Why good leaders still have problems
28 September 2020
Leadership is not a panacea. Or, good leadership does not protect you from humanity.
A good leader, even in a good business, will have a lot of problems to solve. Many of these problems may be frustrating, difficult and appear to have no good solution.
Shaun Peet and Mike Metcalf, authors of 12-Second Culture, are great leaders – disciplined, thoughtful and morally grounded. One day, while speaking with one of their senior team members, their employee became so enraged with one of their decisions that he smashed the monitor in their office and stormed out.
“9:15 – 10:00: Deal with irate employee and source new office monitor.“
Do you think Peet and Metcalf’s schedule that day included “9:15 – 10:00: Deal with irate employee and source new office monitor“? Was there an obvious “good choice” that morning? What fell off their radar because of this incident?
Why, if they are good leaders, do they have to deal with a problem like this?
Peet and Metcalf simultaneously stood firm by not accepting bad behavior from their employee and recognized that the employee was struggling and needed help. The took personal responsibility for how the meeting went, and both encouraged and required the employee to do the same. Peet and Metcalf also came up with a great solution for the employee to move forward in the team, and find meaning in his work. 1And yes, he was responsible for the monitor.
What leadership does and does not do
The truth is that good leadership will make work life more meaningful and help improve the chaos of life, but it will not eliminate all of the chaos itself. Good leadership will not change human imperfection, the unpredictability of the future, or any of the effects that both of those things have on business. Analyzing SEO metrics, chasing a worrying dip in gross profit in a product category, negotiating peace within the company ranks, technological change, competition – and yes, smashed monitors – there is no end to the list of problems that leaders must solve.
However, the difference between good and bad leadership is the context in which the choices to solve the problem are made. A leader’s values and the decisions have a massive impact on the success of the solution and the health of the community, and the difference between the good and bad end of the scale is what determines success over time.
Some leaders who are driven by ego, advancement or selfishness (to name a few), and will make decisions and force solutions that serve those qualities.2A Leader is Not Many Things A leader who truly embodies other qualities such as selflessness, personal responsibility, kindness and development, will choose options that support those values instead of ego.3See The Big Idea for a list of values and how they affect success.
However, a leader who espouses “great” values but is motivated by ego will produce solutions or frameworks that will be unsuccessful in the long term. A leader who tells coworkers that they don’t have to worry about following procedure, that everything will work out, and attempts to curry favor by appearing emotionally supportive will have reaching their goals and helping the company. One does not solve problems by advertising good values – one has to act that way.
Problem solving mechanics can be quite similar for both good and bad leaders. For instance, it’s hard (but not impossible) to negotiate a contract or change a policy without reading it first and understanding the basic principles before acting – both good and bad leaders need to do some version of that to be familiar with specifics of a problem before acting.4A poor leader can even make an attractive PowerPoint. But the context of leadership quality changes the decisions and the implementation – sometimes in subtle ways.
I recently read Lou Gerstner’s book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, which is his story of being CEO during IBM’s turnaround. In the pantheon of executive books, it’s still a story of an overpriced CEO making a company successful, but it is not pure fluff.
The “click heard around the world.”
In Gerstner’s first week at IBM, senior leadership made a traditional IBM presentation on the current business challenges, which started with the formalities of org charts, title, reporting structure, and the genesis of the report – just as every IBM presentation for decades had started. Gerstner listened for a few minutes, then walked over to the projector and switched it off, abruptly stopping the presentation. “Why don’t you all just tell me what the problem is?”
IBMers called this “the click heard around the world.”News traveled fast through all of IBM’s worldwide businesses: the new CEO had stopped an official company presentation.
In Gerstner’s (largely correct) view, the four decades of formalities in presentation were clearly symptomatic of the problem that kept IBM from flourishing. He demonstrated that by using his position in the the hierarchy to stop the formalities that morning by turning off the projector, and lead everyone in the room to focus on the problem at hand. The formality itself kept all of the highly capable and intelligent (Gerstner’s opinion) people from addressing and solving the challenge.
This small act – but very large in IBM culture – helped focus the minds in the business to address the grave challenges ahead, and helped eliminate the employee’s habit of doing things the “way we’ve always done it.”
Sometimes the problems a leader faces will appear to be made only of very bad choices. Many will be difficult and come with a fair amount of risk – the IBM leadership could have revolted during Gerstner’s first week and his time at IBM might have become a footnote in a college textbook, or Peet and Metcalf’s employee could have doubled-down in his violent behavior. But by respecting and incorporating the business’s capabilities and basing choices in values that lead to long-term success, Gerstner, Peet and Metcalf made progress towards success.
Our examples (one from Peet & Metcalf, the other from Gerstner) are similar:
First, they both are difficult problems that plagued good leaders. Their good values did not insulate them from difficult challenges.
Second, the decisions that the leaders made were based in values that would benefit the business and the employees – the leaders positioned the employees to take move forward. Peet and Metcalf demonstrated personal responsibility at the same time that they required their employee to do the same, and importantly, linked it to a path forward to the employee to alter his role and contribute in a way he hadn’t initially envisioned. Gerstner put his employees’ focus on the problem at hand, while simultaneously helping them see that their effectiveness was undermined by the distraction of formality.
Centering our decisions on values that improve the long-term business and the health and engagement of your employees will move both you and your team towards success and achievement of your goals.
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