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Leadership Vacuum October 26, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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See if this sounds familiar: the senior executive is an experienced, knowledgeable, outspoken, and strong-willed person who is intimately involved in decisions at all levels in the organization. They don’t seem to recognize ambiguity or uncertainty; to them there is a clearly-correct answer to everything. They may even be “right” 99.9% of the time because they possess a high level of domain expertise and a deep understanding of the business. This person may be actually very pleasant and approachable, although many of the people who fit this description are not.

Paradoxically, an organization headed by this kind of person suffers from a leadership vacuum. When decisions must be routinely reviewed and approved by the boss, there’s a high probability that lower-level people will begin to unplug their internal creative and critical reasoning capabilities and simply focus on what it takes to satisfy the higher-level authority. That may sound attractive to some senior leaders (“just do it my way”), but this has at least three negative effects on the organization: (1) it creates an execution bottleneck, if only because of the time required to locate the decsion-maker and present the case, and (2) it deprives the organization of  the ideas that come from the diversity of talent and experiences available, and (3) it stunts the development of strategic judgment and other skills in the future leaders of the organization.

What is leadership? I don’t believe that leadership is simply a matter of accurately interpreting and effficiently executing directions from above. Employees should be encouraged to freely propose new ideas and challenge operating assumptions. The enterprise benefits from the collective contributions of all; it is inherently limited when only a few brains are engaged with others functioning at a lower cognitive level.

Managers certainly should share their analysis, opinions, and experiences, but it’s important for their listeners to know whether they are speaking as a senior leader who has already made up their mind, or as another contributor who is engaged in an open discussion. When I have informal hallway conversations with someone from my team, I try to make it clear when I’m brainstorming and “thinking out loud,” or when I’m reinforcing a strategic message. Whenever possible, managers should encourage questions and discussion as an opportunity to explain the logic behind higher-level decisions, to communicate the organization’s vision, and to help others develop their own leadership skills and judgment so they can better support that vision.

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