What happens when your leadership pipeline creates a leadership bottleneck?
Here’s the scenario: A new CEO takes the helm of your organization. She quickly sees that she’s got a problem on her hands. Before she got there, people in formal leadership positions were not trained properly before they moved into their roles, and now they are not particularly responsive to professional development. They’re getting the work done, but they have no vision or strategy, and they are generally complacent. They have the jobs they want and aren’t particularly interested in going anywhere.
So as not to repeat the mistakes of history, the CEO develops a robust leadership pipeline program. She wants to develop high performing and high potential people as leaders to challenge them, get them engaged, and when it’s time to move them into leadership positions, they can hit the ground running.
The leadership pipeline program is a success. Up-and-comers acquire excellent leadership skills and are chomping at the bit to put them into practice. The program is so effective, in fact, that it has instilled a sense of loyalty into the graduates. They don’t just want to be leaders. They want to be leaders for their organization.
Years go by. Several cohorts of this now prestigious program are in that pipeline. But there’s a problem. Those stagnant leaders already sitting in the formal leadership positions, aren’t going anywhere.
If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good.
The graduates of the leadership pipeline program have been patient—as they learned to be in the program—and they know that they should show empathy and respect to existing leadership, but as they wait, frustration inevitably sets in. It’s not so much their ambition that is making them frustrated. It’s the fact that they can see how to make things better, and they know they have the capability to implement, but they do not have a seat at the table.
Except for that top tier of formal leadership, people are developing professionally, but the organization is not. The whole situation is becoming a maddening.
So, what should the CEO do?
- Transition those stagnant leaders out.
- Grow the organization.
If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good. You can’t let them stagnate. It’s not fair, logical, or wise. If there are people who can make a significant positive impact on the organization waiting to move into positions where they can actually take action, then they should either be promoted into positions where other people are failing, or new positions should be created to accommodate them.
That doesn’t mean everyone has to get a C-suite or VP position. That, obviously, would create a top-heavy and dysfunctional structure. It just means providing positions where they can help drive the strategy, effect change, and develop others.
Let’s suppose, though, that the new CEO says, “Well, we just don’t have the resources or ability to grow like that?”
If the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing.
My first inclination is to say, then get rid of the leadership pipeline. You are resigning the whole organization to stagnancy, so don’t go through the pretense of running a leadership pipeline program. But that’s not fair. It is still helping the organization because those people can still lead without being in formal leadership positions, and the people going through that program are developing, which is vitally important. But it is a massive failing on the part of the CEO to not capitalize on the talent she has.
Professional development, and leadership development in particular, is important because it pushes an organization to grow. And that’s the right direction for influencing change. Develop the people first so they can determine the best path forward, rather than top-down decisions that then require everyone else to develop reactively before the next arbitrary mandate for change comes down from the mountain.
However, if the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing. Plain and simple. It is a disheartening loss of potential, and those people who hold that potential should go somewhere else where they can actually apply it and be appreciated for their ability.
Regarding that age-old question of whether leaders are born or made, here’s what I think. No, I don’t think people are born to be leaders. No, I don’t think anyone can be a good leader. But it’s not as mystical or dramatic as some might like to believe. Really it comes down to two things. You gotta want it and you gotta want it for the right reasons.
There are people out there who just don’t have an interest or desire to take on the responsibility of a leader. That’s fine. We’re way too obsessed with the notion of leadership. If someone doesn’t want to be a leader, you can’t make them, and you certainly can’t make them be a good leader.
Other people may want to be a leader, but they want it for the wrong reasons. They just want power. They want to be able to get people to do whatever they want them to do. That’s not leadership, and it will be very hard to impossible to make those people good leaders. First you have to fundamentally change how they look at the world, and that means you’ve got a long road ahead of you.
So, can anyone be a leader? No. But it’s more people than you might think because there are a lot of people out there who just want to do good things for other people, and they’re willing to do just about anything to make that happen—including becoming a leader.
In the future, HR will be fervent about developing people and helping them realize their greatest potential. It will be about proactive care of people—maximizing the good, not just minimizing the bad.
HR won’t be about reacting to screw-ups all day long, struggling to keep up, and bemoaning an inability to do anything about it. Nor will it be about providing loads of training that teach people all about what screwing up looks like and why you should avoid it. Yes, there will still be regulations and policy to develop and oversee, but HR’s core function will be to create an environment where people can focus on how they can do the most good (not how they can avoid doing bad), and ensuring that people are always learning and growing.
HR will understand that allowing people to languish without the tools to learn and grow is callous, and it undermines what the organization as a whole could achieve. In the future, Human Resources will provide humane resources that recognize people as thinking, creative, and earnest individuals who can contribute in their own meaningful way if only they are given access to learn. When a job doesn’t grow with the person because a department isn’t growing, the person will not be limited by that problem.
Today, in many organizations, people are developing faster than their organizations. Tomorrow, organizations will realize that the rapid development of their people will drive their own growth. It will be those organizations that consistently strive to keep up with their people that will come out on top.
As HR helps people with their cognitive and professional wellbeing, they will be able to identify people with high potential and place them in positions where they can have the greatest positive impact. Rather than letting them stagnate in a job that cannot accommodate their drive for excellence, HR will find a place for them so the larger organization can receive the greatest benefit (or risk losing them to an organization that can keep up).
And when managers and department heads come knocking to complain that their best and brightest are being poached, HR will respond, “We do not punish our people for growing faster than your department is willing or able to grow.”
First and foremost, as a leader, when you respond to someone’s concerns, objections, or skepticism with something like, “If you don’t like it, leave,” it is an indication that you are complacent and on a race to the bottom. The implication is that you are fine with your organization being shitty because you assume it’s even shittier elsewhere. Not a great attitude to project. But there is something deeper and more complex at play when people use passive aggressive ultimatums like this.
In a command and control culture there is a tendency to lean heavily on binary determination—you’ve got two choices: my way or the highway. Leaders with an authoritarian bent like this approach because it’s simple. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things and the wrong way is not an option. In this environment, leaders build an arsenal of hard and fast rules intended to give clear direction to the team. There is no room for nuance or discussion. The rules are black and white.
In organizations like this, you hear a lot of phrases like “Zero-tolerance policy,” “We don’t need an exit strategy,” “That’s just the way it is,” “Just hit your numbers,” “We don’t want excuses, we want results,” and of course, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Leaders respond to anyone pushing back or questioning decisions by pushing back even harder, which escalates quickly. It creates an environment where shouting and hot tempers are the norm. People spend way more time bickering than getting and real work done.
There is no attempt, in these situations, to reason with other parties or consider alternatives because that would undermine the very core of the unyielding philosophy. It is a system that we see working hand-in-hand with a high reliance on positional power. That’s not a coincidence. There are professions where unfaltering respect for positions of authority and rigid rules are a necessity under certain circumstances—where, in an emergency situation or crisis, explicit direction must be met with immediate action, not deliberation and lengthy contemplation.
The assumption is that because that hard-line system works in the most dire and desperate of situations, it’s bound to work in scenarios when the outcomes are not so life-threatening. If it worked on the battlefield, it’ll sure as hell work on the loading dock. But that’s faulty logic.
When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply.
Just because a 40-ton excavator may have worked well on The Big Dig, that doesn’t mean you should use it to aerate the putting green. Leadership isn’t generalized. There isn’t a big umbrella leadership that if mastered will allow you to practice leadership in any other area underneath it. It’s not a league, class, or a seed system like sports where qualifying at one level means you are good enough to play anywhere below it as well. Leadership is extraordinarily nuanced, and the right principles and tools must be applied at the right time and under the right circumstances.
When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply. They want their environment to be a place where their decisions are not questioned and their authority is absolute. But the circumstances where command and control is the most effective approach are rare. As much as possible, you actually want to avoid desperate situations where people don’t have time to think critically and consider alternatives.
Trying to impose draconian rule whole-cloth on an organization’s culture destroys trust, will, autonomy, critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, and commitment. It makes the organization weak and stagnant. So readily resorting to threats and ultimatums are the acts of a leader whose only tool is a sledge hammer.
I don’t want to offend leaders who have or do employ this “love it or leave it” tactic, because I understand the tendency. People who complain about everything without understanding all the variables or reasons for decisions are incredibly frustrating. Certainly there are times when a leader needs to have a thoughtful conversation with someone about finding work elsewhere, but that’s not what “If you don’t like it, leave” is about. That hollow response is destructive enough that it’s important to be blunt. “If you don’t like it, leave” and directives like it, are the hallmark of a leader who has only a shallow understanding of what it means to be a leader. It is lazy, offensive, and cruel. It demonstrates a leader’s unwillingness to listen or develop people, which is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of being a leader. Ironically, because those kinds of statements are intended to project an image of tough leadership, they are in fact a surrender and admission of defeat. It broadcasts your impotence.
Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge.
If someone isn’t working out on the team or in the organization then take control of the situation—be a leader. Either develop them or transition them out. You’re the one who is supposed to take charge. Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge. When you say something like that, it is clear that you are hoping the problem will take care of itself so you don’t have to do what you’re supposed to do.
Now, does that mean there should be no hard and fast rules or no zero-tolerance policies? On the contrary. There is a place for getting rid of any grey area and explicitly prohibiting certain behavior. In fact, that’s precisely why it’s important that leaders don’t go to an extreme for every policy and issue. Doing so will make it impossible to distinguish levels of gravity on what is condoned and condemned. For example, if you have a zero-tolerance policy on tardiness, how do you ramp up the seriousness for harassment and racism?
In the heat of the moment, people will say things that are unfair. When we don’t seem to be getting through to someone, we look for an easy exit. “If you don’t like it, leave,” may seem to fit the bill when your patience is exhausted, but language matters. As leaders, are always being examined and what we say is always being dissected. Be careful and considerate about the words you choose.
Making good things happen is successful at the intersection of patience, persistence, and empathy.
Yes, we must be persistent in realizing our vision and implementing our plans. Bold ideas require tenacity if they are to become a reality. You have to be willing and able to push through the resistance and overcome the obstacles, but we also must be careful not to rush into action. This is difficult to do when we are passionate about effecting change. We want it to happen right now because it is important and the outcome will have a positive impact that other people may not yet be able to see. We are eager to show them the light.
But making sure you have all the right information and are aware of all the landmines requires patience. Moreover, we need to be considerate of why some people may be resistant to the change you are proposing. Listen to them and take to heart the fact that other people worked hard to get you where you are today. It may not be an ideal state, but it has at the very least created a platform for you to launch your idea. Be grateful for that.
There is a time and place for micromanaging. During significant change, like when a new leader or manager steps in, a direct report is new to a job, or when a big new initiative is being implemented, some level of micromanagement is often necessary. Managers and leaders are responsible for things like level-setting, compliance, efficiency, and just a basic understanding of what everyone does and how they’re doing it. When things are shifting or leaders are trying to get up to speed, a certain degree of micromanaging is warranted. Yes, this is often pretty annoying, but it does not have to be a horrible experience.
Communication is key here. Leaders must be absolutely clear with their direct reports about why they are scrutinizing their work so meticulously, and further that this will not be the longterm practice. Keep the dialogue open and be sympathetic to their frustrations. People will frequently make more mistakes when they feel like someone is always looking over their shoulder. (Have you ever tried typing while someone is looking at your monitor?)
Having said that, micromanaging can go awry. Chronic micromanagers have a hard time letting go. It makes them feel too vulnerable. They might feel like it is their responsibility to have complete control over a broad and expanding scope or work, and ensure that no mistakes are made. Ever!
If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.
A couple things to keep in mind here if you think you might be a chronic micromanager. First, check your ego. You ain’t that special. You don’t get to own everyone’s job even if you are their supervisor. If you don’t trust anyone and everyone around you seems to be inept, the common denominator just might be you. Maybe you’re the problem.
Second, be more tolerant of risk. Allowing people to fail when the stakes are not critical is vitally important to running a healthy organization. It’s how people learn, grow, and innovate. It’s up to effective leaders to create that environment, and letting go is the first step. Empower other people by giving them ownership of what they do.
There is a more nefarious side to micromanagement as well. There are some people who micromanage because they are empowered by watching their direct reports grow increasingly confused and debilitated over time. The more incompetence they can expose in other people, the more exalted they feel. To the less astute those micromanagers (let’s call them abusive micromanagers) can even appear to be quite impressive. Their supervisors and peers may listen to the abusive micromanager’s litany of frustrations and make the assumption that this person must be highly valuable to be able to carry the weight of so much incompetence on her shoulders. Abusive micromanagers will feed off this attention. It makes them feel like they have more power. And in fact they do. They rob otherwise capable people of their power by picking apart everything they do. The modus operandi here is to obsessively point out when someone else does something wrong, but give no direction on how to do it right or direction that is bewildering or absurd.
It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing.
Being micromanaged can feel like your autonomy is being taken away and your competence questioned. People will feel patronized, belittled, and disrespected. They report feeling acute anxiety and high levels of stress, sometimes to a debilitating degree. This can be particularly true for people who have worked very hard over a number of years to establish themselves as respected experts and professionals in their field. Because these people are good at what they do, but they’re getting feedback that contradicts what they know about themselves to be true, it creates a cognitive dissonance that is crippling. This understandably starts to affect the quality of their work, which in turn supplies the abusive micromanager with real evidence of poor performance. From there it’s just a rapid downward spiral.
It is not too much to say that for some, being micromanaged, justified or not, can be traumatizing. For this reason, when the issue arises within any organization, it should be taken very seriously. Have an open and frank discussion. Consider hiring a trained mediator. Get the chronic micromanager a coach immediately. You can try to develop abusive micromanagers out of the practice, but chances are that person is a narcissist, in which case your best move is to off-board him ASAP.
If you are on the receiving end of that abusive relationship, you already know what you have to do. Hopefully you have resources and a mechanism for reporting abusive behavior and receiving counseling, but first and foremost, you need to start taking steps to get the hell out. Abusive micromanagement is insidious. It’s not like a physical attack that organizations recognize as clear grounds for dismissal. If someone does actually take action to help you, it could mean a prolonged investigation or review of misconduct, which means you may have to suffer through even more abuse as everyone else tries to figure this thing out. Of course a lot of people are in situations where finding another job is a lot easier said than done, but do what you can to take control of the situation. Don’t forget that you do indeed have power. Move on. Do good where they recognize your value and appreciate your contributions.
There are few quotes I despise more than the one that says something like “I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect as the CEO.”
Under what conditions would you need to make this proclamation? What is the objective here? It’s certainly not to make a statement about equity or respect. The point-of-view is first person singular. The subject is “I.” The narrator is just explaining what a swell person he is.
What it also communicates (at least to me) is that the narrator does in fact believe there is a difference between a janitor and a CEO, and one can safely assume that the difference the narrator sees is that the Janitor is less than the CEO. Nonetheless, he’s going to treat them the same despite this difference. But all that is secondary. The primary message you should take away here is that the narrator is a real mensch. Or at least he sure thinks he is.
It’s a great quote for exemplifying what is so often wrong with much of leadership development. It teaches would-be leaders to stroke their own egos rather than showing them how to make a positive impact. Developing yourself as a leader is not about you. It’s about making yourself better equipped to do good for the world around you.
We have reached a point in the evolution of leadership and organization effectiveness where we understand the importance of the physical health of the people who work in any given organization. We have OSHA standards, promote health habits, and encourage fitness activities. We know that ensuring well-being is not only the ethical thing to do, it also makes good business sense. People are more productive when they are healthy, and are less likely to call in sick.
Some leaders also understand that health and well-being includes mental health. Employees, for example, may have access to counselors and psychologists. They may be encouraged to maintain a workload that is not overwhelming or occasionally take a mental health day.
What is often left out of the conversation, however, is the importance of professional development for enduring mental health.
People need to learn. We need to be challenged mentally and when we’re not, we become cynical, lethargic, complacent, and depressed. Mental acuity and strength comes from pushing ourselves to continuously learn. That’s what effective professional development does. It gets people mentally fit by pushing them into the unfamiliar, sometimes in ways where it may seem difficult to see how it will directly impact how they do their job.
The type of work people do is irrelevant. Everyone should have access to professional development. People whose jobs are inherently mentally challenging still must have ongoing professional development. Growth happens outside our comfort zone. It is essential that they experience learning that disrupts their mindset and allows them to see opportunities and problems in a new light.
For those people who do not have jobs that are particularly mentally challenging, opportunities should be provided that keep them mentally fit. It is cruel to expect human beings to go through a full workday without using their minds. That’s why enlightened leaders won’t get bent out of shape if a custodian uses an organization’s resources to learn Italian. Will learning Italian have a direct impact on how effective she is at performing her job? Yes. Yes, it will. She may not actually use Italian in her duties, but she will be a better critical thinker and have a sharper mind when things inevitably go sideways.
If you want people who are engaged at work, are good problem solvers, and drive the whole organization to be better, then you not only promote professional development, you require it.
Don’t baulk if the subject matter doesn’t seem to align directly with the requirements of the job. Explicit application to current duties is secondary. Innovation comes from a place where no one else is looking. Significant leeway should be given on the subject matter that people can choose from for professional development. Ensure that the content and delivery is of a high quality and let people explore.
Being an effective leader and running an enlightened organization means being proactive not reactive. It means continuously striving to create an environment where people can operate at peak performance. That’s a tall order, but that’s why it’s a group effort and an ongoing challenge.
There has been some great effort to get people to the polls this year. It’s encouraging.
I have noticed, however, a common argument for voting seems to be that a single vote can make all difference. They talk about how close races have been in the past, where very few votes made the difference. NPR, for instance, had an interesting article titled “Why Every Vote Matters—The Elections Decided By A Single Vote (Or A Little More).”
It’s true that sometimes races and decisions can get very close and that can be exciting, but focusing on that misses the point a bit. It devalues the magnitude of what it means to head out to the polls and add your voice.
Voting is important not because you might be the one vote that swings it the way you want it to go. Voting is important because a democracy demands the voice of the people to elect our leaders. It’s not about me the person. It’s about we the people. It’s about us as a municipal, state, national, and global community.
Individualism is important, but perhaps we have strayed too far in our understanding of how we function as a community, and become too focused on our own egos. In a democracy, and in the United States in particular, we as individuals make up something bigger. Our national motto even tells us so.
So when you vote, it’s not a time to think about you. Sure take your selfies (where it’s permitted), broadcast your pride in doing your duty, show other people how good it feels to participate in the process. But remember that this moment is about synergy—when we come together to create something greater than all of us put together.
There tends to be a lot of confusion between training and professional development. Most often, those two things are conflated. Other times, people are vaguely aware that they are different things, but they’re just not sure what the distinction is or how to define it.
So first I’ll just make this simple by explaining the difference.
Training is operational. It teaches people how to be competent at their jobs.
Professional development is strategic. It teaches people to excel in areas beyond the status quo. This means acquiring knowledge, skills, and abilities that are widely transferable across a jobs and industries. The learning that happens at this level is often conceptual, and requires the learners to put effort into how to apply the content.
Training gets people to be compliant. Professional development gets them committed.
So, why is it important to make this distinction? For one thing, how you teach in these two areas is very different, so if you’re hiring for training, you should not assume that that person can teach professional development, and vice-versa. A good deal of training could be done internally by subject matter experts, but it’s unlikely those people will have any interest or aptitude in teaching professional development. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone is a subject matter expert that they can teach. It’s a common problem in the workplace, like assuming that someone will be a good supervisor because they’re good at their current job.
Another reason to make the distinction between training and professional development has to do with funding and budgets. If you don’t make the distinction between training and professional development, all funding will just default to training, and professional development will go by the wayside. Because training is necessary to just get the work done right, training will often override any need for strategic growth.
When managers or leaders are asked what they’re doing for professional development, sometimes they will proudly quote some exorbitant dollar figure, but the reality is all that money is just going toward making sure people know how to do their jobs. Little to no investment is being made for continuous learning; that is, teaching people how to be better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and innovators.
Obviously people need to know how to do their jobs, but after that, it is equally important that they continue to learn. In the same way you want a business to continually improve, you also want the people who make that business run to continuously improve, and that’s where professional development comes in. High performers will gravitate toward professional development (after they’ve gone through training) because professional development requires discretionary effort. They want to be better and do better, and they hunger for knowledge.
As I wrote above, training ensures that people are compliant, and compliance is necessary. But when you provide learning opportunities to your people that open their minds and allow them to explore an envision bold new ideas, that’s when they get committed. When people are committed to an organization, and only when they are committed, can great things happen.
Why do otherwise promising leaders hitch their wagon to an anchor?
Being an effective and ethical leader is exhausting. It requires constant effort and a strong group of allies and advisors (i.e., other leaders). When you’re desperate or feel like you’re drowning and someone tosses you a rope, you can be so eager and grateful for the gesture that sometimes you don’t notice when it’s a noose.
When a leader gets hooked on a destructive advisor, it’s toxicity grows. The leader can put so much faith in the relationship that other relationships start to suffer. Other would-be allies, intending to alert the leader to the problem, are seen as a nuisance; people who are just getting in the way.
As the leader pushes his team away, he becomes increasingly dependent on the destructive advisor. When it feels like more and more people are out to get you, it’s increasingly reassuring to have that one person on your side. You know he’s on your side because he keeps showing you all those other people who are out to get you. Soon you have no one left but the person who is destroying you. (You may have seen this play out in someone’s personal life as well.)
Here a two stories that may sound familiar to you that illustrate how a destructive advisor gains power.
The department lead, Agnes, has her go-to guy, Hal. When it comes to transactional work, he seems to be the master. It appears no one else can do what he does. And Hal makes damn sure it stays that way. Hal constantly laments how overworked he is. He exhibits his workload physically so all the world can see the demands put upon him. His calendar is like a sliding block puzzle, forever shifting, rescheduling, and cancelling. When he is offered help, it never goes well. The offer is either rebuffed or the good Samaritan fails miserably. No one, it seems, is capable of understanding the intricacies of the tremendous demands Hal faces on a daily basis.
Agnes buys it hook line and sinker. The dread of losing him is so consuming that she doesn’t see the misery that Hal creates all around him. He can’t collaborate. He refuses to explain in any form how he takes care of his end of a process. And although he insists that it’s everyone else that just doesn’t get it, the work that he produces ranges from inadequate to incompetent.
Margaret is intent on ferreting out the dysfunction and incompetence in the office. She spots when mistakes are made and eagerly notifies her boss, Paul. Paul is grateful for the discovery and aghast that such things could be happening under his watch. With apparent support from the Paul, Margaret confronts the offending parties and interrogates them about their deplorable practices. She gives the impression that Paul is questioning their ability to do their jobs. Margaret takes it upon herself to closely monitor everyone under the dark cloud of her suspicions.
Paul admires Margaret’s tenacity and ambition to clean house and get things in order. When he needs information, she gets it. Or at least incessantly harasses people to get the information. What would he do without her, he wonders. Never mind that she is essentially terrorizing the rest of the office. Never mind that she is creating massive dysfunction and inefficiency. All Paul can see is that Margaret uncovered wrongdoing and therefore she is indispensable.
Unlike the destructive advisors in Shakespeare’s plays, in the workplace a leader’s destructive advisor may not be deliberately trying sabotage the leader, which makes it that much more difficult to spot. Not only does the leader believe the destructive advisor is doing the right thing, so does the destructive advisor. A destructive advisor believes she is the leader’s and the organization’s greatest asset. It’s a sort of spell both parties fall into in this toxic relationship.
Here are four ways to break the destructive advisor’s obfuscating spell.
- Listen—truly listen—to the entire team, and never let one person be your barometer for the wellbeing of the organization. It often takes a lot of courage to go to the boss to express your concerns, so when someone actually musters it, the boss should take it seriously. Yes, there are people who are a little too eager to gripe, but that doesn’t necessary mean their concerns are unfounded. If you, as the leader, are using one person to interpret how the whole team is functioning just so you don’t have to deal with it, you are failing as a leader.
- Look closely at how your closest ally treats other people. The personality they present to you, may not be the personality they present to others. Don’t make excuses for abusive or unfair treatment. Justifying bad behavior as your ally being firm or other people’s misperceptions or over-sensitivity is not OK. No one, much less a leader, should ever tolerate anyone to be treated badly. Full stop.
- Spotting when things go wrong is relatively easy. Fixing them is slightly more difficult. The part within fixing the problem that takes real skill is working with the people who own those processes and treating them with respect and dignity they deserve as the problem gets resolved. If your advisor can’t do that part, he either needs to be developed so he can, or removed from that role entirely.
- If it looks to you as if one person holds all the knowledge for how to perform a key function, that’s a problem. It may not necessarily be the destructive advisor’s fault that a process isn’t transparent, but, as the leader, it sure as hell is your fault. You cannot allow one person to monopolize so much institutional knowledge that they that can use it to hold the rest of the organization hostage.
Leaders should respect the hard work and expertise of their team. They should be grateful for their contributions and let people know how much they are appreciated. But when someone crosses the line and starts to use that expertise against the organization, you need to put an end to it definitively. That could mean helping that person see that they are doing harm, or, failing that, helping that person transition out of the organization.
Leaders need allies. No one does it alone. Just proceed with caution. Trust is important and it should extend beyond your closest ally.
Some people, I have found, are displeased when we mix politics with talk of leadership. Readers who feel this way, I surmise, just want to stay focused on what they know to be an important subject without having to wade through someone’s political opinions to get to the point. They want to be free to talk business and share knowledge of their profession without slipping down the dark hole they suffer through every Thanksgiving with their relatives. There’s also this element of liking what someone is saying about leadership only to learn that he voted for the other guy that can be a real buzzkill.
I get it, I really do. But I also disagree that we shouldn’t mix leadership discussion with politics, and here’s why.
Government and the private sector are conjoined (sometimes in ways they should not be), and running a government involves politics. To try to extract politics from talk of leadership would be negligent. We don’t pretend to be able to talk about economics or history without involving politics, nor should we with leadership.
The political world is filled with highly visible leaders who make critical decisions that sometimes have a global impact. We are able to see the effects of their leadership and decision-making on a massive scale and that helps those of us who study leadership learn from them and point to them as examples of what to do and what not to do.
No, it’s not entirely objective, and yes, there is a way to report on politics and government without picking sides. Once upon a time, the news media was rather good at this. But leadership theory and development is not necessarily about staying dispassionate (sometimes it is, but not always). More often it’s about getting passionate, angry, excited, or scared and then doing something about it. More to the point, leadership development is about getting people passionate, angry, excited, and scared enough to take take action. And that means getting people out of their comfort zone.
While some of us might wish leadership was pure science, it is not. There is a lot of opinion involved with the study and practice. People will disagree with methods and even outcomes. For instance, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, and Ben Carson were appointed to the president’s cabinet in the hope that they would bring down the offices they are leading (EPA, Education, and HUD respectively). One might therefore argue that they are effective leaders because their intentions are being realized. But as Barbara Kellerman teaches us, when we talk about good leadership, we need to consider ethics as well as effectiveness. My opinion would be that, by evaluating them on both criteria, they are disastrous leaders, and I could have a pretty rousing discussion on the subject. Others may not agree, but if we’re going to discuss leadership and learn from each other, we’re going to have to be OK with disagreeing. In fact, we’re going to have to venture into areas where we know there will be disagreement. That’s how we learn.
When teaching leadership, people like to lean on sports metaphors because there are clear winners and losers and no one’s going to get too offended when they hear a story about Vince Lombardi or Red Auerbach. Those leadership lessons play it safe (for the most part).
But many of those anecdotes are a bit shopworn and sometimes pretty shallow in terms of leadership theory and analysis. We need to be willing to go out on a limb—sometimes making people feel uncomfortable—in order for them to understand the underpinnings of leadership. What’s more, we need to be willing to point to poor leadership when we see it because calling out bad leadership is just as important as calling out good leadership.
The alternative is complacency. If we’re not clear about what bad leadership is and explicit about who those bad actors are, we start accepting it as normal. By not calling it out, we are allowing it. It slowly destroys our standards and when it comes to leadership, the corrosion of standards is catastrophic.
The bar keeps getting lower and we don’t notice it. Slowly the caliber of leaders descends until we look up and find ourselves awash in leaders who are toadies, nincompoops, and assholes.
When we don’t point out bad leadership when we see it, we start thinking that it’s perfectly acceptable for people like Scott Pruitt to be in a leadership position.
It’s not acceptable. It’s wrong and it’s tremendously damaging. And if we’re going to discuss leadership and get better at it, we need to be screaming that from the rooftops.
While leadership worship needs to stop, we also must have increasingly high standards for our leaders. We don’t get the likes of Devin Nunes into positions of leadership because our standards are just too high. They are there because the standards are too low. And every day they hold positions of leadership, the bar gets lower.
We need to continually improve leadership, constantly striving for better. It is an issue that is just too important to be bashful about.