Bob Fishman is the founder and former CEO of RHD, Resources for Human Development, a 4,000-strong nonprofit based across 14 states in the US. It serves people in need through homing, shelters, mental health and addiction recovery and, under Bob’s guidance, has managed close to $2 billion in revenue since its inception in 1970. From the start, Fishman set out to grow a different kind of organisation based on a living its values, and a decentralised structure that encourages its employees to be more responsive to the people they serve and to each other. Bob says: “The mission is really to prove that RHD is the result you get when you start to trust people and decentralise decision-making. When we’re working at our best, it generates human energy, and human energy is about contributing to the common good.”1
Bob Fishman continues to bring his sage-like wisdom and ironic humour to what it means to be a conscious leader. I asked him about how he sees the world and what makes him tick. We spoke about how leaders are no more able to predict the future than anyone else, how being a leader gives a mixed message about being the most valuable person in the organisation, how ideas about what to do next can come from anywhere in your organisation, and taking the absolute relative view.
I have an abiding interest in leadership and what makes leadership a conscious effort. There are a few basic things that, as leaders, we need to be conscious of. One is, do you really think that you, as a leader, can predict the future? We have the perception that we know where we’re going, but as leaders, if we think we can predict the future better than other people can, then that leads to us thinking we don’t have to involve anyone else in any discussions. That belief becomes more dangerous when you’re trying to relate to a group of 20, 30, 60 people, a hundred, a thousand, thousands. If you think you can predict the future for products, for development, for implementation of creative ideas, then all you need to do is give absolute answers to questions that are asked of you about the future, like where should we invest our money or which product should we try to develop before others?
If your answer instead is, I’m the leader but I can’t predict the future any better than many other people, or a group of people, then we get into the discussion about which group of people you should you put into play first. So the first thing I would focus on as a conscious leader is being aware of the difference between that gut feeling of ‘I know the future’ and recognising that that feeling is false. This leads to engaging many different people in coming to a decision about what we should try, and discussing alternatives and consulting them when problems occur.
Leaders are routinely expected to have answers to very complex future questions that are constantly asked of them and they have to sign off on strategic plans.
All this future planning implies that there is a future that somebody knows.
People will turn to leaders, almost like religious figures, and ask them “what shall we do?” And the danger for the leader is either to think that people know something about them that they don’t even know about themselves or, worse yet, they start to really believe that they have these qualities.
The myth that leaders are God-like and can predict the future needs to be dealt with by every individual that is asked complex questions that they know they don’t have the answers to, but act as though they do.
I’m laughing because you have that Yoda-like quality of pointing out the obviousness of life that makes us realise quite how ludicrous we are for taking ourselves so seriously.
Yes, and that is very basic to good leadership in my judgement of it. The other thing to consider is, as a leader are you the most valuable person in your organisation? I know you can be the most powerful, you can demand the most money, but are you the most valuable? Because every time you exercise that power or people realise how much you’re getting and how little they’re getting, you are dealing with a mixed message, which is “I think all of you are valuable but I’m the most valuable.” And being ‘valuable’ as a human being is back to the issue of: are you a leader because you know the future? If we give the message to people around us, in where we sit, in how we behave, in whether they can offer dissenting points of view, that we don’t need anyone else’s point of view, it’s because we think we know the future and we’re the most valuable.
As a leader, are you the most valuable person in your organisation?
I was curious about what enables a leader, then, to let go of control or fear, and to focus instead on mutual value and equality. How do you see it?
Let’s make a distinction. If you’re aware that ideas regarding what we could do next could come from anywhere in your organisation, then the process of getting people to feel safe enough to contribute their ideas is important. It still leaves the leader having to face difficult choices, not because they know the future, but because it’s their role to make the decisions about which direction to go in. So the leader’s role can be to pull together diverse ideas and explain, from what we have as resources and from what I’m hearing from these different groups, that this is where I think we should put our effort or this is where I think, in my best judgement, we should be heading to. Not because I know the future, but because I’ve listened to all views and this is where I believe we should go. That is a humbler leadership than one that acts as though the leader has listened, but yet he knows the right answer. Those are two very different things.
Leaders need to repeatedly point out that they are seeking alternative answers because there is no one right answer.
They’re setting up the best thinking in their organisations and they have the tough role of deciding whether they want the thinking of the group to continue or whether they want to add other kinds of input, but not that they know the answer.
What does a leader need to let go of in himself or herself in order to step into this space?
Leaders needs to step back from their preferences and their perceptions enough to encourage and respect the needs and perceptions of others.
They need to be self-aware that they have different perceptions to others, different views of what needs to be done next. Leadership is an emotionally relative space, an interpersonal space, and interpersonal judgements do not have absolute answers.
So you see us as naturally having to get more fluid boundaries, is that right?
Correct, we’re looking for a fluidity until somebody says we have to take the decision now. The leader might say, “OK, there’s a time factor or a decision point, I’ve heard your views and this is my best judgement and unless you stop me, we’re going in this direction.”
How do you engage people?
I’ve always walked into rooms and never wanted to sit at the head of the table and I’ve told people why. I started to have meetings with all levels within the corporation that I called a ‘fourth dimension space’ meeting, that was facilitated by a non-member of the group. It involved an agreement that no idea during that time is it be put down, no topic is not discussed. It’s an attempt to create a space that doesn’t have a right/wrong reaction and in that space, after a little while, people who usually don’t talk or contribute feel a bit safer to contribute to whatever the topic is. There’s tremendous fear in most organisations, small or large, that people will say the wrong thing because there’s an assumption there’s a right thing to say and usually the answer to that starts with ‘Well, the right thing is to say what the leader wants you to say.’
How can businesses become more conscious?
For the future of corporations, when they grow and there are multiple people and subgroups and multiple offices and international offices, the money is different. What we’re really doing is reacting to the false belief that because we made money, we know the answers. There’s confusion between financial success and knowing the future, particularly for the people who are now handling immense amounts of that money.
They are fooled into believing that knowledge of the future increases when you are managing more money.
And the two are not related. You are managing more money because some people before you were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
But in terms of a consciousness that we could aim for, there are many paths to success. There isn’t one right path, one right answer. If the world is infinitely varied, then corporation futures are unknowable, until we have tested them and found them successful.
And that goes for the future. We can only make the best guess as to where we should go. We really don’t know what is around the bend. If, as leaders, we can instead say, “let’s tentatively take this road, but get constant feedback about the conditions we’re travelling in,” then we need a lot of people giving us feedback about how this is working out or not. Usually, large corporations head off in directions because a group of strategic leaders say “this is what we must do.” And it doesn’t matter what the reality is that people start to experience, the disenfranchised workers start to go down roads they’ve repeatedly been told to go down even though they know this is wrong, and eventually, they say ‘to hell with this’ and they destroy their corporation. They see the failings that are starting to happen and the rejection they are starting to experience, but if they are in autocratic organisations, they know if they want their job, they have to continue to go down that road, and that is extremely destructive.
My wife and I also have a practice in marriage and family counselling and I see many similarities between dysfunctional emotional relationships and corporate life when there is the authority over others and rigidity of roles. There are ways to develop psychosis in a child, and we follow these in organisations. If you look at one way to destroy a young person’s sense of themselves, continue to tell them that virtually everything they’re doing is stupid and wrong and that you’re the one providing them with shelter and food. If you do that to a child, you help move him or her towards severe emotional disturbance. But that is what’s done in autocratic organisations all the time.
Those parallels are something. And that’s where all the poor engagement scores from Gallup come in.
That’s correct. Many leaders who are in place are unfortunately saying that they enjoy the relative space, but their behaviour is absolutist. Because they come from absolutist backgrounds and, when left to their own devices and fears, they look for absolute answers. That is a very common tendency for human beings.
Organisationally speaking, success is produced by chance, choosing the right group that works together and that produces a marketable product. But when you’re successful – successful meaning you’ve made currency – you measure success by a certain measurement of money. Well, if you’re counting money, that’s fine, you can monetize it. But if you monetize the reasons for making money, you’re off into the confusing the physical tool called money with the emotional relationship with others, which is the means to make the money. And that’s where the breakdowns start.
People think that the way to run a corporation is only to look at how people can direct us to making more and more money, while all of these other factors, including severe disturbance of our environment, continue. And we say, “Hey, we’re doing something wrong!” And we’re told, “No, no, no, we’re making more money. It’s okay, don’t worry.”
If this was an individual that we were dealing with, it would be like they were hitting their head against a wall until they were bleeding and causing brain damage. We’d say this person needs protecting from themselves. But corporations are doing this with human beings repeatedly and with the environment. And we’re saying, that’s just what business calls for.
What do you say to the idea that ‘the organisation can only be as conscious as its leader’?
I just recently left my corporation (RHD). This was because of a coup: one of the people wanted her daughter to become the next executive. I was very successful at empowering people, but also in having a corporation that brought in $32 million a year into the centre. Effectively, that corporation is an interesting experiment because, with the changes, it has gone through another year and as I watch it, it has effectively become much more of what I am in disagreement with and always have been. And the corporation is starting to level off, it hasn’t gone into absolute decline, but it is levelling off. A lot of creative people are just leaving.
Turning personally for a minute, how did you get to develop your views in this way?
I think the basic thing that I started to see, in a metaphorical way, is that the emperor did not have any clothes on. In a sense, all of the rules I was taught as a child stopped making sense to me whenever I questioned them. I started to realise that I needed to behave in a particular way because it was expected of me, but I didn’t accept the idea that this was the right way or only way to behave. So as a child, I started to speak at least in two realities, the one that was expected of me, and then I was always interested in recognising that questions could be answered in various ways. And I started to question the authorities, but internally, because externally I wanted to do well in school. I repeatedly noticed, for some reason of awareness, that very often the authorities wanted to tell me what I should say or believe and they didn’t want to hear another idea. I found myself doing very poorly on multiple choice tests because I didn’t want to give just one answer! Sometimes there were a couple of answers that looked like they could work. And I was interested in the other answers, there are many paths, again. Now I did well enough at school, and I have a sweet personality, I didn’t do it angrily, but that kind of questioning was there. I’m more impatient now as an adult, I must admit.
So something got me to enjoy, and I must put it that way, the recognition that while I function within a social structure, for example, I’ll dress a certain way if I’m going to meet certain people, I recognise that that is playing a game.
My biggest upset is with absolutism about anything. Not that we cannot say “let’s follow this rule now.” Then I can do it, but I know that that is within a group agreement. As a way of summing it up, I’ve often said that I’ve grown to realise I’m absolute relativist!
I’ve often said that I’ve grown to realise I’m an absolute relativist!
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