Power and Responsibility – Two Sides of the Same Coin


There is a popular quote in the Spiderman story, where Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

A common understanding of this quote is that power is in our hands must be used responsibly. This is huge in an age where so much power (economic, military, social, or otherwise) lies in the hands of so few. Much can be said about this, but I want to focus on other aspects of the power-responsibility relationship.

Recently, I had a chat with a friend about delegation. We all know that leaders cannot (and should not) do everything on their own. They need to learn to develop others within the organization and delegate duties appropriately. My friend asked whether it would be any different for regimental systems such as the military. (How) should a leader step in when he feels that things are not going the way he thinks it should?

One way to look at such issues is to see power and responsibility as two sides of the same coin – we cannot have one have one without the other. As much as it is dangerous to give people power without responsibility (i.e. the Spiderman logic), it is arguably just as bad to give people responsibility without the corresponding power. One, this sets people up for failure. Two, when we give others responsibility without the power, we end up holding that power ourselves but without the responsibility (i.e. the same Spiderman logic)!

Think about a situation where the boss puts you in charge of a project. He tells you the project is important and puts the responsibility on you to deliver it. But along the way he micro-manages and gives you instructions all the time. When the project fails, the boss tells you that you have failed in your responsibility.

What has happened? If power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, we can look at where the two separated. First, it is useful to note that leaders make decisions all the time on how to distribute power and responsibility. For example, a leader can choose to do the work himself, or he can delegate it. He can decide how and who to delegate it to. This is a prerogative and power of leadership, and it also comes with the responsibility to make the right choices. Often, when certain appointments fail we like to look at the people in those jobs. For me, I like to also ask who had put those people in those jobs in the first place.

Next, when a leader puts responsibility on his staff, does he give them the right power to do the job well? If he does not, e.g. the leader still wants to make the day-to-day decisions, then the responsibility has not left the leader. Likewise, if he meddles or micro-manages, he effectively takes power away from the staff, and so, the responsibility reverts to the leader.

Once we see how power and responsibility are kept together, or kept apart, we can make sense of many dysfunctions in organizations. If we are serious in wanting people to take on more responsibilities, we must be prepared to give them the corresponding powers to do so. So, whether a system is regimental or not, is not the main issue. The main issue is whether power and responsibility go hand-in-hand. In a system where the powers must remain centralized, the responsibility is also centralized, and the leaders should have no illusions about it. We cannot have it both ways e.g. centralized power but diffused responsibility.

A similar logic applies to societies. Today, more Governments are realizing that they alone cannot solve the problems of society; they must involve the people. And so, there are more calls for people to step up to take on more responsibilities. This invites the question, what power will the Government give to the people? In societies, power can come in various forms, e.g. formal authority, process power, financial power, information power, influence power etc. This is where it may get awkward and uneasy. If power is “the ability or right to control people or things” (source: Merriam-Webster), then sharing power or giving it up may make people (incl. Governments) feel vulnerable. For many societies, this is the real deal, the elephant in the room. It is difficult to talk about active citizenry without a corresponding talk about power.

Spiderman popularized our thinking about power and relationship in one way. I think it is important to also look at the relationship in the other direction, that is, “with great responsibility must come great power”.


Photo credit

Marvel comics


Bright Spots, Dark Clouds

British Football Transfers

This past weekend saw the close of the summer transfer window for the English Premier League (football/soccer). Premier League clubs spent a total of £835M, exceeding the previous record of £630M last year. (The spending of the other leagues: Spanish La Liga (£425M), Italian Serie A (£260M), German Bundesliga (£250M), French Ligue 1 (£100M)).

That the English Premier League is awash with money is clear, thanks in part to rising broadcast revenue and sponsorship deals. In a league that can only have one winner, there is certainly a lot of inflation going on!

An interesting question is, what do all these inflation and spending do for English football?

At the club level, English football hasn’t fared too poorly. In the 2013-2014 Champions League, a competition of the top European teams, English clubs made up 25% of the field from the round-of-16 onwards through to the semifinals, although the final was an all-Spanish affair.

At the country level though, it’s not a rosy picture. In the recent 2014 World Cup, England finished last in their group. The next highest spending countries – Spain and Italy – also failed to make it past the group stages. The best that England has fared in recent World Cups was back in 1990 when it reached the semifinals (and lost).

Why is English football under-performing at the national level even though it is one of the richest football nations? There are many possible reasons, and I’m not going into the technical (i.e. sports) analysis. Instead, I wish to look at it from an OD (organizational development) lens.


In many ways, the huge spending we see is the visible surface of certain underlying dynamics – the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The availability of big money and economics are certainly major factors, but I will focus on attitudes and belief systems. I would like to highlight three in particular:

  1. There is a belief that money solves everything. When a team under-performs, the solution is to buy better players. If a club is not doing well, bring in (i.e. buy) a better manager. TV shows and websites are full of “expert commentators” (and “expert fans”) who discuss what teams should buy which players. It gets a bit ironical, because one team’s purchase is another team’s sale; one team’s solution turns into another team’s problem. And the merry-go-round continues.

To buy, you must also sell. Sometimes, the word used is “offload” (and it sounds offensive). In fact, this year’s offload may be the star buy last year. Take Shinji Kagawa for example. Manchester United acquired him two years ago, only to under-utilize him and sale him back to his former club for half the price.

Increasingly, teams seem to do better at buying players than getting the best out of them. Which may not be surprising: when a team spends that much money on a player, the onus to perform shifts from the team to the player; if not, he can always be replaced with a better one.

This reminds me of a computer game called Championship Manager, which I played many years ago. You assume the role of the manager – you buy and sell players, and assemble a team to play matches. Championship Manager mimics many things in real life, except you don’t actually interact with any real players, or train or motivate them. You spot who the good players are, buy/sell them, and deploy them.

Somehow, the real football world is looking (and behaving) more and more like the virtual Championship Manager.

Championship Manager

  1. The constant link between price and value creates a mindset of quick fixes and plug-and-play solutions. This may be yet another legacy of Championship Manager – the myth that a player’s quality and role in a team can be boiled down to a set of attributes. If a team is weak in attack, you can plug that gap by buying a player with high attributes in scoring, and he will win the game (and championship) for you.

David Beckham

Such a mechanistic approach overlooks the organic nature of people and teams. The game of football is not simply a function of attributes and skills (although they are very important), but a far more complex interplay involving multiple relationships between players, and with the coach. Someone who can score well, must also depend on someone who can read him well to feed him a good pass. (It also depends on the competition, which is a whole new dimension of complexity.)

A new player that joins an existing team literally creates a new team, which needs time to get used to one another and to settle down. All of this is dynamic, and in many ways, this is the real deal about sports coaching and management. Recognizing and accepting that football is organic, and not mechanistic, does not make the game easier, but it is far more realistic. And we do not end up expecting coaches to weave magic and deliver instant results with new signings.

  1. There is something unsettling about the attitude of always looking for solutions externally rather than internally. Many top teams are packed with more and more superstars purchased from the market – in fact, some of them do not even make it to the substitute’s bench! When teams hold such attitudes, why would they bother about developing talent from within? Why would the young blood and youth academy hold out hope to break into the senior ranks if the boss’ attention is always outward facing? Perhaps not surprisingly, among the world’s top 20 record transfers (34 players in fact, as some positions have more than one name), with the price arguably reflecting their price, none of them originated from the youth squads of the top English teams. (The top British transfers, Gareth Bale, Andy Carroll and Luke Shaw, emerged from the youth squads of 2nd or 3rd tier teams such as Newcastle and Southampton.)

The heady news and record spending in British football may offer the impression of a rise in British football. Yet, they may mask an inconvenient truth – that constant fixation with money and spending may mold unhealthy attitudes and belief systems that may weaken the core of British football for years to come.


Photo Credits:

The Independent (UK)

Andrew via photopin cc


Signs that say a lot about their organizations

Values are a huge thing for many of us. In an organization, consciously or not we are always comparing the values of the organization (and others in it) to our own values. If the values match, we feel that we belong. If they don’t match, we may feel out of place or out of sorts.

When the values don’t match, a few things that can happen. We may alter our values to suit those of the organization, or we may influence the organization’s values to mirror our own. If neither works, we may leave the organization, or we stay on but act indifferently.

This is a huge thing, yet many organizations don’t pay much attention to it. Interestingly, these may be the same organizations that try very hard to create a positive external image. They pay huge sums of money to branding professionals to “design” their organizational image, and buy expensive ad spaces or air time to market themselves.

Some of these marketing efforts do work. Maybe that’s why companies continue to allocate huge budgets for marketing.

For others though, they portray their values in a different and (less costly) way.

They live those values.

As an organizational development person, it strikes me how powerful it can be when organizations live their values i.e. when their internal and external values are consistent. For example, if employees live the organization’s values day-in and day-out, customers will experience those values through regular interactions. These things speak louder than any marketing campaign.

Here are two signs I saw recently:


This sign appears in every Pret A Manger store and speaks volumes about Pret’s identity:

  • Pret is committed fresh food.
  • Pret uses its unique identity and assets (i.e. fresh food) to meet the community’s need as a responsible corporate citizen.
  • Pret even manages to take a dig at competitors who sell old bread!
  • Finally, and I think this is the powerful part, Pret emphasizes that this is the right thing to do. It is a statement of Pret’s values that speaks to both external (i.e. customers) and internal (i.e. staff) stakeholders. Pret employees also better understand why they have to report for work so early every day – to bake new bread and prepare fresh food on site.



This sign appears in all Starbucks stores and it speaks volumes about their commitment to employees. Many organizations also invest in staff development, but Starbucks takes it further by communicating it openly and linking it to their value promise to customers. Effectively, Starbucks makes a few statements with this message:

  • Starbucks cares about their customers.
  • Starbucks cares about their staff. And this makes the statement above even more compelling.
  • Starbucks models the same set of values to its employees, as it expects them to model those values to the customers.

The beauty of this is that Starbucks is acting consistent both internally and externally.

We may think that what Pret and Starbucks have done is a clever trick that many others can adopt too. However, I would advise organizations to think it through carefully before they jump at it. Public commitments like Pret’s and Starbucks’ can be powerful, but they also work both ways. If Pret publicly says that these are the right things to do, but it does not honor them internally, you can bet their employees will be one huge cynical lot. (And you the customer will sense that). Likewise, if Starbucks does not really take care of their baristas, their baristas will take cue from that to determine how to treat customers.

Many organizations fret a lot over their branding and image. In my view, it need not be complicated – simply live up to the same values internally as they would presented them externally. Having said that, just because it need not be complicated doesn’t mean that it will be easy to achieve ;)

Why are transitions always so messy?

A friend of mine is being transferred to another organization. Such changes are not uncommon; in fact in this day and age they seem to be taking place more frequently.

Many of us would also be familiar with the mess that happens when people move. Although my friend is pretty a hardworking and detailed person, the transition still felt chaotic. She felt bad leaving a mess behind, and more so, she felt guilty that she was “abandoning” her team.

Why are transitions so messy, and must they always be so? Why can’t the transition be orderly?

I am not an expert, but I suspect the notion of an orderly transition is an idealistic myth of a highly systemized world. It is a world that believes that systems are the be-all and end-all of organizations. It is a highly rational world that believes that with the right knowledge management systems, procedures and protocols, and detailed handing-taking over task lists, any transition can be managed. It may also add, “no one is indispensable”.

In the real world, things are not so idealized or simple. William Bridges, a famous change consultant, popularized the idea that transitions involve emotional and psychological processes. Particularly when someone is a key member of a team or a respected leader, the loss can be deep and letting go can be hard. People may go through a range of emotions, such as denial (“It can’t be happening!”), anger (“How can you do this?”), depression (“We have been abandoned…”). Eventually, most people come to terms with the change (“Life has to go on. We will get by.). These are similar to the range of emotions when one grieves the death of a loved one (although the severity may be different).

sad dog

During a transition, emphasis is often placed on the transfer of knowledge and duties. This is well intentioned, since organizations must continue to function. At the same time, as much as we try to transfer the knowledge, often not a lot goes through! A grieving heart is not good at registering logic. When there too many things weighing on one’s mind, one does not pay attention to all the logical details. And so, no matter how much and how well we brief others, little goes through and often things still get messy and chaotic.

Does this mean that planning and preparing are not useful? Not true either. Planning and preparing can be helpful before a loss hits (e.g. if a succession is planned and made known well ahead of time), or after people have overcome their emotions and accepted the loss. But not when they are still struggling with the loss.

When the heart grieves, the mind closes. In my view, the best transition is to support people emotionally. In fact, I would suggest placing more emphasis on the heart than the mind. It may be painful, it may be drawn out, but it is important. People need to grieve, seek support in one another, and find closure. The sooner they are helped to get over the loss, the better frame of mind they will be in to direct their energies to the tasks at hand.

And so, I believe that transitions should always be managed carefully, and organizations should not be cavalier about them.

Quick comment on “dispensability”: I agree that no one is indispensable, however I would argue that there are always better, and also worse, ways to manage a transition. For example, planning to have multiple major transitions going on at the same time simply makes things a lot more unpredictable and potentially chaotic. So yes, no one is indispensable, but how you manage the change matters a great deal too. A successful transition is as much the responsibility of the people who hand over and take over, as it is the responsibility of the leadership that lets that happen. Leaders that happily believe that structures and systems alone will ensure smooth transition, or who believe that they can order any change since “no one is indispensable”, may be playing around with their fortunes of their organizations and the well being of their people.

Photo Credits:

Rich Renomeron via photopin cc

Looking for Spring

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 6.14.45 PM

As Winter turned to Spring, I took many pictures of Spring, but haven’t had the time to write.

With Winter, I loved its peace and tranquility. I enjoyed my snow walks (and runs) with Rusty :)

With Spring, it’s a different experience. Spring fascinates me with its limitless potential for life. Almost overnight, lifeless looking trees burst into full bloom and greenery. The photos below were taken a few weeks apart – it was not long ago that shoots were just beginning to peek from the ground and in a hurry they have become so luxuriant it feels as if Winter was never here!

Spring - Comparison

As I look at these transformations, I can’t help but wonder: What gives life?

Some would say, it’s the warmer temperature and sunshine. We didn’t have much of these in Winter. Some might add that all these result from the tilt of the earth, which affects how much sunshine we get.

Also true, but perhaps less obvious, is that the potential for life comes not only from the sun but also from the roots and seeds that lie dormant through the Winter waiting for Spring to come. After all, if the roots and seeds contained no life, nothing would grow.

There are some similarities to teams and organizations. Most of us can tell a lethargic team or organization when we see one. Likewise, if a team wes full of energy or bursting with life we will know it right away.

When an organization is sluggish, a common complaint is that people are not motivated. A common suggestion is that people need to be more motivated. I often find that strange – it’s like telling a dead seed to be more alive, or ordering trees to flower in Winter!

I don’t think this is the right way to look at things. What if instead, we choose to believe that just like seeds people have an inborn and limitless potential for life? The issue then is not that people should be more motivated, but what we need to provide to unleash their dormant energy.

Some organizations try to create the “right” conditions. If plants need warmth and light, we can build a greenhouse to get them to grow. The equivalent in organizations is to introduce systems and incentives (sometimes, penalties). While this may work for a while, unless the change is organic it may not be sustainable. A greenhouse may help plants to grow in Winter, but when it is removed the plants won’t survive long. Furthermore, can we build enough greenhouses to recreate Spring in Winter?

Perhaps what we need instead is a natural climatic system that only Spring can bring. I think the equivalent in organizations is values and culture. Just like the tilt of the earth, values and culture may be subtle but they can have far reaching effects. When the values and culture are set right, demotivated people bloom into life, they instinctively know what to do, they require less supervision. A thousand flowers can bloom without having to build, or tinker with, a thousand greenhouses.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 6.16.09 PM

What gives life in an organization is not the schemes and incentives (though they may help), but values and culture. Organizations that go for the former set rather than the latter one, may find themselves running against a slope all the time, much similar to how we might feel if we tried to artificially “create” Spring in Winter?

Looking for the right soldiers


Actual story this past week.

A manager was reviewing some interns’ resumes. One of them caught his eye. The intern had included among his highlights, achievement of commendable operational readiness (2A) in his army battalion’s proficiency test.

As a background, all young men in Singapore are conscripted at 18 years of age. Many are posted to an army battalion where they go through 2 years of training. This includes a proficiency test that the battalion goes through as an evaluation of its operational readiness.

The manager found it funny how the intern thought it was worth including the achievement. It’s not that the score of 2A was a bad one – 2A is a pretty good score. It’s that the intern wasn’t in any senior position like the operations head, or an officer. He was not even a sergeant. He was just a rank-and-file rifleman.

When I first heard the story, something felt odd, although I couldn’t put my finger on it. Was it the way in which the manager had laughed off the intern’s perceived embellishment or doubted the intern’s motives? I couldn’t quite tell. Maybe the manager didn’t even mean it.

And then it struck me: What if this is a ‘bricklayer’ who sees the bigger mission?

For those who are not familiar with the bricklayer story, this is how it goes:

“A man came across four bricklayers busy at work.

He asked the first bricklayer, “What are you doing?”

The bricklayer said, “I am laying bricks.”

The man asked the 2nd bricklayer the same question.

The second bricklayer said, “I am making a wall”.

The man went over to the 3rd bricklayer and asked the same question. 

The third bricklayer said, “I am building a great cathedral.””


The bricklayer story is quite well known. In organizations, we tell it to inspire and challenge people to look beyond their routine or mundane work, to see themselves as part of a larger effort, and the mission.

We believe in it, and we tell the story time and again.

Yet, when such a bricklayer comes along, we fail to spot him!

How often do our mental models about people and the world influence the way we see things? We believe and say one thing, yet subconsciously we may send conflicting messages or signals.

Sometimes, we try so hard looking for something, yet we may not recognize it when it is right in front of us!

Photo Credits:

Andrew Becraft via photopin cc

What does a 9 out of 10 mean?

Last week, wife and I visited a store in downtown Evanston. Usually, we are served by the store manager or one of the assistants, but that day we were served by both of them.

As always, the service was great. As we were leaving, the assistant told us we might receive a survey from the HQ about the experience and added, “Just to share, it’s based on a 10-point scale and for our HQ anything less than 9 out of 10 would be considered a fail.”

Wife and I found the encounter interesting. Perhaps there’s something about the rating systems in the US we’re are not familiar with, but for a 10-point scale we would consider an 8 or 9 as a great score. Apparently the HQ doesn’t think so, and there appears to be some inflation going on so that the passing mark is 9. As a result of this, its stores nationwide are likely feeling the heat and telling their customers about it. So now if customers felt that the service was reasonably good we have only two options in a 10-point scale to express it – a 9 or 10.

Some of you may wonder, maybe there’s no such HQ rule at all? What if it was just the store’s strategy to garner high scores? This is possible, but we think it is unlikely because we know the people at the store and we don’t think they would do this. But even if it were true, it is likely that enough importance is placed on the rating scale for stores to want to influence it.

Either way, the scores the HQ receives will likely be skewed. The HQ will likely receive a ton of 9’s and 10’s, but what would that mean?

nines tens

Performance measurement is always tricky. There is a popular saying “what gets measured gets done”. The problem with this is that if we put too little emphasis on it people may not care much about it; yet if we place too much emphasis on it people may find creative ways to go around it. Sometimes, the act of measuring something changes it altogether!

How then can the HQ keep track of how its stores are doing? In the past, when businesses were much smaller and localized, it wasn’t that difficult for bosses to know how things were going. They just walked around to find out. However, as organizations exploded in size and expanded across geographies, the sheer scale made monitoring difficult.

Over time, the idea of the management dashboard became attractive. This is similar a car dashboard. According to Wikipedia, it is “an easy to read, often single page, real-time user interface, showing a graphical presentation of the current status (snapshot) and historical trends of an organization’s key performance indicators to enable instantaneous and informed decisions to be made at a glance.” From my observation, it is a pretty widespread management tool, because of the attractive idea that sitting in a board room you can see the key things about an organization at one glance, and use that to manage the organization.

So if managements are running their organizations through such dashboards, what do strings of 9’s and 10’s mean? Maybe a lot, but maybe not much too.

You can probably guess I’m not a big fan of management dashboards. To be fair, I think they have their use and I have used them. I just don’t think they tell us a lot about an organization. What’s the alternative then? Honestly, I don’t have very good answers. I was fortunate that the outfits I used to run were relatively small ones, so I could spend time moving around, observing and talking to people. And even when we worked with multiple partners in a much larger community, we could spend time moving around, observing and talking to stakeholders.

Is there an equivalent for massive organizations with stores or units spread across the country (or globe)? I think so, but I’m not sure. What I believe is that it is unlikely that the things we need to know to run such organizations can be handed to us on a plate. And we should not assume that we can do so.