Operational efficiency in the middle of the corporation is based on democratic leadership. Inner leaders base their relationships with coworkers on values that honor and extol democratic interaction between leader and led. The reason is pragmatic. Work-community members do not have to follow the inner leader, they choose to do so. Unless the work community supports and facilitates followers’ realization of their goals, members will not respond to the largely personal appeals for cooperation from their leader. Making meaning for what are essentially volunteer work-community members asks the inner leader to master several techniques. These techniques help followers see the leader’s intent and purpose for the joint work as useful to them. Among the meaning-making techniques inner leaders use are focusing follower attention, creating a vision, setting expectations, and using symbols.
Inner leadership asks the leader to think inwardly—to think past today’s problems toward the possibilities of what the work community and its members are and can become. Inner leaders challenge the work-community members to become more than they now are, to redefine themselves, to make a difference in both their personal and professional lives. Meaning-making is seen in conscious actions the leader takes that focus stakeholders on and reinforce the work community’s self image. Indeed, all that the leader does reinforces this image. It is part, for example, of promotions given, rewards dispensed, people hired, speeches made, orders written, and all other leader actions.
Fundamentally, meaning-making is nothing more than continually paying attention to what the leader thinks is important. Everyone pays attention to something. Leaders select and consistently focus attention on what they want and need for themselves, for the work community, and for stakeholders.
Paying attention also involves communicating a consistent values-laden message to all coworkers, clients, suppliers, and the greater communities of which this work community is a part.
On one level, creating a meaning is simply a matter of priority. What leaders pay attention to, what they focus on, determines whom they lead and how committed followers are to them and the values promulgated. Mid-level leaders must importantly pay attention to the right values, that is, to the few values most community members will accept and respond to. Among the core American values most relevant to leadership in the middle are the following (Fairholm, 1991):
Respecting and valuing the intrinsic humanness of all people.
Honoring each person’s need for satisfaction and happiness.
An intrinsic desire people have to be united with others in working toward something good that is also greater than themselves.
A need to be treated fairly.
A desire for justice in their relationships with coworkers.
Paying attention to human needs, for quality services, to innovate (be creative), to trust and be trusted, to excel in something, for enthusiasm, for self-esteem, and to be passionate about their work is also central to successful inner leadership. These familiar needs must be part of the values mix inner leaders adopt and reflect in their relationships with community members.
Leading in the middle ranges of the corporation is much more a function of the individual leader’s personal agenda and the relationships he or she develops with followers than it is a subset of corporate direction and planning (Crosby, 1996). Many now see it as a kind of psychological contract in which the leader and follower cooperate voluntarily according to agreed-upon core values and a common view of what the work community is and can become. Indeed, the inner leader’s vision defines this work community’s values-laden meaning and purposes. The power of the leader’s vision comes from the power of the values, experiences, and assumptions developed by both leader and led over time. Work-community members come to feel related to the community’s vision statement and to feel connected on a personal, even spiritual, level.
Creating a work-community vision, therefore, is a function of what the leader is as a person and what he or she prioritizes in terms of his or her work life. His or her statement of the work community’s vision becomes a vital part of his or her meaning-making task. Understanding the technique of visioning, therefore, becomes a key inner leader skill. Visioning is more than goal setting. It involves activating the emotions, as well as the mind. It has a strong values connotation that reflects the leader’s spiritual core and therefore is a more-than-rational statement of personal and community intent.
Visioning is analogous to setting the superordinate goal that Pascale and Athos (1981) discussed or what Bradford and Cohen (1984) called overarching goal-setting. Creating a vision statement involves the inner leader in creating an attractive, powerful, challenging, and compelling statement of the future for the work community, valuing that vision through his or her actions, and programing its implementation. In also involves the leader in communicating the vision context (meaning) to all members of the work community—not just as a sterile statement of future intent but as a central, guiding purpose toward which they can bend their mutual efforts.
A vision is a challenging, unifying, unique, and creditable statement of what the work community is and can become. The vision statement can be articulated in only a few words that summarize what is unique and special about the work community. It is a guideline all members can use as a focus for what the work community stands for. Illustrations of work-community vision statements might include the following:
A personnel department might decide to focus on providing training and procedures that would enable managers to “manage humanely in a growing organization.” A suitable motto or slogan might be “personal concern.”
By themselves, these statements can be meaningless; it is only when the inner leader believes in and constantly talks about them and uses them in all his or her interactions with followers that they come to life; they become inspiring to all members of the community.
Creating a creditable vision statement asks inner leaders to follow a general pattern of thoughtful action including the elements listed in the following section.
Useful vision statements reflect the work community’s core purposes. They articulate a clear, challenging, broad-based, and feasible goal. This vision outcome has a significance beyond the immediate work objectives. Acceptance of it alters the nature of the relationship between the inner leader and work community members. It provides a common purpose. It allows for a better resolution of conflicts. It keeps the leader and led focused on their larger issue—horizon goals. It constitutes the raison d’Ítre for all the work-community activities. It serves as a standard by which decisions are reached. In sum, a well-crafted vision statement makes clear the directions of the group, it defines the community’s horizon outcomes and gives them meaning.
The inner leader’s job is to create and articulate a vitalizing vision that challenges the work community to go beyond its current level. A vitalizing vision becomes a vehicle for change and growth, a result not often attained unaided by the inner leader. It alters the leader’s relationships with coworkers and provides a common focus for work-community activity and energy use. Clear, simple, and broadly known visions make conflict resolution easier by tying conflict to agreed-upon overarching goals competing parties can relate to. Such a vision keeps the leader and followers focused on the larger issues of concern to the work community’s survival and growth. They provide the basis for inspiration of followers and sustain attention on excellence. Vision statements have a stretch quality to them. Effective vision statements are made by leaders who understand their members, tie the vision to members’ specific work tasks, and use it to secure member commitment. In the absence of a vitalizing vision, the leader falls into a maintenance role, which role has a management orientation.
The process of forming a vision for a work community of any size is the same. In the final analysis, the task is the duty of the leader. Members can help, but the responsibility for creation of a meaningful future is manifestly a task of leading, not following. It asks inner leaders to create and then validate a vision and to articulate, interpret, and apply it to all aspects of the work community’s work. The leader must ensure that the vision statement meets the characteristics criteria noted earlier.
Preparation is necessary to ensure effective, directed action. The steps are first to prepare the group. Well before the first visioning meeting, inner leaders have prepared their followers to be effective and comfortable in sharing decision making, planning, and specific methods or work processes. Also, before the work-community members get involved, inner leaders write down several possible vision statements that are consistent with the overall work community work processes, goals, and mission objectives. These draft vision statements are more than a restatement of the work community’s purposes. They are distinctive and suited to the specific unit’s purposes. They must imply a larger significance than work tasks. And each must be challenging.
Followers are useful to help refine the draft vision statements written by the inner leader. The work-community members’ roles in this process are not a sham—a way to get the leader’s vision accepted—it is a vital part of the process. Members can provide additional values, knowledge, and perspective the inner leader lacks. Working together in this way they can ensure that the final vision will better meet the community’s needs.
Making meaning via visioning takes thought and creativity. The process involves—both for the leader’s preliminary visioning activity and for subsequent collaborative effort—the following kinds of activities:
Identify what the work community does for its clients, the corporation itself, and society.
Select a central activity of the work community. In any work community, there are a variety of possible central purposes. The inner leader needs to look beyond routine activities and probe deeply into underlying purposes. This is a task of reinterpreting existing work-community goals; looking at the nature of the unit’s tasks, technique usage, and possible techniques it may use; assessing available technical expertise needed of self and coworkers; and looking at the relative abundance or scarcity of needed resources.
List the output produced—documents, information, services, goods, and so on.
Identify the leader’s interests, skills, and areas of commitment. (Visions are personal as much as they are institutional.)
Examine current and past work experiences.
Examine formal education and training.
Examine avocational experiences and capacities.
Assess present leadership skills, styles, abilities.
List relevant capacities, skills, and knowledge.
Identify the work community’s clients and customers.
List external constituency groups and key relationships.
Match external client needs and internal personal capacities and interests.
Write out a vision statement—or motto—based on this analysis. Develop several versions. Write out each alternative.
Select the vision statement with the most “fit.”
Present it to members. Persuade them of its usefulness, secure their understanding and commitment, relate it to the work community and its clients.
Determine relationships of the vision statement to internal work-community concerns.
Help members to see all relationships and how important the statement is to the work community, its customers, and to you—the leader—so each member will personally buy into it—assuming it meets his or her legitimate needs.
As inner leaders set high expectations for performance for the group, they are making use of another technique of meaning-making. Inner leaders’ expectations focus and direct vision, values, and standards. Their expectations define the meaning context for their work community. Leaders deliberately engage in behaviors that acquaint followers with their expectations for them and for the work community. Whether the objective of these expectations is simply to direct and control member behavior or to reorient their thought processes, the result is to create meaning for them.
Another simple, yet effective, technique inner leaders use to make meaning for their community members is by using symbols to communicate their ideas, values, and behavioral standards. Every work community has its symbols of itself. Ideas, words, objects, work methods, and other items are used to represent aspects of the work community’s culture, values, and view of itself. These symbols define the character of the work community more than do organization charts or policy manuals. Inner leadership is a function of using symbols, legends, and traditions as much as anything else to direct work-community members in desired ways and in vision-focused directions. By these actions, inner leaders engage the heart, as well as the head and the hands of followers (Fairholm, 2000a).
Every work community has its symbols—things representing aspects of its culture: traditions that define the work community, stories that color personalities, values, programs, and visions. Symbols include physical surroundings, who gets invited to meetings, seating arrangements, the order of the agenda, as well as its content, the location of meetings, and many other factors. Language is also symbolic. Language is a way to focus attention. At Disney, customers are “guests”; at Peoples Express, every employee is a “manager”; and at Wal-Mart, they only hire “associates.” Each designation connotes specific attitudes and orientations about workers and their relationships with each other and their bosses. Stories, too, are powerfully symbolic (as in the example of Perdue’s chickens). They communicate attention, excitement and values, and corporate vision.
Of course symbols can also communicate negative connotations.