There isn’t much more frustrating than road signs that don’t help you find your way. If you have a GPS system, you can find you way no matter what the road signs say. But if you don’t, you sometimes have to guess and hope you end up in the right place. In organizations, the best road signs are the people. Pay attention to the signals you are getting from them. Ignoring them can lead to dead ends, or worse, bridge-out disasters.
WHEN PEOPLE ARE…
…LOST: It is because no one (including the leadership) has any idea where the organization is. [Input from too few sources and denial of reality is often the problem.]
…UNSURE: It is because the organization is always changing directions–west today, east tomorrow, last week it was south. [This can be a result of a “latest fad” strategy–if it worked for them, maybe it will work for us.]
…CONFUSED: It is because the road signs are in conflict, one pointing north and one pointing south. [One leader is saying one thing; another leader is saying something else.]
…UNCLEAR: It is because communication is unclear: “Do you have any idea what he said?” [Responsibility for clarity is with the communicator, not the listener. What you think you said and what people heard are often not the same thing.]
…PERPLEXED: It is because values, policies, etc., don’t apply to everyone. [Preferential treatment for some (especially self) will kill your credibility as a leader.]
…BEWILDERED: It is because they have no idea “why” the organization is headed a particular direction. [Purpose, values, vision, strategy, etc., are not understood.]
…DISORIENTED: It is because they are LOST, UNSURE, CONFUSED, UNCLEAR, PERPLEXED, and BEWILDERED. The organization seems to be spinning out of control and they feel helpless and hopeless. [Instead of blaming the people, the leaders should take a hard look at how they are leading.]
Wonder where your organization is headed? Look at the road signs. And remember, if you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you are headed.
In addition to the annoying day cricket (see Listen To The Day Crickets), our week in the mountains was interrupted four times by scorpions — those ferocious looking little arthropods that crawl around looking for something (or someone) to sting. One was successful, dropping from the ceiling onto a friend’s cheek in the middle of the night. There wasn’t any stage 3 or 4 sleep the rest of that night.
The scorpion species most common in the north Georgia mountains is the Vaejovis. Its sting is less painful than a bee or wasp sting. It’s even less painful than the stings we often inflict on each other with our words and attitudes. And, stings from a leader are the worst of all.
I have inflicted many a sting with my “That was good, but…” We perfectionists are never satisfied and all too often we make sure others know it. My wife has felt the sting of my “…good, but…” more times than I like to admit. Evaluating what can be done better is an important part of leadership, but it is best when separated from what was done right. It is less likely to sting that way.
Anger stings. Condescension stings. Stealing or not sharing credit stings. Being judgmental stings. Not listening stings. And so on…
It takes a lot of stings to kill the body, but not too many to kill the soul of the people you are leading. The last thing you need as a leader is the reputation of a scorpion.
The Blue Ridge mountains are at the beginning of their annual glory. God has his pallet and brushes out and is splashing red, yellow and gold all over the mountain sides. I am just returned from a week of watching this annual transformation (hoping that he would transform me as well).
But one morning, sitting on the deck reading with one eye and looking at the trees with the other, I was rudely interrupted and irritated by a day cricket. When it should have been hidden under a leaf somewhere sleeping and waiting for nightfall, it was chirping away repeatedly — chhiiirrrrppppp…chhiiirrrrppppp…chhiiirrrrppppp. One stupid cricket that should have been asleep like all the other crickets was ruining my solitude because it seemed to be chirping just at me. If I could have found it, I would have stomped on it and put me out of my misery.
Most leaders have to deal with day crickets. Too often, we deal with them by stomping on them. We would be better off if we listened to them. It is true that day crickets are often chirping about things that aren’t relevant or sound more like science fiction than reality. But day crickets are often the source of breakthrough ideas that change the future. If Hewlett-Packard had listened to day crickets (the two Steve’s), HP would be Apple instead of Apple being Apple. There are about ten thousand examples of day crickets being stomped on in one organization, but changing the future in another organization because someone would listen to them.
There is another type of day cricket that is stomped on even more. It is the day cricket that tells us the truth about ourselves. How irritating when a day cricket dares to suggest that we are arrogant, or controlling, or lazy, or full of anger and rage, or are acting like a bully, or __________ (you fill in the blank). In True North, Bill George says leaders lose touch with reality when “they reject the honest critic who holds a mirror to their face and speaks the truth. Instead, they surround themselves with supporters telling them what they want to hear.”
Next time you are irritated by a day cricket, take a deep breath, steel yourself, pray for patience, then listen. You’ll be a better leader for it.
My first encounter with Lloyd Shoppa was coaching 5th and 6th grade boys in basketball. My team was the Red Raiders. I don’t remember the name of his team, but I do remember they wore black uniforms and beat our brains out. He was a good coach. He was also a good production control director at Bell Helicopter where we both worked.
My second encounter with Lloyd came soon after I escaped the engineering bullpen and was promoted (my first promotion) to project engineer on the Advanced Attack Helicopter project team. I thought I was now special, and for sure our project was special , because the company president had anointed it as the company’s highest priority. To make sure everyone knew, we printed AAH #1 stickers and put them everywhere; not a popular move with all the other project teams.
It takes about three zillion parts to make a helicopter. Making sure each part is available when needed is a huge and critical task because a shortage can shut down a production line. Not cool. One of my tasks was to attend the daily all-projects part shortage meeting — chaired by Lloyd Shoppa. All the part shortages on all the different projects were discussed. For reasons I cannot now remember, I was not satisfied with the priority being given to the AAH shortages and felt obligated to remind everyone that according to our company president, the AAH was #1. My little speech was about as popular as the stickers.
Lloyd looked directly at me and said, “Dick, in this room, everything is #1.” In that one simple statement, Lloyd sent a message to everyone in the room, especially to me. He brought me down a bit, and lifted everyone else a bit. Something I needed, and something they needed.
That was about thirty-five years ago, but it was a lesson I have never forgotten. Rankings may be fine for college football, but when it comes to people, customers, project teams, etc., a high level leader is going to make everyone feel like they are #1. If you expect #1 level commitment and performance, don’t ever make people feel like they are #2.
So, who’s #1? Everyone!
(By the way, Lloyd finished his long successful career at Bell as the company president.)
Jim Collins has hit the nail on the head again. In How The Mighty Fall, he identifies five stages of decline that falling organizations go through as they disappear altogether or become irrelevant.
Collins defines Stage 3 as Denial of Risk and Peril. He says:
“In Stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterizes high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether.”
Basically, he is saying that the leader(s) are hiding from at least four fundamental tasks and principles of leadership:
1. Facts (real facts, not opinions) are your friends;
2. Defining reality is a key task of leadership;
3. Examine self first — no organization ever rises above the level of its leadership;
4. Get input and perspective from as many sources as possible (restricted access and input is a certain mark of Stage 3).
It is interesting that organizations get to Stage 3 by way of Stages 1 and 2: Hubris (organizational and personal) and Lack of Discipline (organizational and personal). Why does Stage 3 happen so easily in organizations? Leaders put self-interests and pride ahead of the organization. How many times have you heard a leader say: “This is my fault”?
As a leader, I’ve had my head in the sand a few times (maybe more than a few times). Where’s your head these days?
Labor Day included a visit to the Nashville Zoo with my three grandsons: Big Guy Buddy (7), Cool Guy Buddy (6), and Little Buddy (2). We started in the Jungle Gym and finished hours later with the alligators (who had enough sense to either sleep or stay in the water on a warm afternoon). Mid-day, just before lunch, we trekked up the hill to the African Savannah-home to three large African elephants named Hakari, Kiba, and Sukari. They were doing elephant things like sloshing in the mud, throwing dirt on their backs, and grunting while bumping into each other as they jockeyed for position. It was fun to watch and all three buddies enjoyed it thoroughly.
Hakari, Kiba, and Sukari are close in size, all dirty brown (gray underneath the dirt according to Cool Guy Buddy), have tusks of nearly the same length, big ears, big feet…you get the picture. So, how do you tell them apart? According to the information sign, you tell them apart by their tails. One has a short tail, one a medium tail with a kink in it, and one (Hakari, I think), a long tail with long hair at the end that drags the ground. And, sure enough, it was easy to spot Hakari who not only has long hair at the end of her (yes, her) tail, but also has a hairy belly (gross according to the buddies).
Later in the day as I was thinking about Hard Lessons, it was hard for me not to be reminded of a lot of so-called leaders I have seen. They spend their time sloshing in the mud, throwing dirt in the air, grunting and bumping into each other as they jockey for position, and in the process, their followers get muddy, dirty and squeezed. Unfortunately, they are hard to recognize because they keep their butts covered and we can’t see their tails. Or…can we?
At the beginning of every day, he arrived with briefcase in hand. At the end of every day, he left the office with briefcase in hand. He had the right look — a busy manager with so much to do he had to carry his work home.
However, during the day, the briefcase sat in his office, undisturbed and unopened. After a while, his employees noticed and began to wonder: “Is he really doing any work at home, or is this all for show?” They decided to find out.
How that brick found its way into his briefcase was never revealed. For days, even weeks, it was carried home every evening and returned every morning. Then came the day we all remember these many years later — he complained about how heavy the briefcase was and decided to clean it out. Under the watchful eyes of his employees, the briefcase was opened, the brick exposed. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember that he was angry, embarrassed, and humiliated. It wasn’t just the brick that was exposed — he was exposed.
It’s pretty hard to fool people over a long period of time; especially people you live or work with on a daily basis. And when we try, we wear ourselves out carrying a brick around. People will follow leaders they believe are authentic; leaders that really are what they appear to be. And when we aren’t authentic, in any dimension of life, sooner or later, we will be exposed.
"The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."
Kouzes & Posner