Tell people the ‘Why’ and the ‘What’. Let them figure out the ‘How’!

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”. Chinese Proverb.

In an environment in which schools are being measured by exam results, with careers on the line, it is perhaps natural that school leaders relentlessly zone in on how they can inflate their statistics in order to survive endless scrutiny of performance table rankings and inspectorates. This in turn can lead to an over reliance of a top down approach to leadership, where ‘experts’ at the top decide the objectives, methods and means for those at the bottom. I spent close to a decade looking at the science of human motivation, particularly the dynamics that extrinsic and intrinsic motivators play on our behaviour and the research shows that there is often a complete mismatch between what the science knows and shows and how many of our businesses, including our schools, operate.

Effectively delegating to others is perhaps the single most powerful high leverage activity there is. Effective delegation should mean growth, both for individuals and for organisations, yet how often do we refuse to delegate to other people because we feel it takes too much time and effort and we could do the job better ourselves? Another scenario played out in many organisations is when people are given a little empowerment to make a decision on their own, they make it, the leader disagrees and complains as to why he/she was not consulted in the first place, and trust is lost on both sides. This lack of trust then leads to cynicism, constant tension and ever tightening controls, zapping any form of empowerment from the organisation. Was it this same sense of a lack of autonomy, of not being trusted enough to drive lessons forward and tackle problems head on, that is missing too often in the schooling system?

Below the Line Accountability (Low Trust = Low Autonomy)

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” David Marquet.

Changes dictated top down and forced upon teachers by a dynamic leader might improve things in the short term, they are often essential in a turnaround situation, but over a longer period, what are the consequences? Trust and control share an inverse relationship, as one goes up then the other goes down and all too often in high control-low trust organisations team dynamics become based more on coercion rather than on collaboration. Without the freedom to choose the way they lead their portfolio, the way they teach, to develop and follow their instincts in how to approach their subject and students, roles and responsibilities become depersonalized. In these conditions, teaching begins to happen by rote, it becomes a service industry rather than a vocation and, consequently, staff engagement and morale are likely to suffer. Teachers reduced to being cogs in a machine quickly fall out of love with a job where they have to walk on egg shells, protect ones back, and be careful of what one says. Yet, might there be a way of still improving a schools’ performance by resisting the slippery slopes of the quick fix culture? In an age of constant metrication and micro-management, could there be a better way of empowering teachers? What could education learn from other organisations who successfully gave autonomy back to its people?

Leader or Follower?

For the military, the 19th and 20th centuries were transformative times, not only technologically but culturally too. Historically, soldiers were nothing but the tools of their commanders, condemned to do or die at the behest of one of their superiors. Nowhere was this more evident than on the bleak battlefields of the First World War. This idea largely persisted through the Second World War, but catastrophic episodes thereafter gave rise to a new school of thought, one that suggested decentralising command was actually key to making successful and more rapid movements in war. Speed has always been important to the military but for most of history it has been limited to what a human or human on horseback could see and do. Whilst technology in the 20th century increased the speed of communication to and from the battlefield, this same technology also created many new problems with the amount of people who could have and wanted to have ‘control’ of the same information.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is in the Normandy Landings, the pivotal moment of the Second World War in which allied soldiers landed on the beaches at Normandy in their attempt to liberate France and start driving Nazi Germany back across the continent. Faced with vast, unexpected resistance from the shore, the casualties incurred on the beaches of Normandy were staggering and yet the soldiers who made the landings had little alternative as they were ordered to land and take the beaches. By the time they could call back to the command post to relay the latest intelligence and the command post could place a call higher up the chain of command, request new orders, and relay them back down the line, the moment would have passed. On the Normandy beaches, many thousands of men perished because of the glacial pace with which decisions could be made. The problems with rigid, centralised command will never be clearer than this: in times of war, men have often died waiting for commands from their superior officers.

Nowadays, the modern military has moved away from over-dependence on centralised command. Vivid catastrophes such as the Battle of the Somme, the Normandy Landings and more showed the frailty in a system when only those at the very top could make decisions. To overcome the impossibility of a commander being able to communicate with and direct the actions of all of his soldiers at all times, the time element of acting in less time than their opponent had to be to empower decision making down to the lowest practical level of competency. Somehow there had to be a way of troops making moral and ethically correct decisions in a fast changing life or death situation.

The OODA Loop

Decision making can be as much an art form as a science and military strategist Colonel John Boyd developed an iterative decision making cycle he called the OODA Loop. Following the success of American F-86 pilots against their MiG-85 opponents during the Korean War, despite flying a technically inferior aircraft, Boyd realised that successful pilots were those who decision-making cycle was more effective. They Observed, Orientated, Decided and Acted in the most timely and decisive manner. Having firstly seen what was happening around them and filtered it through a common value system (observe); secondly assessed, analysed and synthesised all necessary information (orientate); thirdly formed the right choices aligned to the stated mission (decide); and finally acted upon those intentions (act), those who continued to repeat and adapt to the OODA cycle successfully became the most agile, able to make life saving decisions before their opponents did. This art of practical reasoning, making decisions by thinking forwards into actions and consequences, became the cornerstone of the military’s principal tool for empowerment, known as mission command.

Mission Command

“In physics, the definition of power is the transfer of energy. We measure the power of a lightbulb in watts. The higher the wattage, the more electricity is transferred into light and heat and the more powerful the bulb. Organizations and their leaders operate exactly the same way. The more energy is transferred from the top of the organization to those who are actually doing the job, those who know more about what’s going on on a daily basis, the more powerful the organization and the more powerful the leader.” Simon Sinek

Mission command dictates that soldiers in the field be given ‘earned’ autonomy and trusted with making key decisions without needing to constantly refer to their superiors. By pushing decision making down the chain of command, the autonomy to act is given to those closest to the information, those with ‘eyes on the ground’ who are able to make rapid assessments of constantly changing variables.

According to the principles of this doctrine, the goal (why) of any particular mission is described along with the enabling tasks (what) to a unit of soldiers BUT WITHOUT the path (how) to its achievement being fully proscribed. Understanding their commander’s intentions, the soldiers in the field are then given the freedom to act how they see fit in order to accomplish that mission, so long as they remain within the operating boundaries of the commander’s intent.

The system has certain key advantages. Even in this age of near instant communication, timing is vital and, following the principles of mission command, allows soldiers in open conflict to make decisions more quickly, at their most informed. More than this, it elevates soldiers above being simple tools. It recognises them as human beings rather than instruments, it trusts them with the intelligence to make important decisions at critical moments, it hands them the responsibility for their own survival and that of the soldiers around them. It makes them feel valued, trusted, and as if they truly have something to offer.

Above the Line Accountability (High Trust = High Autonomy)

“Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.” David Marquet

Creating this bridge between leaders and the people they lead, having a ‘safety net’ to empower action in subordinates, in full acknowledgement that there will at times be failure, without fear of consequence, requires the nurturing of the highest form of human relationships: absolute trust. And it is this trust, between people high up in an organisation and those on the ground that transforms organisations. In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek calls trust an organisation’s “circle of safety”, a circlet that can lead to instant, safe, and effective communication.

Mission Command is therefore a frame of mind that constantly seeks to move the authority to the source closest to the information. By empowering staff, we are showing that we trust them. Cultures founded on suspicions and fear of mistakes are dampened and instead become founded on openness. To take the military analogy to its fullest, the teaching staff are a school’s soldiers sent out into the field. Trust is also synonymous with the highest form of human motivation, intrinsic motivation, because it aligns to the three human needs we all crave – the desire for autonomy, relatedness and competence. It brings out the very best in people. But it takes time and patience, as only through training and development will competency and alignment rise to a level that leads to reciprocal trust. With so many recruitment and retention issues, could this be what was lacking in our schooling system? If this is the case, then we must take the lessons that the military learnt as our own, empowering our teachers to take ownership of their classrooms, to make decisions for themselves – all within the confines of our shared values and culture.

Our Natural Drive for Self-Determination

“The new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves”. Daniel Pink

Stephen Covey talks about two types of delegation – gofer delegation ‘do this, do that, and tell me when it is done’, the manager still being responsible for methods; and stewardship delegation, focused on results rather than methods, with the people being responsible and trusted for the methods, which in turn gains their buy in to the results. In his book Principle Centred Leadership, Covey highlights the power of this form of delegation by creating a purpose to one’s work greater than any one thing or individual. “The scientific paradigm says pay me well,” Covey writes. “The human relations paradigm says treat me well, the human resource paradigm says use me well but the character based leadership paradigm says involve me in the vision and mission of the organisation and its goals. I want to make a meaningful contribution.”

Most people tend to think in terms of dichotomies – winners/losers; either/or; all/nothing. Win-win, one of Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people, is a belief that it is not your way or my way but a better way of doing things. Mastery, Autonomy & Purpose, made famous in Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’, are taken directly from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s basic needs theory, a sub-theory of their wider Self Determination Theory. This is what really motivates humans to persist and do a job well and their findings are among the most robust in the social sciences. The effect of mission command is that the ‘steward’ becomes his/her own boss governed by conscience that contains the commitment to agree upon desired results (our drive for AUTONOMY). But it also releases his/her creative energies (our drive for MASTERY) toward doing whatever is necessary in harmony with correct principles to achieve those desired results (our drive for PURPOSE). It can also work with any employee – the less experienced you specify fewer desired results, more guidelines, apply more resources, more frequent accountability measures. The opposite is true for more experienced staff. How to actually do this in practice will be discussed more in later posts.

Thanks for reading.

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