No. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is a stark difference however in the way we go about our tasks. And goals, for that matter. This is a theme that keeps reappearing as a discussion for me in the past few years. More so this last year, with the more recent occurrence early this week as it was brought up in a way by my manager. It’s the same question that keeps occurring in my mind every time I watch the news and the latest political events, or the latest business downfalls or successes. It’s the same idea I got while watching Netflix’s How to Become a Tyrant docuseries last month. It’s the same topic that came up when early this year I finally got around to reading The Great Degeneration, and it’s the same dilemma I had to face when we were trying to establish what constitutes effective leadership throughout my R&D role and beyond with Leaderonomics.
What I am talking about is the importance of the individual, versus the importance of the structure, the process, and the institution. Which is the most critical, would you say? Which one would make the most impact in an organisation, an entity, a country, a community, a family even?
Related: The Importance of Legacy in Leadership
Everything I come across points to the latter. Sure, you have the ultra-inspirational, ground breaking individuals that make a big difference in the trajectory of a group – a company, or an organisation. The question then is, what happens after they ‘exit’, either by choice, or otherwise. However, where you have strong, stable and adaptive institutions, things generally go better because no matter what happens to the individual, the systems are strong enough to sustain the way things run over time.
In the book The Great Degeneration, Niall Ferguson argues that Western countries did well for a while, because they had strong institutions in place. They then went a bit too far though – with overregulating and introducing long and convoluted laws that allowed for more opportunities for system breakdowns. These complex new regulations are examples of what makes countries in the West lose their advantage, and what allows developing countries the opportunity to do much better in certain areas.
Strong institutions and systems are hard to achieve – and maintain! On the contrary, it is easy to get stuck with bad ones. That’s why so many countries are suffering from a perpetual cycle of poverty and corruption – because it is not that simple to break this.
The individuals, on the other hand, may achieve great things while they are around. The good ones, at least. In the case of tyrants and dictators, that’s another story. The good ones have the inclination to put sufficient efforts in thinking about the long term and establishing strong institutions – with a range of some to vast success. The bad ones – well. They leave a mess and without their strong presence and personality the group (a country, community or company) remains in a state of chaos because there’s nothing to pull them up again. No structure, no second line of strong leadership. And the state continues as is, until a strong shock takes place some time in the future to shake things up.
What does all this mean in the context of business, though? As a working professional, I should aim to achieve as much success as possible in my role. That means hit and overachieve on my KPIs. However, at the same time I should also be putting equal if not more attention to setting the structure right so what I do is actually sustainable long after I leave my role. Thinking long term and beyond my days in the sun will allow my legacy and the continuity of what I am striving for on a daily basis.
And this is something for individuals to consider and plan a little on how to approach this predicament. This is also something for organisations to think about – how do we enable our company to flourish long after our strong talent leaves us for a different role, and how do we enable our people to influence systems in a constructive and adaptive manner to allow our continuity?
It is not as easy as it sounds. Start ups usually find it hard to scale because they have no processes and systems in place. Big established giants find it hard to pivot and remain relevant because they simply have too many of them to the point that it all works to their detriment. It’s always best to break it down into small manageable chucks: How best can I set some systems, rules, processes in the way that I do my work at the moment in my specific job scope and team, so that it can allow continuity, yet flexibility to remain agile in the future?
There’s a question for you to ponder on this weekend. Thinking about the success of the now, as well as the legacy you leave for the future ...
This article was also published on Eva Christodoulou's LinkedIn.
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