Toward a New Kind of Progressive Organization?

By Jerry Hauser

When I tell people I meet that I am a management coach working to help make progressive organizations more effective, the response I almost inevitably get is some version of, “Hah – good luck!”

I’ve come to understand that the skepticism behind those comments is typically rooted in one of two stereotypes of progressive organizations: they picture either the hard-driven campaign-style organization led by a tyrannical ruler, or the touchy-feely consensus-driven organization that empowers its staff members but gets mediocre (or worse) results. And while I wish I could say that there’s no truth to the stereotypes, I’d be lying: we in fact see a significant number of organizations whose internal workings at least historically could have been well-captured by one or the other of these descriptions.

In many cases – though not all – the “tyrant-led” organization is still run by its founder, who may have overcome enormous hurdles to get the organization off the ground and to keep it running. These founders feel tremendous pressure to deliver results, and they often they feel that everything the organization does bears their personal stamp, so those actions need to be perfect, or close. (As a founder of a growing organization, I can identify with these pressures a lot more than I used to.) The slight variation on the tyrant theme is a short-term campaign organization (either candidate- or issue-based) where the pressure to deliver immediate results is so intense that the leader feels that yelling and leading by fear is the only way to get things done quickly enough. Up-and-comers in the sector see these behaviors and replicate them later when they’re in charge. Whatever the provenance of the behavior, in organizations designed to last longer than a brief campaign, among other problems, strong people often get turned off and leave, and the leader’s reputation for tyrannical behavior stunts the organization’s growth by making it very difficult to attract great talent.

In contrast to, and in some cases as a reaction against, the tyrannical-style organization, other groups are much more consensus-driven, bottom-up, and emotionally-attuned. Many of these organizations explicitly or implicitly embrace an ethos of “be the change” – for instance, they may feel that if they are fighting for a more egalitarian society, they should have a less hierarchical organizational structure. In the minds of their detractors, though, and too often in practice, these organizations grow to be ineffectual. They focus on process and feelings at the expense of, rather than in the service of, results. In the name of seeking consensus, difficult decisions – such as shutting down a program that consumes resources but doesn’t generate impact – don’t get made. Leaders are far too slow to address performance problems on their staff, and opportunities for real-world impact are missed because the organization as a whole is too inward-focused, and too difficult to move quickly.

These descriptions are no doubt overly simplistic, but as archetypes they are not entirely inaccurate. They are also closely linked, in that over time some organizations go through both stages, swinging back and forth along a pendulum where reactions to one set of excesses drives the organization too far in the opposite direction.

Fortunately, however, we’re also starting to see a new type of progressive leader, and organization, emerge. These leaders understand that the only path to sustainable results is by having a staff that’s deeply invested in the direction of the organization, and whose members assume real ownership over driving the work of the organization forward. The leaders share responsibility broadly, they involve many voices in important discussions about the course of the organization, and they are transparent about their shortcomings and their constant quest for improvement.

At the same time, these leaders and organizations marry many of these more “inclusive” practices with a deep results-orientation. They bring a high bar for performance and, while they spread responsibility, those who do not deliver on their responsibilities see their roles in the organization stagnate, or end. These leaders are open to ideas from all quarters, but they subject the ideas to genuinely rigorous thinking, regardless of provenance. They understand the difference between input and information-sharing – which occur broadly – and decision-making, which falls to the person ultimately responsible for the relevant outcome. Because these leaders know that the success of the organization hinges on its people, they demonstrate a desperate thirst for great talent, searching aggressively to bring in the best, to develop and retain those who deliver, and to transition out those who don’t.

These “new” leaders and organizations represent not merely a half-way point on the continuum between two ends of a spectrum between “tyrannical” and “touchy-feely,” but rather a synthesis of the best of both styles. And in fairness, they are not in fact all new: some of the best are leaders and organizations that have been operating this way for a long time. What may be new is simply our appreciation for the difficulty of the task these leaders and organizations face, and the importance of ensuring they succeed in making the phrase “high performing progressive organization” a widespread reality, and not an oxymoron.