But… The Emperor Has No Clothes!

emperorRemember the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Emperor’s New Clothes?   A couple of swindlers take advantage of a vain emperor by promising to fashion a beautiful new suit.  The suit, however, was a nonexistent scam that was invisible to all, including the emperor himself.  No one had the courage to speak up and tell him the suit was invisible, so he paraded around naked until finally a child pointed out what was obvious to all.

How often does this same scenario replay itself in the world of corporate business?  Companies that stifle open and honest feedback (either unwittingly or by design) encourage just this sort of enabling behavior.  Unfortunately, it is not uncommon.  For any number of reasons, certain projects, initiatives, and decisions are considered political hot potatoes.  It might be due to a significant investment of time or capital, or simply because the initiative is the pet project of a politically powerful executive.  The justifications for wanting to hear only what they want to hear are both numerous and convincingly valid.  Convincing, that is, to the emperor who doesn’t want to be told that his “new suit” is transparent.  But by creating an environment in which feedback is reduced to self-serving affirmation, executives isolate themselves in their own fictional sphere of reality.

Companies (and people) have a bad habit of using the cost of an investment (be it a program, idea, or initiative) as justification for its ongoing implementation.  In reality, however, any unrecoverable cost is sunk once invested.  Regardless of whether the project is a success or failure, there’s no getting the investment back.  Therefore, the justification for the ongoing implementation of an initiative should be based solely on the viability and merits of the initiative itself, independent of the unrecoverable investment.  Otherwise, it’s like eating spoiled food (or wearing an invisible suit) just because you paid for it.  Similarly, any company initiative that is flawed should either be immediately fixed or killed, regardless of how much it originally cost.  You simply cannot justify the continued implementation of a flawed program based on its original cost.  And if speaking up to acknowledge or challenge the flaws is tantamount to career suicide, whose interest is being served?

Regardless of the reasons or circumstances, when a company allows its culture of communication and feedback to become constipated, so much so that acknowledging flaws in an initiative or decision is perceived as potentially career damaging, they do themselves a dangerous disservice.  No one will tell the emperor he is naked if he fears for his job or his standing in the company.

Perhaps even worse than a flawed initiative going unchallenged is the resulting sense of apathy that such closed-mindedness breeds.  Lower level management and staff eventually stop caring whether the emperor is naked or not.  And why shouldn’t they?  If the emperor only wants to hear how beautiful his suit appears, and any discussion of the fact that it’s actually invisible risks a figurative beheading, then why speak out?  Why take the risk?  Why care?

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Fear and Accountability

Fear & AccountabilityI was speaking with several members of our management team the other day about the staff and a particular area in which they need to improve.   In the course of the conversation one of my management trainees jokingly made the comment, “They’re afraid of you, Bryant.”  I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but in the days since I keep coming back to what she said.  I have a pretty healthy relationship with every individual on my team – they are all responsive to direction and also readily come to me with concerns and problems.  I know with a reasonably high degree of certainty that I am viewed as fair and equitable.  Further, I think most of them feel comfortable enough to challenge me on issues when there is strong disagreement or if I happen to personally offend them in some way.

Be that as it may, I’ve considered that there is undoubtedly some truth to her comment, even if it was stated in jest.  So, I’ve spent the last several days wondering just what it might be that anyone on the team is truly afraid of.  Mulling over numerous performance conversations, coaching examples, even past disciplinary actions, it finally dawned on me that it’s not actually me that they fear.  They fear the accountability I demand from them, or at least some of them do.

Some, if not most, people thrive on being challenged.  This is certainly true of all successful high performers.  These are the individuals who are highly autonomous, require minimal supervision, and are driven by their own personal measure of achievement.  People like this don’t fear accountability, they embrace it.  They aren’t discouraged by obstacles, they focus on objectives.  They demonstrate high levels of personal ownership and responsibility, visualize their success, and pursue their goals with enthusiasm and optimism.

People are fearful of many things in today’s workplace – job security, increased personal and professional demands, and uncertainty in general.  But those who specifically fear their leaders do so for two primary reasons – either they don’t trust the leader or they fear being held personally accountable for their job performance.  People cannot trust a leader who doesn’t consistently make fair and sound decisions.  This is why it is so important for leaders to be strong of character and unwavering in self discipline.  Lacking confidence in a leader’s ability and character, the subsequent uncertainty and inconsistency people feel breeds fear.

On the other hand, those who consistently under-perform against expectations while knowing with certainty that their leaders will hold them to a high level of accountability constantly live in fear.  They fear being held personally responsible for their actions, behavior, and performance, which they believe is to some degree beyond their control.  In fact, most chronic under-performers resist taking personal responsibility for their failures and their successes.  It’s easier for them to credit or blame others rather than shoulder the responsibility themselves.  They view themselves as victims of circumstance or plain old bad luck.  They justify their deficiencies by blaming those around them – customers, co-workers, managers, even the economy, etc.  They find all sorts of reasons and excuses in a lifelong attempt to prove that success or failure is something that simply happens.  From their perspective, this absolves them of personal responsibility, and they subsequently try to deflect attempts to hold them accountable.  To my point, they resist personal accountability and are fearful of those who impose it upon them.

People fear what is beyond their control.  Those who are highly autonomous with a strong sense of personal ownership, accountability, and control over their own success or failure are more confident and more effective.  These individuals among my staff are not fearful of me.  There is no reason to be, for they understand that they alone hold the power to make or break their personal success.  Those who are indeed fearful project that power onto me, for they would rather live in fear than take responsibility for their own success or failure.

Championing Change – Developing a Culture of Alignment

GYI0050968476.jpgDeveloping a culture of alignment in any organization or team requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science. You have to realize, however, that any attempt to alter the culture must be carefully planned and executed. Managers too often function as information conduits. They orchestrate and delegate, hopefully participate, but when new directives are introduced, they simply call a meeting and make an announcement. If opposition is anticipated, they might host a breakfast or lunch meeting. For some reason, food is generally assumed to be a mitigating distraction for unpalatable announcements. And yet, while I can’t argue the benefits of a doughnut induced stupor early in the morning, the effects will be short lived unless the general health and culture of the team can readily weather a little upheaval.

A trusted and credible leader is an essential component to a well aligned team.  This is fundamental.  Transitioning the team from a reactive perspective to a culture of alignment takes time.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, the evolution might take a few years, but the benefits are well worth the investment in time and effort.

Understanding that modifying the culture of a group takes time, there is a specific methodology that I use as a basic road map for managing change.  I’ve consolidated this methodology into five fundamental component steps:

  1. Communicate Your Vision
  2. Align Your Power Base
  3. Engage Key Team Members
  4. Model the Behaviors
  5. Lead to Success

1. Communicate Your Vision
I wrote earlier that superior leaders focus on objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire people.  At the same time, they are also definite and decisive and trustworthy.  Again, trust is so extremely important for a leader to be viewed as credible.  People just won’t embrace the direction of a leader who they don’t view as trustworthy or credible.  The may adhere or obey out of fear or obligation, but there is no sense of alignment, no buy-in.

Visionary leaders with strength of character establish a productive rapport based on mutual trust and respect, but they also use discretion in communicating their vision.  They are cautious and purposeful and think strategically, positioning initiatives and objectives at the right time and under optimal circumstances (whenever practicable).  Communication with the team is carefully structured and organized to be clear, concise, and unambiguous.

2. Align Your Power Base
Effective leaders instinctively leverage their resources and build a power base of consensus.  In order to succeed, most change related initiatives require the cooperation of a number of stakeholder groups, including superiors, co-workers, and subordinates.  Strong leaders strategically align their power base by building a coalition of support among those with the highest level of influence.  Everyone has allies.  Leaders use their influence (some might call it “political capital”) to gain the support of others around them in key positions.  These allies, in turn, leverage their own power of influence to better ensure the success of the initiative.

3. Engage Key Team Members
Leaders, i.e., those with the power to influence others, exist at all levels of authority.  Within any team are individuals who wield greater influence than others, and some enjoy considerable influence over their peers, be it for good or evil.  Either way, smart leaders use this to their advantage (and to the benefit of the team and individual).  By engaging key team members who have significant influence within the group, and personally involving them in the change solution, a powerful asset can often be created.

Ironically, these individuals may not be your typical advocates, which is what makes them so effective at influencing the rest.  Human nature tends to point us to those who we most trust – those with whom we are already closely aligned, either personally or professionally.  But these folks may not necessarily have the highest degree of influence over the rest of the group.  Again, think strategically and step outside the box.

Sometimes, engaging those who are the least aligned with the organizational vision can have a remarkable effect.  Most people enjoy being brought into the confidence of their leader, even if they would never admit it.  They like the special attention and opportunity to be “in the know.”  Engaging a team member who would normally try to undermine an initiative or act as a detractor appeals to their ego.  There is a good chance that bringing them into the fold early and giving them a role in the change process will provide them the motivation to support the effort and become a positive influence among their peers.

4. Model the Behaviors
If the program being introduced is to have any chance of success, the leader has to own the effort.  This means demonstrating personal ownership of the initiative and being a role model for its implementation.  If you want it to succeed, you have to walk the talk.  Modeling the behaviors is as simple as that.

5. Lead to Success
In addition to modeling the behaviors that the rest of the team needs to adopt, the leader must be the champion visionary for the change initiative.  Navigating through a difficult change process requires unwavering conviction and a passionate and purposeful vision of success, as well as a clear plan for achieving it.  Effective leaders keep the focus on the objectives, addressing objections and removing obstacles.  They set the tone for the rest of the group with a confident, disciplined consistency that is at the same time applied with patience and empathy.

A consistent, ongoing effort, supported by strong and effective leadership, is required to create a culture that productively copes with change.  You can’t force change down people’s throats.  It just doesn’t work, yet this is exactly what many managers and organizations try to do.  It’s the “because I said so” mentality spinning its wheels in futility.  People can and will embrace change, but they need a reason to do so.  They need leaders who will champion both the cause and their collective effort – leaders who model the attributes of Character, Discipline, Humility, Courage, and Vision.

Championing Change – The Parable of the Boiled Frog

boiling-frogAn experiment was conducted back in the late 19th century in which a frog was placed in very hot water.  Immediately sensing danger from the extreme heat, the frog jumped out to safety.  However, placing the frog in cool water and slowly raising the temperature resulted in the frog getting groggier and groggier, and finally boiling to death.

Nature programmed the frog to respond to sudden changes in his environment, not gradual changes.  Similarly, most people are instinctively resistant to change.  In fact, the problem is actually not so much resistance to change per se, but rather an inability or unwillingness to cope with change.  It is no wonder that so many of our initiatives struggle or fail to get off the ground.  We blame the employees, refer to the “old school” mentality, but the fact is that the fault lies with us, the leaders, for failing to cultivate a culture in which change is non-threatening.

As managers and leaders, we are responsible for championing and facilitating many types of change – product launches, marketing initiatives, sales strategies, policies, etc.  This means much more than simply adopting a positive attitude or being cheerleaders in morning staff meetings.  The fact is, leaders often fail their teams by relying solely on the acceptance of authority as the primary motivation for buy-in, with little or no thought given to the cultural complexion of the team and its individual members, or even previous responses to new initiatives or changes to organizational structure.   In the absence of a culture that tolerates change, let alone one that embraces it, we just keep tossing the same set of frogs into new pots of boiling water.

Next Post: Creating a Culture of Alignment

Summary – The Qualities of a Superior Leader

You know, being a strong leader is really just a simple matter of putting others first.  It’s having the confidence in yourself and your own abilities to let others have the spotlight.  It’s understanding that your own success depends entirely upon the success of those you lead.  The self-efficacy of the strongest leaders comes not from titles or promotions, raises or recognition, but from seeing those with whom they’ve achieved some measure of influence become better for the experience.  Regardless of rank or title or position, and independent of any designated authority, leaders influence those around them.  Superior leaders are set apart by their strength of character and integrity.

Superior leadership, through the attributes of character I’ve laid out, requires tremendous personal discipline and uncommon selflessness and sacrifice.  The pursuit of each attribute – character, discipline, humility, courage, and vision is an ongoing endeavor for most of us.  It certainly is for me.  They perhaps represent an idealistic goal, but I know with all certainty that they form the core qualities of superior character based leadership.

5. Leadership and Vision

vision-roosevelt_churchill_1941_600Vision is the fifth attribute common to superior leaders.  Usually, the word “vision” in leadership brings to mind lofty, high level ideals – a long term strategic objective.  But leaders with vision do more than align staff members with a company’s mission or rally the public around a common cause.

In a broader sense, visionary leaders focus on everyday objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire people.  People naturally follow leaders who arouse their hopes just as surely as they reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic.  Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy or constantly negative?

That’s not to say that visionary leaders are Pollyannas.  Leaders cannot simply pretend that setbacks don’t occur or that challenges don’t exist.  The reality of a given situation may very well present real and significant problems to be addressed.  They have to be honest and forthright to stay credible.  But rather than allowing the focus of the group to become fixed on the difficulties, they engage the team in developing productive and meaningful solutions.

Visionary leaders are passionate and purposeful about the work that they do and the objectives they seek.  Indifference is contagious and erodes the credibility and effectiveness of a manager, so leaders demonstrating strength of vision must have the courage to challenge those around them, subordinates and superiors.  In this context, “challenge” means that visionary leaders question the validity of assumptions or reasoning of others, not to be obnoxious, but to better understand and facilitate meaningful two way communication and feedback.  It’s a fine line to be sure, but if leaders are afraid to speak up, the flow of communication becomes so filtered that it is rendered meaningless, or worse, actually opposite of what was originally intended.

There’s a great book by George Washington University Professor, Jerry Harvey, called “The Abilene Paradox.”  In it, Harvey illustrates the paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is actually counter to the preferences of each individual in the group, simply because no one wants to speak up and be the squeaky dissenting wheel.  So, a family takes a 53 mile trip to Abilene, Texas for dinner on a hot Sunday afternoon because each of them believes the others all want to go.  In reality, none of them want to make the trip but they all go along, wasting a Sunday afternoon collectively doing something that none of them wanted to do, because no one had the courage to challenge the assumption.

Just as visionary leaders must be willing to challenge those around them, so must they be willing to be challenged.  Too often we solicit the opinion of others thinking we want information, when we really just want confirmation.  That kind of confirmation feels good, but it doesn’t mean very much.  It’s like telling the Emperor that his new suit looks fantastic instead of pointing out that he’s walking around naked (Please tell me someone remembers that Hans Christian Anderson fable).  And guess what happens when the information we receive doesn’t quite align with the confirmation we were looking for?  That’s right.  The Emperor is not happy… until he finally realizes that someone had the courage to be honest with him and act in his best interest.

I think it’s natural to prefer a response that validates rather than contradicts, but there is tremendous value in constructive feedback.  Visionary leaders check their ego at the door, slice themselves a big piece of humble pie, and rely on others who they trust to be honest and provide intelligent insight.  Their purpose is to make everyone around them better, but they also reap what they sow.  Engaging others in an objective focused process makes them stronger, more effective, and more motivated.  And that’s the whole idea.

4. Leadership and Courage

courage-iwo1Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”  This quote from one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders holds a wealth of wisdom in its simplicity.  No one would argue that it often requires courage to take action.  It’s easy in times of conflict to sit back and let others do the dirty work.  But it also takes courage at times to not act immediately, especially when confronted with adversity.  Knowing when to intervene and when to let events run their course comes with experience and confidence.  Courageous leaders calmly assess the situation and explore alternatives, even as others respond emotionally, demanding swift action.  This measured response to adversity requires discipline and the courage to be steadfast.

Courageous leaders take the initiative and act in the best interest of others, regardless of their own position or level of authority.  They don’t wait to be told, or (necessarily) wait to ask permission.  I once worked for someone who taught me that when confronted with a crisis, it’s better to act and be wrong than just sit back and do nothing.  I believe that to be generally true, but it’s also important to note that, sometimes, acting in the best interest of others means allowing them to fail so that they might learn from the experience.  Courageous leaders make decisions that serve the greatest long term good, even at the expense of short term personal gain.

While courageous leaders must always be thoughtful and purposeful, they should also demonstrate personal ownership of the problem and responsibility for its resolution.  People will not follow a leader who evades responsibility.  Character is tested under fire and leaders do not abdicate their role when challenged.  Courageous leaders are steadfast and firm, demonstrating authority and setting a personal example, empowering others through personal action and integrity.  Military history cites endless examples of battlefield leaders who rallied their troops by personally leading the charge or putting themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of others.

On January 26, 1945, just weeks after receiving a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Audie Murphy found himself a company commander in Holtzwihr, France.  With temperatures in the teens and 24 inches of snow on the ground, Murphy’s unit was down to 19 of its original 128 men.  Facing a German tank attack, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood alone and wounded atop a burning half-track, manning a machine gun and directing artillery fire into the enemy position 100 feet in front of him.  Asked by the artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, “Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one.”  The artillery fire and subsequent counter attack led by Murphy successfully repelled the Germans and Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire.

Murphy’s example is uncommon, but what is important to remember is that his actions were not motivated out of a desire for personal advancement or notoriety.  He was just 19 years old on that January 26, having lied about his age and enlisted in the Amy at age 16.  He didn’t set out to become a leader or a hero; he simply wanted to serve his country.  Prior to his promotion to lieutenant, Audie had already earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars as an enlisted man.  In his later years he summed up his perspective on leadership succinctly, “Lead from the front.”

Military heroics such as this are easy examples.  However, courage is much more than performing brave deeds.  Courage manifests itself in many forms and in small, everyday ways.  Sometimes it’s demonstrated on the field of battle for the entire world to see.  But other times it’s demonstrated in the boardroom or conference room, before colleagues and superiors.  Sometimes courage is tested in the face of overwhelming peer pressure, and sometimes it is quietly demonstrated in defense of others who are not even present.

Courage is taking action counter to one’s own best interest, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  A popular quote states that character is revealed in the actions taken when no one is looking.  I would add that courage provides the resolve.

Next Post:  Leadership and Vision