The painful question
Roy looked me in the eye with one of those looks that drills through the defenses, “Now that you are at the helm of your organization understand that it won’t be that many years before your largest challenges will be the consequences of your own decisions…when you have no one to blame but yourself what will change look like then?”
I remember sitting and staring at Roy with a stunned look I could not hide. I had just unloaded my frustration with the decisions of those leaders who had controlled the congregation before I arrived to lead. I was younger than my peers. I had asked for a particularly difficult assignment i.e., to take a dead congregation and turn it around and I had won it – although I have to admit there wasn’t a long line for this assignment. The congregation had a long blood trail of broken and frustrated pastors who had served before me. The average stay was barely two years.
My idealism about turning around a dead organization suffered severe challenges early on as I faced nearly 50 years of entrenched values, fears, poor decisions and reaction to my innovative initiatives. I was frustrated. A deep local recession added to the difficulties. The recession destroyed our community’s employment base. The community experienced a negative migration of population because of the double-digit unemployment. I had a lot to whine about in my mind but Roy had little time for my pout.
The responsibility and weight of decision-making in leadership offers a sobering antidote to the adrenalin of power and authority that attends leadership. I realized that I had to nurture the kind of open forthright relationships that would give me clear feedback to avoid making stupid mistakes and to build a foundation for influence. The fact of the matter is that power and authority come and go in organizations much like the seasons. Influence however emanates from a leader’s character and travels with him or her from one assignment to the next.
I knew where I wanted the organization to go – I had a very clear vision. I had a good idea about how to go about it. This presented me with a double-edged sword. On the one hand my confidence inspired others to join me in the adventure. The vision I communicated seemed to engender enthusiasm (people like to be part of an organization that is going somewhere significant). However, in my self-confidence I often exhibited stubbornness. Only the wildly confident could get through to me when I was on a “right” rampage. I saw three tasks.
Hear the hard questions
First, I had to listen to others whose advice would move me past my arrogance so they could find synergy with my confidence. This means I had to see my arrogance and that is the problem. Sue was particularly helpful in this regard. The wife of one of my mentors (he was an executive at Weyerhaeuser Company) she was very accustom to encountering arrogant young bucks and equally accustom to deflating them to a manageable level of arrogance by simply asking questions. She had a way of reviewing what I had just decreed that immediately gave me three to four more perspectives that led me to see my first statement was little more than pompous pontificating. I wasn’t always sure how she did it. I did know that my staff was always relieved to know I was going to see Chuck because they knew that I would also see Sue and she would work some magic that made me easier to work with.
Encourage and demand honest feedback from others
Second, I had to encourage their self-confidence to get their best performance and endure their arrogance in the process. The staff and I had worked on planning a major initiative for weeks. I was clearly convinced that it would succeed. It failed to gain board approval. After that particularly difficult meeting I walked from the conference room to the offices with my senior staff. Rod said partly under his breath, “I knew this would not fly.”
Shocked and angry I turned toward him in the hallway and lifted him off his feet and pinned him to a wall with one hand. I remember while I was turning that the other staff upon seeing my expression were backing away.
I looked Rod in the eye and said, “If you ever keep your opinion from me again I will fire on the spot. Other bosses may fire you for disagreeing with them. I will fire you for not giving me your honest assessment. Do you get it?”
Rod shook his head in the affirmative. As I smoothed my own ruffled feathers a collective sigh of relief emerged.
We talked for a couple of hours together that evening after the board had gone. I talked about how much I needed the assurance that my team would not let me waltz into the future like the Emperor in his new clothes.
Leaders often find themselves isolated because of the power and politics surrounding their position. However, they cannot afford to remain isolated. To remain isolated replaces leadership with either over-cautious risk aversion or blind disregard of risk. Either choice negates leadership and results in loss of trust and legitimization by followers.
Practice reflection – what do others experience around you?
Third, I had to embrace the consequences both good and bad of my leadership and personal decisions. Mistakes in judgment occur – recognize them, apologize, learn and apply the lesson to the next set of challenges. John, one of our board and a senior executive stood in my office door one day. The rest of the staff was out-of-town and I remained behind to run things in their absence. I was having fun.
“You are amazing,” John began pausing long enough for me to fully absorb his words. “I have watched you this week – you are a Jack of all trades.” John paused again allowing me to puff out my chest with a smug sense of satisfaction. John walked out of my line of sight.
I sensed a few minutes later that another person was standing in my office door and looked up from my work to see John again standing there. “Oh, one more thing,” John began.
I expected another accolade.
“Master of none,” John finished.
My chest deflated.
“Ray, this week you have run the secretaries ragged, ignored your wife, scheduled meetings like people had no private life and left people longing for the staff to escape your business. Is this the outcome you aimed to achieve?”
“Not exactly,” I weakly responded.
“Ok,” John said, “you have a couple of days to correct the chaos you created.” With that John disappeared from my line of sight again.
What was the outcome I wanted to generate in my wake? I pondered the question. I realized that the more I ponder the question the more I realized what change looks like when the challenges I face are of my own making.
Roy was right. I look back on a career that has some significant accomplishments. I look forward to a few more before my work days are done. But I also look around and see consequences to my decisions. Some I like…some I don’t. I have begun to talk about the one’s I don’t like with the people I subjected to those decisions. Roy did not warn me that it wasn’t the big things that would come back to query me. It is the little things, the everyday decisions about how I treated people, the priorities of my life when it came to work and family. I don’t know the ratio of good to bad decisions. I find myself more concerned with adjusting the daily decisions I make now so they align with values I don’t mind having interrogated by others. I find myself more concerned about being present in the moments of my day. I find myself taking time to see people around me, to see and hear my employees and to be fully present with my adult children, grandchildren and my wife. It looks to me that I am becoming a better leader as a result.
Are the outcomes of your behavior what you intended? Do you see the outcomes of your behavior? Do you own your own emotional wake? These are the questions I find refine a man or women and make the difference between refined authority, power, influence and the rough-hewn exercise of a position that leaves others disillusioned or wounded and organizational outcomes languishing and unsustainable.