Institutional Needs

Organizations have institutional needs. Boards of directors and shareholders demand profits and efficiency, donors want to know their money is going to the mission, manufacturers are concerned about quality, and everyone wants to have a good reputation in the community. Leaders must work within a structure or institution, and with other leaders who set agendas and distribute resources. They have to be respectful of culture and process within that institution. Leaders who ignore their parent organizations and its institutional needs at their own peril. The institution’s needs are legitimate, and must be part of a leader’s calculus. Leaders have to take on their institution’s values as their own, and transmit those values to their teams. As I’ve written before, if you can’t respect your institution get yourself another institution. It’s leaders’ responsibility to help their teams understand and accept their institutions’ needs and internalize their institution’s values. Leaders who do that successfully will inspire confidence in their teams and give them a mission with which to connect.

Project Needs

Each individual project has it’s own set of “needs” leaders must consider. Leaders can succeed by understanding and accounting for the various demands on their resources. Project needs are time and resource driven, and so managing those things is usually a math problem. This is an area where many leaders prefer to “live”–math is straight-forward and easy to understand. We can produce charts and graphs to use in decision-making, and we can even allow the “data” to make our decisions for us. Accounting for project resources is certainly important, as I wrote above, but it can’t be the only way for us to lead. Said another way, because we manage things and lead people, the data isn’t the only answer.

People Needs

The third set of needs are the personal needs of the individuals on the team. Each person has their own reason for what they do, as well as their own skills. Leaders have to know their people well enough to understand each person’s motivation and ability. By way of illustration, consider the case of professional football teams. Team managers will actively recruit players for their athletic ability and even for particular positions: goalkeeper or striker, for example. But those same managers also understand that not every player fits in with the team’s culture or the other players. That same team manager might pass on a very talented player because they “don’t fit” with the team dynamic. The goal is to find out, by knowing the player well, where a particular person is best suited and will be happiest. Happy players are usually the most productive.

That same principle of hiring compatible people and placing them where their skills are best used and motivations are best “fed” applies to any team, not just athletics. In my own military experience, we trained our people for particular jobs but we also were keen to place people where they were happy and productive. It does no good for a leader to recruit a star performer only to have him or her drag the institution down because he’s unhappy. So how does a leader make the right choices? There really aren’t any shortcuts–leaders have to engage individuals on their teams and understand them. Put more simply—the most successful teams aren’t always the ones with the most talent, but the ones where the entire team is made up of people contributing, collaborative, and happy.

Bringing It All Together

The real aim of the leader, then, is not to simply parrot their institution’s values, minimize cost, or create a happy workplace; rather, it’s to synchronize all three to make the “sweet spot” in the middle as large as possible. It’s a constant balance of sometimes competing priorities, but if done skillfully can create an impressively productive and happy team. Understanding and transmitting institution needs effectively to the team leads to them internalizing institutional values. Effective project management reduces the stress on the team, and gives them creative space to innovate. Hiring and coaching “players” into the right spots in the institution so they can be their best harmonizes the workplace and inspires people to be their best. The larger that “sweet spot” becomes, the higher the performance of the team.

Originally posted at People Development Network.

20141026_102425Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world.  He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of six books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.

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