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Sunday, 11 March 2012 00:00

Pushing String: Leadership And Attitude

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Image of 'I think, therefore I am dangerous'

The other day, someone said, once again, that an issue we were discussing was like pushing string. She said it with the sigh of resignation in her voice. I understand the metaphor, but the people saying it are stuck looking at the problem wrong. Immediately, two solutions to their dilemma come to mind. First, add a little water, freeze the string. Voilà! Push that string wherever your little heart desires. If that is too hard, then roll it into a ball or put it on a spindle. Now, we can push, roll, carry, and even throw it. The problem is the predisposition to the inevitability of the issue—there is no reason to look for a solution because it is out of our control. Worse than that, we are so defeated that we rarely ask the question "Why are we trying to push that string?"

The C-Suite's Offhand Request

This is never more evident than when orders come down from senior executives. Someone in the executive team mentions to his or her direct reports that a new report would be nice and, within minutes, the entire organization is realigned to complete the new report to please Ms. or Mr. C-Suite. Middle management overlooks the alternative of asking some simple validating questions to confirm priorities. Rather than probing and explaining the impact of implementing the new request, all other tasks become subordinate and everyone's schedules are re-planned to the new precedence.

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What Would Leaders Do?

Leaders, real leaders, not the ones described above, clearly communicate their wants and desired priorities. They do this in two ways:

  1. Simply asking what the effect will be.
  2. Surrounding themselves with people who routinely ask these questions or supply the required information.

I cheat. Since I am never an employee, I am, rightfully or not, immune to hopping over three or four levels of management and asking the question, "Is this new assignment really more important than what we are doing right now?" More often than not, the answer is "no," and the theatrics of trying to meet the executive's off-hand request quickly subside.

The source of this problem lies at the feet of the executives. They are the ones that set the tone and create a culture that is reactionary to their requests and stifle the subordinate's ability to question and set priorities. In these cultures, middle managers spend an inordinate amount of time guessing how to please their bosses at the price of getting the company's work done.

Leading Your Leaders

At this point, many would resign to throwing their hands up in despair, surrendering to the notion that management is all fouled up. My approach is to "push a little string." Executives do not have an exclusive on leadership. Leadership is a trait that all of us should be honing—regardless of our organization's culture. All these situations need is a little upward leading. Here are some rules to follow:

  1. Be passionately dispassionate. Objectivity is paramount. Passion is what everyone says they want, but when you are solving a problem, where emotions flare, stick to the facts. Make sure the pros and cons are objectively laid out in a logical manner to make a decision.
  2. Explain the problem. As so elegantly said by NASA's Mr. Wayne Hale, "remember that your leaders are not very smart." Assuming your leaders know the detail, or even the subject, of the issue you are addressing is a fatal mistake. You know every intimate detail of what you and your team are working on; your leaders do not, nor should they. They need the problem explained in concise, high-level, decision-making terms so they can give informed direction.
  3. Tell your leaders how to solve the problem. Always have two or three viable solutions to problems you escalate. Their job is to make decisions rather than figuring out all the workable solutions. They hired you to come up with the options.
  4. Ask your leaders for clarification and mentoring. If you and your team are having trouble establishing a set of practical solutions, ask for guidance. Although your leaders are often far from the technical aspects of your job, they once were doing what you are now, maybe with a typewriter, but they were there. They have a wealth of experience. Remember the adage, "Old age and treachery will out maneuver youth and skill."

The Right Problem Gets The Right Solution

The challenge is not pushing string. The challenge is looking past the obstacles and our biases and creating new methods to address them. What may seem impossible is only that way since we framed it incorrectly. Change the frame of reference and we can create new innovative solutions. In the case in point, deliberately taking steps to adopt the traits of a good leader, rather than sticking with those of a follower, will calm the seemingly knee-jerk reactions of lame leadership.

...And You?

How have you circumvented problems by changing the problem definition? Everyone would like to hear your technique.

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