Learning to Lead - The Challenge of Being Exposed

When Leadership Responsibility Expands – Unresolved People Problems Loom Larger Leaders adjusting to a new scope of responsibility face the challenge of redefining their relationships to those who were direct reports, those who were peers and those to whom they report. Every emerging leader develops a theory of leadership as a result of their interactions with their context, peers, direct reports and supervisors in a way that synthesizes their understanding of their own strengths, other’s strengths/motivations and of the tasks in front of them.  Every person given responsibility for an organization’s performance enters the sometimes mystifying world of leadership.   By leadership I mean (i) a culturally aware process, (ii) that involves influence, (iii) that exercises legitimate authority, (iv) in a group context, (v) that involves achieving a goal.

Every leader discovers that their self-image endures the tarnishing effect that results from attempting to work with people who are difficult.  Difficult people are characterized by skepticism of a leader’s motive, capability, capacity, or vision of the future. The emotional toll of dealing with difficult people slows organizational momentum and in a worse case derails the leader and his or her team. Ordinarily assessing a goal from the perspective of differing views of reality adds to rather than detracts from the functionality of a group. This assumes that those who offer perspective possess (1) an equivalent horizon of the threat, opportunity, weaknesses and strengths of the group; (2) a respect for the fundamental orientation of the leader; and that (3) the leader has an appreciation of the differing perspectives of the group.  I asked a friend to summarize the lesson’s he had just learned as he navigated a transition.  I used his lessons as a springboard for the article below.

Lesson 1: Play winning percentages and priority investments

Bruce’s (not his real name) promotion from leading a field office in Europe to working in the corporate office in the United States set the stage for this important lesson. Bruce described a difficult former direct report that his replacement did not know how to handle.  In fact, the new manager, trainer and corporate coach had attempted to intervene in this employee’s behavior.  The various interventions were working at cross-purposes to one another in a way that excused the employee’s poor performance and actually masked the central issues of this employee’s behavior.

I listened intently for a while then asked, “Bruce, what are the odds of success you give your planned intervention?”

There was a pause on the other line for a moment when he responded, “Hmm, I’d say about 10%”

“So,” I responded, “you will mobilize your time and energy to by-pass your own organizational structure to work directly with an employee that you only see a 10% possibility of saving?  How does that fit into your strategic aim for changing the culture toward accountability and leadership?  Aren’t those two aspects of the culture you wanted to change?”

“Yes, I do want to create a culture of accountability, we do not execute well and we do not hold people responsible for their jobs” he responded.

“Is the action you have outlined the best way to leverage your change project forward?” I asked.  “Is a decision that only has a 10% chance of success the best use of your time or that of the field managers?” I continued.

Before Bruce could respond I asked another question, “Do the managers on the field agree with your assessment of this employee?”

“Yea,” he said hesitantly, “they don’t know what to do with the employee – they are frustrated.”

“What if you handed the assignment back to them and coached them through the needed conversation with the employee?” I asked.

Popular misconceptions about leadership often start with the premise that leadership is a distant indirect influence in a group context – an “ivy tower” exercise.  The fact is that much of what a leader does is actually one on one interaction that negotiates a common understanding of reality and responsibility.  One on one interaction is called “leader member exchange” (LMX) which is the name of a leadership theory positing that by working with an in-group (those people with whom the leader has mutual trust, respect and commitment) allows a leader to carry out more work in a more efficient way than working without one.  In-group employees show a higher commitment to work outside the scope of their formal job description and a higher degree of innovation in looking for ways to advance the group’s goals.

Prescriptively LMX theory suggests that a leader should develop high-quality exchanges characterized by trust and respect with all of his or her subordinates rather than just a few.  The promotion of healthy leader member exchanges not only breaks down the inequities and negative implications of creating in and out groups it also promotes partnerships (through effective dyads) that builds the team, benefits the organization and contributes to the leader’s own career progress.  Using questions I intended to help Bruce think about what effective LMX looked like in his situation.

As Bruce ruminated on the questions he reframed his LMX approach and determined to enlist the field managers and employee mentors to design an intervention that outlined specific expectations and outcomes.

Lesson 2: Keeping me focused on my role and helping people solve their own issues

Staying focused on one’s own role is especially important in transitions.  Bruce’s move from managing a field office in Europe to leading the field offices globally from the corporate headquarters changed the nature of Bruce’s daily tasks. The way he spends his time and the kind of work he needs to value and the scope of perspective he now has to exercise are all different.  Watkins (2003) describes the importance of understanding the significance of transition challenges;

… transitions are critical times when small differences in your actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position because they lack detailed knowledge of challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them: they also have not developed a network of relationships too sustain them.[1]

The overriding goal in a transition is to build momentum by creating virtuous cycles that build credibility and by avoiding getting caught in vicious cycles that damage credibility – leadership is about leverage.  The behavior Bruce described in this situation represented a vicious cycle in his organization.  The vicious cycle that managers fail to discuss the challenges of people management meant these managers handed their responsibility off laterally and upwardly.  Remember Bruce described a network of leaders in the company of four different managers (the employee’s manager, the trainer, the corporate coach and Bruce) all working with one line employee who because of the demand of attention left the high producing employees off on the sidelines (See Figure 1 below).  Employee commitment, contribution, conviction, confidence and sense of alignment with the organizational culture all suffered as a result.

Bruce faced the necessity of exercising adaptive leadership in order to model and reinforce a different kind of behavior the organization needed to escape the vicious cycle of codling low producers at the cost of developing their high producers.

3.  Starting with the agreed goal of our division and naming the issues that are stopping us proved to be a win.

The vicious cycle clear in Bruce’s experience is not uncommon in organizational interaction. When habits and attitudes become part of the problem over time they create a systemic problem. A systemic problem is a problem that has grown larger than the people involved; it becomes a system of its own that is self-perpetuating.  The recognition that systemic behavioral problems exist forms the need for a different approach.  Simply raising the level of effort to reassert known solutions only worsens the situation.

This is why a leader’s job in encouraging change is to help people face the reality of their situation in a way that they have the emotional energy to handle and to engage the organization’s people in trying to define change.  Heifetz and Laurie say it this way;

… the locus of responsibility for problem solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift to its people.[2]

In the face of an adaptive challenge everyone must learn new behaviors all the way through at every level of the organization.  Disequilibrium in relationships, processes and emotions that result from facing deep change require that a leader sustain patience and hope to aid their teams in confronting the contradictions of existing behavior to adjust their values to the new realities around them.  Bruce had to shift responsibility for working through new behavior to the employee and the manager.  He could not ride in like a knight in shining armor and win the day if he wanted to change the organizational culture and develop the breadth of organizational leadership.  Rather than approaching the situation issuing directives Bruce utilized coaching skills.

4.  Asking, not telling the employee to reflect how she sees these things play out in her life, worked in gaining her attention.

In taking this stand Bruce did two things. First he authenticated what the employee felt.  Oddly enough managers and leaders tend to discount the feelings or perception of those they don’t understand or those that irritate them.  Ignoring or belittling a person’s perception never resolves the conflict but either pushes it underground so that it takes a sinister and subversive form or fuses an explosion that results in escalated tensions and broken relationship.

Second, he compelled the employee to take responsibility for her own actions by asking her to assess the kind of emotional wake her behavior left behind.  According to Bruce this employee often excused her behavior and its negative emotional wake on the basis of being misunderstood by her manager or other leaders.  As a result she never assessed her behavior as something she had a choice in determining. Bruce was able to get the employee to articulate that she viewed herself as a victim of circumstance beyond her control not as a person who had learned helplessness.  The reality is that thinking determines behavior or outlook determines the outcome.  Said another way, an outlook anticipating success determines success in outcomes.  An outlook anticipating failure, defeat etcetera determines failure, rejection, and defeat.  This employee routinely torpedoed her own success in the way she thinks.  For the first time someone asked her to be responsible for her own feelings and behavior. (For more on this subject see http://wp.me/pYuoc-1j).

5.  Sharing how I see these things play out in my personal life.

Bruce literally came out from behind himself to make the conversation real by taking the risk to; (1) be known, (2) to be seen and (3) to be changed.  This takes courage – it is the courage to give honest feedback.  Because Bruce had opened the conversation by authenticating the employee he gained a hearing – a real conversation ensued. Bruce was doing what Susan Scott writes about her in her book on Fierce Conversations.  He had taken stock by asking himself some tough questions prior to the conversation.  Good leaders regularly ask themselves questions such as:

How often do I find myself saying things I don’t mean just to be polite?

How many meetings have I sat in knowing that the real issues were being avoided?

What has been the economic, emotional, intellectual cost for my dishonesty?  What is the cost to my organization?  What is the cost to my relationships?

By making it real Bruce set a tone that essentially said, “I respect you as a person and I am interested in what you really have to say and I am confused and disappointed when you don’t say it but mask it by avoiding behaviors.” This kind of honesty is the foundation for discipline in an organization.  Too often I hear leaders confuse the idea of respect for their employees with a laissez-faire approach to leading.  (For more on the subject of discipline see http://wp.me/pYuoc-2E).

6.  Having her agree to pursue her leaders experience with her in the areas mentioned.

By making it real Bruce began to challenge deeply held assumptions. He set the stage for a new definition of reality by respecting the employee’s perspective and offering his own.  It was now time to check for understanding which they did in listening to one another and checking in…did they understand what the other was saying? The process of challenging reality (the deeply held assumptions we have about what is really going on) is that it requires risk taking – that risk once again is the risk of being known, being seen and being changed.  It is important to gain a cross-check to reality by inviting others to weigh in.  In Bruce’s situation he invited the cross-check to reality by risking the response of other the corporate coach, trainer and field manager who were familiar with the tensions between Bruce and the employee.

If the other leaders opted to avoid the fierce conversation or avoid the risk of being known, seen and changed themselves the conversation and its beneficial changes would be lost.  So, Bruce also had to have open and honest conversations with these leaders helping them understand how dishonesty played a role in perpetuating the employee’s unsuccessful behavior and beliefs about herself and the organization.

7.  Mapping the people involved helped clarify the situation.

This lesson referred to a conversation Bruce and I had prior to talking with the employee. He described the frustration he and the field leaders and coaches shared in working with the employee. Bruce intended to develop leaders and nurture an organizational culture of accountability and consistent execution.  However, he described actions what worked the opposite of his intention but he was too close to the situation to see it. So, we drew a picture (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Relational Network – Distorted Priorities

It only takes a minute looking at the picture to see several unhealthy trends. First, notice that the employee had positioned herself at the center of all attention and emotional expenditure.  The field employees were relegated to a periphery role of refereeing the tension between the Field Manager and the Employee – and they resented this role.  Their resentment undermined their respect of the both the Director of Field Operations and the Field Manager.  Work had slowed to a minimal performance.

Second, notice that the Trainer and Corporate Coach were also involved in attempting to work with the employee.  That direct communication between the Director, Field Manager, Trainer and Corporate Coach was rare allowed the employee to play each one off the other – and she did it masterfully.  The resources intended to help the Field Employees were literally siphoned off by the attention given to the employee.

Third, the diagram captures a visual sense of the confusion that surrounded the situation – the closer each leader was to the situation the more it felt like they had entered a fog.  The Field Manager felt slighted by the Director’s intervention, the Director was frustrated by the Manager’s failure to act on the situation, the Corporate Coach failed to engage a 360 degree perspective of the problem and the training manager nurtured the employee’s sense of victimization by questioning the competence of the Director.

Creating this map helped Bruce see that his intentions were not visible in his actions. He had to change his behavior to move his organization to a new level of leadership and accountability.

8.  Understanding that just because people don’t want to solve a situation doesn’t mean I need to step in and solve it for them.

Bruce described this realization in the following words, “I need to push them back to it. This doesn't mean I don't work at setting up the situation for the best success but they need to do the heavy lifting here. Not attacking the employee's point of failure in these standards but rather processing how they impact the operation as a group allowed her [the employee] to reflect without defensiveness.”

Leadership doesn’t develop in an organization that (1) keeps people from facing the consequences of their actions by premature interventions or that (2) instills such a fear of mistakes that emotional immobilization occurs or that (3) consistently revokes permission to lead while simultaneously invoking accountability for actions that the people have no control over i.e., the actions of their leaders/managers or that (4) uses a laissez-faire management style until problems percolate to upper management leading to fits of anger and threats.


Bruce is growing as a leader.  It is clear in his reflection that his understanding of what it means to exercise authority, power and influence in moving his organization toward consistently high performance is developing. I asked him if I could write on his observations because I believe many leaders could learn from what Bruce is learning.

Now that you have read this what did you learn?  How will what you learned alter your behavior?  What specific behavior do you need to change? Who will you talk to about it?  Let me know how you plan to use this information or let me know if it helps you define your situation. If the latter is true what part of this article helped you most?

Or, what part of this article do you disagree with and why?  Let me know…I am still learning to lead effectively as well.

[1] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels. (Boston,MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), xi.

[2] Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie. “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review (December 2001), 6.