Saturday, February 28, 2009

Re-thinking leadership style and organisational culture

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fiji Television One's news report (on February 17, 2009), showing an intensely irate Police Commissioner Esala Teleni threatening at a meeting with senior Indian police officers to dismiss anyone who was disloyal and insubordinate, has, not surprisingly, generated much heat and vituperative comment.

For the public, it is perfectly understandable for some people to react with outrage to what they felt was the Commissioner's unmerited and unnecessary use of rude and abusive language and his insensitivity to the feelings and rights of police officers who are non-Christians, following his introduction into the Police Force of a regular Christian crusade program.

On the other hand, in fairness to Commissioner Teleni, anyone in his position would most probably have reacted in the same way that he did in being very angry at those who he felt had deliberately and willfully ignored and disregarded established internal complaints and grievances procedures. And this is especially in an organisation which is a disciplined force, where all ranks are bound by a duty to be loyal, faithful and obedient at all times, and in all circumstances.

But then one also has to appreciate the position of those police officers who must have felt compelled to take their concerns to the public media out of sheer frustration at not being given a fair opportunity to be heard or to be treated with respect and equality on their constitutional right to worship the god of their own free choice.

There is a lesson here for the Commissioner of Police and indeed to all those who are in public sector leadership.

It would clearly be an abnegation of one's public duty and responsibility to ignore and not to honour the rights and freedoms of all individuals, communities and groups in society. These are provided for, and protected, under Fiji's highest law, the Constitution.

Section 21 binds all branches of Government and all persons performing the functions of any public office to observe and not to violate the human rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. These include the right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief.

So, rather than continue to berate and castigate Police Commissioner Teleni for what he reportedly said at his meeting with senior Indian police officers, a more useful and more positive engagement would be to reflect on the incident as an opportunity to talk about the kind of leadership and organisational culture that would be most appropriate for the Police Force and other state agencies and public organisations in this era of human rights and given the multi-ethnic and-multi cultural character of our society.

The starting point would be to recognise that of all positions of public administration, the Commissioner of Police's is the most powerful, and his authority comes directly from the Constitution.

Under it (section 153), the Commissioner has full powers to appoint all police officers of the rank of senior inspector or its equivalent, and every other position below that.

The Commissioner can remove any person from the Force or to reduce an officer's rank. In this, he is subject only to the concurrence of the Disciplined Services Commission.

Section 111 vests command of the Force in the Commissioner of Police with full and exclusive authority on matters relating to the Force's organisation and administration, and the deployment and control of its operations.

A Permanent Secretary of a Government Ministry in the Civil Service is subject to the Minister for the management of the Ministry.

The Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, in his exercise of military executive command of the RFMF, is subject to the control of the Minister.

But the Commissioner of Police is different. In discharging his command responsibilities, he is not subject to any other person or authority.

There is a further point. The Police Force, like the Army and the Prison Service, is a disciplined force, and this is reflected in its organisational and leadership structure and culture. This makes it different from the typical Civil Service ministry or department or statutory body.

As an organisation, the Police Force is one large mass of individuals who are differentiated only by their ranks in the hierarchy. The command structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. In a Cabinet under parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is considered a first among equals and decisions are taken collectively by consensus. In a disciplined force like the Police, the top person is the sole authority to make decisions. Decisions and directives are orders to be obeyed without question. This top down command and communication structure is to foster loyalty and obedience, which are considered essential for the unity and stability of the organisation. This then is the organisational and leadership context into which Commissioner Teleni introduced his Christian crusade program.

With the ongoing emphasis in public management on raising performance and consequential outputs, Commissioner Teleni must have acted with the altruistic intention of using the crusade to galvanise everyone in the Force with a redoubled sense of mission and commitment. But in doing this, he has unconsciously and unwittingly introduced a new paradigm or dimension into the traditional culture of the Force as a disciplined entity.

Prior to this, everyone in the Police Force related to one another only by rank and by one's assigned duties and responsibilities.

However, with the introduction of the Christian crusade, non-Christians have invariably felt that they are being treated separately on the basis of their different religious belief.

Perhaps, the Commissioner is at fault here in not fully and clearly explaining the purpose of the Christian crusade and the plans he has for non-Christians in the Force.

But clearly, what seems to have happened is that what was introduced with the good intention of lifting performance levels and outputs in the Force has turned out to be a source of confusion and disaffection amongst those who belong to other faiths.

There is now a disconnection between the Commissioner and non-Christian police officers on his intentions regarding the future direction of the Force.

These officers are naturally concerned about their long term future in the Force.

The Commissioner of Police cannot continue to deny the constitutional right of freedom of worship of non-Christian members of the Force. To do so, would be to violate their rights and to breach his own binding responsibility under the Constitution. It would be worth his while to ponder the wider implications of the enormous responsibility he carries as the Commissioner of Police. Even Spiderman Peter Parker was gently reminded by his loving Uncle Ben that with great power comes great responsibility.

The Commissioner has, therefore, created for himself a challenge. He has to make critical choices about his leadership and direction of the Force.

If he is to maintain the traditional authoritarian leadership and organisational command structure as a disciplined entity, then clearly the observance and pursuit of one's religious faith and belief would have to be regarded as exclusively a private and personal matter for each individual. The Force has to strictly remain a secular institution.

If, on the other hand, Commissioner Teleni sees definite merit in continuing with the Christian crusade program, then he must also allow for similar spiritual reinforcement programs for those who belong to other faiths.

It also means that he himself would have to consciously review his leadership approach in the Force.

The traditional authoritarian culture may now no longer be the most conducive to generate and maintain the loyalty and commitment of all officers. He may have to consciously think of moving towards the kind of transformational and appreciative type of leadership considered to be the most appropriate in Civil Service organisations.

It is the kind of leadership that motivates people by providing a clear sense of mission and common purpose for the organisation, by recognising and respecting their rights, by treating everyone justly and fairly, and by bringing everyone together through an abiding compassion and concern for all. It induces loyalty that is enduring and never ends because people follow out of love for their leader.

In contrast, authoritarian leadership which has been the norm in a disciplined force operates on the general premise that the rank and file members have voluntarily forgone their individual rights to allow an absolute authority to maintain order and stability.

It is leadership that induces a following out of fear. In an organisation where the power to appoint, to promote, and to dismiss those in the rank and file is vested in one person, people obey orders not out of love but out of fear for the security of their own employment. Loyalty out of enforced obedience and fear never lasts.

From across where I live at Samabula, there is a high school where Hindu prayers are audibly recited every morning, reflecting the religious faith of the community organisation that owns the school.

The majority of the students are ethnic Fijians. But there is nothing legally and ethically wrong with this daily religious practice because it is a privately owned institution and the students come to this school out of their own individual volition. Privately owned schools that belong to Christian churches and the Muslim community, I am sure, also do the same. The Police Force and other State agencies, government organisations and statutory authorities are different.

They are public bodies. As such, they are bound by law to observe and to honour the constitutional rights of every individual, community and group. Every person is entitled to be treated with fair and equal consideration. It is thus incumbent on the Commissioner of Police to re-think his vision and strategy for the Force and his own style of leadership.

As a devout Christian, Commissioner Teleni himself knows that the best leader is one who leads not by imposition but by a deep conviction always to do what is just, always to show constant love, and in all this, always to be guided by a humbling consciousness that we are each accountable to the God we believe in, and that there will come a day of Judgement for everyone.

* The views expressed here are exclusively those of the author and are published by this newspaper on that sole understanding.

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