Complexity starts when exception kicks in


In the past week I have seen parts of the parliamentary debate known as the "kindertoeslagen affaire". This debate tries to untangle the timeline of events in the governmental organisations up to and including the ministerial level.

At some moments, I must admit, I watched this with a certain feel of shame and disbelieve. Without naming the people that have been interviewed so far, I find it sad to observe so much lack of active leadership and an almost structural acceptance of "it is what it is".

Should I be surprised? How does this link to all my lessons learned about leadership?

Clearly, with the knowledge and experience working with governmental institutes for many years, it are not cost (except when it comes to budgeting) or time being the driving factors, but compliance. Compliance is king: "If you follow the book, you are ok". And of course, it is much easier to explain what the rules are, even if it may sound totally illogical or even irrational than to try and place yourself in the position of whoever is concerned and apply your (backed) common sense.

In that case, rules become alive and are interpreted because of their existence, why they were made in the first place, and not to disrupt, frustrate or let down the people they ultimately were made for; the civilians.

Backed common sense. A second point of concern is the way how this has become part of the hierarchical system. Like large international complex commercial organisations, the hierarchical lines are likewise complex. And sometimes it is difficult to understand where responsibilities lie. However, in commercial organisations, unclarities in responsibilities that lead to negative impact on results, will seldom be kept unchanged. This is mostly not the case in government structures. Of course this leads to intense discussions, maybe additional studies or public debates. But unlike commercial organisations changes in the governmental hierarchy are almost impossible.

And if changes are almost inevitable, nobody in line should be against. Only if nobody is against, there is ample chance to get the governance model adapted.

So, what does this mean?

Adding the two concerns, governmental hierarchies are no more than operationalized factories, focussing on compliancy and efficiency, doing repetitive work with internalized targets that are totally alienized from her client. Every initiative to change, gets stuck in the mud. It takes a lot of energy to get out of the mud, and so does changing the governmental system.

This is more of a cultural thing and therefore applying leadership best practice within the hierarchical system is challenging if you do not cage the compliance beast.

So where do I see leadership make the difference?

My suggestion is to keep the factories continue to do what they do best, maybe even improve on their efficiency. Existing leaders have proven for many years they are masters of following the compliancy route. However, the upgraded factories should not be polluted anymore with exceptions. Prime new principle: Exception handling is excluded, unless... Exception handling is the playing field of new leadership, with a solution oriented mindset and a clear set of client (civilian) driven objectives.

A huge task, maybe, but I am strongly convinced there is an increasing cry for change out of society, and deviate from "it is what it is" and apply the rules as they are intended, also in the grey zone. This set of interviews just highlighted this desire once more. The question is, did we arrive at the tipping point?

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