I listened to a man reflect on his experiences as an executive in a large company. In two cases, he was responsible for the building of major plants. To build a plant requires the negotiation of contracts. His first experience was with a plant in Mexico where a complex package of loans had to be negotiated. The process took a year. It was complicated by the fact that one of his lawyers was known as “Mr. No.” Every attempt to move forward began in self-interest, conflict, and distrust. From this base, the people tried to build their desired future.
In the Western world, it is conventionally assumed that you formulate a contract so as to build a relationship to obtain an outcome. It is often assumed that the lawyer’s job is to eliminate the need for trust, to foresee all that could go wrong, and design a set of rewards and penalties that will ensure success. All that is needed is a brilliant mind.
The next assignment was to build a plant in Asia. In Asia, they did not assume that the formulation of the contract would create a relationship that would bring the desired outcome. They believed that the eventual contract was simply a memorial to an already existing relationship. You first build a trusting relationship, and then you negotiate, maintaining a relationship of trust and respect. This unconventional orientation was very difficult for his people who were trained in the Western perspective.
As result of his two experiences this man’s conventional assumptions were disrupted. He was forced to create his own theory. Positive leaders are usually born by experiencing serious jolts like this that require them to reexamine their most basic assumptions. We call it “mindful engagement” or the ability to learn from experience.
The man now believes that you move forward by both discipline and vision. You envision win/win outcomes or the future success of both parties. You co-create an image of the shared future. You build respect and trust while you also build a formal contract and you use the contract to promote collective growth.
It seems to me that his reflections on contracting provide a metaphor for understanding positive leadership. The organization is a network of evolving expectations. People are always drifting toward self-interest, conflict, and organizational decay. The role of the leader is to continually monitor the emergence of conflict, surface it, and then attract people into a future they all desire. The challenge is to clarify the common good or highest purpose, to model integrity, nurture belief, and build shared respect and trust.
When the positive leader succeeds, a conventionally unimaginable reality emerges. Negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure and everyone does the right thing, in real time, because they desire to do so. When a person experiences this unimaginable reality, they aspire to create it.
If a person has never experienced this reality, the notion of positive leadership seems foolish and the logical thing to do is to think and act conventionally. The lesson is that most people remain as managers until they, like the executive described above, have experiences that challenge their assumptions and lead them to formulate a new theory and a new set of aspirations.
- What do you believe about contracts and relationships?
- What do you believe about trust and respect?
- As a leader, to what do you aspire?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?