A business acquaintance (let’s call him Larry) and I were having lunch this past week, and as we talked, we landed on the topic that leadership is in short supply.
For example, the company where Larry works had no problem finding people who wanted to work on a particular project, but they were surprised that no one was interested in leading the project. Upon closer examination, the company discovered why no one wanted to step up: The reward wasn’t worth the effort.
This was parallel to another organization I’m familiar with, in which the same scenario existed. Plenty of folks willing to help; no one willing to lead.
Larry and I considered how this problem came to be. One item in our brainstorm was that too many leaders are being skewered on the public rotisserie whenever they make a mistake.
Our brainstorm continued: Too many armchair quarterbacks openly criticizing every action, too many political games, and too many extra hours and headaches without compensation.
If the rewards don’t outweigh the efforts, people are not going to step up.
Usually, when something goes awry under a person’s leadership, even if the leader had no ability to predict the error, it’s the leader who takes the blame and takes the fall. For some crazy reason, people seem to get pleasure out of bringing vengeance against those in charge (read: those with authority).
Larry posed a good question: “Why are people so quick to want to place blame? What purpose does it serve?”
A good question, indeed! Blaming leaders may be satisfying in the short term, but it does nothing for moving things forward.
Perhaps the biggest culprits in placing blame are the armchair quarterbacks. You know, the people who claim to have all the knowledge and are great at pointing out problems but never offer any solutions. They attempt to make themselves look important by trying to drag other people down.
Power struggles among other leaders can also be a source. If supervisor Joe who is leading project “A” makes a mistake, supervisor Sandra who is leading project “B” may take public (or private) potshots at him just to make her project look better to the bosses – especially if her project isn’t making any great progress. If she can make Joe’s project look bad, hers looks better.
How childish, but how very real in the workplace.
Then there’s all that extra time. A person in charge is often so concerned about covering his own behind that he or she spends untold hours looking at the project from thousands of different angles, trying to identify any possible flaws. After all, if flaws create problems, stand by for the public skewering.
Here’s the hypothetical typical barbeque: Joe, a very experienced and well-educated professional, decides to step up and lead a project. He has visions of career advancement and other professional recognition. There are twenty-five people working on Joe’s project, and one day one of them makes a tragic error which costs the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Joe is called on the carpet by his superiors and brought to task: He’s accused of being a poor leader and is taken off the project.
Nod your head if you’ve seen this happen before. What does this to do Joe’s initiative? What message does this send to the rest of the team? To other potential project leaders?
John G. Miller, author of QBQ: The Question Behind the Question, says, “Everyone screams for "accountability,” but too often what is really meant is "Heads will roll!" In most situations, firing an experienced, competent, well-intentioned person serves no one. Instead of wasting precious time and energy looking for scapegoats when things go wrong, let's ask, "What can I do to help?" and just focus on solving the problem.
Amen, John Miller.
To refill the shrinking pool of willing leaders, we need to change the way we deal with those who make mistakes. Looking for ways to help instead of ways to criticize is a phenomenal first step. Put this in place, and we’ll start patching the leaks in the pool.