THE PERILS OF SILO LEADERSHIP
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
Leadership of new organisations brings new purpose and ideas, expanding from there to make room for supporters to become integrated into the group.To build something different, leaders need to dispense with old paradigms in order to introduce and embrace a new way. This kind of entrepreneurial leadership and insight has forged some of the finest inventions, learning institutions, church networks, technologies, cultures and communities the world has enjoyed. At some point in the growing process, administration takes an increasing role in order to help formulate a united and organised vision. Administration streamlines the innovative concepts that are bringing change.
However, in order for an organisation to thrive, it must continue to not just develop, but to develop innovatively. The initial change it brought to its world is great, but without continuing its own development, every organisation eventually loses its capacity to be the solution, and becomes, like the predecessors it replaced, part of the problem.
John Maxwell, in defining the stages of leadership growth, identifies the first phase as:
"WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE DON’T KNOW."
For many leaders this is also the last stage. When the system becomes entrenched in its own structure, leaders come full circle to the place in which they don’t know what they don’t know. They fail to see that their innovations have become formulae, and holes have formed in that formulae causing it to lose effectiveness. Many leaders, having surged forward with great entrepreneurial power and creativity, are seduced by their own victories into thinking that their methods caused their success, rather than the innovation which birthed their methods. That results in the gradual cultivation of Silo thinking and Silo leadership. The thinking that enabled the protection and projection of great causes, becomes the instrument that disables them from hearing or transitioning into something new.
Thus, the organisation becomes isolated within its own silo, only making connections with similar silos, and completely missing the new creativity which is developing. Silo leaders are only open to hearing from those who think the same as they do, thus losing their cutting edge because they began by thinking differently, yet they end by trying to bring greater organisation to what used to work. Organisation is good, but it doesn’t grow anything new.
Those methods which were once so vibrant and new are increasingly refined and streamlined, and then repeated multiple times to become the norm. Other less creative organisations and leaders who don’t have their own new ideas also adopt these same paradigms, until what was once so groundbreaking degenerates to become the same ole same ole, in exactly the same way as the old organisations they replaced did. Every organisation, no matter how brave and adventurous it was to begin with, no matter how much new territory they opened up, eventually lose their cutting edge to become ‘the norm’. The norm is comfortable, it has status, but it doesn’t change anything.
Organisations have life-cycles, just like people, and for those who are willing to keep learning, the life cycle of an organisation can be saved from descent into staleness. However, the problem with being successful is that we end up believing our own publicity. We already know what to do and how to do it; why look outside ourselves for different input and new ideas.
Tragically, an organisation may see the warning signs of detritus but rather than look of outside of their silos, they do what used to work before, only this time bigger and better. More money, more powerful, more experts, more… more… more… but with less and less results. History continues to repeat itself.
The problem with Silo Leadership is that it doesn’t know it’s in a silo. It doesn’t realise it’s built its own walls so strong and high that it is no longer aware of the new opportunities, ideas, ideals, creativity, ethos, innovation and attitude that has been steadily building up outside its walls all this time. Silo Leadership can see itself, and it can see the sky, but nothing else. It’s not aware that the world is changing. It’s only dimly aware that it is no longer on the front foot of enterprise. It rejects the notion that it has become the dreaded ‘norm’.
Check out the last days of all the good kings in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles in the Old Testament. Every one of them began as the kind of leader that brought radical change, causing their kingdom to flourish, and disintegrated into Silo Leadership. Not one of them finished in triumph, no matter how well they’d started. These stories need to incite leaders and organisations to look outside their people group to see if there are other answers.
Silo Leadership has never been an effective long term leadership style, and most leaders don’t begin that way. However, as they are increasingly seduced by their own success, they don’t realise that in the process, a silo is being built.
There is only one remedy, and sadly, most organisations, even the great ones, fail to make the jump. The remedy is to learn from different voices, to bring in new entrepreneurs and allow them to do the new thing, rather than try to force them to do the old thing in a new way. The longer a leader or an organisation lives, the more relevant is the warning about old wine in new wineskins. The slide into irrelevance is always the result of leaders trying to paint what they used to do a different colour, but continuing on with the same system.
You know what they say about the definition of insanity – doing the same thing the same way, but expecting a different result. There are businesses, church organisations, families, nations, charities, technology that grew to be successful, only to find themselves on that slow slide into anonymity and dysfunctionality. Giving the old ways an upgrade to be newer, brighter, faster, stronger will never take the place of actual innovation.
Finding ways to put the old wine into new wine skins is remarkably common. That is surprising, considering that it never works. The only way forward is to get outside of the silo. Knock it down if you can. Lay yourself and your organisation open to new thoughts, new ideas, new concepts and give time and room to people who are not like you, who aren’t living in a silo at all.
It will be uncomfortable, I promise you, but it’s the only way if you want to reverse the slide into irrelevance and dysfunction. Many older leaders can’t change, and that’s ok. Hand over to someone who will embrace change, just like you did when you forged the entrepreneurial insights that changed the whole landscape of your sphere of influence.
Having a long term vision means letting go of what used to be, what you created, what was right for your generation. Let the new come. Get out of the silo you’ve been trapped in for so long you think it’s the only way. Look around and see what else is happening. Then, bring in the innovators and see what marvellous new options are available to change the world.
Photo Acknowledgement: Sam Cox – Inside Inga’s Silo