First Things First

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I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.
John Adams

I have seen managers and leaders in companies grow frustrated and even desperate at the lack of cooperation they got from the people who worked for them. I came to realise two things:

  1. The managers and leaders often had lofty needs, to do with legacies, creating centres of excellence, gaining the respect of their peers, etc.
  2. That the people working for such managers and leaders often had much more basic needs, to do with safety, systems that worked properly and continued employment. 

It is hard, if not impossible, for the leader to get their people to follow them on a mission into higher-order needs if the lower-order needs are not yet met. MacGregor Burns pointed this out, saying that ‘economic want and social disarray are stultifying, causing peoples aspirations to turn downward and inward; only after physical survival and economic security are assured do people turn to higher needs and hopes’.

Data: A Basic Need In Finance
In society, we think of food, shelter and warmth as our basic needs. In finance, however, data should be added to the list. Last week I read a paper, by Peter Cheese, ‘What’s So Hard About Managing Change and Becoming More Agile?’. In it, Cheese quoted a study that said, after management commitment, the single biggest blocker to change was dysfunctional systems and processes.

This is important for two reasons:

  1. Change is slowed down or utterly retarded not by passive aggressive employees, but rather because these same employees spend all their time working around dysfunctional processes and systems.
  2. Working systems should be one of, if not the greatest, concern of all managers. 

There are many basic needs within the finance industry, one of them is the need to do our jobs correctly. This is nearly always dependent on access to correct and timely data. If the data isn’t correct or timely, mountains of energy are diverted from achieving higher-order needs into finding, or making up for, the lost or bad data.

The lesson seems quite simple. The leader of change must help their teams and colleagues meet their basic needs before, together, they can all try to meet their higher-order needs. There seems to be no point trying to do things in the wrong order. Or, as Brecht said, Erst kommt das Fressen, dann Kommt die Moral – first comes the belly, then morality. We could paraphrase this for the finance industry – first comes the data, then comes the centres of excellence.

Why the Buddha Stayed
In Maslow on Management, Maslow says that Buddha:

came to the gates of Nirvana and was so unselfish that he couldn’t possibly go in so long as other people were not in, and turned back from Nirvana to go teach and help other people, with the implication that nobody can ever reach full self-realization unless everybody in the world simultaneously does too.

This is key to understanding the relationship between higher- and lower-order needs. An organisation cannot attain excellence unless everyone and everything in it attains excellence.

The leader, then, as opposed to the power-wielder, has to understand everyone’s needs before going ahead and trying to satisfy all of them.

Further Reading
I got the Brecht and Adams quotes from Leadership by MacGregor Burns.

'What’s So Hard About Managing Change and Becoming More Agile?', Cheese. Available from: http://www.mixhackathon.org/hackathon/contribution/what%E2%80%99s-so-hard-about-managing-change. Accessed: 23/06/2013.