Leadership Through the Clouds

Companies need both Clocker and Cloud leaders, often operating at different organizational levels.

Have you seen studies from Harvard University that prove a teacher's expectations of students consistently predicts their performance? Think highly of a group of people, and you act and communicate in ways that help raise their performance; conversely, if you believe they're slow, you'll work in a different way, settling for much lower levels of response, no matter how potentially capable the "slow" group might in reality be. In other words, what you think you'll see is what you wind up getting.

The same is true for leaders. What they expect to get affects their planning and actions -- and then others' performance throughout the organization. To apply this, examine the work of renowned science philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who wrote that people tend to see the workings of the world as akin either to a clock or to a cloud.

"Clockers" expect everything to mechanically fit and work together in logical, simple, neat, stable, and linear relationship sequences; if there's any discrepancy from smooth ordering, they look to "fix" or remove the problem. Stephen Munatones, an aquatic expert, compared "Clockers" to those who swim in an indoor pool, where there are highly controlled variables (distance, water and air temperature, measured lanes, chemical composition, etc.).

"Clouders," on the other hand, embrace Quantum theory, seeing the world as continually changing and reforming, often with an indefinite structure. Munatones wrote that "Clouders" were like athletes who swam in the open ocean, with variable and changing currents, shifting and uncontrollable weather, teeming with all manner of sea life.

Popper contended that the physical world is much more like a cloud than a clock. So how does this apply to leadership?

"Clock" leaders want everything to be predictable, often spending significant sums on studies (e.g., culture, morale) whose results may be obsolete by the time these are summarized and reported. They expect everyone to follow rules. So, when safety policies and procedures are ignored, Clockers' default response is to write even more policies. Or to punish the perpetrator as the one who gummed up the gears.

Case in point, we've worked with several companies to help break cycles of injury repetition. You know, individuals who seem to have more than their "share" of accidents and claims. Because we see organizations as Clouds (different ground rules and subcultures in graveyard from day shifts, much less between geographically dispersed sites), we identify the contributing factors that aided or enabled injury repetition, both with workers and in the company's systems. Yet, in too many cases, Clocker leaders see "frequent fliers" (as one Fortune 100 firm labels repeaters) as broken, to be fixed, assuming the rest of their organizational system is just fine and has no effect on these "broken parts." Again, their default responses are to either fix or punish, either through counseling or forms of discipline. And those who have forced these "repairs" have had results that were universally disappointing, sometimes even backfiring into increased employee anger, grievances, non-reporting, or disengagement -- with the same level or even a rise in repetition.

Clocker leaders default to assuming incidents are "caused" by one event (i.e., a maintenance worker slipped because there was spillage on the ground). Automatic response is to either assess blame or then, after Fishbone analysis, target one solution/fix/repair -- in this case, beefing up housekeeping activities. (My Cloud questions for a wet slip are: "How many times has this worker previously crossed surfaces with spillage and not slipped?", "Why now?", "What's different about today's situation or the worker?", and more.)

Cloud leaders, on the other hand, understand there are numerous interactive factors that underlie everything from safety culture to morale, involvement, creativity, service, safety performance. And that attempting to target any one factor as the "cause" of a problem leads only to ignoring potentially critical contributors.

They think of "directing" and "redirecting" efforts and people, rather than "forcing" or "fixing" them. They realize that reshaping a cloud requires air pressure from many sides. So Cloud leaders, for example, don't only try to change culture by intervening top-down, nor do they solely target grassroots efforts. Instead, they simultaneously work top-down, bottom-up, and from the middle (managers and supervisors) with specific approaches designed to reposition the entire company cloud.

Which Leadership Style is Better?
Sir Karl Popper illustrated that because Clocker scientists oversimplify reality, they are limited to generating partially applicable solutions at best, and that Cloud scientists are more likely to develop responses that accommodate multifactorial and changing realities. This may apply to those whose role is to generate new ideas. But in companies, the advantage line between Cloud and Clocker leaders is a bit more, well, cloudy.

Yes, Cloud leaders generate visionary ideas and tend more to see upcoming trends and the big picture. But taken to an extreme, such managers wind up having their heads in the clouds, often out of touch with daily routines, sometimes seeing far ahead but stumbling over small obstacles in their path. Clocker leaders are also needed: They get things done and are able to maintain momentum when things are going well. Companies need both of these leadership styles, often operating at different organizational levels. My colleague Craig Lewis wisely suggests that Cloud leaders need Clocker lieutenants, while Clocker leaders need Cloud lieutenants. (Perhaps an ideal might be Clocker/Cloud co-leaders in planning and select projects.)

You can best lead through cloudy times by befriending ongoing change, becoming comfortable with the discomfort of ambiguity, and applying judgment based on weighing unique circumstances, rather than rigidly applying some rules that may not fit.

Aim for the clouds to maximize your leadership and organizational strength -- and keep your clocks running smoothly.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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