Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Leadership Lesson: Choosing What to Overlook

Rachel told me what had happened before the revolt.

She'd been placed in charge of the department while her boss was on vacation. She'd often filled in for him for short periods and she was comfortable with her knowledge of the job. In some respects, she knew far more about some departmental operations than did her boss and she was proud of that knowledge. In fact, she felt the boss was a little lax in some areas.

Within two days of taking charge, Rachel started to crack the whip. Rules that had been unenforced were now enforced. Employees who were pretty good workers were rather tactlessly shown how they could be even better. By the third day, people were starting to ask - casually, of course - just when the boss was getting back from his trip.

By the fifth day, a few of them were in open revolt, refusing to proceed on certain projects until the "real boss" returned.

Rachel felt betrayed. She regarded all of her actions as reasonable and, as she analyzed them one-by-one, it was clear that she'd failed to consider the appearance and the context. She had failed to understand how her actions would be perceived and she completely missed a crucial part of effective management: Knowing what to overlook.

Rachel did not grasp that leadership is a constant choice of priorities and that leading often means consciously loosening a management standard here or there. She thought she could have it strict enforcement of petty rules as well as enthusiastic support of the team. Her team quickly reminded her how much leaders need followers.

Listening to her analysis of what went wrong, it was clear that Rachel had plateaued. She was refusing to admit that her behavior contributed to and perhaps even created the problem. It was as if she had announced, "I'm a very good assistant director but I'll always need a director to rein in my autocratic tendencies." That in no way discounts her very real skills and yet it is sad that a great opportunity for growth turned into a demonstration of limitations.


pawnking said...

Your post seems to imply that if Rachel had seen what was wrong and was making attempts to address it, you would have more hope for her than you currently do. Is that the case?

Michael Wade said...


Absolutely. I've seen a lot of people change their leadership/management styles but a key point is acknowledging the problem. Rachel could justly point to things the team members should have done but their sins did not let her off the hook. If she'd recognized her mistakes, then the episode could have simply become a tough but valuable learning experience.

Wally Bock said...

The whole point of feedback is that you do something with it. If you, like Rachel seems to have done, fall back on the "it's just the way I am" excuse, you won't make much progress.

There may be hope, though. We can hope that Rachel is one of those reflective souls who process behavioral failures like this slowly. I've had several of them as coaching clients and they start by defending their behavior. Then they go away and ponder. Sometime later they return with their analysis which is usually a better use of feedback than their first response.

Hoots said...

Excellent post. The tail does not wag the dog. This little story underscores the important difference between extrensic versus intrensic motivations, or (my preference) internal versus external controls. Leadership at its best focuses a group of people who have internalized target values and objectives, and reserves external controls to avert emergencies.