Pursuing leadership that makes a real difference

December 20, 2010
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It has been said that anyone can manage during good times— “even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while” — but what about when the going gets tough? True leaders emerge during times of trouble, turmoil and strife, riding the strength of their convictions to success. Then they thrive as conditions improve.

While there should be very little difference in leadership style when facing unexpected hurdles, whether at work or at home, far too many “competent” individuals excuse their actions or inactions by blaming them on or deferring them to others. They bend to fit into their surroundings rather than standing against life’s storms. Seeking short term-gain (popularity, acceptance, being “liked”) often damages long-term credibility (predictability, consistency, being “fair”).

In that we are all people, however, we are bound to fall victim to our own vulnerabilities if we are not careful. Some examples of both an appropriate action and a “fall back” mechanism would include the following:

1. A company is experiencing tough economic times and has asked management to trim expenses.

Two approaches might be:

Inform employees that cutbacks and layoffs might be necessary because of reduced sales and increased inventory, and task departments with the responsibility to find ways expenses might be cut with a minimal impact on staff — and what additional, productive work might be assumed so that all staff continues to contribute to the bottom line.

Tell staff to look busy because “top management” is out to cut employees and you do not want any of “your people” to be impacted.

In showing compassion to employees by building a bridge with staff based on a mutual fear of top management, this type of manager may avoid the “blame bullet” but will never earn recognition as a leader. Deferring responsibility to someone else moves an individual from being an integral part of the solution to being an expendable part of the problem.

A leader takes ownership of his or her actions. By taking ownership of a situation rather than blaming another for an unfortunate circumstance, a good manager accepts and faces reality. He or she affirms that things are tough (and realizes that employees may already know this). After stating facts, employees are asked to be involved in the development of a solution — and getting “buy-in” will make even a mediocre idea achievable.

Finally, painting a realistic picture of what might happen unless an alternative is identified establishes ownership of the situation and of the implementation of a solution.

2. Two employees are involved in a minor altercation at work. One employee strikes another employee with a ruler, although not very hard and not undeservedly. The offended employee, rather than walking away, takes justice into his or her own hands and fights back. The ensuing skirmish results in disciplinary action for both parties, although the popular supervisor would have preferred to look the other way if one of the two had not needed to visit the company doctor.

Two approaches to resolving this situation would include:

The supervisor calls human resources to discuss a punishment appropriate for the crime. The supervisor summarizes the situation in writing, signs the disciplinary document, and then calls each employee (individually) into his office. The “crime” is summarized, the punishment reviewed and the expected behavioral changes are explained. After discussing both the action and the punishment, each employee is disciplined and escorted to their car in the parking lot.

  • The supervisor talks to HR and determines an appropriate punishment for both employees. He reluctantly agrees to discipline the employees, although he does not want to address either individual. He waves the disciplinary action forms at them as he approaches their workstations. Sitting them down in his office, he says how much they have disappointed him with their actions. Even so, he says that he does not want to have to discipline them, but human resources is insisting. Emphasizing that it is HR that is insisting on disciplining them, he tells them that he has been able to have their discipline reduced a bit.

A leader leads, and, although not the easiest thing to do, accepting responsibility for one’s own decisions (even when they negatively affect the lives of others) is always more acceptable than deferring the decision to another (“Management says I have to …”). Short-term, a supervisor may not be seen as a “friend” to employees when he or she takes on supervisory responsibilities, but long term, the supervisor will be seen as fair, consistent and predictable.

3. A young boy brings a note home from school saying that he was seen hitting a classmate with a bunch of leaves and was sent to the office for discipline.

Two approaches to resolving this situation would include:

Upset and distraught that their son was sent to the principal on his first day of school, his parents ask him why it happened. As they continue to question why such a minor action would be punished in this manner, the boy continues to say he cannot understand it, either — the note obviously only says he was guilty of hitting someone with leaves.

After reading the note, the parents ask their son, “How big of a branch were the leaves attached to?”  The boy answers, “Not very big — maybe only an inch or so.”

A good leader learns how to ask the right questions and listen for the right answer.  In order to see “the forest for the trees,” we must sometimes step back and ask “Why?” rather than constantly pushing for “what.”

Have a happy new year as you consider those things you have already done just long enough to take from their doing what is necessary to complete what you have yet to accomplish.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resources solutions since 1939.

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