Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.

Alan Alda

 We cannot meet 21st Century challenges with a 20th Century bureaucracy.

Barack Obama

The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.

Warren Bennis

So often we hear people say: ‘Sorry, this is just the way things are done around here.’ It is obviously not said with any pride or enthusiasm. But it is said with strong belief and conviction – with a ‘try to proof me wrong’ attitude. We know where that feeling comes from: it comes from shattered hopes. The cynical, defiant and sometimes aggressive attitude that one encounters is a reflection of dashed enthusiasm and earlier feelings of hurt. When we feel that we are bulldozed by a system every time we want to follow our common sense or what we belief is right, it becomes life-sapping. The feeling is so powerful that it influences our thinking in all areas of life, not only at work. Coming home in the evening family members’ enthusiasm about new ventures suddenly become irritable and their ideas feeble and unrealistic. We then become an extension of the negative, pessimistic and rigid culture in the workplace.

But what is a system other than the product of people’s thinking translated into the design of structures and software programs, the compilation of policies, procedures and rules, all of which translated into conventions and powerful beliefs about how things should be? All that is then needed to keep the system safely in place is policing by a hierarchy of managers with positional power. That is why Warren Bennis observed that managers accept the status quo where leaders challenge it. What we need is leaders who challenge assumptions and the status quo. We need them desperately in all spheres of our societal life.

Admittedly, it is easier said than done. No question, it is easier, safer and less disruptive to conform and toe the line. To challenge authority about the bureaucratic system that was created and is preserved requires skill, finesse, courage and perseverance. Neither arrogance nor tentativeness serve us well. As with all challenges in life, it starts with ourselves. We have to do our homework first. Many efforts to challenge the status quo die an early death because people fail to test their assumptions. Alan Alda has good advice: Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. Furthermore, we need to figure out what our own contribution will be towards a more desired state and demonstrate the will to be constructive.

Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco and author of the book Maverick, is an example of a leader who dared to follow his instinct in the type of organisation he wanted. Time featured him among its Global 100 young leaders in 1994. Here is some facts about his company and some of his interesting and radical perspectives:

  • Semco had annual revenue of $212 million in 2003, from $4 million in 1982 and $35 million in 1994, with an annual growth rate of up to 40 per cent a year. It employed 3,000 workers in 2003, as opposed to 90 in 1982.
  • Turnover among its 3,000 employees was about 1% during the period 1994 to 2004.
  • Repeat customers accounted for around 80% of Semco’s 2003 annual revenues.

The culture

  • I don’t want to know where Semco is headed. It doesn’t unnerve me to see nothing on the company’s horizon. I want Semco and its employees to ramble through their days, to use instinct, opportunity, and ingenuity to choose projects and ventures – Ricardo Semler
  • The culture at Semco is unique in the sense that there is no power-packed job titles; employees including top managers themselves do the photocopying, sent faxes, typed letters, and make and receive phone calls. There are no executive dining rooms, and parking is strictly first-come, first-served.
  • Organizational profits were shared with the employees and the salaries were set by the employees themselves.
  • For years, I have resisted defining Semco for a simple reason: once you say what business you’re in, you create boundaries for your employees, you restrict their thinking and give them a reason to ignore new opportunities –Ricardo Semler
  • Some of the important organisational decisions like relocating a unit or acquiring a company are taken on the basis of employees’ votes.
  • On their website:It is not by chance that unconventional ideas are created at this company. They are created and managed within an open management model, different from conventional models and this is exactly what we want.
  • On their website:Semco believes that it is important to meet people interested in working with Semco, even if this interest is not immediate or there are no current opportunities. So we created the program – Date Semco. 

Some of their principles and values

  • Value honesty and transparency over and above all temporary interests
  • Seek a balance between short-term and long-term profit
  • Provide the customer with differentiated services, placing our responsibility before profits
  • Encourage creativity, giving support to the bold
  • Encourage everyone’s participation and question decisions that are imposed from the top down
  • Maintain an informal and pleasant environment, with a professional attitude and free of preconceptions
  • Have the humility to recognize our errors and understanding that we can always improve

Who would not want to work for such a company?

I guess, at bottom we all feel motivated by freedom and are at the same time challenged to know how far we can trust not only others, but also ourselves. The leader in us says in Robert Rodriguez’s words: Only by seeking challenges can we hope to find the best in ourselves.That challenge will always be what we see as an undesired status quo in our organisations and society as well as our own character.

Author : Dr Gerhard van Rensburg