Posted by: dstieglitz | January 29, 2014


“I start with the premise that the purpose of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”  Ralph Nader

When asked about the health-care website crash, President Obama said: “I didn’t write the code.”  Nor does anyone expect him to – but leaders are expected to build organizations that get things done.  Even after five years in power, the Obama administration’s weak leadership conversations at times leave the President knowing too little about things that matter most.  In addition to the website fiasco, Obama says he was unaware that the NSA eavesdropped on world leaders or that the IRS applied extraordinary tax scrutiny to conservative groups.  Like many executives, Obama prefers an inspirational speech to building a plan, and relishes sweeping reform more than incremental change.  These situations raise doubts about whether Obama knows what is happening in the federal bureaucracy he manages.  Does he routinely get the information required to lead?  Is he asking the right questions?  Do you?

Same in New Jersey.  Like Obama, New Jersey Governor Christie also endured the worst month of his five years in office.  Christie claimed not to know that his top aides intentionally created massive traffic jams by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political retaliation to a local mayor.  He immediately fired the aides but the incident raises doubts about his ability to assemble a leadership team.  Even if Christie didn’t participate in the lane closures or the cover-up, he failed to build a culture where everyone knew that politically motivated actions were unacceptable.

What’s Happening Inside Your Organization?  Do you really know?  Is it necessary for a leader to know everything that’s happening?  Unless you lead a small organization, the answer to the last question is: “No. It’s impractical and inefficient to know everything.”  When you give your people specific goals, clear decision criteria, and unwavering principles to guide their actions, you don’t have to know everything that is happening because it will happen according to your standards for what is appropriate.

Baseline Conversations.  The standards you set must balance the competing demands of growth, profitability, social responsibility, and learning.  Tell your people what you expect relative to collaborating with others, environmentally sustainable practices, and accepting the often higher cost of those two approaches. For example, one business owner assigned a top performer to sell a new service.  A few months later, he complained “she’s not doing a good job.”  When asked what constituted a good job, he stammered and said: “I don’t know. I just expected more than I’m getting.”  The baseline conversation that ensued set monthly goals, defined innovative service strategies, and allocated promotional resources.  When the goals were achieved, he said: “She’s the best promotion I ever made – especially now that I’m a better leader.”

An Ocean of Information. Like President Obama, Governor Christie, and almost every other executive, you are afloat in an ocean of information.  Each day you struggle to separate the useful from the irrelevant in the information tsunami.  Just as you seek a healthy food diet, you must refine your information diet to focus on decisions about the most critical matters.  Making information choices is difficult today because of the increasing number of web sites, emails, blogs (like this one), books, and other sources of information.  One way to obtain actionable information is to ask the right questions.

Asking Questions.  Asking questions doesn’t come naturally.  Executives are usually more comfortable telling people what to do.  Obama and Christie, for example, should have asked probing questions of their key aides to determine what was really happening in their organizations.  Our academic training hard wires us to answer questions.  Teachers asked questions and our success was measured by how well we answered them.  And when we entered the business world, supervisors were more directive than inquiring.  Ask the hard questions of your people and encourage them to do the same to you. When you feel that you know all there is to know, there’s at least one more question you can ask: “What other question should I ask?”  That question often elicits overlooked information that modifies decisions.

Leadership Accountability.  The questions that leaders ask define goals, clarify decision-making criteria, and set boundaries for acceptable behaviors.  Ask yourself: “To what extent do I and other executives follow the rules and hold each other accountable to those rules?”  For example, if a leader doesn’t want subordinates to make politically motivated decisions, then his decisions shouldn’t be politically motivated.  Industry leaders have special challenges in this area because they operate in uncharted waters.  Their people must make on-the-spot decisions when circumstances are radically different from past experiences. Nonetheless, they must be held accountable for results of those decisions.  As a leader, your job is to build a culture that holds people accountable for results and the criteria they use to make decisions. 

Clear Communications.  Under most circumstances, your key people do what they believe you want them to do.  If you have communicated clear guidelines, you can be confident that things will be done in the prescribed manner.  For example, Obama’s appointees and Christie’s aides thought they were doing what the boss wanted by making life difficult for political opponents – they mimicked their bosses’ behavior.  Since you communicate with more people, more often, in more ways than ever before, your conversations must include probing questions and clear guidelines.  You don’t need to know everything that is happening in your organization, but you should know the guidelines your people will use to make decisions and take action when you aren’t there.


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