How to be a Leader #4

There was an interesting article by Seth Godin in his January 1 blog, entitled Insurgents and Incumbents.

I don’t want to take any sides. In fact I would put that my view is that Leaders ought to have the ability to balance on a tightrope between these.

I remember a guy called Richard Holloway, who had been Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, (top dog), claiming that he resigned from his post as Primus because he saw his role in the church to be that of an Insurgent, forging new pathways, challenging his followers to rethink their life, constantly looking for new opportunities to do church more like the ideal he saw in Jesus as exposed by the radical theologians of the day.

However, his Institutional brief was that he had to maintain the status quo. He had been given the task of being the Incumbent. His role definition actually used the word. He was called the Incumbent Primus.

Interesting but what has this got to do with running a business?

When any business starts it is begun by Insurgents. People who believe that they have a better way of doing things. Who have a different product or service than the others. Who see an opportunity to move into a niche that is at that moment in time being inadequately serviced.

Then so as to communicate to those who come to work in that organisation, who don’t have the original vision, the entrepreneur/Insurgent actually has to write down their system/process.

Once this has been done the first temptation is to state that this is what we do and this is how we do it. “Follow the rules!”  The second temptation is to employ people who do not have a vision, a passion for your product/service.

In either case there are a group now caught up in being the incumbents. They are paid to follow the system, not to deviate from it.

I tend to be an Insurgent, I am always looking for a better way to do things, always looking to see how the initial dream can be best served at this moment in time. However, I then drop back to being an Incumbent, following the system till I see a better way to do things.

Back in early 1960, I was doing a holiday job whilst studying. I was using a metal press to press out brackets for a type of roof construction. I had to change the die that pressed the metal three times to create the finished product. We were in an Incumbent situation, where maintenance of the status quo had a significance relevance.

Most of the workers were honest but limited in their creativity. However, this did not stop the owner talking regularly to them to see what they could contribute to their job. We got talking and I suggested that I believed the task that I was doing could be done with one die not three. We sat and talked about this and he asked others who were doing similar processes. There was a consensus that it could be possible.

I went back to college and returned in the next vacation and was presented with the new die. One that could do the process in one hit. By his maintaining an Insurgent mentality he was able to see a “better way”, was willing to entertain the possibility and was willing to have a go. It paid off. He cut the production time by two thirds. He could now be more profitable or better able to compete in a tight market place.

This worked easily for him as he was the owner and was also on the factory floor. When the owner or the “C” person is removed from coal face by a series of manager/supervisors. The gulf between the two ends is lengthened, separated. This is the environment in which Incumbency can creep in. “This is the way that we do it, with ‘no correspondence will be entered into'” begins to creep in, slowly the system is set in concrete, there is no room for the consideration of change.

Whilst I was managing a Building Company in the late 1980’s I made a point of visiting the tradespeople on site regularly, even though I had supervisors to do that role. However, I did not do the fetch and carry of the supervisor role. Instead I talked and asked questions about how things were going, giving them an ear so any issues could be brought up.

For a few years until I left we had a great organisation with very few issues of serious note, and those we did have were resolved quickly. My replacement took on a top down style and did not listen to anyone, let alone ask what they thought. The company started the down hill movement. It went from an Insurgent style of leadership where innovation was actively sought to an Incumbent style of management where all communication was one way. From the top down. Nothing the other way.

In the 1990’s Tom Peter’s talked about MBWA. Management By Walking About. He showed how it could turn a company around from being in the red to coming back into the black.

Systems are important as guide lines as to how we are fulfilling the process  at this moment. This needs to be encouraged and supported. It is the Incumbency aspect of the business. Meanwhile at the same time because the system is not set in concrete the Insurgent is out there ion the cutting edge searching for “a better way”.

A top leader will reward Incumbent’s for stepping out and allowing their intimate knowledge of their specific aspect of the process to be subjected to the Insurgent’s critical eye and question whether it could be done better.

Incumbents and Insurgents need not be in opposition to one another. They can co-exist together. As long as the Incumbent is not forced by the Institution or the control aspect of their own ego to make claims about the system that are not true. It is not the only way. It is not God’s given way. It is upgradable, modifiable, replaceable.

Uphold the status quo, but at the same time continue the search for “where to from here”.

Openness to future possibilities can allow the two to be mutually inclusive. This is the way of the good leader.


Posted on January 3, 2011, in Business, Culture, growing, leadership, Management, openness, searching. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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