I am often asked questions about leadership and leading others. These questions come from students, colleagues, and leaders who are seeking to evaluate their organizations. As an outsider it’s often easier to evaluate a person’s leadership in a given situation because there is no need to clear away the fog that comes with being entrenched in a situation or the inner workings of an organization. Certainly, the details of a situation are rarely understood from afar, which makes it challenging to evaluate specific decisions a leader has made. However, when evaluating leadership, the specific decisions are often less critical than how a leader leads his/her troops through a situation, whether that situation be good or bad.
This series will focus on some of the mechanics of leadership.
The Elephant in the Room
An example of a poor leadership practice that I see more regularly in both small and large organizations is a failure to address the “elephant in the room.” Usually, this is not a simple oversight. Rather, it is an effort to control a negative situation, which usually makes the problem worse. Why leaders don’t recognize the negative effects of ignoring the elephant in the room is beyond me.
With the advent of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, examples of this poor strategy are abundant and obvious for everyone to see. Except, perhaps, the executive who is attempting damage control. The results of not addressing a problem that virtually everyone is aware of are often many and usually negative.
Perhaps the most negative outcome is a loss of trust by those who are charged (by contract or choice) to follow the executive’s leadership. Once trust in leadership is lost, the downward spiral begins. A lack of trust in the leader usually results in a decreased commitment by those being led poorly. That is followed by decreasing job performance, regardless of whether the people are employees or volunteers. Poor job performance is followed by poor production/output, which will eventually lead to the stagnation or even death of the organization. This is true in sports. In business. In church life.
When everyone is aware of a major problem, address it … even if all you can say is “we are aware of the problem and this is what we are doing to address it.” The problem can be anything that raises serious concerns among a company’s or organization’s constituents. When an automobile has recurring problems that are causing customer deaths, the worst thing the CEO can do is ignore the problem as if it doesn’t exist. Are you listening, Toyota? When storms hit an area and leave people homeless, citizens want to know that the governor/mayor has his eye on the problem. Even if he/she doesn’t have an immediate solution to the problem. Remember Katrina and Sandy? When production or development plans fail, a CEO should first acknowledge the problem to the stakeholders and then keep them abreast of efforts to solve the problem. Remember Enron?
I found myself in such a situation while leading an organization. One member of the organization was publicly humiliating the organization through social media. Many, perhaps all members of the group were aware of this person’s actions and were waiting to see how I would respond. Clearly an executive doesn’t want to come out with guns blazing unnecessarily, so I had to properly evaluate the situation. Were the reports true? Was this individual hurting the morale of the membership and thus the organization? The answer was clearly yes. Furthermore, his actions were undermining my leadership … the longer I allowed them to go unaddressed the more my ability as a leader came into question among the membership.
Once this became clear, I had to act … and act, I did. I first addressed the situation with the individual, dismissing him from the organization. The next thing I did was speak directly and publicly to the members of the organization about the problem, clarifying why it was a problem for our organization and how I intended to remedy the problem. Finally, I laid out a plan for moving forward that shored up confidence in our organization and me as the leader of that organization. The camaraderie of the members grew and as an organization we were able to accomplish more than we had to date.
In that illustration, the problem was the behavior of an individual, which was pretty easily solved. Unfortunately, not all leadership challenges are so easily managed. Sometimes, the best plans do not succeed. On occasions, an executive is dependent on a series of things falling into place to solve a major problem, … and they don’t fall into place. That doesn’t have to be the end of the world … unless you leave people with their hands in the air, asking what’s going on because you refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room. People realize that things don’t always go as planned. So when they don’t, recognize it, explain it, and give confidence that you are working on it. If you do that, your leadership reputation and skills will be enhanced. If you don’t … your leadership will be rightly questioned.