I had a chance over the holiday weekend to read a book a client shared with me, Barbarians to Bureaucrats, originally published in 1989. The book describes leadership styles and business life cycles and as I read it I was reminded of other great books that have tried to express the same message over the past three decades.

One of the great quotes from this particular book is “the decline in corporate culture precedes – and is the primary causal factor in the decline of a business, and that decline is the result of the behavior and spirit of its leaders.”

I have certainly found that to be true over my almost four decades as a human resources practitioner, executive, and management consultant. Culture eats strategy!

I have to say that as I read this I saw application not just to the “corporate” world, but society in general as I look at the vitriol and nastiness of our latest election for the Presidency. We have a national culture problem.

I have a passion for the concept of employee engagement, a concept that has been around for almost three decades in some form or another, but has not been universally embraced.

The ship has sailed on whether or not engagement is real and it can affect the performance of an organization. Organizations where employees consider themselves highly engaged outperform their competitors in every key performance indicator and engagement is a universal rather than a North American phenomenon.

The author also talks in his book about a couple of other concepts that explain our failure to launch.

He talks about the two sides of the coin as it relates to national involvement, public purpose and private interests.

I have embraced the thinking of people like Michael Porter and Nilofer Merchant that all profit isn’t equal. Social profit, profit that benefits society and total versus just a smaller shareholder group has more long term benefit. I prefer the stakeholder versus the shareholder mentality.

The other thing that he discusses is the myths of the perfect culture and the perfect management/leadership style. That simply isn’t the case.

How many times do we see organizations (and consultants) shlepping around a template[MH1]  of the perfect culture?

When Good to Great was published everybody ran out to copy it. It is interesting to me that although several of the organizations that Collins cited don’t exist anymore almost every executive I know has a copy on their bookshelf. Some of them have even read it.

I remember reading Situational Leadership back in the early nineties and incorporating it into my tool kit with the idea that you need to meet people where they live and flex your leadership style accordingly.

We still don’t like to talk about soft skills and we aren’t very good about teaching them. I saw something as recently as today that said that the concepts of emotional and social intelligence don’t really exist because we can’t scientifically validate them, we should rely on IQ.

Sorry professor you are wrong. Everything can’t be validated. We have this thing called religion, which is based on faith which although it can’t be validated seems to have caught on…

Perhaps because of my professional development as a human resources practitioner the idea that leadership is based on behavior not words and that at the end of the day it is a relationship rather than a position these things resonate with me.

I see corollaries to this book in Gladwell’s David and Goliath, where he discusses legitimacy as part of the leadership infrastructure and Stephen MR Covey’s The Speed of Trust, where he identifies the three levels of trust and how the achievement of identity based trust is critical to sustained organizational performance. Perhaps I am reaching, but I also see a relationship to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle in terms of giving people something to believe in.

Scientific management created the foundation for what I believe this author describes as the Administrative and Bureaucratic stages of an organization, where processes become more important than people and definitely more important than the product.

The author talks about this being why we have lost a great amount of our manufacturing competitiveness to foreign locations, first Japan and Germany because of quality, and then to other outsourced markets because of cost. A situation that hasn’t improved drastically in the thirty years since the book was written.

He also talks about the importance of balancing financial, planning, and technical competence with creativity. I would add leadership competence, those soft skills like emotional and social intelligence and the ability to flex your leadership style to the situation and the constituent base.

I can’t say that there was a lot of new ideas in the book that I hadn’t been exposed to before, what is a little troubling is how little meaningful progress we have made in the almost three decades since it was published.

I am also watching to see with the outcome of our election whether we have chosen a Barbarian who can create change or more concerning a business aristocrat masquerading as a change agent.

Jefferson described two camps relative to their view of people-

·         Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all power from them into the hands of higher classes (Frederick W. Taylor and Scientific management).

·         Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish them and consider them as the most honest and safe.

I would submit that if the term human capital is part of your vernacular and you see culture and employee engagement as the province of your human resources department you have declared your colors…




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