Saturday, August 14, 2010

when leaders can't lead

As I considered what to name this blog, I vacilated between using the word "can't" and "won't." I suppose that the word "can't" implies the inability to do so, either through lack of knowledge or resources. The idea behind "won't" is that someone has the knowledge and resources and willfully chooses not to use them in their leadership role. Once this blog is finished, I will leave it up to the reader to decide which term may be the most appropriate...

How many times during the course of one's career do people observe a leader who continues to do things that defy the imagination? How one treats people...the decisions one makes...the policies one enacts...the lack of decisive action when needed...the inapproriate comments and behaviors...the unwillingness to listen...the unwillingness to use people's passions and gifts...the stupid things one says and does...and like most of the other lists in my blogs, this one too could go on and on.

When I observe these types of behaviors in people who have been placed in leadership positions (note the difference between leaders and people placed in leadership positions) I do not know if they are incapable of acting in a manner that for all intentional purposes is the exact opposite of what leaders should be doing - or if they choose in the moment to wilfully act in that manner. It does not make any sense to me that a mature person, who has the ability to read and observe other leaders, would behave in such a manner that would be degrading to individuals and harm an organization. I am not talking about leaders making mistakes - that happens all the time. I have lost my temper...I have made bad decisions...I have acted in my own interest rather than that of the organization...but I beleive they are few and far between - they are, what we would call, lapses or mistakes. What we all observe from time to time are those people in leadership positions who consistently and wilfully make decisions that hurt people and the organization. And for most of these people, I assume (and I could be wrong here) that they have been told about these behaviors, and yet they stil continue to function in this manner. Someone please help me understand this phenomenon...

So here is what I think - and then I will share what may be done:

  • I think that many people move forward in their careers by behaving badly, but that it does not hurt others or the organization because either a) they are so low on the organizational chart that no one notices or cares as long as the work gets done; or b) they are lone rangers who are incredibly successful and their organization (or industry) is afraid to hold them accountable for fear they may leave
  • I think that often times people are rewarded for results, and that the bad behavior becomes tolerated, which then becomes part of the culture, which then becomes institutionalized. How can a leader who behaves badly be called to account when that is the way other people in leadership positions behave within the organization?
  • I think that some people just don't know any better - they were treated this way in the past and that is the only way they know how to function in a leadership role (we all know of parents who abuse their children because they were abused as a child)
  • I think for many people in ledership positions it may be scary to change their behavior - they have built their reputation on a certain way of behaving (and many times wear it as a badge of honor) and to ask them to change seems to them an impossibility

So what can be done?

  • Leaders need to be held accountable - when they behave badly someone needs to stand up to them and hold out the mirror. If the person holding the mirror needs protection, then the organization should provide that in some shape or form
  • Leaders need to learn - no one shuld be beyond improving their leadership skills and abilities. I wonder how many leaders who won't/can't lead have attended serious leadership training and development courses recently?
  • Leaders need to focus on people - while those in leadership positions are held accountable to results, they should also be accountable to people. At the end of the day, all an organization has is it's people - and they need to be taken care of and handled in a way that builds them up and uses their gifts
  • Organizations need to know the results of a leader's bad behavior - when someone leaves an organziation because of bad leadership, that person needs to let the organization know - so that others may not need to suffer in a similar position.
  • Build a culture that holds leaders accountable for their actions, not just their results - if an organization believes that people are important, then those in leadership positions need to act in a manner that supports that value.

All this being said, there are those leaders who often "suffer in silence." Becasue they play by the rules...because they put people first...because they do not bully others...because they are making decisions that are for the good of the organization AND its people...because they are constantly learning how to improve themselves...because they can say "I may be wrong"...they often get overshadowed by those who can't/won't lead. I believe that these leaders need recognition for what they do - and for who they are...they should receive the necessary resources needed for their departments...they should receive the acknowledgement that they deserve...they should be listened to more closely than others...and they should be the ones of whom it will be said, "Well done, good and faithful servant."


Carrie said...

I think you've titled this correctly. There are leaders who just can't absorb the knowledge of what's going on around them. They don't see or observe the world. A leader is a person who is watching the room, is seeing how others react to them and is listening to how they're perceived or is feeling how their message is received. When a "leader" doesn't absorb what is going on around them or what people are telling them through body language, gossip or the flat-out truth, they're on their own and thus can't lead, not won't lead, but they just can't.

Matt Grahn said...

Outstanding post! You and I have posted/commented on culture and a lot of this has to do with the culture of the organization. Is this tolerated? Is there accountability built into the organization? College athletics has many examples to illustrate this very post. One thing I would add is the "whistle blower" effect; the fear that a person will be ostracized from the profession or considered an outcast/insubordinate. No one wants to be labeled a tattle-tale or be thought of as less than loyal.