Warning Aspiring Leaders: If you set about bringing down the king, you had better be prepared to BE the king. That means fixing all the issues you were complaining about. Leading, governing is always harder than complaining.
Side note: if you’re unable to separate your political feelings from the intellectual argument on leadership that follows, perhaps you should move on to something else. This is not a political analysis. It is about leadership. That said…
Three news stories from this past week serve as excellent illustrations and backing material for a very cautionary note to up-and coming leader in business and government circles.
Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post tells of a meeting between House Speaker Paul Ryan and five of President Trump’s most senior advisors. Speaker Ryan begins by asking who is in charge. A very simple, straightforward and necessary way to begin a meeting. His answer was silence. There are two simultaneous reasons this happened. First, the President failed to make clear the chain of command within his administration. More on that in just a bit. Second, the egos of the people in the room prevented them from being willing to line up behind one of their number.
On the second point first: Ego is a great hindrance to success, both at the personal and organizational level. When you are more interested in being first, you are necessarily less interested in achieving some objective. Your mind will always, and naturally so, have some situationally changing value of brain power reserved for self-advancement opportunities and awareness of perceived slights. This reserved brain power necessarily takes away from the thought processes that go to achieving your boss’s desired results.
And when his or her desired results come secondary to your own desires of advancement, you can never fully give yourself to your organizational goals. What is most amazing about this natural truth of human behavior is that the person looking out for himself cannot see that the best way to advance is by being unselfish and giving yourself to your tasks. Senior leaders are savvy and know when someone is fully on board and when they’re hedging. And if you’re hedging, then perhaps you ought to find another job that will allow you to give yourself fully.
Now back to the first point, the President’s failure to make clear who is in charge and who reports to whom, Alex Isenstadt, Ken Vogel, and Josh Dawsey report in Politico, that the President is completely surprised at the difficulty of the job. “The new president’s allies say he has been surprised that government can’t be run like his business.” About 20 people interviewed for the piece said that he is surprised that he can’t just order things to happen as in his business, and that when details are required, he quickly changes the subject so as to always appear to be in control.
The most damning observation, in this leadership consultant’s opinion, is that when he does seek policy recommendations, they are limited to a single page with lots of pictures and maps, ““The president likes maps,” one official said. This is where a good subordinate can get ahead by doing his boss’s bidding, and delicately, but firmly explaining why nuance is critical; explaining why it is important to know what is going on in the place on the map. Putting yourself in the potential line of fire shows your boss that you’re more interested in helping him or her than saving your skin. That the organization is greater than you.
For 20 years I’ve told aspiring leaders to be careful when bad mouthing the boss cause if you get your wish and the boss is fired or leaves, you may get to replace the boss in the interim or permanently and then you get to see how well you’ll do. That was President Trump’s big issue. When he was a real estate developer and a party candidate, it was easy to say what was wrong. Now he seems to many as in over his head.
And you would think that a person wanting to be king would know what goes into being king. Leader after leader, study after study all say the same thing, namely, that the issues at the next level of leadership are far harder and more expansive than the person imagined one level below.
I remember how confident I was just a little over 20 years ago when I just knew that my boss’s world and his boss’s world all revolved around what was going on in my own division of the organization. But when I was called to be the executive assistant two levels up, I was struck with the reality that my present boss, two levels up from where I came, gave next to zero thought to my former shop. That was because it ran without need for his direction and attention. He was far more concerned with attaining his own boss’s objectives and working on the real problem issues.
The lesson I want to leave you with is this: if you are in a position in which you are continually tempted to say negative things about your boss or others farther up the chain, there are really two options you should consider.
The first is to set aside your own ego, schedule a meeting and humbly (not meekly) tell your boss the problem and suggest a solution that is workable at his or her level. If the staff meetings are killing everyone, then suggest to the boss how the meetings can be tightened up and focused on what needs to get out to everyone in that format and not in an e-mail. If the boss can’t make a decision, explain humbly how the subject-matter experts are there for him or her and that indecision isn’t going to help the organization. If the boss can’t keep her hands out of the day-to-day operations, explain that in so doing she prevents anyone else from gaining the skills necessary to do the job when she is gone or hit by a bus.
The second option you have is to resign and move on to another place where you won’t feel so burdened by the need to bad mouth the boss. But that will only work if it isn’t ultimately about you. Everyone knows “that guy” who only complains, but when is asked how to fix the problem comes up with silence. After all, sticking around that long when you make such a big deal about the boss’s incompetence might say at least as much about your confidence in yourself as in your boss.
So be helpful. Be humble. Make it about the organization and not you. When you do, you’ll be surprised at how far you’ll go and how fast you’ll get there.