I’ve been a firefighter for well over two decades now. That period has seen, as they say, the best of times and the worst of times. I have attended some horrific sights – terrible motor vehicle accidents, intense housefires, and awful natural disasters – but in stark contrast to those bad times, I have also built some strong relationships with my fellow firefighters

As I have risen through the ranks of my local brigade, I have had to reconcile myself with having to give orders to my colleagues. One aspect of a command and control organisation is that if you give orders, you pretty much know that they will be followed. People don’t need to like you, they just need to do what you tell them to do. It makes life easier not having to angst too much about consensus and is a necessary attribute of critical incidents.
This approach, however, is in contrast with other situations where consensus and collaboration are critical. In the modern workplace, as opposed to the traditional hierarchical one, it is important to build people up, give them positive encouragement, and generally give them lots of love and attention.
I’ve been thinking of my firefighting life recently in contrast to a fairly bruising situation in one of the organisations I’m involved with. I’ve been made aware that some of the colleagues or employees with whom I’ve always believed I had a professional, respectful, and empathetic relationship, in fact, have very little respect, genuinely warm feelings, or empathy for myself.
While I accept that I’m a person with strong opinions and am relaxed about airing them broadly, I’m also, like most people, keen to have people like me and to generally get on with folks. I’ve been wondering recently if that is possible within the context of leadership generally, and being a director more specifically.
I’m a Chartered Member of the New Zealand Institute of Directors and as such have attended and participated in many courses, conferences and conversations on the subject of governance. I am well-versed in the theory and practice of governance and understand well the concept of a governor needing to rise above the day to day and to keep a view on the headwinds that the organisation may face in the future.
I also understand that part of a governor’s role is to hold management to account and hence being friends with said management isn’t really aligned with a strong governor/management relationship.
However, all of this theory and practice about how to do governance doesn’t really help with the people aspects. How, as a human being, to work within the context of a situation where people fundamentally don’t respect you, are not genuine, and think that your approach, decisions and skills are fundamentally lacking.
In the traditional world, before consensus was the norm, a governor faced with this sort of situation would default to the hierarchy. They would exercise their ultimate authority to, as the saying goes, either change the people or change the people. That is less viable in the modern age where there is so much focus on building people up and fostering their self-confidence.
In an ideal world, of course, this softer approach works great. People feel inspired and uplifted. They are intrinsically motivated to work towards the common good. They in turn see the best in others and foster a collaborative and uplifting workplace.
But that is the ideal world and, while I can happily report that it is the situation in many of the organizations I have the privilege to govern, it isn’t the case for all of them. In some, despite all the uplifting, statements of support and confidence, and friendly deeds and gestures, some people still want more, offer less, and don’t respect either the person or the role.

Generally in these columns I try and end with some key takeaways and pearls of wisdom (and I use the “wisdom” term reservedly, I’d not suggest I have much of that at all). On this occasion, however, I’m stumped for answers. I’m just not sure how to resolve the conundrum. If you have the key to unlocking the solution, please let me know.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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