Newsletter – Leading from Any Chair

Leading from Any Chair in the Organization

In the past year I’ve had the great pleasure of working with teams in places as diverse as Chicago , California and Armenia , with professions ranging from program managers to Ph.D. software developers and chip designers. Despite the wide variation in these individuals I am absolutely amazed to report that there are basically two reasons why these smart, educated, experienced professionals say that they can’t do their jobs properly: 1. They are too busy (like who’s not?), and 2. They feel the need to wait for their boss to change before they themselves step up and do what needs to be done. Whew! Who knew it was so simple! Clearly someone is at fault, and it is NOT us!


Or is it? Let’s have a closer look. First of all, who among us has plenty of time on our hands? Honestly, I sometimes wonder if someone breaks into my office at night and puts additional tasks on my calendar that no rational person would ever agree to. But in the end it is clear that I am the person putting all of these things on my calendar. To be sure, most of us take on more than we can reasonable accomplish, and then struggle to spread our limited resources among many clamoring requests. And when it comes to stepping out and taking a leadership role on a matter of some importance to our project or business, well – let’s just say that we’re not awash in examples of courageous leadership. We’re waiting for someone else to take the first step. It’s never our responsibility, and if only “someone else” would change, then we, too, would be able to change, and finally do what obviously needed to be done all along.


Oh, hogwash! Years of living with a family that didn’t tolerate excuses, and lived under the illusion that we could do anything that we set our minds to has left me without the least bit of compassion for such attitudes. In fact, a little self-scrutiny will likely reveal that we are much more at choice in the matter of the results we produce than this classic abdication of responsibility suggests. Certainly there are authority boundaries and constraints in any work situation, as surely as there is gravity. However I have found that the greatest barrier to achieving our goals is our own self-limiting beliefs. Unfortunately we cannot successfully address an emotional problem with an analytical solution. No amount of external persuasion seems sufficient to dissuade the most recalcitrant characters that they are in control of their own destiny. They seem to prefer the illusion of helplessness to the possibility that they are contributing to their own demise, and thus could choose different and more efficacious options.


Consider the following scenario that I run into routinely. I’ll be teaching a workshop on how to create accurate, precise schedules that you can stake your reputation on. Typical feedback from the participants is “Hey, this is great stuff, but it won’t work because of our managers’ attitudes. You should be teaching this class to THEM!” Surprisingly enough when I do engage their managers in just such a class their reaction is typically “Well, this is all very well and good, but why are you telling US? You would be teaching this to our people!” Reminds me of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is trying to find her way to the Emerald City, with the fingers of each hand pointing decidedly in opposite directions. I am left to drive home wondering who IS responsible for the bewildering array of lapses of common sense that I encounter on a regular basis (mistaking activity for progress, and substituting talk for action, are among my favorite examples).


Perhaps it is reasonable to expect that those who bear the title of leading should also bear the responsibility. Makes sense. But organizations are not as simplistic as the hierarchical charts that are drawn to describe them. Take a look at any org chart and you will find a terrific guide to whom to call when you have a flat tire on the way to work and will be a bit late. However there is little that reflects the rich and complex working relationships upon which most business results depend. Projects cut across functional areas, and people self-organize to achieve goals with little or no day-to-day guidance from above. As a matter of fact, given a clear, well-defined goal and the resources to accomplish that goal, most experienced teams have little need for the direct involvement of a leader. Consider a chamber music ensemble. A handful of musicians play together as one, even breathing in synchrony with each other. For example, the legendary Kolisch Quartet played its entire repertoire from memory, and when someone forgot a part another member would often deftly fill-in their part, even though playing it on a different instrument. And although most full orchestras have a conductor, the Orpheus Orchestra, with 30 members, has none, and they play even the most complex parts just fine. And we all know of situations where there are individuals occupying a leadership position, but most definitely not leading.


Expectations for leadership associated with positional titles breed a learned helpless that infantilizes employees and puts leaders in a no-win situation from which there is no escape. And the results are no more satisfying. And why do we long for this kind of strong and capable leadership? When Harvard Business School professor J. Richard Hackman studied job attitudes among people working in 13 different job groups, he discovered that symphony orchestra musicians ranked below prison guards in job satisfaction and 9th out of 13 categories for satisfaction with career growth potential. Apparently although the results of an orchestral performance under strong and capable leadership can be extraordinary, attaining these results is often less than satisfying for those who must execute the tasks.


Distributed leadership to the rescue! Most organizations that I work with are so chaotic that no one person has the entire picture. Success relies on each individual playing their part in the midst of ambiguous and constantly changing circumstances. And managers cannot always be within easy reach to provide guidance and make decisions. The 21 st century model of leadership is that of a thousand points of light, all shining in laser focus in the same direction. We must enable each individual to step up and take a leadership role, to lead from any chair in the organization. This requires courage and personal responsibility; a commitment to look beyond our own personal criteria for success to what best serves the team, the organization, and the greater good. It is no longer sufficient to embrace the attitude that “My side of the boat isn’t leaking.” There’s no point in having a first cabin on a sinking ship! This calls for leading from whatever chair we happen to occupy. BLOOM WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED? Easy to say, difficult to do – how can we lead from any chair? Suppose we are intimidated by powerful individuals? Get over it. You can act while feeling fear. Ask anyone who goes to the dentist! What if the consequences are ruinous? Start looking for another job. Workers without the ability and courage to use their judgment are in less and less demand in my experience. Unless you are just a couple of years away from retirement, hiding out is probably not a strategy that will serve you well. You may be thinking “Well, if you knew MY situation you would understand why that’s not possible.” Although I am sure there are situations where leading is met with penalties rather than rewards and respect, most organizations with which I work are desperate for their people to step up, take a leadership role and hold themselves and others accountable for delivering results and making a difference.


Most of the people with big titles would give up their high speed internet connection if their employees would take personal responsibility for the business results that are so vital, not only to their success, but to their survival. But there is a story in our heads that keeps us from doing so, one that says it is safer to hide out, lay low, keep waiting for guidance from above. We might as well try cutting a bird apart to figure out how flocking behavior occurs! The answer will never be found there. Take a look in the mirror if you want to know who’s capable of making a difference, and also, by the way, who is contributing to the sorry state of affairs that led us here in the first place! Rather than sitting back in your chair waiting for something to change, slide up to the edge, lean forward, take a deep breathe, yell “bonsai!!!” or whatever you need to do to screw up your courage, and then step-out and lead. People are starved for true leadership at every level of organizations. When you step out, slowly but surely a chorus will rise up from the human orchestra around you that drowns out any fear or doubt that may have overshadowed your good judgment in the past. What 1 thing can you say or do today that will create a pocket of leadership in your world? Make it so! What would that make possible that wasn’t possible a moment ago?

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