Thursday, February 12, 2009

The leadership of philosopher kings

Those who work in scientific or technological institutions may be interested in a short paper on leadership structures by Gregory Canavan. Canavan's basic point is that all the individuals in a scientific organisation should spend some of their time doing creative, rather than administrative work. If the people with experience spend all of their time doing administrative work, then their ability and knowledge is wasted. Moreover, argues Canavan, to be an effective leader it is necessary to be engaged in creative work, because leadership requires inspiration, guidance and insight:

Managing is a function that can be applied easily to any process: producing cars, IRS forms, sausages,etc. Science requires leadership more than management. Doing science, particularly applied science, requires insight and inspiration on which way to go, not just a daily reckoning of where you have been. Many organizations have quietly substituted management for leadership. The result is generally polarization, lack of commitment, inflexibility, the premature loss of scientific excellence, and fossilization, which are sufficiently familiar and uncomfortable to require no elaboration.

In specific terms, Canavan argues that

1) The greatest number of people an individual can effectively manage is 7. Individuals who manage 7 people have no time for creative work at all.

2) Apart from those people on the lowest level in a company, each individual should lead (at most) 3 people. This takes up 3/7 of an individual's time. Assuming that 1/7 is taken up responding to one's own leader, this leaves 3/7 of the time for creative work.

3) Whilst the rule of seven creates log7 6N layers in an organisation containing N employees, the rule of three creates log3 2N layers. In an organisation containing 7,500 employees, for example, the rule of three generates 9 layers rather than 6. To ensure everyone is working creatively, it is necessary to add extra layers to a leadership hierarchy.

The main problem with Canavan's idea is hidden in his assertion that "If [an employee] doesn't feel an urge to do [creative work], he is probably in the wrong organization." This is true, but all organisations do harbour people in the wrong jobs, or people who possess a negligible amount of creative ability. For these people, a management role which involves administrative drudgery is both a refuge, and a means for advancing one's career to a higher salary scale. Nevertheless, Canavan's idea has a bracingly radical feel to it. Bravo!

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