For most of my professional life, I worked in the Naval Education and Training Command (or the same organization under a different name). It is a huge command with hundreds of programs, thousands of students, millions of dollars and many, many challenges. While I was in the organization, a three-star or two-star Navy Admiral was in charge of it all.
I found it interesting to watch a new leader come into the “CEO” job. No matter their experience, their education, their talent and even their intellect, there was no way that any single person could understand all of the organization’s issues. And, so the question was, how could they lead such a large and complex organization?
I found several strategies used over the years:
- Sometimes, they used the “I’ve got you” technique. In this case, the Boss would have a sudden and intense interest in a particular program or part of the organization. Using a laser beam-like approach, they would question leaders and challenge their processes. The Boss would gauge subordinate responses to their inquisition and develop an assessment. If the Boss judged subordinates to be competent and prepared, they became an unwavering advocate; championing the program. But, if the leaders demonstrated a lack of understanding of their own processes or failed to provide quick and complete answers, the Boss was suspicious of their competence and monitored closely all actions and plans. It worked for the CEO, but subordinates were terrified that they would be the next target.
- Another approach was the “I’ve got it.” This strategy is doomed to failure from the start as the CEO seemed to believe that they alone could do it all. No detail was too small; no issue not of interest. Almost immediately, the leader and the organization became overwhelmed in minutia and process reviews; progress stopped as everything waited for top leader involvement and approval. In the end, subordinates would go “maverick” and continue working issues that had to be completed, no matter what. While working for one of these types of bosses, I had a friend who wanted to hold up a sign at the Boss’s retirement ceremony: “Did we get it right yet?” Let’s just say, organizational constipation is not fun for anyone.
- A third option is the “No one’s got it.” Remember the commercial for Life cereal: “Let’s give it to Mikey; he hates everything.” Some leaders, when confronted with too much complexity, assume that nothing is right, no one is competent. Rather than accepting what others tell them, they assume that no one can be trusted. Riding out this leader’s time in the organization is frustrating, but some creative humor can get you through it!
- And, the last (and best) strategy is the “We’ve got it.” These bosses trusted their staff from the beginning; taking to task anyone who failed to live up to that trust. They found specific areas where their talents and power would make a difference and they worked hard to complete those improvements. Using a team approach, these bosses fostered open communication and sharing of assets. When they received any praise, their first response was to give credit to the team.
See yourself in any of the above? (Unfortunately, I have unwittingly practiced at least two of those leadership strategies!)
If we have people working for us, we will never be able to know all that they know or control all that they do. Just accepting that fact will make us better leaders and better people. Going a step farther and believing that we need to respect and appreciate the people around us and what they bring to the organization will put our responsibilities into perspective: True leaders are humble servants.
The Old Testament puts it well: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (I Kings 12:7)
(FYI: We are on Day 4 of my holiday series, “We Gather Together 14.” If you want to join us, go to http://wegathertogether14.com to read daily posts or sign up for the daily emails.)