Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Matrix Leaders Can Learn from Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

The success of his nighttime ride almost 240 years ago is a testament to effective matrix leadership skills–and a lesson for today’s leaders.

Guest post by Signe Spencer, Hay Group

A few months ago, I would never have considered Paul Revere a useful example of a matrix leader. I always thought of him as the prototypical lone hero, galloping through the night shouting “the British are coming,” more or less at random, to rouse the countryside.

But then I read Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer’s excellent account of the people and events leading to the start of the American revolution. It turns out Paul Revere wasn’t working alone, and didn’t shout randomly as he rode.

In fact, almost nothing about his ride that night was random. Revere had spent decades laying the foundation for his overnight success. And his story has important lessons for anyone concerned about effective matrix leadership.

A colonial matrix?

When we think of early patriots today, we remember a few outsized historical figures like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and the Sons of Liberty. But the reality was far more complex. 

The Sons of Liberty was just one of seven important Boston patriot groups involving hundreds of influential citizens. Each was loosely organized around its own focus and goals, with few connections and little or no formal communication between them.

In the same way, every town had its own militia, created for its protection and commanded by its leading citizens. There was little overlap between them, and no overarching organization or command structure uniting them.

Today we would call this assemblage a matrix – a poorly organized one at that. And veteran managers know better than to expect quick, decisive action from a poorly organized matrix.

But Paul Revere succeeded

Paul Revere, it turns out, had the exact qualities that were required to bring clarity to this confusion of colonial coalitions, and unify its divergent forces to deliver a coherent, revolutionary response.

He was a natural matrix leader, displaying the key leadership qualities that are essential to success in today’s matrixed organizations.
Revere knew the patriot groups. He was a joiner who had been active in the civic affairs of Boston all his life. In fact, he was one of only two people known to have belonged to five of the seven important patriot organizations. As a result, Revere was familiar with the activities, goals and leadership of all these groups, and was perfectly positioned to help coordinate the separate streams of patriot activities when events required.
The take-away for matrix managers: Like Revere, effective matrix leaders must have a broad organizational awareness to successfully align their group’s objectives and activities with those of parallel groups, as well as the strategic goals of the organization as a whole. They also must know where to seek the resources they need to meet their objectives, and what levers they have to push to get them. 
Revere knew people and how to influence them. Through his long record of civic activism, his broad range of interests, and his work as a silversmith, Revere not only knew most of Boston’s influential citizens, but those of neighboring towns as well. He also knew how to build consensus to accomplish common goals, and had established a regional reputation as a man of his word who could be trusted to get things done.
The take-away for matrix managers: Leaders in a matrix often lack line authority over critical team members, or over gatekeepers who control critical resources elsewhere in the organization. The ability to understand people and their motivations – and to use the tools of influence and persuasion to enlist their support and assistance – is vital to successful matrix management.
Revere took initiative in guiding a collaborative solution. He spent months visiting and talking with local leaders in Boston and surrounding towns, helping to forge unity and create a specific plan of action to counter an anticipated British move against the armory in Concord. When the time came, Revere didn’t shout from horseback to just anyone; he rode to prearranged homes and roused the residents, who in turn notified other key individuals, activating a cascading communication network that he had helped to create.
What it means for matrix managers: Successful matrix efforts almost always require thoughtful preparation to create the conditions that will support a positive outcome. Keen organization awareness and outstanding influence skills are empty assets unless matrix leaders take the initiative to use them to lay the groundwork for success, and guide their teams to create collaborative solutions that meet organizational goals.

Leadership you can learn

No business wants managers running through the halls shouting, “The competition is coming.” But as more organizations shift to matrix structures, the leadership skills that the real Paul Revere possessed are in greater, and growing, demand.

Yet many organizations find that good matrix leaders are in short supply – in large part because veteran managers accustomed to traditional, hierchical roles are not necessarily prepared for the very different demands of a matrix.

Fortunately, the skills required of effective matrix leaders can be learned – and your organizational patriots can be ready and waiting when the competition arrives.

Signe Spencer is a senior consultant and global practice leader for capability assessment at Hay Group, and has researched successful leadership practices in matrix structures.

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