The Leadership Shop

A Leadership Tidbit

“Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader.” — General George S. Patton Jr.

This is a two-part pronouncement that is both trivial and silly. Pointing out that a leader needs to be willing to make decisions is trivial and suggesting that it is the most important quality in a good leader is just plain wrong. Considering each point is instructive.

Being willing to make decisions is for some people, in some situations, sometimes desirable. Then again, some people are quite willing to decide for themselves and everyone else, although they have neither the knowledge nor judgment to be permitted to decide. The truth is that people who are unwilling to decide about anything under any circumstances are few and far between. Yes, leaders need to be willing to make decisions and they also need to know when to defer to those who are more qualified. Having said that, nothing important has been said, unless one thinks that iterating the obvious is worthy of special consideration.

Here is the nub of General Patton’s pronouncement: being willing to make decisions is the most important quality in a good leader. If that’s true, virtually everyone has this preeminent leadership quality, including saints and sinners, the intellectual elite and fools alike. Surely the most important quality in a good leader is something far less ubiquitous and significantly less trivial. Being a brilliant strategist is a good candidate for a high ranking within good leadership qualities, as is an intense mission focus. Being a General or holding a similarly high position likely separates good leaders from inferior leaders. Having a track record of making good decisions that are followed by good outcomes is another factor to consider when identifying good leaders. The point is that willingness to make decisions hardly makes the short list. If one is to understand what distinguishes good leaders from the multitude, start with what makes General Patton and those like him tick; and don’t bother putting “willing to make decisions” on the analysis agenda.

The Gurus Say

olman, Lee G. and Terrence E. Deal. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. Fourth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

…organizations are filled with people who have their own interpretations of what is and should be happening. Each version contains a glimmer of truth, but each is a product of the prejudices and blind spots of its maker. No single story is comprehensive enough to make an organization truly understandable or manageable.

In deciding what to do next, managers operate largely on the basis of intuition, drawing on firsthand observations, hunches, and judgment derived from experience. Too swamped to spend much time thinking, analyzing, or reading, they get most of their information in meetings, through e-mail, or over the phone.

The image of firm control and crisp precision often attributed to managers has little relevance to the messy world of complexity, conflict, and uncertainty they inhabit. They need multiple frames to survive. They need to understand that any event or process can serve several purposes and that participants are often operating from different views of reality.

The essence of reframing is examining the same situation from multiple vantage points. The effective leader changes lenses when things don’t make sense or aren’t working.

…leadership. It is not tangible. It exists only in relationships and in the perception of the engaged parties.

Implicitly, we expect leaders to persuade or inspire rather than to coerce. We also expect leaders to produce cooperative effort and to pursue goals that transcend narrow self-interest.

Leadership is thus a subtle process of mutual influence fusing thought, feeling, and action. It produces cooperative effort in the service of purposes embraced by both leader and led. Single-frame managers are unlikely to understand and attend to the intricacies of this lively process.

Ideally, managers combine multiple frames into a comprehensive approach to leadership. Wise leaders understand their own strengths, work to expand them, and build diverse teams that can offer an organization leadership in all four modes: structural, political, human resource, and symbolic.

The desired target is never easy to reach, and almost everyone wants change as long as they don’t have to do anything differently.

Ethics ultimately must be rooted in soul: an organization’s commitment to its deeply rooted identity, beliefs, and values. Each frame offers a perspective on the ethical responsibilities of organizations and the moral authority of leaders. Every organization needs to evolve for itself a profound sense of its own ethical and spiritual core. The frames offer spiritual guidelines for the quest.

The most important responsibility of managers is not to answer every question or get every decision right. Though they cannot escape their responsibility to track budgets, motivate people, respond to political pressures, and attend to culture, they serve a deeper, more powerful, and more enduring role if they are models and catalysts for such values as excellence, caring, justice, and faith.

Both managers and leaders require high levels of personal artistry if they are to respond to today’s challenges, ambiguities, and paradoxes. They need a sense of choice and personal freedom to find new patterns and possibilities in everyday life at work. They need versatility in thinking that fosters flexibility in action. They need capacity to act inconsistently when uniformity fails, diplomatically when emotions are raw, non-rationally when reason flags, politically in the face of vocal parochial self-interests, and playfully when fixating on task and purpose backfires.

Leading requires walking a fine line between rigidity and spinelessness.

Leaders need to be deeply reflective and dramatically explicit about core values and beliefs.

Leaders fail when they take too narrow a view. Unless they can think flexibly and see organizations from multiple angles, they will be unable to deal with the full range of issues they inevitably encounter.

Multiframe thinking is challenging and often counterintuitive. To see the same organization as machine, family, jungle, and theater requires the capacity to think in different ways at the same time about the same thing.

Such leaders and managers will be playful theorists who can see organizations through a complex prism. They will be negotiators able to design resilient strategies that simultaneously shape events and adapt to changing circumstances. They will understand the importance of knowing and caring for themselves and the people with whom they work. They will be architects, catalysts, advocates, and prophets who lead with soul.

A Success Tidbit

Control and Hunches

“You have no control over what the other
guy does. You only have control over what you do.” — A. J. Kitt

“Are things out of control?” This is a most interesting
question. You likely ask yourself this question sometimes and experience
pronounced anxiety as you consider the answer. The problem is, of course, if
things are out of control, there is no predicting the outcome. The possibility
of a huge crash is out there and the prospect is somewhere between alarming and
terrifying. Even if things are out of control, odds are that the outcome will
be acceptable; but…. Perhaps Mario Andretti had a thought worth remembering,
“If everything’s under control, you’re going too slow.”

You have both experienced this existential anxiety and have
thought about the intense level of uneasiness associated with it. It’s indeed
uncomfortable and evokes feelings of self-doubt, frustration, and a sense of
helplessness. At times, these feelings can be overwhelming and nearly
paralyzing.

If you run this issue by Sparky (a local guru on the topic) you
may be quite taken aback to learn that the question itself is a product of
retrograde thinking. Sparky will point out that the question is based on an
invalid assumption. It assumes that things should be in control and that
control is a desirable state. Not being one to stop with a brief comment and a
few fries, That Sparky will probably go on to point out that most everyone has
been in environments where control was the central priority and the major goal
of those in charge.

Did you like that? Was that anymore comfortable? Is controlling
the right thing to do? Do you want things to be controlled by you or anyone
else? At that point, you may want to tell Sparky to take those fries and….

Once you’ve had a chance to settle down some, asked Sparky a
different question. “If having things in control is not what we want, then what
do we want?” As you might expect, Sparky says, “Now, there is a great
question,” as he gets up and goes out to find some more fries. Giving a great
impression of Columbo, he pauses and adds, “I doubt if it is having things in
control, though.”

Perhaps the right question is
actually, “Are you getting better and better at getting better and better, one
issue at a time?” That question is easy. You certainly are, even though you
lose the perspective once in a while as you see that you are not yet nearly as
good as you need to be, as you are going to be. Still, you are a lot better at
it than you were last month and much better than you were last year. When the
anxiety comes, and it will, just think about how good you are going to be at it
this time next year; and keep in mind what Lao Tzu said, “He who controls
others may be powerful but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” Now
there is an awesome thought! It also goes very well with fries.