Spiritual Leadership or Its Absence Affects Your Bottom Line

Spiritual leadership is the missing piece of the puzzle. Spiritual leadership impacts the bottom line

Most leaders understand the necessity of developing skills and leveraging their unique personality. Fewer leaders understand the antecedent of spiritual formation in the development of leaders. Fewer leaders still believe that spiritual formation has any bearing on their bottom line.  However, research begs to differ with what leaders believe or don’t believe.

So what difference does spiritual formation and spiritual leadership make according to the research?[i] Every significant metric of employee performance i.e., commitment, productivity, performance, character, and competence are positively affected by spiritual leadership. The reverse is also true; the lack of spiritual leadership exists as a drag on these same metrics. The fact is that spiritual leadership melts the impediments that keep organizations and businesses from hitting sustained bottom line performance. How?

First, spiritual leadership positively predicts calling (i.e., the experience of transcendence that defines how one makes a difference through service to others and thus derives a meaning and purpose in life). How calling is generated in followers is the concern of the spiritual leader.  Calling is that sense of meaning or purpose that makes up the triad of intrinsic motivation (competence, mastery, and purpose – see Pink).  As Fry et al describe it:

“The term calling has long been used as one of the defining characteristics of a professional. Professionals in general have expertise in a specialized body of knowledge, ethics centered on selfless service to clients/customers, an obligation to maintain quality standards within the profession, calling to their field, dedication to their work, and a strong commitment to their careers.”[ii]

Second, spiritual leadership positively predicts membership (i.e., the fundamental need to be understood and appreciated – this emerges in followers as the leader manifests the characteristics of spiritual leadership and so generates a sense of mutual care and concern so that followers gain a sense of membership). Spiritual leadership contributes to the altruistic love of each team member toward the other as they jointly develop a common vision. Altruistic love and a common vision is a prerequisite to developing hope – a characteristic that expressed in a “do what it takes” pursuit of “a vision of transcendent service to stakeholders.”[iii]

Third, the positive relationship between spiritual leadership and organizational commitment and performance is fully mediated by calling and membership.  Leaders who tap into their followers needs of calling and membership find that shared experience helps the emergence of trust, intrinsic motivation, and organizational commitment needed to enhance the team’s performance.  Researchers explain the dynamic at play in shared experience as:

“Concerning spiritual leadership, over time these individuals would begin to form shared or compatible mental models of altruistic love, vision, and hope/faith of the group, thereby increasing the group’s sense of calling and membership, and ultimately influence each other toward increasingly greater levels of commitment and performance.”[iv]

Spiritual leadership is a game changer

Clearly the exercise of spiritual leadership is a game changer. So what is spiritual leadership? It is an expression of vision, altruistic love, and faith/hope that characterizes the leader’s approach to exercising influence and power.  Spiritual leadership is a composite variable in organizational performance. It cannot be adequately deconstructed to create a reflective construct but does serve as a formative construct i.e., causal action flows from indicators to create a composite variable.  The formative indicators of spiritual leadership include:

  1. Vision – a picture of the future based on implicit or explicit commentary describing why people should work to create that future.
  2. Altruistic love – “…a sense of wholeness, harmony, and well being produced through care, concern and appreciation for both self and others.” (262)
  3. Hope/faith – hope is a want with the certainty of fulfillment; faith adds certainty to hope. People with hope and faith have clarity in where they are going and how to get there and are willing to endure hardship or setbacks along the way without losing the conviction behind their goal.

Taking care to help leaders in their spiritual formation is action designed to help them develop a clear vision, love for others, and hope/faith.  The methods of spiritual formation vary but always need a mentor who helps the emerging or existing leader frame their insight and communicate their vision and hope clearly.  Spirituality is that transcendent aspect of humanness that seeks out a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It may take on a variety of forms or expressions. Spirituality is distinct from religion. Religion is concerned with theological system of beliefs and rituals and related formalized practices and ideas. This distinction is important to keep up not only to avoid the violation of human resource law but to cut misunderstanding that wrongly equates spirituality and religion in a way that then disassociate its importance to the business goal.

In contrast to the idea of spiritual leadership, some leaders assume that the only needed tool of effective leadership is a dispassionate commitment to “the numbers”. The value of analytics is not in dispute.  What is in dispute is the assumption that analytics alone are enough to lead the sustained performance of any group. Research simply does not support the belief that a manager can be effective and stay dispassionately disengaged from the people they manage while hiding behind “the numbers.” Nor does research support the idea that the idea of meaning/purpose is secondary to the real business of making money or completing tasks. Meaning/purpose are primary factors to high employee motivation, sense of calling, and feeling of membership with the group.


How do you make room for the development of your own spiritual leadership?  How clear are you about your own sense of purpose or the meaning of life and work?  Do your vision, love, and hope/faith rise to the level of responsibility you now hold or did your spiritual formation arrest under the press to acquire the skill needed to master the technical aspects of your current role?  If spiritual formation has not been a conscious exercise in your professional development you may just have found the reason your team’s performance continues to lag behind the competition and your organization’s expectations.  Need help in kick starting your spiritual formation?  Then it is time to talk with a coach who gets it.

Afterward: The relationship of spiritual leadership and servant leadership

According to Fry et al, spiritual leadership addresses four key areas that research in servant leadership has not yet examined: (1) the specific cultural values that are necessary for servant leadership; (2) the role of servant leadership in achieving value congruence across organizational levels; (3) the personal outcomes of servant leadership; and (4) the apparent contradiction of placing the needs of people higher than the needs of the organization.  It must be noted on this last point that Fry observes a popular perception not a data supported by experience in servant leadership.  Servant leadership works at the level of motivation with organizational views in mind and indications are that organizational outcomes are enhanced by this perception as Fry et al also acknowledge in their definition of professionals above. What may be a more accurate statement is that a spiritual leadership perspective is the antecedent of the exercise of servant leadership.


[i] Louis W Fry, Sean T. Hannah, Michael Noel and Fred O. Walumbwa. “Impact of Spiritual Leadership on Unit Performance,” The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 22, Issue 2, April 2011, 259-270. 11 pages.

[ii] Fry et al 263

[iii] Ibid. 263

[iv] Ibid. 261

Leadership Takes Agility, Responsiveness & Commitment to Learning

OchoaMexico's goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa illustrates the idea of skill and behavioral repertoire in leadership. Leaders can't just use the same "play" over and over expecting to generate great results. In the first half of play against Brazil in the World Cup competition the camera caught the breadth of his ability.

Like Ochoa, leaders must to keep their head and heart in the game - they have to learn new skills and exercise a growing self-discipline.  If they learn and exercise self-discipline their ability to respond to a changing situational dynamic, changing team-mate responses, and the competition grows.  If your leadership looks something like this photo you will experience more wins than losses. On the other hand if you thought leadership was the attainment of a position, power, or prestige you might find yourself flat-footed when you need to be nimble. How is your leadership development growing?

5 Principles that Make or Break Leadership

Leadership complexityIt takes just a few minutes to discover whether I am working with a tyrant, a Pollyanna, or a true leader. All I need to do is listen to how they describe their employees. A tyrant makes statements like, “These people are: entitled, lazy, ignorant, and clueless about how to manage gross profit.  I need you to define what we need in the next manager and to show us how to turn this team around.” The owner had is game face on as he told me this.  I suppose it was to impress on me the weight of the job he was asking me to do – it wasn’t working.  He wanted to hire our company to define what he needed to do to turn around his struggling sales team.  I wasn’t impressed nor was I sure I wanted the contract.

A Pollyanna makes statements like, “I have the greatest team in the world – they are awesome world champions.” However, when I asked why the owner needed us to do employee assessments he simply stated that he needed help.  I learned that their profits were non-existent and their cash flow was inverted.  I did not learn this from the owner – I stumbled on it when interviewing the office manager.  A Pollyanna boss can’t see problems nor do they see reality.  They simply wring their hands and hope that everything will be ok.

A leader makes statements like, “We have had a successful track record. Our team is mostly working well and they are engaged, disciplined, and learning. However, I need you to coach Sue (not her real name); she is struggling in her performance.  She has the skill sets, I was sure we made the right hire but for some reason she has withdrawn and become unresponsive. I will have to let her go if she doesn’t change but I need another perspective to let me know if I missed something.”

Listening to managers, owners, and C-suite positions talk about their employees tells a lot about an organization.  Why bad bosses who describe employees as incompetent ignoramuses don’t correlate the fact their description of employees is a direct reflection of their lack of skill as a leader is always amusing to me.  On the other hand, watching great leaders set high expectations and live those expectations out in front of their team is always inspiring to me.

Over the years I have observed five principles that make or break the success of a company in the short-term and the long-term that are directly related to the behavior of a leader.  Look at the principles below and then think about your own behavior as a leader or manager.  What does it take to change these insights from a negative to a positive outcome?

Principle 1 – how you talk about your employees is a direct reflection of your skill as a leader.  If they are bad employees you are a bad boss.  The fact is that great leaders hire great people. They inspire them to carry out outcomes they could not do alone by giving them a sense of purpose higher than the job itself and authenticating their contribution and their skills. I found that companies who think highly of their employees not only develop them consistently but also show sustained success over time. Conversely companies that have a low opinion of their employees typically make bad hires and struggle from financial crisis to financial crisis with poor performance over time.

Principle 2 – employees behave in direct correlation to what you believe about them. If you believe they are successful they will act that way.  If you believe they are losers they will act that way. This insight was first found in education then also seen in business. It is called the Pygmalion effect and is used by great leaders to improve overall performance.

Principle 3 – employees know no more about the business than you are willing to teach them. Complaining about ignorance when you do not train and develop your employees is ridiculous.  In one company we asked cost accounting to give us an itemized cost of each product.  We put together an excel sheet for their sales team from which they could calculate the impact of discounts on their gross profit while paying attention to the product mix and overall revenue targets.  We trained the sales team in how to use this sheet and trained the sales manager to reject discounts that did not show the impact on gross profit based on the excel sheet. Not surprisingly the team loved this.  It helped them feel they had more control over their own sales tactics. The managers were shocked at this new-found enthusiasm and business acumen.  However, the wish to know how to exercise business acumen existed all along. No one ever trained the team or gave them the data they needed to make smarter decisions.

Principle 4 – the harder you work to control your employees’ behaviors the greater the cost of labor you will generate. Extrinsic motivations generally work to cut employee motivation, remove employee engagement, and drop employee commitment – yet it is the first tool every bad manager uses to assert their superiority.  Recognize the difference between algorithmic tasks (established instructions down a single path) and heuristic tasks (tasks requiring experimentation to find a novel solution).  The point is that reward/punishment motivations work ok with algorithmic tasks but they are devastating in heuristic tasks because they often yield unexpected reactions and impaired performance. Great leaders understand this difference and use it to leverage the intrinsic motivations of their people.  The point is that people are intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers not extrinsically motivated profit maximizers in their performance and decision-making.  In contrast I worked with one client that defined every job as an algorithmic task.  He could not (or would not) see that the tighter he pulled the noose around his people the more inefficient they became.  This showed up in increasing sick days, constant internal complaints, losses due to flagging quality, higher rates of turnover, and increasing number of legal actions against the company by the EEOC. His response to these negative results was to lower the boom and get people in line. How do you think this is working?

Principle 5 – the cost of a bad hire is about 5 times their annual salary over the first year of their employment.  Bad hires ruin great teams. It is especially devastating to performance when a manager protects a bad hire or truly incompetent employee or even promotes them to avoid unpleasant conflict. In one company I watched an incompetent and poor performing employee run the company with the threat of law suits and complaints to the EEOC.  There was ample evidence to terminate the employment and to discipline the manager of that department for failure to discuss flagging performance issues.  Instead company penalized top performers for questioning why this incompetence was allowed to remain.  In another company we tracked the lack of discipline of poor performance to an affair the owner had with one female employee.  She had effectively been paid to remain silent, she did not have to show up to work, and she hated everything about the company. (The company went under about six months after this all came to light.)

What needs to change in your leadership behavior?  What kind of boss are you?  Change is possible though not necessarily painless. Do you see the need to change? Then act quickly and decisively. Hire a coach (and in some cases legal counsel) to avoid impulsiveness and violation of labor laws.  Be honest with yourself, are you a tyrant, Pollyanna, or leader?  What kind of leader do you want to be?

Don't Be Boring

BoringI was running through McDonald's with just enough time to grab a burger between client engagements. A little boy walked into the store from the play area with his father. The boy noticed the big screen TV in the corner of the dinning area - it was playing highlights from the weekend's NFL games. The boy sauntered over to the big screen, stood there for a minute then waved his hand as though he was erasing the screen and declared, "Boring - boring." Apparently satisfied with his verdict he walked out of the store with his dad. I thought about the several times I have wanted to do the same thing in poorly run meetings.  Like the young man in McDonald's I want to wave my hand and declare, "boring - boring" when I see any of the following practices. And then I want to walk out and go back to work.

Boring practice 1: calling a meeting without a purpose and being unprepared.  I don't mind getting together with you for lunch or after work to shoot the breeze but don't pull me away from my team to sit in a room without a purpose. My mind simply backs up with all the tasks I need to complete before the end of the day, end of the quarter, end of the year etc.  Give me an agenda that differentiates between information you want to give, decisions that need to be made, and brainstorming we need to do to set direction to face the unexpected.

Boring practice 2: calling for people to give reports on data we all read prior to the meeting.  Expect people to be ready - this will save a lot of time.  However, be sure you specify what you want people to know before every meeting and how we will use it to get things done.  Most the companies I have been a part of go to great cost to have the right dashboards, data and instant reports. Make meetings an opportunity for your team to use their unique data sets to highlight various perspectives of a decision. Don't use meetings to rehash by reporting on data everyone already has access to. 

Boring practice 3: asking for opinions as a prelude to telling us what we are going to do. If you need to pull us together to give a directive just give the directive and some context for it. Don't ask for opinions if you don't plan to alter your decision (because you have already made a decision).  On the other hand if you have options in mind and want some feedback on them ask away - need help in how to do this?  Watch reruns of Star Trek to see how captain Jean-Luc Picard pulled feedback from his line officers.  Then have everyone watch the same Star Trek scene to see how to give feedback.  (There are other options but as a Trekky since the 60s I like Jean-Luc.)

Boring practice 4: rambling on about the need for employee engagement without providing an opportunity for feedback.  Seriously any time I hear leaders complain about the lack of employee engagement I simply want to record the session - then play it back with the understanding that I am about to let them hear why the reason for poor employee engagement.  If you see me in the room with my Recorder Pro app ready to go you will know why.

Boring practice 5: announcing new policies destined to needlessly hamper the productivity of every department because one person won't exercise common sense. Do you really need to hide behind a policy to correct the misdeeds of one or two employees?  My favorite example of this is when the company pulled back all its company issued credit cards because one sales person could not seem to complete their usage reports. We all had to pull cash advances for our travel - it was a nightmare. Go yank the chain of the offender don't penalize your peak performers.

Boring practice 6: showing us a power point slide presentation containing 45 slides with 8 pt font and then reading each slide. Please learn how to give a presentation. There are plenty of self-study helps on the internet.  Just because you just stepped into your new CEO role or president role doesn't mean you are exempt from developing better communication skills. You have not arrived - you have just started your journey.  A little humility and a learning posture will go a long way. 

Boring practice 7: arguing with your department's nemesis while blaming them for your inability to meet your goals. I have sat in meetings almost as entertaining as an MMA fight. Two Vice Presidents went after each other like fighting cats. Unfortunately our employees were not amused they were filled with anxiety.  The result of the VP rant was that the employees  quick offering their insights and became siloed from one another across departments.  If you need to have one of those intense conversations do it off-line.

Boring practice 8: announcing the time limitations of the meeting then going over the allotted time to discuss the need for discipline in execution. This is not hard to understand. If you are the exception to every rule you propose then everyone will follow your example.  Then if you don't like how things are going it is strongly recommended you look in the mirror for the reason things are becoming FUBAR. (If you don't know what the acronym stands for ask one of the more experienced managers in the plant or office.)

Boring practice 9: introducing a consultant who then spends 45 minutes trying to convince us of his qualifications.  The better approach is simply to engage your qualifications by leading the meeting, or exercise, or training.  Please vet your consultants - work with them so that they don't violate boring practice 1.

The bottom line is that leaders should treat people like they have the insight, wisdom, and drive for mastery that makes for an enduring great company or organization.  Expect people to work at their best. Reward the top performers. Discipline the poor performers. Have fun. Make 2014 a year of superior vision, inspiration and execution - don't be boring.

Toxic Leaders Spurn History - Bad Leaders Hide Behind It

PharaohIs toxic leadership the inevitable norm? Do people just need to suck it up and endure the chaos until they can retire? Are alternative ideas about healthy leadership possible to carry out or are they illusions that distract people from being productive? The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt has important insights about leadership. Two leaders (Moses and Pharaoh) engage in competing agendas that launch far-reaching consequences. The narrative presents a dichotomy between good and bad leaders that defines how to approach the complex tasks of leadership in a different way. Pharaoh got it wrong from the start of the narrative. In his case the story is a progression that starts from a biased opportunism that accelerates to self-destructive hubris that left him at a strategic disadvantage.  Moses on the other hand wins yet enters the uncharted experience of birthing a nation. Moses has to grow as a leader or face a future no different from what characterized Pharaoh. Over the next several articles I will investigate the behaviors of Pharaoh.  What characterizes a toxic leader and what insights can be gleaned about the motivations? The answer to this question will help decide the possibility of change for any leader.  So here is the first lesson - toxic leaders spurn history - bad leaders hide behind it.

Pharaoh is introduced in the Exodus story as a leader who did not know Joseph.  The history behind Joseph explained the contemporary presence of the Hebrews and their privileged location within the nation. Joseph had saved Egypt during a time of severe famine with his prophetic insight and his administrative skill. Pharaoah's predecessor honored Joseph's contribution to the survival of the kingdom by providing a place for his family (the Hebrews) to live and thrive.

However the new Pharaoh’s fear obscured his historical perspective – he viewed the Hebrews as a threat to his power.  It is one thing to hide behind history as a reason to avoid making mistakes.  Such a posture is a fast rode to mediocrity. However, Pharaoh takes a more radically ignorant path. The threat presented by the Hebrews was rooted in nothing more than the fact that Hebrews were not Egyptians. In the void of Pharaoh’s lack of historical grasp (that explained why these foreigners were in the country and their contributions to the nation’s thriving existence) ethnocentrism rushed in and created a narrative of fear and mistrust.  Pharaoh rewrote the history of the nation in his actions and the outcomes were not good.

Who is writing the history of your organization and on what foundation are they writing it? The narrative determines the culture of the organization and the culture determines the values and behaviors.  It is odd that something went missing in Pharaoh’s education and in his development. What happened? Bad leaders don’t work in a vacuum they work with the permission (either implied or overt) of their followers. Jean Lipman-Blumen’s work outlines this uncomfortable reality.  She writes:

…What are the forces that propel followers again and again, to accept, often favor, and sometimes create toxic leaders?  Isn’t it high time we come to grips with why we usually let toxic leaders mistreat us and depart when it suits their purposes? ...Still, the majority of followers stay the course, many because the barriers to escape seem much too strong, be they financial, political, social, psychological, or existential – or, worse yet, some overwhelming combination of these formidable obstacles.[i]

Don’t ignore or dismiss Lipman-Blumen’s point. As followers we have a responsibility toward leaders. If we implicitly or overtly allow bad leaders to continue in their power infused invectives of bad behavior then we must ask ourselves what is it we think we get from these leaders and what would really happen if we said, “no” to them?  Perhaps Pharaoh had eliminated the bold followers who disagreed with his unique views. We don’t have that part of the story. What we do have is the insight that for tyrants to succeed they have to divest themselves from the encumbrance of history to rewrite history for their own support and sell it as a destiny.  Pharaoh succeeded at this and turned the tables on the Hebrews first oppressing them then enslaving them. When you see a leader who is ignorant of history consider it a challenge to help them see from a larger perspective. If he or she is not open to understanding the history of the organization specifically and has little appreciation of history generally then in the words of Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Pharaoh rewrote history to reposition the Hebrews in society. He framed their existence as a threat to the well-being of the nation. He initiated structures to limit the threat. Finally he oppressed them to maximize a benefit to the nation at minimal cost.  How is labor relations characterized in your organization?  A connection exists between the value a leader places on history and the way they ultimately treat people. What kind of leader are you?  Are you a student of history or are you writing your own history?  The answer indicates the trajectory of your leadership.

[i] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24.

Paying Attention to What Your Management Actions Generate in Others

ImageDeveloping as a leader and as a person has more to do with paying attention to the relationships around you than it does the last training seminar you attended. What have you learned about yourself by watching the behaviors your actions have generated in others? Are people more open, courageous, creative, confident and happy around you? Or are they withdrawn, non-participative and agitated? What does this say about your management style or leadership? Who will you talk to about what you see?  What can you do to change? Of course it is possible that you believe that agitating and keeping people on edge is the best way to motivate high performance. This line of still popular management lore assumes that people will not give their best work unless without the right mix of carrots and sticks (i.e., rewards and punishments) controlling their behavior.

The bad news about this belief is that it is a myth.  The assumption that rewarding activity yields more of it and punishing activity yields less of it simply does not pan out. Rewards and punishments applied to intrinsic motivation does not respond at all to pattern – motivation simply evaporates – although this does not hold in all situations. There are still some highly repetitive jobs that benefit from extrinsic motivation. But think this through carefully, carrots and sticks may result in:

  1. Extinguished intrinsic motivation. Researchers discovered that contingent rewards dampen interest in tasks requiring heuristic action. Why? Because contingent rewards required people to relinquish some of their autonomy hence diminishing their motivation.
  2. Diminished performance. Once basic life needs are covered incentives the higher the incentive the lower the performance in many cases in direct contradiction of accepted business sense.
  3. Crushed creativity. People rewarded for addressing a conceptual challenge perform far less creatively and efficiently than people given the challenge for the challenge’s sake. Rewards by their very nature narrow focus hence cloud thinking and dull creativity.
  4. Suppressed good behavior. Research demonstrates that adding incentives to intrinsically motivated behaviors actually diminish the frequency of the behavior. When incentives disregard the ingredients of genuine motivation (i.e., autonomy, purpose and mastery) they limit achievement.
  5. Exhibition of cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior. “Goals people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy.  But Goals imposed by others – sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on – can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”[1]
  6. Addictive behaviors. The research of Russian economist Anton Suvorov demonstrated that rewards often signal that a task is undesirable. Enticing rewards then result in action the first time – but the level of enticement needed to continue the action consistently grows.  Rewards become expected and feel less like a bonus and more like an entitlement. Rewards’ addictive qualities actually distort decision-making.
  7. Fostering short-term thinking. This is illustrated ad nausea in Wall Street motivated business decisions that focus on short-term at the cost of strategic long-term perspectives. (Recall Collins’ work, Good to Great.)

Rewards are not all bad.  Tasks that neither need deep thinking nor deep passion may be helped by the presence of rewards – success in the application of rewards is enhanced by:

  1. Offering a simple rationale for why the task is necessary – explanations help a job that is not inherently interesting become more meaningful and hence more engaging.
  2. Acknowledging that the task is boring – this act of empathy helps people understand why this instance of “if-then” rewards are needed.
  3. Allowing people to complete the task in their own way – think autonomy versus control. Give freedom for how a job is done.
So what is the outcome of the behavior you show as a manager or leader? It does not take long to see how we impact those who follow. Every decision managers and leaders make result in behaviors. If you activity in creating lean, continuously improved management objectives has not produced the results you anticipated it could be that the problem is not a matter of better processes but better relationships. Take stock and if you can't see the cause and effect relationship between your decisions/behaviors and the productivity of your team it is time to talk with a mentor with greater experience.

[1] Daniel H. Pink. Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009), 50.

Power and Accountability: There is More to the Story

AccountabilityWhat is the relationship between accountability and power?  Commentary on the abuse of power is perennial and reflects an underlying assumption about leadership; "...leaders are expected to exert themselves in the service of the collective interest."[1]  In watching leaders I see leaders exercise a variety of postures toward power. Some fear power and shirk responsibility, some crave power and lose sight of what it’s for and who are comfortable with power and use it to serve the best interests of the corporation and their employees. Even the best leaders find that the act of serving the collective interests is complex and a minefield of competing interests. There is ample evidence to show that those leaders who fail to pursue the collective interest have disastrous impact on organizations including such things as: public embarrassment, decreased employee participation, decreased leader effectiveness, decreased employee motivation, and decreased employee performance. The reality is that "Leader self-serving behavior carries the specter of negative consequences for subordinates as well as for the organization at large."[2]

In light of this calls to greater accountability usually emerge and those calls are not without foundation. Researchers have found that accountability has a mitigating effect on high power leader self-serving actions. Recognizing that power is inherent in the leader role the researchers observed that power affects self versus group-serving behaviors. "Because high power leaders inhabit reward rich environments, they should be more likely to pursue rewarding outcomes than low power individuals, a proposition substantiated by a growing body of research."[3]

Research and experience show that possessing power impairs one’s ability to take others' perspectives into consideration and the ability to consider others' background knowledge or correctly identify their emotional expressions.  The powerful tend to view others through an instrumental lens as tools for one’s own purposes i.e., to help the powerful achieve their goals. I have observed relationships between CEOs and their managers deteriorate in the CEO’s self-serving quest to the point that manager behavior begins to constitute a drag to the accomplishment of the organization’s objectives.

Yet it is important to recognize that self-serving perspectives are not experienced as a black and white reality nor do they simply pop up out of thin air. The quest for organizational success which presumably benefits all stakeholders is the backdrop for a shift from service in the collective interest to self-serving behaviors that undermine the collective interest.  Herein is the challenge for one working from the seat of power. The shift from collective to self-interest is an evolution that occurs under pressure and always claims to have the collective interest in mind.

In one company I worked with the CEO started his tenure with clear commitment to a new day of teamwork, increased profitability, increased efficiency and customer service. He elicited innovation from the rank and file and during his first two quarters at the helm of the organization he maintained this call while also making difficult decisions needed to bring change.  It was working in every area in which the CEO was consistent to his own values. However, in those decisions in which he was inconsistent to his stated values he demanded workarounds. His mixed messages gave his managers pause. Then the management team noticed subtle changes. Executive meetings lost their regularity, decisions and adjustments were announced out of side meetings and over time all pretense of discussion melted into unilateral demands for action for the sake of profit. No one argued against the necessity of profit nor did they balk at the strategic direction of the company but the pace of change wasn't moving fast enough for the CEO and he reverted to highly directive behavior focused on ensuring his survival as CEO which he made the equivalent to the survival of the company and security of all jobs.

In all the team told me that they wish the CEO had been held accountable. Accountability does play a role in mitigating self-serving behaviors. Accountability is "the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called upon to justify one's beliefs, feelings, and actions to others."[4] Accountability has been shown to:

  • Increase judgmental accuracy
  • Promote careful decision-making
  • Increase thoroughness of information processing
  • Induce more complex decision strategies
  • Enhance a self-critical approach that implies consideration of multiple perspectives

Clearly accountability does counteract self-serving tendencies induced by power. Or is it that clear? The CEO in the story above was being held accountable of new levels of performance. In fact his meetings with the board and owners became highly spirited inquisitions into whether his plan would produce results fast enough to satisfy the risks the owners felt he was taking.

The CEO was accountable but as research had found accountability is not a panacea for all evils. Where accountability does not merge process as well as outcomes it can have the opposite of the desired effect. Where high power leaders are only held accountable for outcomes they tend to behave in ways that are less cooperative, less helpful, less truthful, and less willing to compromise in negotiation with subordinates.

This was the situation with the CEO above.  The challenge was not that he lacked accountability but that the pressure of accountability he faced focused only on outcomes.

A lack of accountability on process as well as outcomes seems to facilitate a "means justifies the end approach" and tendency to treat others as means to an end.  High power leaders who are not held accountable for process typically institute draconian work policies that dehumanize their workforce and may actually work to negatively impact performance accountability was intended to increase. The lesson is a significant one for business owners and board members. The lack of accountability on process is pandemic in small and mid size companies where owners are either still directly connected to operations or have moved out of operations into a governance role.

The big lesson for anyone with governance responsibility is this, "… process accountability can lead to increased perspective taking and more careful decision-making, a combination of process and outcome accountability appears to carry the most promise in terms of mitigating some of the negative effects of power - including the 'ethical hazard' of power."[5]

If you see your organization or company floundering or experiencing something less than flourishing, consider your accountability structures for you top leaders.  High powered leaders are the ones setting the tone of the organization’s culture.  Is it moving in the right direction? Does the overall approach to leadership and organizational culture offer a platform to sustain performance? There is little doubt that high power leaders accountable for only outcomes will hit their performance goals.  There is strong doubt however these leaders will survive to see another year or be able to sustain performance over time. But then the criterion of success often depends on the person who is viewing the outcomes.

[1] Diana Rus, Daan van Knippenburg, and Barbara Wisse. "Leader Power and Self-serving Behavior: The Moderating Role of Accountability." The Leadership Quarterly 23 (2012) 13-26.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 15.

[5] Ibid, 22.

If You Don't Live Well You Won't Lead Well

Rest and PlayResilience Depends on Energy Management One of the benefits of truly knowing oneself is establishing the margins needed to maintain spiritual and emotional stamina without burning out.  The wonderful diversity in the way leaders are put together argues against simplistic formulas to avoid burnout and presses us to understand the principles that help create healthy margins and rhythms in service that are unique to the individual’s style and personality.

Resilience and endurance is dependent on how a leader manages their energy over time. Every venue of leadership presents the servant leader with a clamor of tasks, crises, and people who need attention. It is important to see that finding periods of energy renewal is not dependent on finding times of lower activity or demand but in recognizing the symptoms of diminished emotional resilience and knowing the negative impact this has on decision-making and relationships. In other words leaders who live well make time for personal renewal. Jesus illustrates this rather well,

And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest for a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves.[1]

Recognize the Difference Between Activities and Results

Jesus’ suggestion that he and the apostles get away to rest was not made during a lull in popularity or activity.  He made it at the peak of popularity and demand. Jesus did not manipulate the momentum he maintained the activities that led to momentum. In contrast leaders who attempt to manipulate the momentum of their success end up in a distortion of reality by making the work of leadership more about momentum than about the activities that created the momentum. I call this working at maintaining the spin. Maintaining the spin is symptomatic of getting caught in the organizational drive to ensure survival. It manages results as though results were the focus. The focus must always be the activities that produce the results.

The shift from the right activities to maintaining the spin sets a trajectory toward burnout.  Burnout is an emotional condition characterized by fatigue and physical exhaustion, depression, mental fatigue, sleeping problems, etc., that interferes with job performance. Burnout results from extended periods of high energy engagement that is not offset by periods of restoration.[2]

The disciples had just returned from a period of high energy engagement.  The commission Jesus gave them was a development project that required them to engage the power of God, the provision of God and the people of God.  They were to be dependent on the hospitality of others and on the work of the Holy Spirit as they discovered how to work in concert with the works of God. (Mark 6:7-13)  They succeeded for the most part in this learning project. They saw results to their efforts. However, later they did not remember all the lessons they should have learned in their project.  Just two chapters later in Mark’s gospel Jesus asked them to feed four thousand. One can almost see that they had a deer in the headlights response.  How did they go from great results to stupefied inaction in the face of a new challenge? They got caught maintaining the spin and not growing in the right activities.  Over time maintaining the spin causes even formerly effective leaders to forget what created the results in the first place.

How do leaders keep up healthy boundaries around time, energy and spiritual renewal so that the leader’s own self stays strong and resilient versus weak and subject to spiritual/moral infection.  Staying strong and resilient is critical to maintaining perspective and avoiding the trap of working to maintain the spin.

Start with the End in Mind

One of my graduate professors, Bobby Clinton was fond of repeating, “Begin with the end in mind.” He started his leadership emergence classes by asking everyone to write their epitaph i.e., the inscription they wanted on their tombstone. This exercise sounds easier than it really is for some people. Many of us thought and thought to say something succinct enough to fit on a tomb stone and of sufficient gravity to appropriately summarize the work of a life time. Bobby’s point was simply that leadership is a life-long process of learning.  If leaders intend to finish well they must begin with the end in mind.

Living with the end in mind is profoundly focusing.  I am intrigued by stories of near death experiences. People emerge from such experiences with a completely different hierarchy of priority than they had prior to the experience. Life itself becomes more precious than accomplishment, prestige or power. An interesting take on living with the end in mind came from a palliative care nurse who summarized the regrets of the dying she had heard over the years into a book.[3]  She came up with five recurring regrets including:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Clearly Jesus’ actions are the opposite of these regrets – he began with the end in mind.  Jesus was true to himself.  Jesus did not get caught up in maintaining the spin. Jesus took time to rest.  Jesus expressed his feelings openly – we even have non-verbal indications of his feelings. (Mark 7:24; 8:12)  What is interesting about Jesus’ times of rest and rejuvenation is that these times themselves provided or opened opportunity for the demonstration of God’s power that was catalytic to new insights and breakthroughs.

Leaders who Never Take a Break, Never "Get a Break"

In contrast leaders, who never take a break, never “get a break.”  Their flurry of activity never seems to move beyond mediocrity perhaps in part because the “chance” meetings that would lead to new insights, new connections, or breakthroughs are usurped by business and weariness. If you are working hard and wondering why those who have time to play seem to get all the “breaks” then perhaps it is time to take stock of how you manage your own energy.

[1] Mark 6:31-32 (NASV).

When Life Happens – It is Still Leadership Development: An Overview of Career Coaching/Mentoring Needs

hard questions 2Life Happens and Not Always with Kindness “I feel lost,” the words belied a crisis.  This is a guy who has charged through is career successfully running over barriers, obstacles and inherited mistakes with fun, gusto and obnoxious jubilation. He is contagious, obvious, loud and a lover of people.

“I don’t know where I am going, my life seems shrouded with a cloud” he continued.  His lament stems from a series of losses he has recently experienced. He is my age (we are approaching our 40th high school reunion). He owns a thriving business he intends to give his sons and has a clear succession plan.  The big loss that anchors his grief and redefinition of himself is a back injury that prohibits him from playing basketball and being as active as he has been. Activity has been central to his ability to stay emotionally centered and to work through stress.  He struggles with some of the decisions his children have made. He struggles with redefining his marriage through the emergence of empty nest. He is surprised that these things have affected him at all.

“Listen,” I responded after a moment of taking in the full weight of his situation, “this may not be of too much comfort but what you describe is a normal process in development for men and women our age.”

We sat in silence for a long moment after that.  Then he finally spoke, “Well Ray, it is comforting.”  The conversation meandered after that as we reflected on the reality of being baby boomers. Baby boomers now face the full brunt of life.  Suicide rates among boomers shot up between 1999 and 2010 with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 per 100,000.  The suicide rate among women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent.[1]  Why?  Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania makes this observation.

“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”[2]

Like my friend many boomers face loss and face the prospect of finding a new sense of purpose or falling endlessly into despair.  This is an important leadership issue. The need for experienced leaders to mentor emerging generations is often touted. However, these experienced leaders often feel displaced and under used or under valued. I remember a leadership coach once reminded me to prepare for the fact that I would have to redefine myself six to eight times during my career because of the changing social demographic and rapid technological shift. I thought he had fallen prey to hyperbole when he said this in the mid 1980s.  Now I think he was being conservative.  The need to redefine myself arose not only because technology shifted but also because my expectations about what I would accomplish in life fell short. There are multiple forces at work that force a reassessment of self. Now more than ever leadership development needs an exercise of intimacy like that between my friend and I described above. What does this mean for organizations?

Is Your Organization a Safe Place?

Can an organization be a platform for healthy, deliberate and open development of people?  The question is not derived solely from my theology which presumes and expects an answer in the affirmative.  It derives from experience that often finds organizational leaders lacking attentiveness to personal development.  Keagan’s assessment and synthesis on meaning making and development in human experience captures how people experience organizations;

Some head and definers of organizations would probably agree that their institutions are not particularly well suited to the development of the capacity for genuine intimacy in adulthood.  I image they would also be relatively unperturbed in this self-assessment, feeling that the workplace is not intended to serve such a function.  Possibly they might even feel that intimacy flies in the very face of the smooth exercises of the organization…If the notion that most workplaces are not well suited to the development of genuine intimacy is unperturbing to those who shape them, perhaps the notion that the workplace works against a person’s growth in general might be more so.[3]

I posit that the development of genuine intimacy is the center of organizational interaction and is a prerequisite to manifest personal development of any type.  The absence of intimacy is often at the center of employee complaints and disengagement at every level of the organization.  By intimacy I mean a sense of sharing who I am with another without fear of loosing or devaluing a sense of self. I mean a mutually beneficial discovery of uniqueness and similarity, of shared existence and meaning. My conversations in coaching and research persistently orbit intimacy which has a sense of value, personal recognition and a clear contribution.  These concerns are not framed by people as a demand for organizational role. They are framed from the context of a desire for appreciation and interpersonal interaction that can help make sense out of a sometimes senseless world.

Because of my background in pastoral ministry I am often reminded that a congregation possesses a different kind of organizational charter and characteristic from a business.  I find this assertion is duplicitous and contradictory.  Organizations of any kind are people working and living together. While congregations do have a different organizational charter they do not differ at all from businesses in the fact they involve people.

The reality is that every organization lives in a polarity of being a structure and an organism.  This reality points to a need for rethinking development as a out working of intimacy even more than program or training. Think for a moment about your own professional development and I bet you will think of a mentor with whom you shared many intimate encounters – some uncomfortable as your self view or assumptions were pointedly challenged.  The point is that every organization needs to deliberately develop its sense of being an organism as well as being an organization if it is to consistently thrive. (See Table 1)

Table 1: A Polarity of Expectations for Organizational Interaction

Interaction as an Organism (the personal experience & expectation) Interaction as an Organization (the public entity & expectation)
Mutual Responsible
Spontaneous Structured
Respectful Efficient
Open Defined
Intimate Regulated, safe
Developmental Professional
Spiritual Reliable
Vibrant Disciplined
Forgiving Arbitrating
Loving Differentiating

The polarity of expectations outlined in Table 1 however are not mutually exclusive in themselves they are a complimentary set of characteristics that live symbiotically within a healthy or safe organizational system.  The two sets of characteristics in Table 1 must coexist in order to experience a healthy structure and consistent developmental outcomes.

So how does this impact the discussion leadership development or of helping boomers rethink their role? The way people work in their daily existence already bifurcate the personal and the public and continues exerting a perceptual influence into the experience of the organization as a tension between the spiritual and the practical or the personal and the public or the valuable and the measurable.  A person's public experience in the organization limits behavior deemed more appropriate to the private or the personal. As a result intimacy suffers atrophy in interpersonal interactions.

Further, if we view interaction with organizational life from a developmental perspective, then it may best be described as a consistent renegotiation of the public and private perceptions that roughly equate to the dynamic interaction and renegotiation that occurs in developing people between subject and object.  That is people grow through a continuously more complex understanding of themselves uniquely and their identity relative to their integration with or relationship to others.

This means that how an individual perceives the organization, specifically the relationship between the organization as organism and the organization as structure is a function of the process of their internal negotiation between self and others.  Individual perceptions of the value and meaning of organizational relationships evolve through various stages of understanding that essentially shift from vilifying the organization to reassert the self and then to a reintegration of the self as a member of the organization.

If stage development theories can applied to describe the relationship people have to organizations and how they perceive organizations then such theories may show (1) expected times of rejection or withdrawal from organizational life and (2) the point at which development has stalled and embedded itself in a view of organization and self that is no longer functional for the person.  If the latter is true then the tensions involved may explain the personal trauma and eventual social disengagement that results in isolation and disillusionment of they type described above among boomers like my friend.

Understanding Stage Development Helps Negotiate New Life Experience

Three different perspectives, each of which uses a form of stage development as either an overt explanation of human behavior and development or as an assumed model which influenced perspectives on leadership development within an organizational environment are helpful in thinking about establishing intimacy in organizations.

Erickson’s Psychosocial Development.  Making sense out of unexpected situations, the unknown in human experience, is part of what a stage development model attempts.  By looking at usual human development Erikson identified favorable and unfavorable outcomes to developmental challenges that show the relative success of an individual in adjusting to a new sense of self along the development continuum.  The unfavorable outcomes of Erikson’s Stage Theory of “Physchosocial Crises” illustrate the need for breaking down negative choices in favor of positive ones. [4]  Erikson views the life cycle of development, from cradle to grave, as passing through eight stages.  Each stage brings new social experiences and new crises -- which, if surmounted successfully, lead to constant growth and a steadily enriched personality.  The potential for an unfavorable outcome in any stage illustrates the impact and potential for the person to adopt mis-beliefs as true.  The use of Erikson’s model in the context of developing people in organizations recognizes that concepts defining intimacy, meaning and relevance are often rooted in personal and familial interactions. People interpose these interactions onto the organization and not the other way around.  People define respect, meaning, friendship etc., first by personal experience and not by theological or strategic reflection.  As a result personal reflection is strongly influenced by familial experience both past and present.

A leadership development perspective.  J. Robert Clinton’s work on leadership emergence attempted to offer a theological insight into how a Christian leader develops in light of God’s historical working.  By investigating the growth patterns evident in leaders Clinton posits a series of stages in spiritual development or maturity and identifies processes that show God’s formation activity in the life of the leader.[5]  While Clinton did not have Erikson in mind in the development of his model (he approached his work from a theological and not a psychological foundation) there are parallels in Clinton’s outcomes to the goals inherent in Erikson’s favorable outcomes.  The use of Clinton’s model seeks to define how God’s activity may interact to the familial and social influences an individual brings to organizational participation that at times produces dissonance to personal perspective.  However the dissonance that results from an engagement with God’s actual activity serves to further the individual’s growth as a person hence it may reflect social and workplace developmental dynamics.

A mentoring perspective.  Kathy Kram’s work on mentoring in the work place identifies developmental tasks associated with successive career stages.[6]   These are particularly helpful in identifying the workplace mentoring needed to ensure healthy development.  First, the workplace is the primary culture in which values and identity are often shaped.  Second, activities in social groups is a subset of workplace activity for the majority of people and either benefits or defeats developmental outcomes.  The average person approaches the organization from the context of their social grid learned not the values of the workplace perse.  By social grid I mean the meaning making and interpretive clues that cause help an individual define meaning, significance and relationship.  This heightens the need for rethinking the development of intimacy in organizations as a means of helping individuals engage their real selves in workplace relationships.

The following tables synthesize these three views and suggest directions organizations can take to make sure their talent develops without being derailed by what life throws at them.

Table 2: The Adolescent Engagement

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Transition Years Surrender where the person or the would-be leader aspires to spend a lifetime that counts for God.
Identity versus confusion Seeing oneself as a unique and integrated person Confusion over who and what one really is Ministry perspective.Flexibility and openness to new ideas.Kindling a sense of destiny and identity that encapsulates a sense of personal value and missionBroadening through exposure to others.Owning and developing personal convictions from the Scriptures.

Guidance, decision-making and input are tested one against the other to find a balance.

Pre Career -- Wheeler Competence: In what ways can my life demonstrate a role competence?  Experimentation with social roles and interpersonal roles that provide foundational experience for defining the basis of personal competence.Identify: What abilities and strengths make me unique, give me a reason to contribute or to participate in groups actively?  What aspirations emerge from these early experiences?Commitment: How does involvement and commitment threaten my sense of identity or advance it?  What does it mean to be involved and committed?  How is involvement and commitment differentiated from enmeshment and being taken for granted or being taken advantage of i.e., a loss of personal value?Advancement: Can I advance?  Can I advance without compromising a sense of self and my important values?Relationships:  Can I establish relationships of reciprocity, respect and trust?

Family Role Definition: Who am I within a family unit?  Is familial identify and social identity mutually exclusive or complimentary?  What defines a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Self/Family Conflict: Do I have an identity independent of family identity?

Table 3: Early Adulthood

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Entering Adulthood Discovery that competence (ministry) flows from being and not doing.
Intimacy versus isolation Development of interdependent, accountable friendships that confirm a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Loss of personal confidence and tendency to insulate from meaningful personal friendships. Demonstrate the character of God.Understand the purposes of God.Experience the faithfulness of God.Know the power of God.See the sovereignty of God.

Form Christ-like character.

Early Career -- Kram Competence: Can I be effective in the managerial/professional role?  Can I be effective in the role of spouse and/or parent?Identify: Who am I as a manager/professional?  What are my skills and aspirations?Commitment: How involved and committed to the organization do I want to become?  Or do I want to seriously explore other options?Advancement: Do I want to advance?  Can I advance without compromising important values?Relationships:  How can I establish effective relationships with peers and supervisors?

Family Role Definition: How can I establish a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I effectively manage work and family commitments?  How can I spend time with my family without jeopardizing my career advancement?

Table 4: Middle Age

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Generativity versus self-absorption Concern for family and society in general Concern only for self -- one’s own well-being and prosperity Recognize that God’s guidance comes through establishing ministry priorities by discerning one’s gifts.A clear vision for the people of God.Clear reflection of the character of God.Maximization of the growth process and investment in the gifts and abilities of others.Consistent defeat of the strategies of the enemy.

Joy of relationship (with God and with others)

Middle Career -- Kram Competence: How do I compare with my peers, with my subordinates, and with my own standards and expectations?Identify: Who am I now that I am no longer a novice?  What does it mean to be a “senior” adult?Commitment:  Do I still want to invest as heavily in my career as I did in previous years?  What can I commit myself to if the goal of advancement no longer exists?Advancement:  Will I have the opportunity to advance?  How can I feel productive if I am going to advance further?Relationships: How can I work effectively with whom I am in direct competition?  How can I work effectively with subordinates who may surpass me?

Family Role Definition: What is my role in the family now that my children are grown?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I make up for the time away from my family when I was launching my career as a novice?

Table 5: Aging Years

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals as Defined by Clinton
Integrity versus despair A sense of integrity and fulfillment; willingness to face death Dissatisfaction with life; despair over the prospect of death Extended influence through reflection on life lessons, acquired skills, insights and relationships.
Late Career -- Kram Competence: Can I be effective in a more consultative and less central role, still having influence as the time to leave the organization gets closer?Identify: What will I leave behind of value that will symbolize my contributions during my career?  Who am I apart from a manager/professional and how will it feel to be without that role?Commitment:  What can I commit myself to outside of my career that will provide meaning and a sense of involvement?  How can I let go of my involvement in my work role after so many years?Advancement: Given that my next move is likely to be out of the organization, how do I feel about my final level of advancement?  Am I satisfied with what I have achieved?Relationships: How can I maintain positive relationships with my boss, peers and subordinates as I get ready to disengage from this setting?  Can I continue to mentor and sponsor as my career ends?  What will happen to significant work relationships when I leave?

Family Role Definition: What will my role in the family be when I am no longer involved in a career?  How will my significant relationships with spouse and/or children change?

Work/Family Conflict: Will family and leisure activities suffice, or will I want to begin a new career?

Conclusion - We Need Leaders Who Exercise Intimacy

Many of the organizations and congregations I work with have yet to accept the significance of building intimate relationships that also leverage what is known about human development. Congregations tend to reject these models as “secular” and unrelated to church growth.  Businesses tend to reject these models as a distraction from efficiency and profit generation.  However, it is time for leaders to reconsider such stands.  Building a safe environment in which intimacy contributes to development is not an option it is an imperative to organizational health, relevance and profit (growth).

Use the models above to help your leaders or team members or colleagues define their experience in the context of a developmental process. This recognition sets the stage for people to exercise the power of personal choice.  The fact is that whether one emerges from crisis healthy or as a victim is not dependent on the circumstance they face but the way they decide to respond to that circumstance. These models help show both the choices available and outcomes that are reasonable to expect.

So what about the friend I talked about above?  Like other leaders he is working through his experience in three different phases.

Retrospection. My friend started here. As we talked I asked questions that helped him define his pathos and the trigger event or crisis.  He had to honestly face his own bitterness and resentment and choose to believe something good might result if he looked and choose for forgive the people who contributed to his angst.  Theologically we talk about being broken i.e., recognizing that we do not exist independently but interdependently. In a theological sense it is this stage that help people find their need for God – which often rises out of the wreckage of their own self-absorption.

Future shift. As we moved together through his choice to see his situation from a new perspective (the developmental stages helped with this) and as he chose to forgive those who had hurt him along the way an internal shift from depression to hope emerged.  He saw a potential for something other than disaster and disappointment. He began making plans on how to exercise the future he now sees as possible. Theology describes this as hope. An encounter with the ability and presence of God offers a different view-point to life and a sense of meaning where meaning was lost.

Decision making.  Finally he decided to act on his new perspectives versus remaining a passive victim. He is not done processing his loss yet however, he is on the right track. We will probably traverse this ground a couple more times before the new course is set. Again theologically we call this repentance i.e., a change of course.

I am confident my friend will emerge from his Mid-life crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and a larger idea of what his contribution is in the lives of those around him. My confidence comes from my own experience wrestling with the same kinds of issues.  I have good friends with whom I can share my experience in intimate detail. Further, I have begun to reassess how I relate to others at the various places I work – I am committed to building intimate relationships (read honest, vulnerable, loving and safe) in every environment.  I see the profoundly positive impact this commitment has on others across every generation and on me. How about you?  Will you lead your organization to be a safe place?

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Kegan. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Harvard: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 248.

[4] Jerome Kagan and Ernest Havemann, ed.s.  Psychology: An Introduction 4th ed.  (San Diego: Harcout Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980), 505.

[5] Clinton, J. Robert.  The Making of a Leader.  Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988.

[6] Kram, Kathy E.  Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. New York: University Press of America, 1988.

Get Real to Succeed - vulnerability, love, and clarity

Growth chartI am accustom to encountering friendly (sometimes intense) competitive posturing when entering a new situation. A little verbal sparing sets the tone for who is stronger in position and perspective. Once the first probe of potential strengths and weakness passes the conversation gets down to business.  It is like a hazing designed to determine the level of competence and connection. So, imagine my surprise when entering a tense conversation when the CEO started with, "Your perspective (referring to an email) hurt me.  I don't think it captured my intent or characterized my actions well."

I sat back in my chair, grasped for a new sense of orientation to the meeting and responded with, "Fair enough, help me understand.  I thought you made clear in our last conversation that you were quite agitated with the course we decided to take. Was I wrong?"

Feelings change the “rules of engagement” in interactions. They can introduce vulnerability instead of competitiveness in communication in a way that accelerates clarity.  I don't often see this kind of vulnerability in organizations.  Communication is more often a muddle of dishonesty and irritation punctuated with rare moments of personal honesty that infrequently slips out from the edges.  This "usual pattern" is horribly inefficient.

This CEO was in the middle of a deliberate culture change.  He had inherited a corporate culture permeated with a cover your backside attitude, pettiness, excuse making, blame shifting poorly performing company.  He wanted to move it toward a responsible, accountable, vision casting quest for excellence. There are still burps of regression along the way but wow, a little honesty about feelings seems to have gone a long way in getting at clear communication. Three factors help start then negotiate a culture shift.


Brené Brown has made an impact on the way leaders think about vulnerability by defining vulnerability accepting the uncertainty and risk associated with emotional exposure. What is the benefit to this approach? The opportunity for love to grow.  "Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” ― Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are  What does love have to do with business or leadership?  It has everything to do with engaging work with who one really is rather than what people think they should be.

I remember my first VP in business after my transition from pastoral ministry to the corporate world.  One day he asked me what I thought about being in the "real world."  I turned and laughed at him.

"Real? You think this is real? All I see are people afraid to be themselves, filled with competitive envy who are confident of only one thing - the moment they let down their guard someone will view them as less successful.  You want real?  Come to my pastoral office where people pour out their fears, describe their losses, unveil their shame and guilt and ask for help in becoming the person they want to be...that is real.  This is mostly a farce where some people enjoy what they do yet worry that they may be truly known and others hate what they do and will never allow themselves to be truly known."  The VP looked stunned for a moment then wandered off muttering something about my being really different.

Vulnerability makes the shift from hiding to walking into the open with all the skills, insights, interests and passion that sit at the core of people's true engagement.  Without the willingness to embrace the chance of failure no real success will ever occur.  I have a quote hanging on my office wall from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States that summarizes this idea.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”


James Autry, retired president of the magazine group at Meredith Corporation, reflected on one of the most transformative encounters he experienced as a leader. He was listening to Bob Barnett, then CEO of the Meredith Corporation in 1968.  According to Autry, Barnett reflected on the importance of self renewal as a leader pointing out that the most important thing in this process is love.

Love in business?  Why not? Love is not being a jolly, well-liked sap who cannot make difficult decisions or who has lost the respect of others and become an impotent in leader. Rather it is a commitment to act out beyond ego to recognize when denial or hubris has misdirected critical thinking. Love is the humility to learn from others regardless of their status and a commitment to grow personally. Love sets a tone in which others can risk excelling - an act that requires they also risk failing.

So did love work for Autry?  Under his tenure the magazine group went from $160 million in revenue to $500 million.  In Autry's words "I tried to integrate love in the corporate setting. And it just kept working; I just kept getting results."

My CEO friend is on the verge of becoming deliberate about love. He clearly has compassion for his employees and cares about their well-being.  However, he has not yet defined love in a way that allows him to also exercise difficult leader decisions. As a result he sometimes lacks clarity in the muddle of his own duplicity in action. He affirms when he needs to correct and sometimes corrects when he needs to affirm.  He has retained less than capable people with the hope they will improve and not designed a development plan to move them toward improvement or replacement.


In my conversation with this newly minted CEO I asked him to tell me what his vision was for the company.  He outlined a profit target.

"Ok," I said, "hitting a profit is great and necessary to continue in business but what inspires you to work to that end? What will you use to rally the people in your charge to truly invest themselves in the work of the company?"

"Hitting the profit goal," he responded with even greater intensity. He appears to see profit as the means to an end. It is of course in one sense, he will not keep his position or meet his other goals without making a profit.  However, he has fallen into the great distortion of the American corporation.  The real work of any business is not making profits; making profits is the result of the real work.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink noted that purpose was one of the core aspects of motivation.  When people own and work toward a greater purpose their internal drive reduces any need to force a motivation onto them. Most managers learn that extrinsic motivators are not consistently reliable and often work to undermine rather than amplify motivation.

The greatest businesses I have had opportunity to engage all have and live in a sense of purpose and they can describe their purpose clearly and succinctly. Sure they are aware of their metrics and check their profit.  However, their profitability (and all of them are profitable) does not arise out of their monitoring of profit but out of their passion for their work.

When I pressed this new CEO for a purpose his communication became a muddled disarray of incomplete thoughts.  It seems to me that once the CEO becomes clear about love he will also become much more clear about purpose. Clarity in purpose is essential for any company that seeks to thrive and walk toward greatness.  Those companies that only walk toward profit are not great, they are wreaks of burned out employees and bitter executives living to avoid the next round of cuts.


I see vulnerability, love and clarity as revolutionary in force and outcome. In my own leadership I have seen the power these unleash the gifts and abilities of others and myself. These characteristics always probe my weaknesses and push on my strengths. These characteristics consistently help turn negative poor performing units and companies into thriving and financially successful operations in my experience. However, they clearly need a commitment to personal change and growth. How does vulnerability, love and clarity factor into your leadership?  If they don't, why? How can you introduce them? Do you need help - who will you talk with? I am always game for a conversation - I am still learning.  Let's talk.

Powerlessness, Greatness and Choice - what every leader needs to remember

leaderHave you ever felt frustrated or powerless at work? A friend of mine recently admitted, “I am at odds at work.  How much commitment do I really want to give to a company that seems compelled to undermine its own success?  Any commitment I do make seems like an exercise in futility.” The question was not trite. The question stemmed from frustration. My friend is a remarkably gifted leader recruited to the company for which he now works to change to a struggling department. However, he feels stymied in the continued development of his department. The impulses of his Vice President derail planned action thus limiting the traction needed to produce consistent positive results.  Unsurprisingly this is a common experience for many managers and directors.

Last week I heard Jim Collins speak – he always encourages and challenges me.  I was reminded of something he wrote,

Most businesses also have a desperate need for greater discipline.  Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline – disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action – that we find in truly great companies.  A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness….we need a new language…reject the naive imposition of the language of business…embrace the language of discipline.[1]

The concept of being great hits me every time I read it. The question I ask myself is, “do I have the discipline and perspective needed to contribute to a truly great enterprise?”  Further more do I contribute to a culture of discipline? The challenge here is to buck any trend toward mediocrity by building a culture of discipline around my responsibilities.

Collins’ research concluded that building a great company occurs in four stages. Think about these stages as I have outlined them in Table 1 and consider; (1) how you contribute to these stages; (2) how do you encourage others to step into this mind-set; (3) whether you are hirable today as one who contributes to these stages and (4) if you are not hirable today in a great company what do you need to change?

One of the most important insights Collins presents in his monograph on the social sector is the insight that Level 5 leaders often exist within diffuse power structures and can be effective in creating pockets of greatness.  Collins identified two kinds of power i.e., executive and legislative.

In executive leadership enough concentrated power exists to simply make right decisions. Executive power makes right decisions no matter how painful they may be. However, many Level 5 leaders do not have this kind of concentrated power. Many leaders in the middle are not the CEO but work somewhere in the mishmash of organizational structure and political reality.

Legislative leadership on the other hand possesses enough structural power to create the conditions for right decisions via persuasion, political currency, and shared interests.  Many leaders have legislative power within their departments or divisions and can take the responsibility to move toward greatness not-with-standing the pressures that push the rest of the organization toward mediocrity.

Table 1: Inputs of Greatness[2]

Inputs of Greatness Defined Actions I can take
Stage 1: Disciplined people
Level 5 Leadership Exhibits personal humility i.e., they are ambitious for a cause and  the organization and professional will i.e., fierce resolve to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition
First who, then what First, get the right people into the right places and the wrong people out and then think about what you need to do i.e., the "what"
Stage 2: Disciplined thought
Confront brutal facts Identify and remove those barriers to being great live the Stockdale paradox i.e., confidence you will ultimately succeed while also identifying all the barriers to that success.
The hedgehog concept Attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, then exercise relentless discipline to exit those things that fail the test – (1) what are you deeply passionate about? (2) What drives your economic engine? (3) What can you be best in the world at?
Stage 3: Disciplined action
Culture of Discipline Accepting one’s responsibility (larger than a job) to consistently work to greatness.
The Flywheel Relentless action toward the goal that builds momentum on small successes
Stage 4: Building Greatness to last
Clock Building not time telling Great organizations prosper through multiple generations of leaders – build mechanisms that stimulate greatness
Preserve the core/stimulate progress Great organizations run on a fundamental duality: (1) a timeless set of core values and reason for being and (2) a creative compulsion for change and progress.

What kind of leadership power do you have?  Are you willing to take responsibility to exercise your power in building a great department or division? If you are unwilling to take responsibility what does this say about you as a person and a leader?

One of the things I find consistently true in leadership is that the very act of leading forces me to engage in an assessment about whom I am as a person and whether I can live with myself as that person. My friend’s question shook me up.  It made me think. Taking responsibility to exercise greatness in my corner of influence is not an option – it is the only rational course by which I can make a lasting contribution to the good.  How about you?

[1] Jim Collins. Good to Great and the Social Sectors (Boulder, CO: Jim Collins, 2005), 1-2.

[2] Collins 2005:34-35.

Two Insights about Change Every Leader Needs to Understand

change signThere are two common dynamics I see in almost every change project.  The positive dynamic is nurture – the ability to see change as a system wide interaction of behaviors, belief, decisions, relationships and new actions.  The negative dynamic is the ex nihilio fallacy - the thought that stating the need for change equates with actually executing a change.  Recognizing the difference between these two dynamics means the difference between success and often painful failure. Change requires constant nurture

Change is like planting and growing seeds in a harsh environment.  It takes constant nurture and patient repetition. By nurture I mean a leader must continuously re-check the validity of the original change goals and ask to know if routine action and behavior is actually moving toward the desired end or working against it.

When thinking about this kind of nurture messaging is important. It is easy to fall prey to the two most common traps of non-communication when the pressure is on to execute on change. The first trap is  mindless repetition of the change slogan as though a slogan repeated often enough becomes believable.  The second trap is head-down avoidance of all interaction in the mistaken wish that if controversy is avoided it will melt away like snow in the spring. When leading change it is important to remind everyone on the team about what the change intends to accomplish. Keep the goals (the ends) in plain sight.  This is especially important in light of the fact that every change requires a change in thinking and organizational culture to be successful.

By avoiding communication managers end up rooting for change without addressing the very real inconsistencies and operational gaps inherent in any change. Lack of two-way communication that interrogate the present in light of the future runs the risk of destroying the adoption of change. Interrogating reality is essential to success.

However, managers sometimes mistake this interrogation with the rise of negativity. In a quest to quell so-called negativity these managers fail to engage the operational questions, observations and concerns of their employees – employees who must work out the change in behavior and thinking. Limiting conversations, even difficult ones, will not effect change.  Limiting conversations simply affirms that managers are only engaged in the corporate dance of morons who talk change, behave as usual and change their tune every time someone higher up the organization reads a new book, announces a new program or initiates a new direction as the next flavor of the month.

Ex nihilio creative speech only works if you are God

The ex nihilio fallacy is a view that because a leader has power he/she is capable of decreeing change into reality. Ex nihilio apparently works for God when creating the world but it does not work for managers or other leaders attempting to carry out change. Even the best plans for change end up dogged by questions, bugs, inconsistencies and gaps between expected outcomes and actual results.  I watch leaders implicitly appeal to ex nihilio decrees instead of doing the hard work of understanding the system in which they have attempted change. It takes hard work to outline new processes, train and coach people to execute on new processes, and encourage new behaviors and feedback lines.

Ex nihilio management behaviors show up in statements like:

  • There is no excuse they should know this already.
  • This is simple, just do it.
  • If you can’t do your job I will get someone who can.
  • We talked about this already why aren't you doing it?

Ex nihilio management behaviors assume that spoken wishes about the future actually create processes, behaviors, and outcomes all miraculously aligned around what the manager intended to communicate.  The danger of course is that the meaning conceptualized by the manager rarely ever is heard or interpreted in exactly the same way by the listener.  When ex nihilio managers face the routine task of clarifying their intent they (1) avoid repeating what they intend – thus indicating that they themselves are unclear about what they really want to have completed and/or (2) resort to tirades about poor execution forcing everyone to hide until a clear reprimand indicates a violation of intent or silence affirms that one has stumbled into the right action.

I find several other behaviors that parallel ex nihilio change management.  Watch for these:

  • Hyperbolized expectations.  Change is limited in part by the premature or unreasonable promises made about its outcome by managers fearful of conflict.
  • Impatience. Impatience causes managers to prematurely abandoned change because of fear, boredom or frustration with poor implementation.
  • Indolence. Change processes fall flat when managers fail to assess outcomes resulting in formalizing change. Acting in indolence is like changing course then assuming the course change was an end in itself and not a means to an end - it is a form of resource mismanagement.
  • Ignoring unexpected consequences. Change reveals previously hidden or compensated weaknesses in skill/ability.  Ex nihilio change management not only fails to expect this reality it also fails to constructively address it when it does arise.
  • Experiential distortion. Change easily morphs to recognizable or familiar forms as a means of managing ambiguity. Change is fundamentally a learning cycle not a process differential.  Ignoring learning as change results in change in name only. The ambiguity inherent in change obfuscates communication leading to heightened anxiety and siloing. Ambiguity creates new power alliances that present unexpected resistance to breakthroughs of innovation. Some of these new alliances stay dormant in the short run and erupt unexpectedly when apparently slight offenses set of an avalanche of emotional reaction.


There is not a successful company or organization around today that isn't in the middle of deep change. Rapidly shifting consumer behaviors, changing regulatory environments, stake holder demands, competitive pressures, morphing technology all challenge the routines managers and employees use to define themselves.

If leaders cannot define predictability in the face of rapid and discontinuous change two things are certain. First, the leader will show more ex nihilio change mismanagement behavior. Second, employees will define themselves around routines of resistance thus artificially limiting their ability to adapt while simultaneously undermining valid change.

In the face of the chaos of change leaders need to return to the necessity of nurturing change.  The simple rule of thumb is this – if you are not completely sick of talking about the change project you initiated and if you have not yet experienced the frustration of describing it a dozen different ways you are not yet clear in where you want to go and what the execution of your intent should look like.

Help your employees define themselves by their competencies and value as creative people versus the routines that define what they do at work today.  The reality is that the way we work, in fact the kind of work we do today may have little resemblance to the work we end up doing tomorrow. On the other hand who your employees are today and the competencies they have learned are transferable.  People remain vital and relevant to the degree they understand their value to the organization stems from a commitment to a learning. Learners use experience to differentiate the opportunity in problems and outcomes from the means of getting there.

New behaviors and beliefs show sustainable change. Wise leaders watch their employee’s behaviors and beliefs. The accomplishment of short-term goals indicates milestones but they do not indicate a change of thinking. Remind yourself that if you ever grow tired of nurturing change you have ceased being a leader. The alternative is not only a drop in productivity but  a loss of competitive survival as well.

6 Ds of Toxic Leadership – A Call for Courageous and Compassionate Leadership

Leadership is a Work in Progress Leadership is always a work in progress. As men and women respond to dynamic market pressures, seismic political interactions, multi-level relational needs, routine and extraordinary tasks new lessons on seeing oneself and one’s context emerge.   The challenge is not that weaknesses or faux pas occur--the challenge is when behavior intentionally resists complexity and change to prefer the route of least resistance in personal interactions.  In my observations of less than sterling behavior by managers and executives in a variety of industries common patterns emerged that have toxic consequences.

The tendency to resist complexity and change emanate from a variety of motives rooted in an individual’s personality traits, the context in which they serve, and as a reaction to the relational webs in which the person works and lives.    What I have noticed is that the six Ds of toxic leadership identified below are routine only in so much as I recognize these as one side of personal behaviors that also seem correlated to the level of stress the person faces.  That is to suggest that the six Ds of toxic leadership are maladaptive approaches to reasserting a sense of personal control over stressful or unexpected outcomes or behaviors by others with whom the leader relates.

These six deadly sins of leadership also seem to manifest along two different axes i.e., those that are more public than private and those that are more aggressive than passive – illustrated below. It appears important to know where each dysfunction falls on these axes to decide the best intervention strategy when they occur.  Each of these dysfunctions obscure reality--creating a mental fog that diminishes a sense of personal power/responsibility and personal competence/individuality.  Obscuring reality or redefining reality along a win/loose or right/wrong dichotomy characterizes each of these dysfunctions. How people respond to these dysfunctions depend on the ego strength of the followers.  In my experience where these dysfunctions routinely manifest in leader behavior followers generally show lower ego strength--a fact I attribute to: (1) A leader’s deliberate choice of those easily manipulated, (2) People tend to conform to the group as a form of security/acceptance and (3) People with higher ego strength avoid placing themselves in abusive situations.

The scale suggesting passive to aggressive behavior recognizes that these dysfunctions may react to stimuli in a self protecting fashion (passive) or may pro-act to remove perceived threats (aggressive).  Healthier organizations exhibit implicit (mentoring) and explicit (intentional coaching) interventions and pre-screening that are designed to avoid dysfunctional leader behaviors prior to hiring on the one hand and to expand a person’s capability for working in complexity on the other hand.

What are these rather common toxic behaviors and what is their impact on followers and on the leader’s future ability to get things done?


Defined; evasion as a means of escaping or avoiding something, especially one that involves cunning or deceit.  The behavior is passive in that it reacts to accountability by attempting to redirect responsibility to others.  The behavior also manifests as disengagement from the behavioral dimensions of effective leadership i.e., idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration.  Leaders exhibiting dodging behavior hide in their office or cubical actively avoiding (dodging) critical interactions with direct reports and up-line authority.

The act of dodging results in an organization that fails to achieve or execute or more often in organizations that show a significant disconnect between formal and informal leadership. Leaders who dodge their responsibilities are little more than figure heads who consume organizational resources while their underlings are left to fend for themselves and figure out how to get things done.

Oddly enough leaders who dodge responsibility indirectly contribute to the emergence of capable people who learn to manage the inertia of a disconnected leader.  The down side of dodging behavior is that it teaches emerging leaders what once they have power they can focus on the rewards of power without regard to the organization’s means of achieving outcomes. Additionally, blind pursuit of prestige contributes to ethical lapses and poor moral judgments by emerging leaders who: (1) Seek the recognition of the powerful for what they carry out at any price and (2) Want to achieve the perceived prestige and power of arriving at a high-ranking leadership position.

When dodging is an isolated behavior address it by coaching that sets clear goals for performance and personal development. However, when dodging is a long-term behavior interventions must address the entire organizational culture. Followers often resist interventions that attempt to alter organizational behavior. If employees view the organization as the golden goose that rewards loyalty then changing the goose removes the potential of future reward.   Ultimately organizations exhibiting such behaviors collapse on with Enron speed.


Defined; contempt for and mockery of others.  Derisiveness stems from a narcissistic overestimation of self-importance combined with a lack of creative thinking.   Hamel describes one aspect of derisive management as “denominator management”.[i] Denominator management is all about cutting the denominator (capital, headcount, and investment) when evaluating financial ratios.  Derisive managers act out a “corporate anorexia”.  Instead of focusing on growing the numerator off a more-or-less fixed base of investment and headcount to drive productivity higher derisive managers show their lack of creativity and lack of respect for the workforce by consistently cutting headcount, benefits and pay to keep up profitability. Derisive leaders fail to see that the issue is not numerator versus denominator rather the challenge is linear versus nonlinear innovation.  The challenge is to figure out how to break the conventions of an industry and address both.

Derisive managers de facto cut out leadership and talent development in their quest to maximize profitability without considering sustainability.  Leaders and organizations must question the absence of people skills and talent development in profit driven or survival driven decisions. When people are viewed a little more than corporate chattel their simply is no reason or opportunity to develop leaders.

Healthy organizations challenge derisive leaders on their attitude (or blindness) toward employees and their lack of truly innovative thinking. Usually coaching serves as an effective change intervention unless the manager in question suffers from more than a quick fix perspective toward business challenges. Where managers suffer from a disregard of people generally they present a significant human resource compliance risk.


Defined; the use of power in a cruel and unreasonable way.  Organizational despots use their power to obliterate perceived threats to their place, influence or favor with other power centers with which they feel an alignment. Despots often work aggressively behind the scenes deriding emerging talent and/or ideas that seem to threaten the status quo of power.

Despots demoralize change agents and emerging leaders by redirecting their sense of reality and situational clarity. For example one client described a despot that used every private meeting to remind the client she lacked the scope of ability needed to succeed at work (without ever specifying the allegedly deficient ability, skills or knowledge) and that senior management had written her off as a fit to the organizational culture.  The reverse was actually true.  The fact was that she was considered to be a high potential employee who would be promoted above the despot. Despots work in private and thus keep up plausible deniability of abuse.  If the target of the despot goes public to question the despot’s message the employee him or herself appear misinformed and paranoid lacking the kind of confidence needed for healthy self promotion.

The fact despot’s work primarily in private is important in designing an intervention.  Privately they are most sinister yet they do slip up publicly typically reacting to questions or alternative tactical suggestions with extreme emotion and anger. Astute followers use these outbursts to test the reactions of others and ask publicly about the source of the intensity. Practicing the art of powerful questions (e.g., you seem to feel quite strongly about this…why is this?) the despot is drawn out of his/her cloak of privacy.  Interrogating reality in public exposes the untruths and fabrications the despot uses to keep others in line.  There is a twofold danger in this strategy however.  First, if the organizational culture is dysfunctional questions seeking clarification in public may be interpreted as insubordinate and unreasonable (a Orwellian redefinition of the word “reasonable”).  Drawing the despot into the open in a dysfunctional organization results the follower being seen as disloyal, unpredictable or unreliable – all correct when the criteria is accepting the dysfunctional behavior as normal.  Second, the follower asking the questions can count on another round of private tongue lashing.

It is important to build strong internal alliances that allow you to test reality claims. And it is equally important to push back on the private destructive behavior of the despot.  For example: a despot tells a victim privately that their lack of skill is the sole reason a project crashes.  Followers possessing enough ego strength may push back on hay wire assumptions with data and alternative perspectives.  Followers with lower ego strength can test the claim by privately seeking out alternative evaluations and comparing insights.  A despot’s time in power is always limited and when they crash their survival in the organization depends on (1) the depth of their alliances and (2) the health of the organization.

Despots spoil emerging talent and development – check your organization’s employee engagement and turnover rates. Despots impede the growth of organizational capacity.


Defined; defensive reasoning avoids assessment and is characterized in:

  1. The quest for unilateral control.
  2. The maximization of winning and minimization of loosing.
  3. Suppression of negative feelings (non-emotional, invulnerable).
  4. Quest to be perceived as rational – or objective (detached, superior).

In a day when success in business increasingly depends on learning, defensive reasoning undermines the organization’s capability of continuous improvement and sustained performance. In organizations in which learning does not occur the emergence of what Heifetz calls a doom loop emerges in which the loss of resiliency and emergence of scapegoating characterized as:[ii]

  1. Misperception of the nature of the threat – don’t see reality clearly (compare Drucker’s discussion about “theory of business” – Drucker, HBR, Sep.-Oct. 1994, pp. 95-104).
  2. The threat may be perceived but exceed personal capacity to adapt.
  3. The threat evokes distress that leads to pain avoidance, blaming action, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jump to conclusions, or find a distracting issue to restore a sense of stability.[iii]

A leader given to defensiveness develops a brittle personality and often exhibits an “inappropriately high sense of despondency or even despair…” when demands overload the ability to control responses.[iv]  This leader ends up losing influence as others begin to push back on the warped reality of the defensive leader to reduce the mistrust and suspicion he or she generates. When the defensive leader also holds power followers typically ignore the defensiveness and create informal power lines to carry out necessary problem solving and creativity thus duplicating time spent on every problem or challenge.  This kind of duplication reduces the organization’s efficiency and is often one of the drags on profitability the financials record but fail to define.

Because defensive reasoning is a public dysfunction grounded in a private fear the best strategy is to keep up public dialogue presenting alternative data and assumptions while simultaneously seeking to engage a private relationship that gets at the adaptive incapacitation.  Coaching is particularly helpful in this regard and more sophisticated organizations regularly use coaching to help their management and executive team expand their adaptive capacities.

Defensive reasoning may derail important tactical decisions and thus expose the organization to unnecessary competitive pressure.


Defined; extreme indulgence in the gratification of the senses the indulgence of appetite. I once receive a call from a vendor with whom we did business. The voice on the other end introduced themselves as our new account manager. We talked for a moment about pricing structures, demand and the role their product played in our business plan.  He noted that he wanted to visit our operation and get to know us better. Then he dropped the bombshell, “When I come,” he said, “I expect you to hook me up with some California hotties.  If you want to maintain your favorable pricing with my organization you will have to make this happen.”

Like other dysfunctions debauchery views business as a means to leverage pursuit of their own appetite.  Not only did the suggestion that we visit several strip clubs and then end the night in a private party with some strippers offend my sense of morality it violated our company ethical code.  Does sound moral judgment and values have a role in business success?  Or, is this just business?

The research into what makes leaders effective concludes that highly effective (transformational) leaders not only ground themselves on fundamental moral foundations they inculcate the character strengths of moral courage and integrity in their followers.   The bottom line of morally grounded leadership is that the followers who grow up around these leaders gain the ability to make their own ethical and moral decisions not merely from the fear of recrimination or punishment but because of the self-awareness that unethical behaviors are inconsistent with highly effective leadership.[v]

Where debauchery is unrestrained managers explicitly and implicitly violate both employment law and sustainable business practice. In my experience debauchery leads to quid pro quo promotions of incompetent managers whose positions and benefits serve as hush-money in the face of sexual harassment and/or sexual favors. Profitability plummets from managerial incompetence, employee disengagement and employee legal action.

Debauchery requires a strong intervention for legal, moral and business sustainability reasons. Intervene by direct confrontation of inappropriate behavior and consistent enforcement of company policy.  Be sensitive to those who are victims of the debauchery.  As in other dysfunctions where followers have strong ego strength they either face the perpetrators of this power abuse or leave employment for a better opportunity. However, as in other dysfunctions perpetrators of debauchery also seem to master the art of grooming less secure employment candidates and employees for abuse. If left unaddressed debauchery destroys all aspects of a business.


Defined; emotional appeals to falsehoods to manipulate response of followers. Demagogues may represent delusional leaders or as is more common in my experience leaders who rise to a position and responsibility that exceeds their grasp of complexity or capacity to serve as an effective organizational catalyst.  These leaders are masters at grooming emerging leaders into servants of their misinformation and manipulation.

I sat in the green room waiting to give my department report to the international board of our organization.  I was new to the corporate office. I served at the invitation of my mentor who served as Vice President of the international division.  Roy had warned me that he recruited me to help effect a change in corporate culture and that his efforts had succeeded in creating a bifurcation of those who supported his efforts and those who plotted his demise. I respected Roy deeply. But I had to admit I wondered if he was being a little paranoid (which was way out of character for him).  Then I met Bill (another young leader recruited by one of Roy’s detractors).

“What will you say in your report,” Bill queried.

Having temporarily forgotten Roy’s advice to keep my plans and strategies for the board’s ears only I provided the bullet points of my presentation; (1) an evaluation of the current status of my department as compared to other similar departments, (2) an evaluation of potential contributions to the corporate strategy my department could make and (3) a strategic plan including pro forma financials that showed the projected impact of making the changes I suggested.

“You can’t tell them that,” Bill said with a look of concern that hinted of the condescension one expresses when they feel they have an inside track to power.

“Why not” I asked?

“They will eat you alive. Everyone knows you don’t give the board the real situation. Besides you will make us look bad,” he continued with a forced grin.

Since Roy and I had gone over my report I felt confident that I was on the right track and did not deviate from the plan.  The board gave me a round of applause when I finished and one of the other agents of change on the board praised my report as a model for everyone else.  I felt great about the presentation mainly because I was naive about the impact of demagoguery.

In the months that followed the closed-door political posturing became more clear to me.  I heard more back rumors about myself.  I didn’t take everything seriously – I was in the power seat. I met regularly with the president. My position was grooming me for greater responsibility. I had a mentor (Roy) who consistently reminded me that power would corrupt me if I did not commitment myself to servant leadership. Then an unexpected series of events unfolded.

Roy died in a private plane crash. All those back door meetings I had watched positioned a new Vice President in power who hated Roy.  The result, I was on the wrong side of the power equation over night and became the target of the demagogues’ full court press to have me removed.  I was shocked at the misinformation and misrepresentation I endured in the following months.

The outcome of demagoguery is not simple. It would be easy to say that demagogues simply place their mindless lackeys in key roles. I watched very capable people defend decisions they disagreed with strategically and ethically as necessary for the survival of the organization.  They reframe their situation in extremes seeing other divisions in the corporation as overt threats to the survival of the international division.  It is this kind of reframing or mental fog that demagogues create and that keeps them in power.

Confusion, self-doubt and disillusionment emerged in these mid-career leaders. All of them eventually left the organization. The demagogue was removed and replaced by another demagogue. The corporation entered a time of chaotic change and legal problems.

Resist and expose demagogues with alternative and verifiable data and truth-telling. In my view interventions with demagogues must be organizational wide – coaching or other individual interventions are not effective because demagogues are master manipulators of reality.


I contended in the beginning of this article that leadership dysfunctions are coping strategies for dealing with complexity and pressure. In my experience all the dysfunctional leaders I have met also exhibit decisions of incredible insight and sometimes strategic foresight.

Because I tend toward optimism in how people develop I am convinced that many of these leaders can transform from dysfunctional to healthy leaders if their followers, organizations and social/professional networks and colleagues act to contradict their dysfunctional behavior.

However, as Jean Lipman-Blumen points out followers “…accept, often favor; and sometimes create toxic leaders…”[vi] The reality of corporate and organizational experience often mirrors the dynamics uncovered in Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment (1971) in which student volunteers began to act as though the situation was real leading to prisoner abuse, depression among prisoners and shocking instances of extreme behavior.  Only one prisoner objected to being mistreated yet, “…other prisoners viewed this individual as a troublemaker despite the fact that he was protesting on their behalf, as well as his own.  Even the ‘good’ guards felt helpless to intervene.”[vii]

Those who oppose dysfunctional leaders always face some form of retaliation from the leader and often from his or her followers or peers. However, if (1) currently dysfunctional leaders have a chance for transformation and (2) dysfunctional behavior is to stop someone must make the choice to act and intervene consistently.

My hope in categorizing toxic leadership as I have is that it would expose toxic leaders to those followers and organizational decision makers caught in the fog of confusion or uncertainty dysfunctional leaders generate. My hope is that courageous and compassionate leaders/followers step up to be the catalysts of truly healthy organizations. Most of all I want to challenge those who recognize dysfunction but either feel helpless or that it is not their responsibility to act.  Do we have a responsibility to act?  Yes! The Apostle James pointed out that;

Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.[viii]

Acting in the face of dysfunction, even in light of the potential social or professional consequences is a moral/ethical mandate. Are you willing to act?  Do you know the cost of acting?  Or perhaps a more poignant question is do you know the cost of not acting?

What if you have seen yourself in one of these dysfunctions?  Then it is time to act concretely. Find a coach or mentor who will tell you the truth and help you name the causes and develop new capacities for working with complex situations you face.

[i] Gary Hamel.  Leading the Revolution (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 13.

[ii] Chris Argyris. “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” In Harvard Business Review, May – June 1991, pp. 5-14.

[iii] Ronald Heifetz.  Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 37.

[iv] Argyris, 10.

[v] Weichun Zhu, Bruce J. Avolio, Ronald E. Riggio and John J. Sosik. “The Effect of Authentic Transformational Leadership on Follower and Group Ethics.” In The Leadership Quarterly, 22 (2011) 801-817. Zhu et al discuss the impact of authentic transformational leadership on a group’s sustainable survival, development and performance.

[vi] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24.

[vii] Lipman-Blumen, 33.

[viii] James 4:17 (NIV)

When Leaders Hide - Bureaucracy or Structure what is the Difference?

Bureaucracy by definition is a system of administration based upon organization into bureaus, division of labor, a hierarchy of authority, etc.: designed to dispose of a large body of work in a routine way.  Bureaucracies work well if the work is routine. However a limited number of tasks in today’s environment of rapid discontinuous change that are best done by systems.  Bureaucracies work well in interfacing with government regulations or analyzing past performance.  What makes bureaucracy go wrong?  Bureaucracies go awry when leaders lose courage, lose energy or fear they not be able to arise to the challenges at hand it is easier to create barriers to protect the status quo.  Hiding behind the status quo is never a means of identifying and releasing new leaders or of refining the effectiveness of an organization’s operations. Bureaucracy becomes a means by which management insulates themselves from the fierce conversations they must have with their employees and direct reports when it takes on any of the following characteristics. Here are a few of the poor practices I have seen and suggestions for reversing these poor practices.

  • Erect buffers and baffles. One VP created a web-based form to manage requests for interaction from his direct reports to avoid face to face interaction. After creating the form he hired a secretary to serve as an extra buffer.  Suggestion: take time to interact with your direct reports especially in times of conflict.  Insulating yourself not only frustrates direct reports it undermines trust, sets up power plays that cut efficiency and contributes to an exodus of your best talent.
  • Design policies to avoid dealing with a problem employee.  The director announced a new organization wide policy designed to address the misdeeds of one person the result was not enhanced efficiency – it dispirited and penalized the most productive by imposing ridiculous restrictions. Suggestion: personally debrief the problem employee offering feedback on what behavior is unacceptable and set proper limits for future behavior.  Define the consequences of future violations and then stick to guidelines outlined in the feedback.
  • Absorb, avoid and redirect.   The president simply ignored his emails and refused to acknowledge those who attempted to talk with him about anything he deemed controversial. This behavior ignores critical communication.  Suggestion: listen to the feedback of your direct reports – it provides insight into the impact of your behavior on others and insight into the situation that demands your attention.
  • Launch into threatening tirades. When leaders feel threatened or challenged by creativity or differences of opinion some launch intimidation tactics meant to subdue the perceived threat.  Suggestion: stop and think.  What has triggered your anger?  A threat? Before launching on the employee explore the theat.  Use the opportunity to mentor your employees and test your own responses. After your interaction debrief with your coach to check your own leadership capacity.
  • Responsibility hopscotch (also called delegation on a bungee cord).  Leaders who don’t know how to mentor and name their direct reports’ capabilities may panic when they see assignments go sideways. Rather than intervene with questions and directives that name capability gaps they pull back key assignments and do it themselves. While this may serve the short-term to “save” a project or assignment it does nothing to develop the employee’s capabilities. Often it does little more than train employees that they can by-pass accountability knowing that the boss will step in and do it himself. Suggestion: ask yourself how well the pattern of “rescuing” your employees is working.  Who is doing your job if you are doing their job?  Is this pattern of behavior sustainable?  Does it generate value? Seek out feedback from a trusted mentor or coach to expand your leadership capabilities.
  • Demand performance based on assumed communication and standards.  Unspoken expectations are unknown. While this makes sense when I write it I am still surprised when I watch leaders express react in anger and frustration because their employees could not intuit their preferences. There is a difference between employees practicing critical thinking and demands that they intuit personal preferences. Suggestion: explain your expectations as well as the task and ask employees to clarify what you have said to make sure that you have communicated effectively.  Do not rely on written instructions alone when a significant assignment is on the line. Written instructions often contain implicit background or expectations that the reader does not have.


How do you handle a boss who exhibits this kind of behavior?  If you are the boss how did you change?  What was the catalyst to change?

You Can Make a Difference - Why Don't You?

We Saw it in the Arab Spring – How about a Corporate Spring?

You say you want a revolution Well, you know We all want to change the world[1]

The events of the Arab Spring affirm the observation that revolutions do not start at the top where the past and tradition is especially venerated – revolutions start at the bottom where the most diversity and possibility of broad-based adoption. But the Arab Spring could dwindle into narcissistic self-absorption like many of the “revolutionaries” of the 1970s in the United States who are now near retirement some of them wondering what happened to the idealism of their youth.

I was talking to a more experienced friend of mine about the challenges I faced in one organizational context in which I work.  “You need,” he said after listening for while, “to read Gary Hamel’s book.”

He loaned Leading the Revolution and I have thought about a couple of the insights that live between the covers of this fascinating thesis.

Hamel insists that in business (or any organization) the responsibility for innovation must be broadly distributed.  I know from experience that the caveat is that those at the top typically derail attempts at broadly distributing responsibility for innovation as a means of protecting precedent (the prerogative of a few). In fact when operating models, business models, mental models and political models are in perfect alignment then the chance of innovation breaks down under the pressure to silence dissenters who threaten the status quo and the rewards inherent in being at the top.

Nurturing innovation requires that the organization’s mental model (deeply cherished beliefs) be challenged (pushed out of alignment with the business model) so that assumptions can be rethought.  This however is not possible without first throwing the political model (distribution of power) out of alignment long enough to redistribute power so innovation can take hold. If power remains narrowly distributed at the top then the chance of successfully innovating from the bottom is next to impossible.  This gives me pause to think about (1) how I have acted when I have been at the top and face dissenters who want to review how we do things and (2) how I manage the political power of organizations in which I do not exist at the top.

Figure 1: Creating Space for Business Concept Innovation[2]

So what is it that moves the mental and political models of an organization to make room for innovation as illustrated in Figure 1?

It takes two things to push mental and political models off-balance enough to introduce innovation according to Hamel: imagination and passion.  The risk is the potential for political backlash (e.g., Bashar al-Hassad in Syria during the Syrian uprising of 2012).  However, without becoming an imaginative and passionate activist unleashing innovation has little or no chance of occurring. Hamel makes an important point about becoming an activist in an organizational sense:

Activists are not anarchists.  They are, the “loyal opposition.” Their goal is to create a movement within their company and a revolution outside in.[3]

In discussing activism in a purely organization sense, activists are committed to their company and to a cause that is at odds with pervading values or practices within the organization. Activists can behave responsibly and be a source of alternative ideas according to Hamel. Activists refuse to fit in on the one hand and live out street-smart pragmatism on the other hand.  It is this second point - street smart pragmatism - that is often missing in inexperienced activists.  They fail to see the potential backlash or pitfalls inherent in activism and so become the walking wounded who give up because they miscalculated the severity of the backlash.

So why care enough to engage in the behaviors of an activist?  Hamel offers three compelling reasons:

  1. A person needs to live and work with purpose over and above their paycheck.  Research demonstrates that those people who experience flow are also people who work out of a sense of purpose.[4]
  2. The organization is not "them" – it’s you. Whining about "them" is simply an excuse to justify inaction.
  3. You owe activism to your friends and colleagues – they deserve to make a very cool difference in the world.


Many of the leaders I work with both in the class room and in the board room can profit from this insight by Hamel. They don’t want to be  an empty suit or disillusioned has-been. On the other hand some people simply don’t want to risk the potential backlash nor the work needed to engage in true innovation. How about you?  Are you an imaginative and passionate contributor to purpose and meaning in work?

Here is another question, what if you are at the top?  Are you ready to be an activist?  What does it mean for those who follow you?  What does street smart pragmatism look like for you around your board or other stake holders?  Remember, your employees and colleagues deserve to make a very cool difference in the world.

[1] John Lennon (credited as Lennon-McCartney) Recorded: July 10-12, 1968 (Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London, England)

[2] Gary Hamel. Leading the Revolution  (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 150.

[3] Hamel 153

[4] Csikszentmihalyi, M & Rathunde, K (1993). "The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation". In Jacobs, JE. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 60.ISBN 0803292104.  Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass,ISBN 0875892612. The concept of happiness and “flow” both observe that happy people or people who experience flow possess a sense of purpose in their work.

Business Acumen - the Tale of Two Companies

Developing Leaders Must Include Business Acumen A friend of mine described his firm’s leadership development process.  They defined what their leaders needed to know at every level of their organization.  This publicly traded company maintains consistently high profits and draws top talent.  Their talent assessments and succession planning was impressive.  They created development plans for every leader.  In contrast I know another manufacturing firm that dreams of being successful.  Their idea of leadership development is showing a video recording on the 21 unsupported anecdotes of motivational gibberish.

I interviewed both teams.  One significant difference emerged like a slap in the face.  The leaders of the publicly traded firm were clear about their purpose. They were clear about their metrics and driven to achieve results. They exercised business in daily decision-making.

The leaders of the privately held firm were ambitious but could not define business acumen.  As I interviewed more of the management I found that managers had no P&L responsibility.  They were unable to offer concrete descriptions of their market and what their customers wanted.  They had a ball-park mentality best described as “if we build it they will buy it.”  The difference between the two teams was stunning.

Business acumen integrates financial literacy (the ability to interpret numbers on financial statements) with business literacy (recognizing how daily decisions and strategies affect the financial numbers).

Great organizations require that every leader have and refine business acumen.  The bottom line is that when managers, sales professionals and employees increase their business acumen they are capable of thinking and acting with the bigger picture of organizational success in mind.

Business Acumen Defined

Business acumen is a perspective of the total business and a resultant ability to make decisions that enhance its overall performance.  It is a characteristic that enhances personal capacity and increases effectiveness in personal decision-making. The basics of business included in business acumen include: sales forecasting, inventory, merchandising, advertising, (increase the value to the customer through lower prices or other value proposition) product mix, cash, profit margin, return on assets, consumer focus, best practices, and shareholders.[1]

Explanation the Basics

Charan contends that every business is the same inside. The challenge is cutting through to cash, margin, velocity (movement of inventory), growth and customers.  The goal of any business is to turn their product into cash to continue operations.[2]  To carry out this they work with pricing, advertising and product mix to design the greatest yield.  Problems occur when companies sink cash into inventories or debt and therefore cannot generate enough cash to stay in business.  As a child Charan learned best practices (what the competition was doing well) by listening to his father and uncle debrief their days.

Business acumen requires that one learn the building blocks of money i.e., cutting through to cash, margin, velocity (the speed at which inventory is turned over to generate cash), growth and customers.  Note that return = margin x velocity (R= M x V).

The rule is that the cost of capital has to be less than the return on assets or the business is loosing money. Everything in a business emanates from this focus.  Besides understanding what products generate cash every firm needs to have cash management (including AR and Debt collection) practices that enhance their cash flow.  If cash is not being generated a company must look at why.  In a small business this may mean seeing the need to generate cash for the business as well as personal living needs – to set the sights higher.  Everyone impacts cash generation.  Everyone impacts how cash is used.

Margin is the net profit after taxes or the money the company earns after paying all its expenses.  The gross margin is the total sales of a product line less its cost.  Gross profit is also critical to business management because it provides clues about changes affecting the nature of the business – if the gross margin falls then ask why.

Growth is sustainable profit. Sustainable profit energizes a company and draws top talent to it.  It is important to note that size is not the ultimate measure of growth – profitability and return are the benchmarks. “If the money-making is improving and the cash is growing too, you have some interesting choices.  You can use the funds to develop a new product, buy another company, or expand into a new country.”[3]

Regardless of how a company measures the responses of customers to their products the importance of being close to the customer is essential for survival.  When thinking about customers, keep it simple – what are they buying or not buying and why?  Stay close to customers and talk with them about what they are looking for.  Observe them directly – not through middle men.  Put the entire set of concepts to work by using the return formula to test company performance one period to the next and to ask why this may be the case.  This is how all the pieces come together.

Business Acumen in the Real World.  Exercising business acumen is a leader’s responsibility, “The world has complexity, leaders provide clarity.”[4] Using business acumen the leader has to gauge the environment and make decisions on prices, margins and purchases.  Leaders with business acumen scan the environment and look for trends that offer opportunities.  Business acumen helps the leader find the three or four business priorities that will leverage the business toward growth by retaining customers and achieve all the important money-making goals at the same time.  Setting the right priorities and communicating them consistently is essential to success of the business.

Doing the right things day in and day out builds value.  In publicly traded companies this is measured in their P/E ratio i.e., price of the stock as compared to the earnings per share. The higher the better such as if the P/E is 7 then for every dollar of earnings per share the stock is worth seven times that much thus creating wealth.  The significance of this ratio is especially clear if a company misses its forecasted earnings – investors begin to question whether the company has the discipline to meet its future obligations.  How can mid-level managers affect P/E?  How about overcoming the “not designed here” syndrome and modifying an important part from an existing supplier thus increasing their volume and lowering your cost.

Getting Things Done.  “Leaders have to deliver results day in, day out, relentlessly over a long period.  Delivering results is what gives an organization energy, builds confidence, and generates the resources to go forward.”[5] The drive to achieve results is characteristic of every effective leader.  Without a results orientation an organization suffers from a lack of clarity that makes it little more than a mechanism for evasion of responsibility and leadership.[6]


I would work for the publicly traded company.  People there want to achieve results together.  They possessed a sense of purpose and mission.  In the private firm on the other hand one manager described the environment as a “need to know” Theory X monarchy – this is not exactly the recruiting slogan one wants to promote. So what does business acumen look like at your company?  Use the prompts below to define what your leadership/management team members need to know.  When you complete your definitions train your team and hold them accountable for their results.






[1] Ram Charan. What the CEO Wants You to Know: Using Business Acumen to Understand How Your Company Really Works.  (New York,NY: Crown Business, Crow Publishing Group, 2001), 20.

[2] Charan 24

[3] Charan 49-50

[4] Ibid 67

[5] Ibid 93

[6] Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith. Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader 4th ed.  (New York,NY: Basic Books, 2010).

The Betrayal Part 3: Building Trust Not Toxicity in Leadership

The Challenge of Lost Trust In the first and second installment of this series I looked at what makes trusted friends turn into fatal enemies in business.  When trust dissipates into posturing and the emergence of win/loose competition or attempts to annihilate a foe the result is a toxic impasse. In my example I cited the situation in which an owner became his own worst enemy – his quest for power, prestige and privilege divorced from the responsibility, discipline and trust needed to sustain his quest ended in the demise of his business and the blatant quest of his partner to put him out of business.

There is no single issue at work in the demise of interpersonal relationships. Personal histories show up in the stressors of a startup business with wildly different sets of assumptions.  Yet in the growth of any organization (for profit or non-profit) a tipping point exists that predicts stressors in the relationship among leaders and one of two outcomes: (1) leadership divorce or (2) leadership conflict toward discovery.

Predictable Tension Points

Dynamic organizations grow as a result of the driving vision of an entrepreneurial founder and reach a point at which the founder can no longer keep up with the multiple demands of the organization.  At this crossroad the owner or founder (remember this stage of organizational development occurs in non-profit and for profit organizations) realizes that he/she needs help.

The organization must develop its own identity and processes that move the vision and mission of the Founder forward beyond the skills and abilities of the founder.  One of my favorite organizational theorist calls this the need for organizational versus personal sovereignty.

Organizational sovereignty is an essential building block to the development of great internal structures and processes.  Leaders need to understand the logic behind the development of processes and rules that make sure consistent quality and accountability in the performance of the core competencies of a company or organization as it pursues the vision that birthed it in the first place.

Vision First

In my view organizations won’t die for lack of core competencies per se. I have been a part of growing organizations that suffered for lack of competence but survived because their vision temporarily moved them past the restrictions of incompetence.  This is not to say that the lack of competence in leadership has no eventual adverse or destructive impact.  When an organization possesses a vision for a different reality, and that the vision permeates every aspect of the organization it can weather periods of slowed momentum regardless of incomplete competencies.

However, when an owner/founder recognizes the need for new management talent yet consistently usurps their input once hired the talent will disengage. If this occurs the organization reverts to a earlier stage of development or begins a death cycle.  Owners or founders who find their organizations repeating the same growth and loss patterns should look in the mirror.

Conceptualizing the Tension Points - Organizational Sovereignty

The challenge an owner/founder faces is how to alter his or her perspective on leadership to proactively engage in the development of leadership at every level of their organization – this sounds simple until the owner realizes that developing leadership means redefining control. Two classic mistakes occur.

On the one hand the cost of talent leads an owner to reject the right talent in favor of the almost right talent.  The results of a bad hire are obvious almost immediately multiplying the owner/founder’s worries and work than streamlining both.

Similarly owners who hire the right talent, delegate the right decisions then panic and revert to withdrawing control also face the likelihood that (a) their talent will leave or (b) they will fire their new managers because they don’t know how to redefine the locus of control from themselves to the organization.  The result is disastrous.

If the organization is to thrive then it must successfully carry out a different approach to authority.  Adizes (1988) makes this observation:

The move to Adolescence requires delegation of authority.  In a society this is analogous to making the move from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarch where the king is willing to abide by a constitution.  The Founder must be willing to say, "I am willing to subject myself to the company rather than have the company subject to me.  I will be bound by the same policies that bind everyone else."[1]

The illustration of a constitutional monarchy is an important one. In a privately held company the owner does bear the bulk of the risk in the early days.  Typically it is the owner’s house, savings, or equity that is on the line when it comes to the financial performance of the organization.  It is this risk that causes owners to jerk back on the reigns of delegation to override organizational sovereignty.  History demonstrates that any monarch’s attempt to reassert absolute control after having set up a constitutional existence is sure to end poorly.

In non-profits the same dynamic works.  It is still the founder’s assets, equity and sweat equity that has built the original organization (e.g., church startups). In this situation a pastor feels all the same sense of threat and fear a business owner does at the prospect of relinquishing control by subjecting themselves to an emerging leadership team of staff and governance members. The question remains – will the pastor abide by the same policies that bind everyone else?

The move toward organizational sovereignty is a screening time -- "...it separates those organizations which will advance and flourish from those which will flounder.  It separates those organizations that have self-discipline and those that don't."[2] To become a great organization requires self-discipline to control urges and short-term temptations.  Organizational self-discipline keeps its focus on the long-term while simultaneously turning its attention to its internal controls and processes with the goal of doing fewer things better as defined by its core vision and core competencies.[3]

The transition even when done well is not instantaneous.  Adizes (1988) observed:

…management can spend a year defining the organization chart, determining its corporate mission (not only deciding what else its going to do but also deciding what it's not going to do), developing training programs, salary administration systems, and incentive systems.  If this is done proactively, the reorganization can avoid the emergence of future problems such as lack of salary administration, lack of clarity in the organizational structure and hiring tomorrow, people who were needed yesterday.[4]

Does it take a year to carry out this kind of structuring?  Yes, my experience has been that organizations that need to define the systems of organizational sovereignty have already begun to experience the dissipation of their energy and resources by trying to be all things to all people – their leaders have already experienced mixed messages and bungee cord delegation that usually signals that the top decision maker or makers are overtaxed and not sure what the next steps should be.

What are the primary components involved in building organizational sovereignty?

1) Appropriately delegating authority (this is where defining organizational structure, determining mission and reviewing personnel occur).

2) Creating policies that consistently apply to all (this is where developing training programs, salary administration systems and hiring the right people occur).

3)  Creating a learning environment and the systems needed to help transform experience into knowledge.

Delegated Authority and Roles of Management

The definition of delegated authority depends on understanding the roles of management or leadership.  Managers or leaders must consistently solve problems and make decisions. Management defined here is the act, manner or practice of directing, supervising and controlling. Be careful to avoid mis-matching the adjectives in the definition to the wrong referent.  Management directs strategies and responses to market pressures and opportunities.  Management supervises the work of others offering mentoring, feedback and support.  Management controls processes and expenditures. Controls make sure the efficient use of resources produce a profit or execute a mission while retaining enough cash reserves.

If the activities and the referents (measurements or results) are confused, such as a manager may attempt to control people and not processes or expenditures then relationships turn dysfunctional and damage the morale and productivity of the company and set up the loss of trust that eventually leads to betrayal.  Management activities either undermine or reinforce the ownership of tasks in a department by the leadership skills employed.  In other words management either reinforces or undermines organizational sovereignty leading to an organization that is smart, responsible and agile or an organization that is stupid, irresponsible and impulsive. Management techniques characterized in Table 1 illustrate the difference in approach and outcome management activities and referents can have.

Table 1: Management Techniques

How can Owners Successfully Navigate the Change to Organizational Sovereignty?

In watching owners wrestle with the issue of organizational sovereignty I have several suggestions to offer:

Look for feedback from the right people.  Many owners suffer from self-inflicted injury by ignorance. Business schools, owner networking groups, consultants and successful entrepreneurs (who have already made the jump from personal to organizational sovereignty) offer a wealth of experience and insight.  There is an old adage that carries a lot of truth – if you hang around with turkeys you will never fly with eagles.    Some owners/founders find solace in those who are at the same level of development but that solace blinds them to the realities they should address.

Practice self-awareness. Stress and fear always distort a person’s most successful behavioral patterns. I have watched owners eviscerate their key talent with one of two common results.  In the best case talent that is consistently undermined leaves the company as a result.  This is best because it offers and immediate wake up call. In the worst case the talent stays but unplugs.  Demoralized talent looses its commitment and engagement with the critical issues.  Instead a survival mode results that resembles a brain-dead body animated with life support technology.  If the tension remains talent will work to sabotage all attempts to change the status quo (i.e., survival). Lipman-Blumen (2005) offers an important insight; “followers knowingly tolerate, seldom unseat, often prefer, and sometimes even create toxic leaders.”[5]  Why does this dynamic occur? Lipman-Blumen (2005) suggests that such behavior is motivated by six human needs:

Need for reassuring authority figures to fill our parent’s shoes

Need for security and certainty – which prompts us to surrender freedom

Need to feel chosen or special

Need for membership in the human community

Fear of ostracism, isolation and social death

Fear of personal powerlessness to challenge a bad leader

It is difficult to hear how others experience one’s behaviors. But if you will listen your business and your personal life will improve.  Find a coach. A good coach can help you identify the stress points in your behavior that tip the scales from creativity to chaos.

Realize that running a business is not being a technician.  Often people strike out on their own because they want to focus on what they love doing…if this is the goal the last place to be is a business owner unless you work out of your garage and make the kind of money that never requires the purchase of equipment, assets or hiring of employees.  If you dream of being a business success then you must learn to (a) run a business and find others who do the technical work or (b) hire someone to run the business while you run the R & D or the shop etc., while you learn how to read financials and balance sheets and check policies to make sure that the core values you set out to live by are invested in the daily operation of the company.  Assume a learning posture. The moment you stop learning is the moment you start your own demise in business.


The loss of trust is a contributor to organizational demise.  In young organizations the founder is often the biggest culprit in undermining trust because he or she does not understand the need for organizational sovereignty.  Organizations experience common developmental life cycles and predictable tensions.  The smart leader anticipates known tension points and learns how to navigate them successfully. The critical decision point young organizations face is the need to formalize structures away from the founder in a move toward organizational sovereignty.  If the founder fails to learn the power of delegation the odds for creating a toxic organization exponentially increase. Toxic organizations tend to be self-perpetuating because the creation of toxic leaders often helps people meet psychological needs. Diagnosing the existence of good delegation is possible by looking that the management techniques typically employed to decide if management behavior contributes to or undermines organizational sovereignty (Table 1). Organizational success or demise is not set in stone. Leaders, founders, owners committed to learning and open to input have the best possible chance of success.

What kind of organizational culture will you build or support?

[1] Ichak Adizes. Corporate Life Cycles (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988), 46.

[2] Adizes 1988:193

[3] Adizes suggests that a company needs to move from a sales driven organization to a market driven organization.  The same concept is fundamental to the success of high-tech companies that attempt to jump from its sales to early adapters to securing a segment of the mainstream market.  It is Geoffrey Moore’s contention that the failure to capture a market segment from which to anchor this leap to the mainstream market is root of a company’s ultimate demise.  See, Crossing the Chasm, (New York,NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), 68.  Translated into the context of the non-profit organization this means that a disciplined action must occur that defines the primary focus of the organization and achieves success at rooting into its niche prior to expanding its base to related areas.  In other words it must integrate its core values and driving vision into all aspects of its structure in a way that helps its leaders and workers know when it is time to say “no” to demanding opportunity to focus on how it answers to its primary purpose in a consistent and effective way.

[4] Adizes 1988:197

[5] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We can Survive Them (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 5.

The Betrayal: When Broken Trust Turns Toxic Part 1

Surprising Venom “Look Ray,” he said, “I know you have your stuff together.  Sit here, gather your consulting fee and look for another job while you do. This is not about you.  This guy does not deserve to be in business.  I am going to take him down, take what cash I can and move to the job I already have lined up.”

These are the last words I heard upon exiting my first job after graduate school.  How in the world had this company come to such a venomous end?  The guy speaking was a man the owner trusted completely.  Upon receiving news that I would  be let go in the downsizing after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center I was told that based on performance I was a good choice.  However, the owner preferred to bring his longtime friend and director of the manufacturing division in to restructure the company to survive the hit we had taken in our cash flow as a result of a vanishing sales pipeline.

How did I get here?  Why was this guy so filled with poison toward this owner?  Why was the owner so clueless?

 The Back Story

I completed a master’s degree in intercultural studies with an emphasis on organizational development and leadership development.   I became more and more enamored with the subject of organizational design and leadership development. I knew I wanted to take this new knowledge into business and work to improve personal and organizational performance.   I did not know how to make the transition from directing and leading in the religious non-profit world to the business world.  I knew two things, I had something very valuable to offer and a lot to learn (the curse of graduate education is that it provides new knowledge and in so doing also catalogues every students ignorance).

I alerted several mentors and close friends that I was not interested in another non-profit role but wanted to enter the business world to test the wings of my newly acquired expertise.   Brian, a friend of mine (a recently minted MBA on his second post-graduate role) asked me to join his turn around team.  I remember his pitch.  The company he was hired to lead had a pioneering software product for managing the front desk operations of hotel and other hospitality property.  The company had developed and protected an innovation the big guys had not yet thought of.  The company was strongly capitalized.  The owner had made a poor hiring decision and was ready to listen to business/organizational talent that could structure and propel his innovation forward.  The owner would back away from daily operations and give Brian and his team the opportunity to lead forward. Brian recruited me to serve as director of operations, another experienced friend to lead sales.  We rebranded, reorganized, restructured our way through the first three months and began to see the promise of building sales momentum.

I went to work understanding the operational functions of programming, customer service, human resources, and sales.  I mapped a new organic organizational structure designed to leverage Brian’s business plan forward and began recruiting and retraining across all departments.   Lora went to work restructuring the sales department.  She worked through our database like a lioness stalking a herd of gazelle. Brian went to work rebranding the company and analyzing financials.  These were heady days. We were succeeding in turning things around.  The owner was happy, our customers were either happy or becoming happier and our innovation was protected and winning us sales from our bigger and more established competitors.

I was on the freeway traveling to the office in Anaheim, California before sunlight on the morning of 9/11 and heard the news of the first plan hitting the tower of the World Trade Center.  I drove to work glued to the radio and stunned at what I was hearing.  When I walked into the office instead of seeing the sales team on the phones to our Caribbean and east coast customers they were in the lunch room standing around a television set watching the horrifying drama unfold.  Before the day was even over potential customers started calling to cancel their orders for our software.  In the first 48 hours following 9/11 we lost our entire sales pipeline and began analyzing how long we could keep the doors open without any sales revenue.

The End – The Enigma of Human Relations

What a contrast to my first meeting with Brian. My last meeting with the owner ten months later was a dirge. “Ray,” the owner announced “I would like you to orient Bob (the director of operations at the company’s manufacturing division) on operations in the software division.  Bob will take over operations of both divisions as we merge to survive this set back.  I have known Bob for a long time and his law degree and experience are just what I think we need to survive.  If there were any way financially I could keep you and your skills I would but without sales we are going into a hole at an unrecoverable rate.”

We negotiated a consulting role that would last for two weeks.  I would have two weeks to find something new and turn over the reins of the software division.

I showed up to the office on my first day as an ex-employee turned consultant.  When Bob walked into my office and described in detail how he was going to destroy the owner financially and why.

What happened?

If you have insights into this catastrophic dynamic write your comments here.  Over the next several weeks I intend to write on how business relationships disintegrate to the point that trusted friends turn into fatal enemies.  The subject of betrayal and situations leading to betrayal are not new nor are they simply the fodder of English literature classes studying Julius Caesar.  Do strategies exist that help owners and managers avoid this collapse of trust? What are your insights?  Have you experienced a similar collapse of relationship?  Have you seen it?  Have you studied it?

Leadership is Complex - a pictorial summary

My cousin sent me the reminder below and I saw it as a metaphor that aptly captured the feedback I have received in coaching from both male and female executives.  Leadership is complex and the interactions that occur between men and women in the workforce is part of that wonderfully diverse complexity...well wonderful most days according to my clients.

Gender is one of the complexities of leadership interactions.  Look for more about this from me in 2012.  Until then, happy New Year.

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.