When “Guardians of the Temple” sabotage your Transformation


Didier Marlier

July 03, 2019

From Disruption to Engagement

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“No progress without transgression!” claims Hamilton Mann, Thales’ Digital Marketing & Digital Transformation Director, “Every innovation is a disobedience to a rule, a norm, a habit, a process, a way of doing things, an established thought, a belief system that the organization carries…”

And what happens when the “Guardians of the Temple” seek to rein the mavericks in??? Two months after Hamilton’s article was published, Apple’s iconic iPhone designer, John Ive is quitting the company at the age of 52. An interesting article from the WSJ seeks to explain the reasons of the divorce:

  • A culture shift which lost sight of the company’s real purpose (cause) and drifted towards financial targets and procedures (consequence)
  • Apple failing to recognize the real need of Mr. Ive for Meaning and Purpose (not for money and privileges), when he was desperately looking for a new intellectual/emotional sparring-partner to replace Mr. Jobs.
  • Mr. Ive engaging into an isolationist “Bonding” defense spiral, first creating “a small, insular team of industrial designers who (…) compared themselves to a family that worked long days and socialized after work at bars and clubs” prior to isolating himself even from the “family” he had created.

I also had sympathy for Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, having done the best he could to manage one of his main leadership dilemma: How to retain a major human asset and maintain integrity with his way of organizing and leading his organization?

Engaging people into Transformation isn’t the issue anymore

My partners and I support transformational projects around the World and see the same dilemma emerge each time: How to unleash people’s potential for entrepreneurship, risk-taking and disruptive thinking whilst retaining coordination, control and a certain level of safety? The answer is you can’t… Disruptive times require disruptive thinking! Asking others to be brave and take personal risks for the benefit of the company requires you to stretch your comfort zone!

In major transformations, getting buy-in isn’t an issue anymore. It was, twenty years ago when people still lived with the illusion that “business as usual” was an option. Since five years, people have radically changed their views and know that play safe and immobilism aren’t reasonable choices any longer. If you communicate around an ambitious and healthy new purpose (ethics, jobs, with a positive impact on environment), expect a vast majority of your people to buy-in.

So what goes wrong?

People rapidly engage into an ambitious transformation and expect clear signs that their leaders are fully behind it. But when, they receive clear signals that “the system” is gripping, that more procedures (“Trust is good, control is better!” came from another idealist, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, completely taken over by the enthusiasm of his people to adhere to his revolutionary ideals) are requested on the way to Heaven, feelings of betrayal, counter-revolution and cynicism emerge. Lenin called those guilty of maintaining the old “system” in place “counter-revolutionaries” and executed them… Business reality is less black and white…

Who are the Business “Counter-Revolutionaries”?

I was in a large convention with middle managers the night that one of our client had become No1 in their business. As one may expect, everyone was celebrating… except the most creative and unorthodox ExCom member, who had joined us as a speaker for the workshop. I was concerned something bad had happened in his private life, which would explain the sadness in his eyes: “At the same moment most of us celebrate, I can already imagine those well-intended managers (he did not use, the word “leaders”) dealing with their anxiety of losing the much coveted No1 spot by edicting new rules, roles and procedures. And that will kill our creative, entrepreneurial and humanistic culture!” Six months later, this visionary leader was gone and the rest… is History!

I am intrigued to realize that there usually is a strong intellectual and emotional alignment between ExCom and their people on the Transformation plan and aim. Where it goes wrong is when the scared and well-meaning apparatchiks, the Guardians of the Temple of the company’s old orthodoxy, seek to implement change by adding more rules and prohibition and their leaders don’t clearly take a stand on this.

Should the Guardians of the Temple be executed?

Of course not! They try their best by “doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results” as per Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. But if we, leaders, do not have the foresight, courage and patience to help those loyal soldiers understand the ritual shooting in the foot they commit each time they brandish the Bible of Procedures in their anxiety-driven crusade for the good of the company, they will continue their Holy War for Immobilism!

What should Transformational Leaders pay attention to?

  • Transactional vs relational: What strikes me, each time we are invited to help boost a stalled transformation effort, is that, when we sit people together to help them explain the (good) intentions, anxieties behind their blocking behaviours, eyes are opening, angers disappear and progress emerges. That doesn’t happen when leaders allow or encourage the culture to remain transactional. Transactional works in the old vertical, hierarchical and siloed organizations. It completely fails in the agile, unconditional and entrepreneurial disruptive organic ways of leading! This is the place for relational!
  • Purpose vs procedure: We, leaders, should be adamant that Procedure isn’t Purpose. If they don’t add value, get rid of them! A CFO recently invited his organization to cancel the budgeting process which he had identified to a burden, wasting executives time and getting in the way of ultimate customers’ satisfaction. That is leadership! Transformational leaders should clearly arbitrate in favour of Purpose over Procedure each time the latest conflicts with the first!
  • In Command and out of control: Guardians of the Temple and the leaders who fail in their mission to help them develop, are often motivated by fear of letting go of control. I have shown this clip three times already: See what the retired head of the US Marines, Lt General Paul van Riper has to say about being “In Command (ie. To remain a responsible and accountable leader) but out of control (creating conditions for our people to succeed on the battlefield).

When will followers stop behaving like victims?

Finally what should we, when in position of following, do when our leaders fail to remove the roadblocks laid by the Guardians of the Temple?

  • Create an adult-adult dialogue: “It is easier to be a slave!” How often do we see followers prefer to bitch and moan against the dictatorship of corporate headquarters instead of:
    • Building relationship and a network of allies in the home office to help convincing others?
    • Daring to engage an intimidating boss into an adult-adult discussion? Behaviours breed behaviours and when we show signs of submission (or rebelliousness)to a corporate bully, they will oppress or punish us!
    • Understanding why others rejected their creative idea and engage into empathetic selling?
  • Look at the bigger picture: When defending the “Bridge too far”, we don’t necessarily understand the bigger, strategic picture. Behaving like a partisan, defending our field or street corner make us lose credibility with the ExCom. We need to integrate (and prove it) the organization’s purpose and favour it in our plans and be ready to lose our battle in benefit of the corporate war.
  • Seek Forgiveness not Permission: If we expect our leaders to be courageous and defend us against the Guardians of the Temple, if we expect them to take a stand, position and decide, why should we be different? Transformational leaders prefer those who seek forgiveness to permission, even if (or maybe… because) there is a risk in so doing!

Is your chimney still obstructed by planks of wood?

In my early career (late 80’s) as a consultant, I realized the chimney of a furnace was obstructed by planks of woods disposed horizontally one above the other from left to right, forcing the exhalation into a sinuous way to the top and costing a lot in extra fuel consumption. A law from 1942 had curiously imposed this strange practice in that European country… I let you guess why that legislation had been put in place at that date. The Guardians of the Temple, were probably too busy inventing new procedures for a peaceful World in 1945, to dare removing it…

Dear Transformational leaders, please help your Guardians understand that there will be “No progress without transgression!”


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