Leadership lessons from King Arthur
In King Arthur's Round Table, Harvard professor David Perkins uses the metaphor of the Round Table to discuss how collaborative conversations create smarter organizations. The Round Table is one of the most familiar stories of Arthurian legend since it’s meant to shift power from the King who normally sat at the head of a long table and made long pronouncements while everyone else listened. By reducing hierarchy and making collaboration easier, Arthur discovered an important source of power - organizational intelligence - that allowed him to unite medieval England. According to Perkins, Organizational Intelligence is simply “how well people put their heads together in a group, team, organization or community.”
Perkins’ book is full of colorful metaphors, such as the lawnmower paradox that he uses to describe the fact that, while pooling physical effort is easy, pooling mental effort is hard. “It’s a lot easier for 10 people to collaborate on mowing a large lawn than for 10 people to collaborate on designing a lawnmower.” A round table, Perkins notes, makes a group a little more intelligent since it makes it a little easier to pool mental efforts.
Read related articles in Business Review USA
- Advice from three business big-shots
- Five effective tips to learn how to think rather than what to think
- Doug Smith: A CEO under 40 and just getting started
- How to address rampant employee disengagement
How people give feedback to each other is also a big component of organizational intelligence. Feedback is essential for individual, community and organizational growth and reflection but the bad news is that feedback often flops, which drives people apart.
Perkins identifies three types of feedback: negative, conciliatory and communicative. Direct, negative feedback is many times well-intended (since it’s “honest”) but it often leads to defensive reactions since receivers of negative feedback often feel misunderstood, personally attacked or don’t trust the intentions of the person giving the feedback. Conciliatory feedback is positive but vague and communicates little information. The most effective type of feedback is communicative. Balanced, respectful and honest, it communicates concerns and suggestions toward improvement.
In his book, Perkins offers a simple but effective communication model that can be used to strengthen the effectiveness of communications in a variety of situations. Here are the essential elements of Perkins’ Ladder of Feedback:
STEP ONE: Clarify
First, make sure that you’re clear about what the other person is trying to say. Be careful not to ask questions that are thinly-disguised criticisms.
STEP TWO: Value
Second, tell the other person what you like about their idea. Be as specific as possible to demonstrate that you understand what it is that they’re proposing. Don’t offer perfunctory praise that merely sets up your negatives.
STEP THREE: Concerns and suggestions
State the concerns you have about the idea that has been expressed. Don’t resort to sweeping judgments (“what’s wrong with your idea is…”) or personal attacks (“that’s a stupid idea”). Instead, use qualified terms, such as “I wonder if….” or “It seems to me…”
Besides introducing a practical methodology for effective group communication, Perkins stresses the importance of understanding your organization’s “contact architecture,” the “web of roles and communications between peer and peer, boss and subordinate, newbie and old-hand, in style formal and informal, in venues from boardrooms to mail rooms to bars after hours, by means from emails to meetings to conversations.”
Understanding your company’s contact architecture allows you to recognize and promote "developmental leaders” (in contrast to "authoritarian leaders") who are a transformative force within an organization. By ‘developmental leaders,’ Perkins means leaders, often not the most senior in the organization, "who show through their conduct what it is to think and work well with others, and who guide and coach others informally in patterns of collaboration."
Core take-away / summary
King Arthur, who broke with tradition by seating his knights at a round table, is a good metaphor for the type of collaborative leadership and culture that promotes organizational intelligence.
Communication - face-to-face and electronic, from the mailroom to the boardroom - is key to organizational success since the quality of your communications ultimately determines how smart your organization is. Like Arthur, business leaders today are increasingly seeing the value of understanding their organization’s communication and collaboration patterns in order to successfully mine the insight and wisdom of those around them.
About the author
Roger Smith, Technology Marketing Specialist at Hypersoft Information Systems, a 20-year-old software consulting firm specializing in Organizational and Operational Intelligence.
How innovation is transforming government
According to Washington Technology’s Top 100 list, Leidos is the largest IT provider to the government. But as Lieutenant General William J. Bender explains, “that barely scratches the surface” of the company’s portfolio and drive for innovation.
Bender, who spent three and a half decades in the military, including a stint as the U.S. Air Force’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), has seen action in the field and in technology during that time, and it runs in the family. Bender’s son is an F-16 instructor pilot. So it stands to reason Bender Senior intends to ensure a thriving technological base for the U.S. Air Force. “What we’re really doing here is transforming the federal government from the industrial age into the information age and doing it hand-in-hand with industry,” he says.
The significant changes that have taken place in the wider technology world are precisely the capabilities Leidos is trying to pilot the U.S. Air Force through. It boils down to developing cyberspace as a new domain of battle, globally connected and constantly challenged by the threat of cybersecurity attacks.
“We recognize the importance of the U.S. Air Force’s missions,” says Bender, “and making sure they achieve those missions. We sit side-by-side with the air combat command, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance infrastructure across the Air Force. There are multiple large programs where the Air Force is partnering with Leidos to ensure their mission is successfully accomplished 24/7/365. In this company, we’re all in on making sure there’s no drop in capability.”
That partnership relies on a shared understanding of delivering successful national security outcomes, really understanding the mission at hand, and Leidos’ long-standing relationship of over 50 years with the federal government.
To look at where technology is going, Bender thinks it is important to look back at the last 10 to 15 years. “What we’ve seen is a complete shift in how technology gets developed,” he says. “It used to be that the government invested aggressively in research and development, and some of those technologies, once they were launched in a military context, would find their way into the commercial space. That has shifted almost a hundred percent now, where the bulk of the research and development dollars and the development of tech-explicit technologies takes place in the commercial sector.”
“There’s a long-standing desire to adopt commercial technology into defense applications, but it’s had a hard time crossing the ‘valley of death’ [government slang for commercial technologies and partnerships that fail to effectively transition into government missions]. Increasingly we’re able to do that. We need to look at open architectures and open systems for a true plug-and-play capability. Instead of buying it now and trying to guess what it’s going to be used for 12 years from now, it should be evolving iteratively.”