Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

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What script are you reading from?

conflict-in-recruitment“What did he say?” Bill (not his real name) was eager to find out what his partner had talked to me about. Bill and Abe (not his real name) were in the middle of a fight that threatened the productivity of their employees and gave the whole company and uncomfortable edge – even their customers had picked up on the tension.
“He is open to an engagement to facilitate your board meetings” I responded.
Bill and I had been introduced by his attorney because the attorney could not get these two partners talking and he knew that I did facilitation work. In the weeks preceding my conversation with Abe, Bill and I talked about the power of facilitation and the way it could help he and his board overcome the gridlock they were in. Bill had been consistently open and optimistic about the potential of facilitation – that is until I reported on the results of my conversation with Abe.
Bill jumped from calm and measured to intense and angry, “He’s not sincere – he will tell you anything you want to hear. It’s his pattern. I won’t continue this charade of change. I need to buy him out and get on with things.”
“Bill,” I queried, “Abe sounded pretty sincere to me. He asked probing questions, wanted to know how facilitation had worked in other organizations and expressed his own frustration with the gridlock. Why don’t we engage a face to face and define what facilitation looks like for your company and what objectives we need to hit?”
Bill continued his tirade about Abe. What I didn’t tell Bill was that Abe had spent the first forty-five minutes of our conversation expressing his frustration with Bill. These two men fell into the same pattern of offense, accusation, counter-accusation, and rejection in every conversation they engaged. I wondered what had started this down-spiraling pattern that now held each of them prisoner to their own silence about what they needed. In fact, it was their silence about their need that was most astonishing to me in the face of their loud protests about the suspected motives of the other.
Is there a way out of a toxic conversational pattern? The answer is yes, but with some significant conditions.
First, will you stop and recognize that the pattern that emerges in every conversation is predictable and toxic? Employees in Bill and Abe’s company told me that they could predict each board meeting’s conversational pattern. They actually had a pool on the side that predicted when the conversation would go off the rails and they could recite the “script” that Bill and Abe used on each other when the meeting decayed into hostility. It was the same script every time with very little alteration. People “addicted” to anger and one-up-man-ship, like an alcoholic, must first admit they have a problem. Once a person is willing to see that the toxic communication pattern is their problem, not the problem of their nemesis they take the first healthy step – they break the pattern.
Second, will you be vulnerable enough to talk about what you need from the conversation? It’s interesting to me that Abe insisted that he told Bill in every meeting that he needed real numbers to make sound decisions. “Abe,” I responded, “may I give you some feedback on that?”
Abe looked at me askance for a moment and then agreed, “Ok” he said.
“You don’t ask for what you need, you accuse Bill of massaging his numbers to manipulate the decision,” I replied.
“Yea,” Abe retorted, “I can’t make strategic decisions with numbers that I know don’t include realistic sales forecasts. I need clear cost analysis and projected gross profit that takes into account our history and the current market conditions. I tell Bill in every meeting this is what I need.”
“Abe, do you see the difference between a request for specific parameters and an accusation that Bill is trying to manipulate the meeting?” I asked. “Listen to what you just said, you don’t tell Bill what you need you tell Bill his numbers are wrong. He defends his numbers, you show him your numbers and the conversation disintegrates from there.”
“Ah,” Abe reflected for a moment, “I think I see what you mean.”
“Abe is the problem the numbers or is the problem that you don’t feel Bill respects your expertise and perspective?” I asked.
“Geese Ray, where do you get that?” Abe responded.
“You told me that in our last lunch meeting,” I replied.
Abe’s eyes turned to the carpet and he grunted. “Humph, I hate talking with you.” He looked up, “I need to think about this.”
Third, exercise low-level inference rather than high-level inference listening skills. How much do you infer from the verbal and nonverbal communication you receive? Low-level inference doesn’t “read into” what is said, rather it asks for insight into the reasons something is said or done. High-level inference assumes an understanding of unstated motivations and intentions.  If a listener cannot listen to understand rather than listen to respond and if they assume they understand unstated motivations – the conversation rapidly disintegrates into a volley of accusations and counter accusations.
Will these three skills resolve embedded and toxic communication patterns?  No, but they are a significant first step to that end. When practiced they open the door past conflict to communication where the real work begins. Can toxic communication patterns change without these three skills and the decision to employ them?  No. Without these first steps, the organization will limp along toward its ultimate demise while it sheds its best talent and misses its best opportunities while the principals in the conflict continue their charade of power.

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Four Questions to Ask in the Middle of Conflict

conflict-in-recruitmentLeaders face conflict. Conflict simply is a matter of fact.  The presence or absence of conflict has very little to do with whether a leader is successful or not. Instead successful leaders know how to transform conflict into opportunity. So, the question is not how to avoid conflict but how to engage it and how to find the opportunity for break through thinking and development that conflict represents. Don’t rob your organization of powerful and transforming potential by either power over or ignoring conflict.

Mark Gerzon, in his book Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, outlines four essential questions for approaching conflict.  Make a habit starting your approach by asking yourself:

  • “What else can I learn about this situation?”
  • “Is there some useful, perhaps vital, information that I lack?”
  • “Do I truly understand the way others see the situation?”
  • “Should I consult with others before I intervene?”

Leaders who make a habit of asking themselves these questions avoid the impulsive decisions that generate years of regret later. I am not exaggerating when I say, “years later.” I have worked with leaders who described significant turning points that cost time, money, and tons of emotional energy  in colossal set backs. Rather than ask themselves these questions they responded to in hast and anger. We can and should learn from similar examples.

Ask yourself these questions then you are more ready to engage conversation with the source of the conflict.  The goal in engaging any conflict is to listen generatively and not reflectively.  Generative listening listens from the context of the whole system while reflective listening only hears from inside one’s self. The pitfall of reflective listening is that subjectivity pushes leaders down the rabbit hole of Wonderland and end up with a distorted view of reality. Generative listening on the other hand provides the leader an opportunity to move from simply managing conflict to engaging transformation. Generative listening uses several important skills.  Invite someone with whom you have strongly disagreed to talk with you while you listen – take the following steps.

  • Find a good space. Choose a place to talk without distractions.
  • Take the time. Let the other person tell their story.
  • Respond (versus react). Choose your body language, tone and intention.
  • Show interest. Make eye contact; focus on the person speaking; don’t answer your phone or look at your BlackBerry.
  • Be patient. It’s not easy for people to talk about important things.
  • Listen for content and emotion. Both carry the meaning at hand.  It’s OK sometimes to ask, “How are you doing with all this?”
  • Learn. Listen for their perspective, their view. Listen for their experience.  Discover or learn a new way of seeing something.
  • Follow their lead. See where they want to go. Ask what is important to them (rather than deciding where their story must go or how it must end).
  • Be kind. Listen with heart as well as with mind.

After doing this notice the difference this makes in how you feel about your relationship with the other person.  The act of listening not only brings clarity for both people in the conversation it often brings items to light that have never been considered before.  One conversation does not have to resolve all issues however; a good act of listening goes a long way in bridging seemingly unbridgeable differences.

Leadership i.e., the ability to create a new vision for group action amid competing perspectives, values, and allegiances; is all about getting through conflict.

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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.

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Missional Churches Re-shaping Things to Come: a quest for something deeper

The Future and Three Essential Commitments

It is a political season and political discourse causes me to think about the future. However, I find the political discourse of part of the church disappointing in both its lack of depth and failure to show character that looks different from the norm. What is the shape of the church tomorrow?  How will the church re-shape the future? What is important to remember every day when taking single steps into the future? There is, I am sure, more than one answer to these questions. The variety of cultural and geographic situations of the local church guarantees an assortment of answers.  One thing seems persistently true in every culture – thinking about the future has a dual character of release (freedom from the ineffective and imprisoning) and rebirth (an entrance into trauma that makes new). Release and rebirth reflect the nature of God’s promise and leads me to think about the future in two ways.

First, I think about the local church. I have served in the church as a campus pastor, pastor, church planting supervisor, executive pastor, missions director, board member, and 2 and 3-year-old teacher for over forty years…it does not seem that long!  Time has reinforced my appreciation for the fact that new generations must wrestle with how to be the authentic and vibrant church.  New insights and forms consistently disrupt and encourage how I think about faith.

Second, I think about the business stewardship with which I am entrusted i.e., how businesses create, communicate and deliver value to customers through the products or services they design and manufacture or offer.  Businesses cannot ignore the social changes facing the local church and their own business any more than other leaders can. The reality is that the church by nature is a catalyst to change (transformation) and not just a victim of social change.  As believers we have to embrace the disruption of our thinking because the promise of God woos and summons us to a new future. I like the way Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer put it in their new book:

The alternative to this biblically mandated transformation is to pick a rut and make it deeper.  And this is just what many churches have done, preferring, even if not consciously, repetition or even stagnation.  As leaders we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that just managing the status quo is good enough…Rather than missionary disciples for Christ going out into the world, we have a group of people content to go in circles.[1]

I have seen businesses and congregations dig ruts that look too much like a graves – they have either gone out of business or gone bankrupt.  The only way I see to avoid following in a similar path is to engage the sometimes uncomfortable and always transformative vision of the future the work of God brings.  Isn’t it strange that the promise of God is simultaneously comforting and disconcerting?

In thinking about the church and business in today’s social environment I cannot avoid the need for three essential commitments. In my view without commitments like these the church fails miserable at being a differentiated body of people.  Without commitment the church floats somewhat aimlessly amid the currents of culture without making any real difference and without demonstrating any real change. I attempt to explain these commitments below.

Engage the Conversation

Commitment 1: Engage the conversation about how the church relates to the culture.  One of my friends complained that the church can never get this right.  It is right to say that the conversation is perennial, and it needs to be.  Culture is not static.  New generations grow in changing contexts and express different ways of addressing their situation’s critical questions.

Paul S. Minear in his book on the images of the church reinforces the necessity of thinking about how to reach the world in which we live.   Conversations about how to relate to the culture necessarily start with a commitment to Jesus as Lord. Minear’s insight is sobering:

Yet we know enough concerning God’s design for the church to be haunted by the accusation of the church’s lord: “I never knew you.” So there is much about the character of the church to which the church itself is blind.  Our self-understanding is never complete, never uncorrupted, never deep enough, never wholly transparent.  In every generation the use and reuse of the Biblical images has been one path by which the church has tried to learn what the church truly is….[2]

Commitment to Jesus as Lord result in a devotion to learning that is characteristic of a close friendship.  Friends are attentive to each other. Friends discover preferences and share dreams and fears.  It is disappointing to find church leaders who are more self-assured than humble learner – can we really afford to behave in ways that contradict the words of Christ while claiming to act in the name of Christ?  By learning I don’t mean academic learning.  Instead I mean a willingness to face one’s self and one’s context with the realization that knowledge is incomplete and perspective is always limited.  The most effective leaders I know live transparently as learners – they constantly work on relating to their world authentically.  Their congregations don’t run into ruts but race toward a powerful vision. Learning means constantly looking and listening for what the church needs to fulfill its vision in a constantly changing social context.

Demonstrate Conviction

Commitment 2: Undiluted and transparent conviction is essential to saying anything important.

In a day when pluralism is emphasized as a social necessity (respect for people who hold opposing views or differing cultural perspectives is essential for a civil society) it also unfortunately acts as a barrier to real communication.

Pluralism means several different things.  In common terms it describes the reality that ethnic, religious, political differences identify groups of people as distinct from one another.  Sociologically it defines a policy or theory that minority groups within a society should support their cultural differences and share overall political and economic power.  Philosophically the term describes the theory that reality is made up of many kinds of being or substance and (1) may not be definable or (2) that a plurality of realities actually exists. Each of these nuances is used in various ways when people talk about pluralism.

For this discussion pluralism can be categorized in two schools of thought; identist (all religions are oriented toward the same religious object) and differential (religions promote different ends – different salvations).  In this definition it is safe to say that evangelicals generally define pluralism differentially i.e., we recognize that different ideas of salvation or the need of salvation exist but that Jesus claimed a unique status and a single reality in the midst of these differences.

Here is the challenge. There are those who consider any unique conviction to be a denial of pluralism (a loss of respect for any other view). My contention is that without clear convictions communication cannot take place because without clearly stated convictions there is no opportunity to agree or disagree there is simply an artificial truce that goes nowhere.  Luther, who was not known to hold back on his convictions and opinions, describes a Christian’s basic conviction this way:

The chief article and foundation of the gospel is given you …when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.  On this you may depend…to have a proper grasp of the gospel, that is, of the overwhelming goodness of God….This is the great fire of the love of God for us, whereby the heart and conscience become happy, secure, and content.  This is what preaching the Christian faith means.  This is why such preaching is called gospel, which in German means a joyful, good, and comforting “message”….[3]

The good news of God’s great love and goodness as revealed in Jesus Christ is at odds with certain religious and social views.  This does not cut its universal application – it affirms humankind’s universal dilemma i.e., the quest for meaning and the diagnosis that the lack of meaning stems from separation from God. In the biblical view there is no exception to this diagnosis (Rom. 3:23 and 6:23).

This clear conviction does not need to be reduced to unbending bias, cultural/ethnic hegemony or squishy acquiescence of one’s deep convictions. If the church is going to say anything important today it has to be honest and transparent about its assumptions and beliefs and to allow for the scrutiny of its convictions with the confidence that God really is at work in the world around us.  An example of this kind of conviction occurs in Paul’s defense before Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26 (see vs. 24-28).

Hans Küng carries the idea of conviction further. The way the church lives out its attributes determines its credibility and authenticity.  There is a point at which the clarity of difference summons a decision to believe or disbelieve.

“That the world may believe” (Jn. 17:21) depends entirely upon whether the Church presents her unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity credibly in accordance with this prayer of our Lord.  Credible here does not mean without any shadows; this is impossible in the Church composed of human beings and indeed sinful human beings.  Credible does mean, however, that the light must be so bright and strong that darkness appears as something secondary, inessential, not as the authentic nature….[4]

One implication I find in Küng is that authentic living does not need “spin”.  If being credible means that the light need to be stronger than the darkness then I understand this to mean that being credible is not only living out one’s conviction but admitting when one’s behavior does not align with one’s convictions.  In our experience in business admitting mistakes or errors and working with our customers to find a solution creates far more credibility and customer loyalty than trying to cover things up.  Isn’t the same true for the church?

Make a Contribution

Commitment 3: Contribution to the world around us in measurable meaningful actions is the earmark of grace.

The church father Cyprian summarized what is sometimes missing in more esoteric theological reflection on the nature of the church.  Cyprian wrote in more concrete terms about the nature of the church i.e., how should the church behave? The third commitment may be framed as a question, how does the behavior of a congregation impact its neighbors?

In conclusion, my dear brothers, the divine admonition never rests, is never silent; in the holy Scriptures both old and new, the people of God at all times and in all place are stirred up to works of mercy…’Share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.  When you see the naked, clothe him; and do not neglect the household of your own family. Then shall your light break forth in due season and…the glory of God will encompass you.[5]

I love Cyprian’s insistence that the impulse to contribute to the world around us is divinely motivated and never at rest. When I look at the unknown future I find courage in the fact that if our company continues to be stirred up to works of mercy i.e., to contribute to real needs we will never end up in ruts that look like graves and lead to demise.  The same is true for the church.


There may well be other important aspects of facing the future but it seems to me that if we engage in conversation with those around us and do it with honest convictions with the goal to make a real contribution then the future does not present itself as a threat but as an opportunity.  Will there be such a thing as the church in 20 years?  Yes. I am more confident to assert that if we keep up a commitment to conversation, conviction and contribution the as expressed in congregations and in business will offer a quality and vital impact in society.  What does your conversation, conviction and contribution look like?  Does it lead unmistakably to Christ?  Or, is it muddled, muddied and misleading?  Join me in making a measurable difference by being a living demonstration of what it means to be a believer.

[1] Ed Stetzer and Thom S Rainer. Transformational Church (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010), 3.

[2] Paul S. Minear. Images of the Church in the New Testament (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2004), 25.

[3]  Martin Luther, “A brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed, Timothy F. Lull ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 95.

[4]  Hans Küng. Structures of the Church (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1982), 27.

[5]  Cyprian. “On Works and Alms” in Documents in Early Christian Thought, Maurice Wiles and Mark Santer eds. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 210.

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It’s Not About Experts – It’s about Nerve, Endurance and a Commitment to Learning

Convenient Misconceptions

The conversations started over a year ago when an executive in one of my clients approached me, “You are the leadership guru,” he began, “how will you get the CEO to become a leader?” I was a little surprised by the intensity of the statement especially because the scope of my assignment had little to do with directly working with the executive team.  However, this was not the first time a COO has approached me with this level of frustration.

“I won’t,” I responded.

He looked me up and down for a moment.

“What do you mean?” he continued.

“How long have you been with this CEO?” I queried.

“About 15 years,” he answered.

“Hmm, over that time how has the rest of the team, yourself included, adjusted to the CEO’s poor leadership?  What changes in your own leadership perspectives have to occur if the CEO did become the leader you want him to be?  What has changed now that makes the CEO, you and the rest of the team open to change that was not in play before now? What makes you think I can bring change you have either been unable or unwilling to initiate in the last 15 years?” I had more questions but I could see that I had already more than amply primed the pump.

It is not uncommon in a consultation to be viewed as the answer to all an organization’s most troubling problems.  In fact it is a little heady to be viewed as one possessing such power…that is until reality pops back up. In my younger days I would have jumped into the middle of this discussion and outlined a change project that failed to take into account the systems, organizational culture and long-term relationships that had authenticated the leadership of the CEO (warts and all) for so long. In my earlier days I often failed to appreciate that pushing on a system to change only meant having the system snap back with the same force to expel me.  The simple fact is knowledge is only a small part of a transformative process.  It opens the door to new perspectives and may inform future decisions.  But it cannot make people travel a path they don’t want to pursue.

The COO sat across the table from me silent. When the conversation started back up we talked about the questions I raised. “One thing that is different,” he began, “is that you have challenged the CEO in a way none of us ever have before. He is talking about change now where before he acknowledged that he was the limiting factor to the organization but he would not step away from his role.”

“What will you do with the observation you just made,” I asked.  “In what ways have I challenged the CEO that you have not? What makes this challenge so effective? What step will you take next since you are in a place to do far more change organizationally than I am?”

At this the conversation shifted to talk about how to define leadership and how leaders develop.  Over the course of the next several months the COO and I met periodically to continue the discussion and to talk about communication and where the company needed to go in his view.  The COO talked about his conversations with the CEO and how they had changed to be more transparent or open.

The COO’s opening statement about guru’s was a convenient misconception.  In his frustration and resignation with how things were it seemed far easier to assume a holding pattern that waited for some outside force to start the changes he felt were needed. Convenient misconceptions are simply ways to avoid the stress of upsetting the status quo. All of us weigh the cost to change.  We understand that in some cases acting like a turtle under duress seems safer – withdraw, pull down a paycheck and try to reduce the impact living at odds with either core values or sense of purpose. But, convenient misconceptions ultimately show up for what they are – denial.

The Change – it begins internally

Month’s passed and the COO invited me to lunch. “I want to talk about a different future,” he said in his call, “this is strictly confidential.”

“I understand, I will keep the conversation confidential and I would love to go to lunch” I replied.

At lunch the COO laid out his plan to either take over the role of the CEO or step down from his role as COO.  “I cannot continue in either the scope of my role as now defined or the tension of this role knowing that without significant change we may be in trouble in just a few years.  I want to do something significant. I can do it here or somewhere else,” he told me at lunch.

The problem in all interpersonal relationships is the challenge of preserving self in a close relationship.  Somewhere along the way the COO had lost his sense of self.  He now began to reclaim it and to decide how he would stay a differentiated person while simultaneously maintaining a healthy interaction with the CEO and the rest of the company’s leadership team.  This requires maturity that Friedman defines as, “…the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.”[1]

Leadership is an emotional process and not only a process of analysis and data. The significance of this shows up in how a leader deals with resistance. In this case resistance from the CEO was not something to avoid.  Instead the CEO’s resistance was a reality associated with the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system of the company. Resistance was inherent in change the COO wanted to pursue and was not caused by the company’s “…specific issues, makeup, or goals….”[2]  The capacity of the COO to identify and manage this emotional process began a road to change.  This kind of self-management that addresses and not avoids emotional issues is paramount to success in leadership.

Now what?

The COO invited me to help with the changes he mapped out. I reviewed his plan and provided feedback.  When he presented his plan to the CEO and to the board the plan was enthusiastically received. We met again after the board meeting and the COO outlined his next steps.

“Your job is changing pretty dramatically,” I offered.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” he stated.

“May I suggest that the transition you are now entering, and that your entire team is entering, is the same as though you were moving to a new company altogether?” I asked. He agreed with this assessment and we talked about how he would approach his first 90 days. I recommended the book by Watkins, The First Ninety Days.  In his book Watkins points out that,

… 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.[3]

In the transition the COO has entered he has to manage the shifting balances of the emotional processes in the company and do this while matching his strategy to the situation. Understanding the situation of the company is the first step in outlining a strategy that has the potential to succeed.  It is now imperative that the COO find the right formula for success especially now that he secured the changes he wanted.  So what does it mean to match strategy to situation?

Match Strategy to Situation

Understanding the developmental stage of the organization provides a basis for engaging the right kind of leadership approach. If the business situation of the company is not understood then it is easy to set the wrong goals and then fail to meet them. In the first 90 days of a transition it is important to establish credibility and knowing the business situation is critical. Watson’s STARS model (i.e., is the business a start-up, turnaround, realignment or sustained success?) is a simple diagnostic tool that can guide critical leadership/management decisions.[4]

Figure 1: STARS model[5]


The goal in a transition is to focus energy on the actions that set up the greatest chance of success in a new environment. Figure 2 below summarizes the choices. Focusing energy in a new assignment is a function of three core questions:[6]

  1. How much emphasis will you place on learning as opposed to doing?
  2. How much emphasis will you place on offense as opposed to defense?
  3. What should you do to get some early wins?

Figure 2: Focus Energy on the Right Approach

By offense Watkins means activities such as identifying new markets, developing new products/technologies and building new alliances.

By defense he means protecting current market share positions, strengthening products and realigning relationships. In turnarounds a good defensive position includes pairing things back to the most valuable core and identifying the most valuable employees.  New relationships are important to forge with the right people so that the team that results is ready to work in a new direction. Friedman’s work around systems in leadership relationships is an important addition to Watkins at this point.[7]

Friedman defines the difference between healthy (differentiated) and unhealthy (non-differentiated) people and the dynamics involved in various relational triangles. His point that all relationships are three-sided versus two-sided is an important insight to a leader stepping into any new situation particularly in the case of the COO who has a team made up of new and existing members all of whom must now redefine themselves in light of the shifts in reporting structure.   The COO must decide the situation of his own company.  Consider your situation.  What challenges and opportunities do you face?

See the Challenges and Opportunities of Transition Times[8]

In a start-up people are excited and hopeful. The challenges include:

  • Building structures and system from scratch without a clear framework or boundaries.
  • Welding together a cohesive high-performing team
  • Making do with limited resources

The opportunities in a start-up include:

  • You can do things right from the beginning
  • People are energized by the possibilities
  • There is no preexisting rigidity in people’s thinking.

Clearly a leader has much more flexibility in a start-up.  Remember however that flexibility also means the leader’s own strengths and weaknesses will mark the company. Diversifying leadership by acquiring good mentors and choosing the right employees helps prevent adopting fatal flaws.

In a turnaround the focus stays on key issues like vision, strategy, structures and systems. The challenges include:

  • Re-energizing demoralized employees and other stakeholders
  • Handling time pressure and having a quick and decisive impact
  • Going deep enough with painful cuts and difficult people choices

The opportunities of a turnaround are:

  • Everyone recognizes that change is necessary
  • Affected constituencies (such as suppliers who want the company to stay in business) may offer significant external support
  • A little success goes a long way.

In realignment the goal is to pierce the veil of denial that has allowed the organization to get too close to irrelevance. The challenges a person faces in realignment include:

  • Dealing with deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer contribute to high performance.
  • Convincing employees that change is necessary.
  • Restructuring the top team and refocusing the organization.

The opportunities a person faces when leading realignment include:

  • The organization  has significant pockets of strength
  • People want to continue to see themselves as successful.

When leaders find themselves in successful organizations where the assignment is to sustain success the objective is to invent a challenge the organization can rally behind.  The challenges faced by leaders in successful organizations include:

  • Playing good defense by avoiding decisions that cause problems
  • Living in the shadow of a revered leader and dealing with the team he or she created
  • Finding ways to take the business to the next level

Successful organizations present great opportunities as well:

  • A strong team may already be in place
  • People are motivated to succeed
  • Foundations to continued success (such as the product pipeline) may be in place


The COO’s journey has changed from tedious boredom plodding toward retirement to enthusiastic purpose striding to a new future. I appreciate the invitation to work alongside this team as they pursue a different future. The road ahead is not without deep challenges. Even though the team agrees on the need for change not all of them anticipate how the changing relational structures and strategic emphasis impacts their relationships, skill development and leadership capacity.  Those who are weakest in their self-differentiation will have the hardest time adjusting – if they do adjust.

Remember, it’s not about experts – it’s about nerve, endurance and a commitment to learning. So how do you assess your own sense of purpose and your role in the organization in which you work? Do you have the courage or nerve to be an agent of excellence and/or change?  The COO’s own change and self-differentiation ran parallel to his willingness to step away from a good paying job to pursue his sense of purpose and a more meaningful relationship. The CEO could easily have agreed to his departure. I suspect however that the COO would have found the pursuit of purpose a far greater force than the temporary loss of revenue. In your situation ask yourself the following questions and see where they lead you.[9]

  1. Which of the four STARS situations are you facing?
  2. What are the implications for the challenges and opportunities you are likely to confront?
  3. What are the implications for your learning agenda? Do you only need to understand the technical side of the business, or is it critical that you understand culture and politics as well?
  4. Which of your skills and strengths are likely to be most valuable in your situation and which have the potential to get you into trouble?
  5. What is the prevailing frame of mind? What psychological transformation do you need to make and how will you bring it about?
  6. Should your focus be on offense or defense?
  7. When you dig deeper, what is the mix of types of situation that you are managing? Which portions of your unit are in start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success modes?  What are the implications for how you should manage and reward the people who work for you?

[1] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing. [Kindle Version downloaded from Amazon.com], 2007), 235 of 5400.

[2] Friedman 292 of 5400.

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

[4] This is another way to describe where a corporation or company is at in its life cycle. Compare Ichak Adizes. Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to Do About It (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1988).  The model also takes into account the insights from Ken Blanchard in his work on innovation/revitalization showing how revitalization must occur as an organization approaches its prime.  See Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn.  Mission Possible: Becoming a World-Class Organization While there’s Still Time (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

[5] Watkins, 63.

[6] Watkins, 69.

[7] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret Treadwell and Edward Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007).

[8] Watkins, 66.

[9] Watkins 77-78.


4 Ways to Mentor Your Team to Success

The Challenge – Control, Trust, Delegation and Accountability

How do leaders expand their organizations without loosing control of vital functions? A small business owner in a rapidly growing business said it this way, “I am one of those small but fast growing companies but like you said some of the issues here at my office might certainly start with me. My biggest issue, I can’t let go. I have to do it all myself. It’s like the saying ‘If you want things done you have to do them yourself’ which takes so much time from my schedule. My problem is trusting my team or teaching them.” (Owner of a Tri-state Business)

Is the choice founders make really a choice between quality or quantity; control or delegation; trust or effectiveness? The owner quoted above like many leaders in both business and the non-profit sector suffers from a false dichotomy. Organizations need both quality and quantity; control and delegation; and trust and effectiveness. Notice that the assumption is clear – no one has the same degree of ambition as I when it comes to my organization’s success. While this is true it is true in degrees and not absolutes.

In an earlier article (https://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/7-tools-mentors-use-to-affirm-effective-leadership/) I discussed the impact Moses’ father-in-law (Jethro) had on changing Moses’ perspective about his role as a leader. It is important to return to the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and Moses’ role in this exodus for a moment to set the stage for what might be called the Moses conundrum i.e., no one has the same ambition I do for this organization.

Nature of the Moses Conundrum

Owners and founders have a unique perspective of their organizations. Consider for a moment that Moses, like almost every founder, faced impossible odds and steep opposition to his vision. Empowered by a catalytic encounter with God in the desert Moses not only faced the opposition of a well established nation as he pursued the dream of a unique identity for his people. He was initially rejected by the very people he worked to liberate because his first efforts at liberation made their lives more miserable. He faced the backlash of Egypt’s pharaoh who sought to squelch the upstart Moses and the idea of an emergent new nation. Owners put everything on the line for their vision – one false step and they lose everything.

I once worked for a privately held company that hired me to help them expand to new markets. I turned down a more lucrative offer to work in a publicly traded company because (1) the privately held company demanded that change happen with greater speed – I could have a direct and immediate impact on outcomes verses the indirect and much slower impact on outcomes in a publicly traded company and (2) I had a greater potential for short-term gains in my own financial position in the privately held company. So, I traded a long-term career opportunity for a very risky but potentially lucrative gig in a privately held company.

I will never forget my shock a few weeks after turning down the third recruiting offer from the public firm (each one more lucrative) when the owner walked into my office and declared, “I don’t trust you.” I felt like decking him on the spot. Several thoughts ran through my mind including the frustration of facing mistrust when I had just sacked a fantastic career offer to engage the adventure of building something from scratch. What was the catalyst to this frustrating encounter? The owner had just put up a million dollars of equity (everything he owned) to fund the expansion. Whose sacrifice for the vision was greater?

Answering the question of sacrifice and investment offers an important insight into what I call the Moses conundrum – no one initially pays the same price as the founder in the first stages of the organization’s lifecycle – everyone takes a risk of significant harm to their future to join the vision of the founder. The conundrum is that even though the founder pays a high initial price – he/she must learn to recruit people to assume an uncomfortable level of risk for the organization to continue to thrive. For example: someone had the guts to be your first hire (unless you hired the first warm body that walked in from the street). If you recruited your first hire because you knew what they could do to be a force multiplier to your time and effort as the owner then recognize and appreciate their risk and recognize/reward them appropriately. Note: recognition has a much greater leverage potential at every stage of the organization’s lifecycle. This doesn’t exclude the need for reward – it is to say reward without recognition and relationship often leads to disappointment and betrayal.

This introduces two big mistakes I see founders make (1) they don’t hire force multipliers they hire stabilizers and (2) they don’t recruit the best they hire to survive another month. If employees or partners are not going to serve as force multipliers they will do more harm than good. A vicious cycle emerges. Founders need force multipliers. They know that no one they hire has made the same initial investment. They don’t know how to find force multipliers so they hire stabilizers (employees who can do exactly what they are told) because they don’t trust anyone with the essence of the business. Stabilizers end up failing to exercise critical thinking skills reaffirming that employees can’t be trusted so the founder takes up more the tasks he/she tried to escape. Employees act slighted and show an entitlement attitude infuriating the owner causing a greater gap in trust and so on.

Owners who fall into the Moses conundrum show one or more of the following dysfunctional behaviors:

  • Impulse versus Innovation. Focus: new ideas. Result: demoralized staff who cannot find consistency in action. Manages by flirting with new ideas, is unpredictable and fails to follow through. Prime focus is on why.
  • Working harder versus working smarter. Focus: task at hand. Result: hard work with the FISH time-table (first in, still here). Manages by crisis without delegation, training, long-range or short-range planning. Prime focus is on what. (See Adolescence and the role of delegation.)
  • Control versus accountability. Focus: doing things right. Result: orderly processes while what needs to be done is eclipsed by how it should be done. Manages a well controlled disaster; the company may go broke but it will do so on time. Prime focus is on how.

Get Out of the Vicious Cycle of Mistrust

How did Jethro’s mentoring help Moses cross the trust threshold to find force multipliers? I have highlighted several points in the text that name the principles founders need to multiply their force multipliers in leadership. Read the text then think through what I have to say about below.

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied. Exodus 18:17-23 (NIV)

Jethro illustrates four critical force multipliers leaders need to stay vital and sane as their organizations grow and become more complex:

  1. Outline and explain your core values
  2. Look for People who exhibit characteristics of trust
  3. Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability
  4. Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues

Outline and explain your core values

Jethro told Moses to spend time educating the leaders around him on how to live. In other words Jethro wanted Moses to make explicit things that he held implicitly. Your team cannot read your mind. I once gave what I thought was a simple assignment to my administrative coordinator, “Jim,” I said, “we need some signs around this property to direct people – our facility is too confusing.” We had purchased existing structures next to our original site to expand our operations. I was concerned that the hodgepodge of buildings and new parking left visitors confused about how to find their way around the chaos.

On the day the signs were installed I parked in the sanctuary parking lot and climbed out of my car anticipating a professional looking, easy to read “road map” to the facility. What I saw instead were signs nearly too small to read, remnants of a hardware store closeout that neither matched the ambiance of the congregational facility nor the vision we had to present our message and mission with excellence in a community used to spiritual charlatans. I was both frustrated and angry at myself for not communicating with greater clarity what I wanted to see in the signage. I proceeded to rip each sign from the building and walked into Jim’s office with a mangled menagerie of metal scrap. I dropped the now unusable mass on his desk watching in his face that he was horrified at the expectation of what I was about to say. “Jim, this isn’t right. I don’t know what I did wrong in communicating my expectations but when I figure it out I will be back and we can talk about it. Until then don’t worry about the signs.”

That last word of encouragement did not lighten his countenance. I went into my office seething with anger. I recognized that my frustration was not at Jim but at a dissonance I was feeling with the entire staff. They were not doing things the way I wanted them done. We had begun to have exchanges in the office that had an edge to them. I sat and prayed that God would help me, I felt like we were missing an important ingredient to our team.[1]

I asked myself why Jim would buy such junk. It occurred to me that Jim loved to save money, in fact having him serve in the role of administrative coordinator had gotten us some great deals. I continued my rumination, Jim likes a good deal. In fact, he values good deals. I value cost savings too but I also value excellence. Cost savings and excellence balanced each other out in my mind. In Jim’s mind a good deal trumped most other concerns. Jim had not bought junk, he had saved money.

“Ok,” I thought, “I am onto something here.” I continued my list of “most important” things to me. “Let’s see, I value cost savings, relationships, excellence, commitment, truth-telling…” My list of values grew.

I returned to Jim’s office the same afternoon. “Ok Jim,” I began “here is what I did wrong. I gave you a job to do and you did it on time and under budget. But I failed to instill in you the values that have been at the core of my work here the last 7 years.” Thus began a conversation that became a turning point in how I lead.

I illustrated nine core values in an interactive matrix and told Jim that I wanted him to do the assignment again only this time to make certain that he incorporated all nine values in his actions. He tried to hand the assignment back to me – I didn’t blame him for being gun-shy but I insisted on trying this new experiment in leadership action. I had to get past the frustration I was feeling. “Jim, even if I don’t like the final outcome, if you can prove to me that all the values meet in your decision, your decision will stand.” Why? Because I felt these core values were the foundation of our success. The tension I felt with the staff I had recruited rested in the fact I felt dissonance with what had made us successful in the first place.

On the appointed day I parked out back to check the work again. I bounded out of my car with a sense of expectation and laughed the moment I saw the signs. They were excellent, Jim later told me that he negotiated with a sign painter (the best in the county) for custom signs by bartering for our signs by offering the use of our building by sign painter’s family reunion. The source of my laughter was not that the signs were well done. I was delighted with the quality. I laughed because the base color of the signs was maroon, I hate maroon. I walked into Jim’s office still laughing. He looked at me with growing expression of uncertainty. “Jim the signs are great. You met every core value, well done.”

“Then why are you laughing?” he asked.

“That is not important; you did an excellent job meeting our working values. I think I am on to something with this Jim. I think it will make our communication fun again.” I said.

“I agree, but why are you laughing?” Jim pressed for an answer.

I finally relented, “Jim the signs are great, you met the values but I hate maroon. So, just as a matter of my personal taste – I acknowledge that this has nothing to do with our core values – could you avoid doing anything else in that color?”

Jim’s face grew white with anxiety. “Jim, are you ok?” I queried.

“Yea, I am alright but you know those usher shirts you asked me to order? I ordered them in maroon.” Jim said.

I broke into such loud belly laughs that the entire staff gathered around Jim’s office to share the joke. It turned into a great day for me, great because I learned, tested and successfully implemented one of the most important leadership principles I have ever caught.

Reflection spent identifying and applying core values determines to a large extent the success or failure of any team. If the core values of an organization are understood they serve as the coxswain who keeps the tempo and direction clear helping the team work together.

Your own values will decide which alternatives you seriously consider.[2]

Look for people who exhibit characteristics of trust

Next Jethro told Moses to look for capable, God-fearing and honest men. Allow me to translate these characteristics to read: capability, caring and integrity. Jethro helped Moses define trust explicitly thus making it easier to decide what needed to be delegated and who was capable of doing the job.

The research of Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas (2007) confirm that a leader’s ability to be successful in encouraging or managing organizational effectiveness is enhanced or reduced by the degree to which their subordinates and co-workers trust him/her and vise versa. Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas’ review of research literature concluded that trust within organizations (i.e., person to person, person to leader, team to team and person-organization) possess three broad qualifications: ability (capability), benevolence (caring) and integrity. These are qualifications are elaborated in the table below.

Capability, caring and integrity as factors of trust[3]




  • Setting compelling direction
  • Creation of enabling structure
    • Task knowledge
    • Situation knowledge
    • Setting functional norms
  • Create/sustain supportive context
    • Transformational leadership behaviors
    • Consultative leadership behaviors
    • Transactional leadership behaviors
  • Coaching
  • Accountability
  • Perceptions of justice
  • Value congruence

Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability

What is important to see in Jethro’s advice is that he not only identified specific qualities of trust but that he also made clear that trust is dynamic and not an either/or proposition. In other words trust people to the degree they are capable of fulfilling that trust. It is as big a mistake to trust people with tasks they are incapable of completing as it is to fail to trust others at all.

Building capacity in your team requires that you provide them with the opportunity to grow their knowledge, skills and abilities in an environment that offers the proper level of risk, feedback and safe guards to compartmentalize the consequences of bad decisions. The aim is not to avoid all bad decisions – after all you have made your fair share – it is to make sure that the scope of decision-making power matches the capacity and capability of the decision maker to deal with a decision’s complexity. This is why Jethro encouraged Moses to build into the judicial system of Israel scope limiters of decision-making power that triggered needed collaboration when the complexity of decisions over reached the experience and ability of the team.

Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues

Jethro’s identification of the dynamism of trust introduces another important variable in the founder’s success – relationship/collaboration. Jethro’s suggestion to create decision-making scope limiters put Moses in a place of continuous mentoring and collaboration.

The founders I meet often suffer from two leadership deficits related to mistrust: isolation/insulation and task saturation. In following Jethro’s advice Moses avoided the trap of isolation by collaborating with his leaders on more complex decisions. When founders isolate themselves from their teams they cut off the feedback (i.e., become insulated from reality) and suppress the organization’s level of trust. When founders don’t trust their teams they work themselves until they burnout or blowup. By collaborating Moses avoided the burnout inevitable in “doing it all myself” and maintained the proper involvement of strategic activity and decision-making.

Because trust is a two-way street it is important to realize that how people first approach trust is different. While the qualifications of trust seem universal the way people approach trust with another person appears to exist on a continuum. On the one end of the continuum are those people who extend trust once they see evidence for extending such trust. On the other hand are those people who extend trust de facto until one violates their trust. Put these two people in the same company and mistrust occurs almost immediately and often irrevocably because they violate each other’s sense of integrity (i.e., doing what is right by either extending trust in the first place waiting until enough evidence of care, capability and integrity exist to extend trust).

The problem for many leaders is that once trust is lost they cannot explain the dynamics of that loss. Hence the model of Jethro as verified in the research of Burke, Sims, Lazzara and Salas (2007) offers a vocabulary and conceptual model for training and correcting trust. Any leader may become jaded over time when they experience a violation of trust, possessing a model by which to identify the reason for the loss of trust encourages the right kind of conversation to occur between and founder and his/her team so that trust can be restored.

If an organization sustains growth beyond the capability and capacity of the founder it is because the founder has learned to delegate key functions on the basis of her/his explicitly stated core values and explicitly defined trust.


Jethro’s advice to Moses is timely for leaders and founders who find themselves caught in a cycle of burnout because they don’t fully trust their employees. We noted three common traps that develop out of mistrust:

  • Impulse versus Innovation
  • Working harder versus working smarter
  • Control versus accountability

The solution according to Jethro was to find and empower team members who demonstrated the qualities of trust i.e., capability, care and integrity. In finding the right stuff founders, business owners and leaders must consistently execute the following aspects of effectiveness:

  • Outline and explain your core values
  • Look for people who exhibit characteristics of trust
  • Delegate based on each person’s capacity and capability
  • Collaborate on complex issues leave routine issues to others

Do you trust your team? Or are you headed to burnout? Are you fighting to control minutia or do you control the right things to set up force multipliers in the way your team works? The case study of Moses is insightful, Israel was ready to dump him as a leader more than once before Jethro’s influence helped Moses turn back seat drivers into a team of leaders growing in effectiveness. If you don’t have a mentor like Jethro in your life it is time to start looking.

Finally, don’t read this article without comment. Find out how other leaders respond and elaborate on these concepts by offering your own. I know I appreciate comments – so do others. Thanks.

[1] Indeed, I was caught in one of the 10 most common mistakes leaders make. Hans Finzel calls it leadership chaos, we simply were not singing off the same page. Finzel reminds us of four important communication realities, (1) never assume that anyone knows anything, (2) the bigger the group, the more attention must be given to communication, (3) when left in the dark, people tend to dream up wild rumors and (4) communication must be the passionate obsession of effective leaders. I was obsessed alright, but not with communication. I was obsessed with why my staff couldn’t get things done right. The problem, I discovered, was me. (Finzel 1994:113)

[2] Bennis & Nanus 1985:104

[3] Shawn C. Burke, Dana E. Sims, Elizabeth H. Lazzara, and Eduardo Salas, “Trust in Leadership: A Multilevel Review and Integration.” Leadership Quarterly 18, no. 6 (2007): 606-32.

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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?